Video Game Propaganda

Video Game Propaganda

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Video Game Propaganda


Propaganda is hidden in our literature, spews from our radios, and is even inside our televisions. Propaganda, information or material spread to advance a cause or to damage an opponent's cause in such a way as to hide negative aspects, surrounds us all in every aspect of our lives. It is unavoidable and now it is gaining ground in yet another technology.

Throughout the years technology has always been used to wield propaganda. Even canvas paintings have had their hand in such a form of information with depictions of current events that resemble the style of some of today's political cartoons. The printing press provided the ability to mass produce pamphlets supporting or putting down a cause. Thomas Paine's Common Sense comes to mind when one thinks of propaganda pamphlets because of its large impact it had on informing the thirteen colonies of the importance of the American Revolution. The radio not only allowed a message to be able to reach a wider audience in a shorter amount of time, but messages could even reach those who were illiterate. The television and movies reach a wider audience still and a visual style becomes very important to propaganda and helps immerse the viewer into the information.

More recently propaganda has been wielded through computer technology. Web sites for the respective governments and factions of the U.S. military are all over the World Wide Web. Banner ads (essentially mini posters that are sometimes animated) appear on various web sites that are chosen in much the same way that companies choose which television shows to buy advertisement time during.

In all occasions of propaganda infiltrating the newest technologies the purpose is always to reach the audience the propaganda is directed towards and that is certainly no exception with propaganda's recent involvement with video game technology. Video game propaganda is just as effective as past incarnations of propaganda if not more so because of its immersive nature.

The US Government's History with Video Game Technology

In the late 1970s a video games started their long relationship with the U.S. military. An arcade game entitled "Mech War" was introduced into an Army War College. This was the first of quite a few games introduced into colleges to be used as skill-enhancers. The military recognized the ability of video games to hone reflexes and hand-eye coordination. In the 1980s the U.S. Army modified "Battlezone," a futuristic 3D tank battle game that actually introduced the idea of a first person shooter.

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It was modified to control similar to a Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle with attempts at realistic speeds and control, but nothing much became of that endeavor. (http://www.ndu.edu/inss/DefHor/DH11/DH11.htm)

The most important military project regarding video games did not appear until 1995 when Lieutenant Scott Barnett and Sergeant Dan Snyder of the US Marines were ordered to research as many off-the-shelf retail video games as possible in order to determine which ones if any were suitable for teaching an appreciation for the art and science of war. (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.04/ff_doom_pr.html) After much research the two marines settled on ID Software's "Doom II," sequel to the best-selling "Doom" which is still brought up today in video game violence debates. The game was chosen because it was easily modifiable (ID software actually encouraged gamers to come up with their own modifications of the game) and networkable to allow co-operative or competitive multiplayer capabilities.

Why, though, would the U.S. Marines choose a game that's focus involved killing zombies and various demonic creatures to save the world from Hell using such weapons as a chain saw and a plasma rifle even be considered as a game easily used for military training and awareness? Well, "Doom II" did happen to be incredibly popular and the definitive early '90s computer game.

The modification of "Doom II" by the U.S. Marines became known as "Marine Doom." As of 1997 it was on its way to being used by the entire Marine Corps for team training. However, the game was completely devoid of any rampaging Imps ready to have their heads blown off by a shotgun while a Lost Soul joined in the foray only to end up exploding because our hero happened to fire a pistol in its general direction. No, the "Marine Doom" modification actually includes modernized military weapons such as the M-16, different sound effects, and different levels (bland outdoor environments as opposed to Hell). However, the core gameplay of "Doom II" remains in tact. Players still have a life gauge and though enemies became yelling Nazi look-a-likes their AI (Artificial Intelligence) consists of nothing more than running towards the players. "Marine Doom" has a four player co-operative mode allowing one team of a squad to train the members to work as a team and complete various orders. Of course, the conditions of the game hardly mirror reality and one team of a squad would behave a lot differently if working with the entire squad.

Clearly there were other reasons the project was explored as much as it was. Lieutenant Barnett said to Wired Magazine, "[. . .] Kids who join the marines today grew up with TV, videogames, and computers. So we thought, how can we educate them, how can we engage them and make them want to learn? This is perfect." "Marine Doom" is essentially the U.S. military's first step into video game propaganda. This was the first time a video game was specifically made in hopes of enticing recruitment for a faction of the U.S. military. The fact that "Marine Doom" was designed for combat training may overshadow this fact, but the "Doom II" modification was, in fact, available for download on the internet so that anyone could play it.

After the rather large publicity of "Marine Doom" the military's relationship with video games grew quiet. Other retail video games were toyed around with for use as combat simulators and quite recently has Ubi Soft Entertainment allowed the game engine for Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear to be used for training U.S. soldiers. However, it wasn't until just last year that legitimate video game propaganda with a government backing first appeared.

"America's Army"

"America's Army: Operations" is the first of two games to be specifically developed by the U.S. Army. It is a first person shooter with a focus on tactical team based gameplay through online matches with other players over the internet. As of May 2002 the U.S. Army had spent 6.3 million dollars on the project and money is continually poured into the project for updates to the game and to keep the gaming servers online. (http://pc.ign.com/articles/361/361291p1.html)

At its surface "America's Army: Operations" seems like nothing more than a game made to take advantage of the recent success of games featuring realistic military tactics, but in looking into the matter many interesting bits of information are discovered. According to the official web site for "America's Army," Operations is actually designed to be a recruitment tool. If a player does exceptionally well at the game they may actually receive an e-mail from an army recruiter. This certainly changes how propaganda works in that it's not a one-way flow of communication. Being contacted directly as a result of using the propaganda makes the communication two-way and far more effective. This actually may have a psychological effect on certain players because encouraging army enlistment because of the person's abilities harkens back to how guidance counselors and family may encouraged them in the past.

Beyond the obvious propagandistic purpose of "America's Army: Operations," the way the game works and details within provide even more examples of propaganda. When picking a team for an online match the player may wonder how no matter what side they pick they never seem to be the "enemy." The secret behind this is actually no secret at all for it is actually a part of the gameplay, revealed at the official web site.

Based upon standard Army force-on-force training practices, you will always perceive you are in the U.S. Army. Your comrades always appear to be in U.S. uniforms while the opposing force always appears to be in opposing force uniforms with appropriate weapons. (www.americasarmy.com/about.php)

Furthermore, enemy soldiers always appear to be of Middle Eastern decent or stereotypical skinheads. Most enemy faces feature thick facial hair and a rugged appearance because obviously enemies of America are not civilized. American soldiers on the other hand are very well kept and clean shaven. Only Caucasians and African Americans serve on the side of the U.S. Army. The Hispanics of America must be doing the gardening at the military bases while the Asians dwell in civilian schools and take business positions away from middle-aged men. There are actually no women in the game whatsoever. They must be cooking back at home.

Despite the game's heavy focus on realistic combat, blood is reduced to nothing more than a paintball-like red puff. Death animations are also hardly dramatic or harsh. Maybe killing just isn't as big of a deal as anyone had thought. How violence in the game is handled effectively contributes to glorifying the combat as well as making the game suitable to younger audiences than even the game's core demographic (17 and 18 year olds).

"America's Army: Operations" has been very successful. Being available for free via download from the official site or for a relatively low price of $19.99 are also no doubt reasons for how fast the game has spread into the hands of gamers all over the United States. With traditional subtle propagandistic details, a purpose of recruitment, and the fact that it has reached an extremely large audience in a small time frame make "America's Army: Operations" a viable form of propaganda and extremely important to the development of video game propaganda, something that may be far more common practice for the governments of various nations in the future.

"Under Ash"

Very recently has a video game been released by a Syrian publishing company known as Dar al-Fikhr. The game is known as "Under Ash" and is a first person shooter like "America's Army: Operations" before it. 'We seek to counterbalance the poisonous ideas conveyed by American video games to our children,' said Hassan Salem, executive director of the project at the Dar al-Fikr publishing house. 'Our primary aim is educational; we want the new generation which doesn't hear the news to learn about the Palestinian cause,' he added.
(http://news.awse.com/23-Feb-2002/Technology/8727.htm)

In "Under Ash" the player takes the role of Ahmed, a young Palestinian who joins the Intifada or Palestinian cause, and takes the player through six phases all the while killing Israeli soldiers and raising the Palestinian flag in various locations such as Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque which is Islam's third holiest site. Weapons range from simple throwing stones to rocket launchers. The enemies are the Israeli Army and carry American weapons such as the M-16.

Unlike "America's Army: Operations," "Under Ash" focuses a lot on the brutality of violence. Blood is much more prevalent (though the game is still listed as suitable for ages 13 and up just like Operations) and when civilians are killed you are punished with a game over (Operations doesn't actually have any civilians to accidentally get caught in a crossfire). When your character dies the point is driven home in a harsh manner with the brief appearance of a message stating, "You Got Shot ..Now they will recognize your ID They will torture your family and destroy your house Try Again" This truly creates a much more brutal atmosphere, but this message and many other examples generalize the actions and motives of Israel which is, of course, a method of propaganda. The brutal atmosphere of the game attempts to paint Palestine as the victim of a terrible conflict and the many generalizations within the game paint Israeli as an enemy in a black and white world where there simply is no gray.
Though "Under Ash" may spread awareness and further encourage recruitment for the Intifada the games true intention is to directly combat the propaganda in American games. Some parents are actually purchasing the game for their children because of the fact. "Nada, a [woman] buying ["Under Ash"], said 'I was shocked when my son told me the game he was playing was to kill Saddam Hussein,' the Iraqi president."
(http://news.awse.com/23-Feb-2002/Technology/8727.htm)

"Under Ash" effectively uses propagandistic techniques to accomplish its goal of actively combating American video games while attempting to inform on the Intifada. The game is currently achieving a moderate amount of success and as soon as it the publishing company responsible for the game gains permission to export to other Arab nations the success should only rise.

The release of "Under Ash" marks another importance to video game propaganda. It not only provides another solid example, but also displays another way for video game propaganda to be used. In this case it is used to combat other propaganda. "Under Ash" reveals the flexibility of video game propaganda. It can be used in many different ways just as past forms that propaganda has taken.

The Present and the Future

At the moment video games are becoming a more profitable and respectable industry. Almost as big as the motion picture industry, it is no wonder that video games have finally been inspected for propaganda purposes. Furthermore, some video games are now being targeted directly towards older teens and adults in lieu of young children or everyone. The Sony Playstation, Playstation 2, and Microsoft's X-Box are specifically targeted at the former demographic. The stories of some video games are also increasing in quality and can directly compete with some pieces of literature and many motion pictures. As a result games are becoming more and more immersive, drawing the player into their worlds and creating an experience for the player to live through. Video games such as Konami's Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty actually tackles philosophical issues within its story including the separating of video games from reality and the game's prequel even discusses the morality of nuclear weapons and cloning.

Video games are now an art form whether some would choose to agree or not. The immersive nature of some games makes them a powerful form of communication and vehicle for propaganda. The fact that a majority of people still do not take video games seriously only increases the effectiveness of the propaganda within. If the public is not looking out for propaganda they will be more susceptible to its power. The belief that people are not stupid enough to be effected by video game propaganda is the exact kind of mindset that will lead to many being affected. Those who think nothing of it may allow their children to play a game that conveys certain views and, especially if the individual had had no thought on the subject before; those views may become the player's views.

The companion game to "America's Army: Operations," entitled "America's Army: Soldiers," is currently in development as is a sequel to "Under Ash," which will simply be known as "Under Ash 2." Of course, more video games are on the horizon that may also have a propaganda influence. The U.S. Army is directly funding, but not developing, the production of two games: C-Force and CS-12. Both games are designed for the purpose of "real learning." Both will be first person shooters designed to simulate the U.S. Army's Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) and incorporate a strong emphasis on team play. C-Force will be for video game consoles and CS-12 will be for the computer. (http://www.futurecombat.net) C-Force and CS-12 will also be taking advantage of engaging storylines to further immerse the player in the game and convey a message. (http://www.ndu.edu/inss/DefHor/DH11/DH11.htm)

Dr. Nancy Snow, an Assistant Professor of Global Communications at California State University, Fullerton and former cultural officer with the United States Information Agency who authored Propaganda, Inc.: Selling America's Culture to the World said in an interview,
The U.S. Army, like all our armed forces, has gotten very sophisticated about their target audience-young people, particularly young people who are against the odds in this economy and need the information and technology skills to make it. They are no fools. Modern warmaking is like a video game. (http://www.polyconomics.com/showarticle.asp?articleid=2251)

As time progresses the quality of video game propaganda will only improve. The improvement of graphics will allow a visual style to have a further impact in the effectiveness of propaganda, newer innovative techniques will keep gamers entertained long enough to absorb all the propaganda within the game, and the two-way communication flow currently experimented with in "America's Army: Operations" may increase in effectiveness.

Of course, video games led into the experimentation with virtual reality technology and such a technology is bound to be experimented with by the U.S. government based on its recent endeavors into video game propaganda.

It's no coincidence that universities like USC's Institute for Creative Technologies [. . .] with its close ties to the Hollywood film industry is now working with the military to develop cutting edge virtual reality technology from the entertainment and game development industries to help train the modern [soldier] and future soldier. (http://www.polyconomics.com/showarticle.asp?articleid=2251)

This new involvement with virtual reality technology strives for further immersion of the users involved. Not only will the users (be they cadets or gamers) feel as if they are in the game thanks to virtual reality, but they will be given weapons with a realistic weight and simulated kick back when fired. The smell of gunpowder will also be simulated in much the same way that the smell of a pine forest was simulated in Soarin' Over California at Disney's California Adventure. Current plans will also involve a tank that will also have a realistic kick back and simulated gunpowder smell.

This current endeavor by the military into virtual reality is being designed for soldier training, but much like U.S. Air Force pilot training machines are available to try at amusement parks this new form of simulated combat may come to replace paintball and reach yet another audience for propaganda to target.

There are billions of resources that go into maintaining a modern military like that of the United States. It's not all tanks and soldiers. Much of it is technology geared toward persuasion and information management. Since we don't have a draft and have to rely on an all-volunteer armed force, then the military has to continue to come up with clever ways to work through all the advertising clutter and capture their declining audience. (http://www.polyconomics.com/showarticle.asp?articleid=2251)

Video game propaganda, whether morally right or wrong, is here to stay. It is not a passing phase, but an effective way that the US government has discovered to recruit soldiers and something other nations are now beginning to experiment with as well. Many things could be stated in regards to the morality of it. After all, despite the increase of adults and older teens who play video games the majority of players are still young children to pre-teens. This is not the demographic recent video game propaganda has targeted, but being a video game this form of propaganda will interest any video gamer. This would mirror a past experience where the U.S. government fiddled with every child's joy: ice cream. In 1984 a Johnny Klomberg was sent a reminder to register for the draft, but he never even existed (which is how this was discovered). Two kids had made him up and put his name on a birthday list to receive a free ice cream sundae on his birthday from Farrell's restaurant. The US government got a hold of this list without permission of Farrell's restaurant and used the information on the list to keep track of who was turning eighteen. (http://www.snopes.com) This ice cream incident mirrors the heart of video game propaganda in the U.S. The government is not afraid to venture into areas dominated by children in hopes of making them aware of the military.

As the quality of games increase the industry becomes more respectable and a more apparent vehicle for propaganda. For now, however, video game propaganda may be highly underestimated despite the industry's current acceptance as an art form by a wide range of people. It is because of this that video game propaganda will prove to be most effective.


Bibliography

America's Army. 2002 <http://www.americasarmy.com/about.php>
A W S E NEWS. 2002 <http://news.awse.com/23-Feb-2002/Technology/8727.htm>
Defense Horizons No. 11. 2003 <http://www.ndu.edu/inss/DefHor/DH11/DH11.htm>
Doom Goes to War. 1997 <http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.04/ff_doom_pr.html>
FCS Home. 2003 <http://www.futurecombat.com>
Polyconomics. 2003 <http://www.polyconomics.com/showarticle.asp?articleid=2251>
Snopes. 2003 <http://www.snopes.com>
Under Ash. 2002 <http://underash.net>
U.S. Army Spending Top Dollar. 2002 <http://pc.ign.com/articles/361/361291p1.html>
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