War Games


The military isn’t just about high-tech warfare anymore. It’s also investing millions of dollars in high-tech entertainment. One national theater chain recently showcased a big-budget military promotional film, beamed in via satellite, to boost national morale. Now, the army is courting new recruits through state-of-the-art war-based video games. Post-bust, it looks like new media is quickly finding its place in the New World Order. Get ready for the next generation of wartime propaganda.

For about a month beginning in mid September, attendees of Regal Cinemas chains in Los Angeles, Denver, Knoxville, and New York (local venues included the UAs at Union Square and 64th and Second) were treated to a bit of unabashedly patriotic agitprop, courtesy of the U.S. military. Sporting the blockbuster title Enduring Freedom: The Opening Chapter, the five-minute short is the first military-produced promotional film to hit commercial theaters since World War II.

Cut with TV-commercial rhythm and set to a symphonic score that veers from ominous to schmaltzy, this mini-movie flies through a ratta-tat-tat barrage of images from the world-spanning war on terror. Jointly financed by the marines and the navy with a $1.2 million budget, Enduring Freedom follows the actions of anti-terrorist squads stationed in the Indian Ocean and Kabul, Afghanistan, as well as soldiers on domestic bases. Thanks to director Klaus Obermeyer Jr. and the rebelliously named, Santa Monica-based production company American Rogue Films, Enduring Freedom rocks guy-friendly extreme-pop attitude. But there’s a soft side too: Images of teary-eyed, flag-waving military moms evoke vintage early-’90s support-our-troops yellow-ribbonism. The only overtly violent footage is an opening clip of a jet ramming into a WTC tower—home video blown up to create a mocking low-resolution echo of Hollywood blockbusters—shamelessly used to renew fear and thereby justify everything else seen in the film.

“It’s not a question of if we go to combat,” barks one recruit, “it’s a question of when.” While it gets off on slick shots of predatory warplanes and lime-green night-vision recon, Enduring Freedom blunts its techno-jingoism with jockish “Army of One”-type sloganeering by unwaveringly self-actualized soldiers. Another he-man grunt declares with pointed vagueness that the military “is prepared to do what needs to be done.” Iraq is never mentioned, but the screenings’ fall timing makes it impossible to see this as anything but a teaser trailer for Gulf War II.

Regal Cinemas Vice President of Communications Lauren Leff reports that Enduring Freedom was shown free of charge as a pilot for Regal’s Digital Content Network, a satellite-delivered pre-show program that will ultimately serve extra advertising before features. Leff claims that this particular film was chosen to test the system “because it was shot in high-definition.”

“The piece doesn’t ask anyone to make a judgment or take an action,” one of the film’s creators, Lieutenant Colonel James Kuhn, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s just saying, you’re a taxpayer, here’s a meaningful look at the military.” A pleasant thought: This is what we’re up to, but don’t bother saying or doing anything about it. While the film avoids the flat-footed hard-sell tactics of ’40s-era newsreels, it favors a more contemporary marketing tactic: a calculated appeal to feelings over facts. Billions of defense dollars are put on display in a commercially digestible spectacle of reassurance. You can all feel safe, the film says, because our military technology is so huge and totally cool. (Forget that the World Trade Center was taken down with box cutters.)

But not all viewers found the film to be so comforting. After the L.A. Times ran an item citing complaints about the short—including an angry mother who objected to war footage before the G-rated Christian children’s film Jonah: A Veggie-Tales Movie—Regal abruptly stopped showing Enduring Freedom. Though a follow-up article in the paper described American Rogue Films as “furious” that the film had been pulled early, Leff says that the test period had simply ended. The film may reappear in early 2003 when the complete 4000-screen network is up and running.

But of course, the war on terror doesn’t just call for placating, feel-safe PR. Our all-volunteer force needs to persuade a new generation to enlist. Enduring Freedom‘s production budget is only a fraction of the $7.5 million that the army spent on its latest Gen Y recruiting tool, America’s Army: Operations. A free PC game available from since July 4th, America’s Army has so far met with remarkable success. Some of the numerous articles covering it have reported over 2.5 million downloads in its first two months, and its cutting-edge design has garnered several gaming industry awards. A first-person “tactical shooter” that runs players though highly detailed boot-camp training and several contemporary missions, it was developed by the Naval Postgraduate School’s MOVES (Modeling, Virtual Environments, and Simulation) Institute in Monterey, California, as part of its new Videogame Research and Development Facility, also known as the War Games Lab. The Lab’s many academic and corporate partners include MIT, UC Berkeley, Dolby, and Lucasfilm.

Like Enduring Freedom and old-time war newsreels, the real-world hook of America’s Army is achieved by offering privileged glimpses from the front lines. Some of the backgrounds in the game are lifted from video footage of Afghan landscapes, and the site includes a “Stories of Afghanistan” weblog by an actual American soldier who “is also capturing ideas, facts, and footage that may be used in future iterations of the America’s Army game.”

The relationship between cinema, gaming, and the military goes deeper than positive images of soldier life. As French cultural critic Paul Virilio has argued, the histories of warfare, optical sciences, and visual entertainments have long been interconnected through a common goal: the artificial extension of human sight, driven by an unquestioning faith in technology he terms “techno-fundamentalism.” In the 20th century, as Regal’s recent foray suggests, this has led to the film industry and the military frequently feeding off each others’ innovations. Virilio also pegs the modern obsession with the goal of “pure war,” a dream of clean, surgical war between disembodied technologies that seeks to remove human casualty from the equation. He likens it to the absurd image of a conversation between two answering machines, and sees this utopian ideal of absolute safety as a rationale for more extreme systems of control.

War as a game is an ancient metaphor. Chess and Go may have had their roots as early stabs at virtual battle. Strategy board games like Risk and role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons evolved from the early-19th-century Kriegsspiel, which was used as an aid for Prussian officers. In the 1930s, the Army Air Corps purchased the first mechanical flight simulator from aviation pioneer Edwin Link, whose “Blue Box” trainer had previously been used as a mere Coney Island midway attraction. The first home video game system, the 1972 Magnavox Odyssey, was developed at Sanders Associates, a military contracting firm. Later, the army collaborated with Atari to retool its 1980 arcade game Battlezone for training use. The marines followed suit in 1994 with id Software’s gory shooter Doom. Today, numerous commercial games like Electronic Arts’ Jane’s Fleet Command and MacSoft’s Tom Clancy’s Rogue Spear are used throughout the armed forces as training aids, supplementing the scores of computerized systems developed purely for use within the armed forces.

America’s Army isn’t the only military-funded game available to the public. A sexy-sounding but clunky set of PC games called Real War and Real War: Rogue States are modified versions of Joint Force Employment, a trainer developed for the Department of Defense that pits U.S. forces against a global terrorist threat. A more glamorous project is underway at the Institute for Creative Technologies, a USC-based think tank created in 1999 with a $45 million investment from the army to bring together Hollywood, the gaming industry, and academia to develop advanced military training systems. Consultants include directors Randal Kleiser (Grease) and John Milius (Conan the Barbarian), as well as several members of The Sims’ support team.

Developed with Sony Pictures Imageworks and other partners, the ICT Games Project plans a 2003 launch for a pair of games set in an Eastern European urban setting in which American troops battle “unconventional” and “asymmetrical” threats. The first, Full Spectrum Command, will be released for PCs; a variant, Full Spectrum Warrior, will be made for commercial console systems like Sony’s Playstation 2. While the army will help develop and use the games, it tries to distance itself from their commercialization. ICT creative director Jim Korris says Full Spectrum “is not intended as a recruiting tool. There is a stipulation from the army that packaging and advertising for a commercial version does not express or imply any kind of U.S. Army endorsement.” The games, say Korris, “could be a particularly effective way for people in the U.S. Army to develop and hone their skills . . . particularly for soldiers who grew up playing computer games. There is no guarantee that these products can be successfully adapted for commercial audiences.”

But commercial software developers are already testing the market for a new breed of let’s-roll-playing games. One of the most strikingly opportunistic is Gotham Games’ Conflict: Desert Storm for Playstation 2, XBox, and GameCube, released in October to coincide with Bush’s own upgraded call for a new war on Iraq. Marketed with the tagline “No Diplomats. No Negotiation. No Surrender,” Conflict lets participants play as either U.S. Special Forces or British SAS to pursue a series of missions based loosely on real events in the Gulf War. In one mission, soldiers employ C4 explosive to disable Scud missiles intended for Israel; in another, gamers can use a sniper rifle to take down “General Aziz,” a mustachioed Saddam Hussein lookalike (no relation, Gotham reps claim, to Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz).

Conflict: Desert Storm isn’t alone in reworking historical battles for modern-day playtime. A number of games, including Electronic Arts’ recent Medal of Honor: Frontline, have recreated WWII battles, while upcoming games like Gathering of Developers’ Viet-cong and NovaLogic’s Delta Force: Black Hawk Down will allow players to seek virtual revenge for American losses in Vietnam and Somalia. The neo-patriotic Conflict: Desert Storm and Vietcong are both distributed by Take 2 Interactive, the same umbrella corporation that owns Rockstar Games, maker of notoriously ultraviolent anarchy fests Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and State of Emergency. All these war-based games are rated T, for Teen, while Rockstar’s products are strictly adults-only. Apparently violence is fine for kids if they’re learning the right version of history to go with it.

But used for recruitment or not, these military games partake in the same nerd-friendly ideology of technological reassurance seen in Enduring Freedom, and encourage fantasies of super-clean pure war. Whether players think this is any more plausible than, say, Grand Theft Auto’s carnage carnival is tough to say. But even savvy cultural commentators can be duped into thinking that war should be just like a video game. In a recent feature about America’s Army, Salon game columnist Wagner James Au naively waxed poetic on the utopian capabilities of joystick warriors:

“You can see them in the field, in subsequent years, dedicated young men and women, their weapons merged into an information network that enables them to cut out with surgical precision the cancer that threatens us all—heat-packing humanitarians who leave the innocent unscathed, and full of renewed hope. In their wake, democracy, literacy and an Arab world restored to full flower, as it deserves to be, an equal in a burgeoning global culture, defended on all fronts by the best of the digital generation.”

If only it were that easy. While it might be fun for homebound warriors to geek out on gory, virtual thrills, real-world military-issue body bags don’t come equipped with a replay option.