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May 11, 2016

Video games as a weapon of Western propaganda

“The use of gaming is in fact a technological extension of more than a century of recruiting techniques."

Later this month a war game called Homefront: The Revolution will be released. It creates an alternative universe in which Americans get to play heroes defending their country, which has been invaded by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

But heroically defending your homeland could not be further from the apparent theme of Battlefield 1, to be released in October. This World War I game takes place across that war’s western front and critically includes battles in the desert against the Ottoman Empire — a nation that spent the majority of World War I in a sorry state, simply trying to defend itself.

But in this version the heroes are either American or Allied forces, because this is Battlefield, and Battlefield can’t resist flag waving. So you’ll be taking on the role of a hero invading another country.

It’s a pretty good gig being a hero regardless of whether you are the invader or the invaded.

Of course, that’s somewhat flippant, and the context of those two games is different. One is representing a historically accurate invasion that took place during a state of war. The other is a hypothetical hostile and unprovoked attack (for some reason, attacks on Americans always happen without provocation, both in American history books and in its games).

Despite those differences, there is a common thread: the Americans or Western soldiers are almost always the heroes and rarely the enemy. The enemy is either a real, or poses an abstract, threat to Western ideology.

In other words, these games are nationalist propaganda, and the potential for games to do nationalism really well has not been missed. For the last couple of years the Australian military has set up booths at the EB Games Expo in Sydney to proudly show off the real-world versions of the weapons to the kids who’ve just tried the virtual violence at the Call of Duty booth. In America the military has gone as far as to develop games itself, which it then uses as recruitment tools.

The military is using the games industry to “gamify” war. When coupled with the nationalism that is typically already on display in these games we can see how the games industry is an active participant in promoting xenophobic or hostile attitudes towards the “other” — those who don’t abide by Western values.

“That the US military and Australian armies are using games and gaming events as recruiting tools is certainly a form of propaganda,” Emily Robertson, a doctoral candidate in history at UNSW said.

“This is a deliberate public relations strategy. It promotes the military by using an existing non-government form of propaganda that functions primarily as entertainment. The ideological story contained in Call of Duty, in which the player is fighting on the morally ‘good’ side, has been a classic recruiting technique since the South African War (or Boer War),” said Robertson.

“The use of gaming is in fact a technological extension of more than a century of recruiting techniques. From the 1880s onwards, the British Empire produced numerous ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure novels, penny dreadfuls — and board games — to draw the reader/player into an environment in which they envisaged themselves as heroes fighting enemies of the Empire.  These were mostly produced unofficially, much like the gaming industry is owned by private individuals.”

The recruitment of art for propaganda is nothing new. In both World Wars, both sides of the conflict used the dominant entertainment media to reach communities and encourage people to enlist or support the war effort. Hollywood, especially, proved to be a masterful resource for the American military.

Even today, in a bid to discourage asylum seekers to try to reach Australia, the Australian Defence Force has invested millions in the production of a propaganda film to play in south-east Asia and the Middle East.

It makes sense that games, now the dominant populist media, are exploited to encourage or capitalise on patriotic attitudes among players. The difference here is that the games industry itself is overwhelmingly dominated by Western interests.

There has always been a balance in the film industry with each country producing its own films that reflect their national identity, but there’s no real non-English speaking games industry to speak of — with the exception, perhaps, of Japan.

But games from Japan that don’t sit within Western nationalist rhetoric tend to find little support from players or critics.

“That the Japanese games are Westernised to suit a Western market, and that Westernised games do not need to change to appeal to non-Western markets is part of a much broader story of Westernisation that has been underway for a considerable period of time,” Robertson said.

“Gaming is a reflection of this process and in this sense, is part of the complex story of globalisation. However, gaming is also a type of ‘soft diplomacy’, in which a country infiltrates and weakens the ideological culture of another country through the dissemination of appealing and entertaining cultural narratives.”

And yet, while the processes of propaganda are readily seen in the video games we play, there is not much made of it from a critical or consumer perspective. It’s likely that it’s partly because the study of art as propaganda only tends to arise after the fact; there wasn’t too much discussion going on about how the American films during World War II were supporting a nationalist imperative.

But, equally, it’s likely that games are so new — especially as a legitimised art form — that we simply haven’t started to have those discussions yet.

“I think it’s because the industry is relatively new, and perhaps not taken as seriously as it should be. Gaming is an increasingly dominant culture however, so I imagine that there will be increasing interest in the ideologies that underlie games,” Robertson said.

*This article was originally published at Daily Review

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6 thoughts on “Video games as a weapon of Western propaganda

  1. Roger Clifton

    Gaming components are threats, weapons and heroes. If the struggles in gaming have become culturally limited, it may soon come time to focus on common enemies.

    Now that Admiral Lockyear has nominated climate change as the free world’s greatest threat, gaming has a new catalogue of scenarios. Threats include storm surge, malaria infestation, hurricanes and floods. Deployable weapons include helicoptered rescuers, emergency dykes, mobile power plants, vaccine development… Scenarios would provide devilishly short-notice intelligence and limited budgets and manpower.

    Heroism? Well, that is for the writers to create. Heck, the stakes are high enough!

  2. Wayne Robinson

    It’s not gaming, but I’m currently reading (or rather listening to the audiobooks of) Harry Turtledove’s ‘World War’ series of alternate history novels. Extraterrestrials have just invaded the Earth in 1942, interrupting World War II and forcing previous enemies to become allies.

    I’m on the 3rd one. It’s rather good so far with its epic mixture of real and fictional characters. Skorzeny has a prominent role as one of the heroes.

  3. Stressed Chef

    There have been vehement arguments going on about gaming culture and themes over the past couple of years – including the many manifestations of GamerGate. This article read like everyone involved was unaware of them – and indeed may never have played a game in their lives.

    Pumped-up xenophobic militarism is definitely a frequently recurring part of mass-market games (though it has occasionally also been critiqued in titles like “Spec Ops: The Line”). There are lots of crappy but interesting reasons for this we can argue about. It’d be great to look beyond “games are a witting tool of propaganda”, which has only ever applied meaningfully to a small subset of titles.

    1. Draco Houston

      Yeah, games have been around for decades and people have already gone through this stuff. One of the games mentioned is 14 years old. So new, we can’t possibly have already examined the war porn that AAA studios put out!

  4. max steinman

    Roger Clifton a game about managing the response to climate change would be fantastic. Great idea.

  5. mikeb

    I don’t think anyone is stopping the Turks producing a game which pushes the ANZACS into the sea, or the Germans rewriting history by winning the battle of the bulge.

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