Blog Post

Gaming at War - Part One: Historicizing Military Video Games

(This is the first part of a four-part series exploring the gamification of the military and the militarization of video games.)

  For about six years following the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003, I lived surrounded by war.  While the jury is still out on whether either of the Gulf Wars did in fact take place, this particular military intervention coincided with my very real obsession with military history and video games.  Most nights after watching ABC News-mediated scenes of Iraqi deserts and cities lit by night vision and explosions with my family, I would retreat to my bedroom and either read one of my countless books about the history of modern wars and weaponry or I would take to my computer and simulate conflicts ranging from World War II to some imagined future global  between NATO and some Middle Eastern or East Asian superpower.

  What I desired and received from video games was a visceral, embodied simulation of combat that put me in the boots of those soldiers whom I read about.  Despite both my parents and even the games themselves proclaiming that war was universally horrible, I nonetheless continually sought out the most “realistic” military games, usually in the form of “tactical shooters,” which would bring me closest to experiencing modern war firsthand.  (I imagine that my parents must have felt somewhat conflicted when leaving me to play games like Conflict: Global Terror while they went to anti-war protests.)  Games like Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis (whose developers went on to develop a training simulation for the US Marine Corps), and America’s Army (developed by the US Army as a recruitment tool) took up my free time, and I began to look at real life spaces for their tactical potential in case of armed combat.  Even today many of my dreams take the form these games, which I haven’t played in years.

  I never questioned my interest virtual simulations of military violence nor their astonishing abundance; they simply scratched my itch to get as close to war as I could.  (Although I did spend some wistful middle-school afternoons studying the US Army’s website of career paths)  Media commentators make the same assumption.  Military shooters such as Counterstrike are frequently cited as “murder simulators” which trained men like Adam Lamza and Seung Hui-Cho to derive pleasure from shooting their schoolmates, but their existence is assumed to be a natural result of the capitalist urge to fill markets.  At least partly due to this media-fed moral panic, so many non-gamers I have talked with have found the association between video games, the military, and violence inextricable.  But why are there so many military video games in the first place?  And why did I and so many boys my age love them (and continue to do so)?

  As it turns out, the connection between video games and the military in many ways is quite natural.  Patrick Crogan argues in his book Gameplay Mode: War, Simulation, and Technoculture that the computing technology fundamental to the development of video games emerged out of the United State military’s need to construct simulations of anti-aircraft and nuclear warfare during the Cold War.  Crogan claims that three key technological innovations, “the cybernetic approach to modelling complex phenomena, realtime interactive control through virtualization, and the convergence of simulated and real events,” (xxii) have and continue to inform the logics of video games, leading Nick Dyer-Witheford and Grieg de Peuter to designate video games as “the media of Empire.” (Games of Empire, xxix)

  While war has never been the sole focus of video game developers, since before the industry’s birth games have simulated and represented a variety of forms of military conflict.  One of the first games to achieve national distribution, Spacewar! (1962), pitted two players against each other to destroy the other’s weaponized spaceship.  A few years later, commercially available arcade games such as Periscope (1968), Computer Space (1971), and Maze War (1974) allowed gamers to engage in a variety of historical and futuristic combat scenarios.  For instance, the proliferation of the light gun in the early 1970s arcade games provided players with a more physically “accurate” controller with which to simulate gun violence.  

  The subsequent development of home computers and video game consoles created more possibilities for engagement in simulated military action.  In fact, the desire to simulate military experiences often motivated new video game technologies.  1980’s tank simulator Battlezone pioneered the use of vector graphics and viewing goggles to effectively render 3D environments in first-person perspective, which led the team to be recruited by the US Army to develop The Bradley Trainer, a training simulator for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and perhaps the first virtual reality military simulator.  Game developers have since been periodically hired by various military organizations to work on military training simulators (such as Bohemia Interactive, the developers of Operation Flashpoint mentioned above).

  The somewhat obscured military employment of video game developers was turned the other way in 2002, when the US Army released America’s Army, an online multiplayer first-person shooter intended to educate the player about military procedures and tactics in order to increase military recruitment.  Further concretizing the US military’s desire to reach gamers, the Pandemic Studios released the US Army-funded Full Spectrum Warrior in 2004 to critical acclaim.  Meanwhile, military game franchises like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Medal of Honor have birthed some of the best-selling video games of all time, and elsewhere other nations have released their own military sponsored and funded video games, such as China’s Glorious Mission.

  This brief overview is admittedly a strictly top-down history of military video games.  Growing up not only playing these games, but engaging with an online community of other military gamers, I am interested in exploring in further posts how these games are received, navigated, and understood by those who play them.  Amidst continuing debates about possible connections between video game violence and real life violence, especially among teenaged and 20-something men like myself, it is important to understand not only the large-scale connections between the military and the video games industry, but also how representations and simulations of war play out in the hands and minds of gamers on the ground.


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