Near-future video games and the construction of ideology
Author’s note: I was inspired to write this after a conversation with a few friends of mine in which they discussed Blackwater and other PMCs in an identical manner to the video game Army of Two. I also feel that critical theory needs to be applied to video games, as they are just as much a part of our culture as films and TV shows.
In the third-person shooter Army of Two, two mercenaries working for a private military company uncover and stop a plot by their company to privatize and take over the US military. After this, what do they decide to do? They found their own PMC. The game manages to point out the dangers of mercenary armies while simultaneously glamorizing them, an example of what Robert Pfaller calls “interpassivity.” The game performs the player’s outrage at the crimes of mercenary work for them, allowing the player to continue participating without any critical engagement. Though games like these are lauded as morally complex and realistic, they still gloss over the structural problems surrounding privatization and military contractors.
Perhaps no person has done as much for the military-industrial complex as Tom Clancy. The popularization of high-tech military strategy and tactics owes a great debt to the prolific author. His work typically features a small team of highly experienced specialists applying a technocratic solution to a military problem- an unsurprisingly great recipe for a shooter. Consequently, over 40 video games have been based on his work or carry his name in some form. In particular, the Rainbow Six series of games has laid the groundwork for incredibly popular games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which feature small squads fighting in decisive parts of huge conflicts.
Invariably, the challengers to western liberal democracy in these games are linked in some way with the past and have scarcely plausible motivations. Modern Warfare 2 has “ultranationalists” seizing control of Russia and invading the West through a campaign of both conventional warfare and terrorism. Their motivations are neither clearly explained nor believable, but I’m not sure this is merely the result of bad writing. It captures Mark Fisher’s “‘capitalist realism’: the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” When we have reached, as Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed, the “end of history,” how could a challenger to it be anything but implausible?
Needless to say, the defeat of these foes has nothing to do with ordinary people (other than that their Security And Freedom Are Completely Assured) and completely marginalizes countries in the periphery (which do nothing but produce terrorists, it seems). Though it’s ostensibly some neologism for NATO (or NATO itself) that Fights The Good Fight against Those Dastardly Foes, it’s plain that the US is running the show. Despite the claims of video game magazines that these near-future games are morally challenging, their overall plots lack any sort of the critical engagement that is a necessary condition for truly examining war and society.
As America’s empire has declined, these games, depicting America reclaiming its rightful place as protector through war, have drastically risen in popularity. Of course, semi-nationalist video games depicting a heroic America have been around for decades, but games like Modern Warfare 2 and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon are of a different breed. As video games have become more advanced in the last decade, they have become less self-aware. Older video games, if for no other reason than graphical limitations, were far more cognizant of the limits of their medium. With contemporary games, lots of the buzz surrounding them focuses on their gritty realism- they are more direct in reinforcing ideology because they are perceived to be more in step with the real world. These video games create an insidious form of praxis by making the player an active participant; a dialectic between the game’s ideology and the player’s actions ensues. When paired with hegemonic ideology, the results, though not yet fully realized, are undoubtedly startling.