War Porn: Part One

War Porn: Part One

The glamorisation of battle is hardly a new enterprise. Crude charcoal daubs on cave walls suggest that early man was just as enthralled by violence as he is today. The Iliad, an epic poem whose origins pre-date literacy, is an action spectacle. It bemoans suffering and needless bloodshed while revelling in it, describing with palpable awe the exchange of blows between heroes. A mere 3,200 years later, and Gearbox Software’s garrulous president, Randy Pitchford, is demonstrating the latest Band Of Brothers game. Military advisor Colonel John Antel (retired) stands at the other end of the room, barking at cowed journalists about the game’s authenticity, its veneration of the sacrifice made by Our Boys during World War II. Pitchford interrupts, yelping with delight: “Oh my god! Did you see that guy’s head explode?” A decapitated Nazi cartwheels in slow motion across the screen next to him.

So, nothing’s changed. Or has it? Certainly it’s no surprise that violence has a big part to play in videogames. It has similar prominence in every medium, but videogames’ attachment to guns has a particular convenience – there is no easier way to create high drama in a medium governed by pointing and clicking. Games have grown more sophisticated, but the association of gunshots with mouseclicks is now indelible, the genres that this interaction supports having grown to produce the defining franchises within the medium. And this convenience has worked in the other direction, too, encouraging players to see virtual death as a simple process divorced from consequence, combatants as little more than bots, potential scores to be tallied.

The question is, of course: what effect does this have on the real world? Videogames, which have long been the source of moral outrage, have yet to turn us into mindless killers – this much is clear. But the connection between wargames and war is very real indeed. To see that this is true, we need only to look at the dialogue between game creators and the military, which is increasingly keen to use commercially developed technology both in training and recruitment. James Der Derian, a research professor at Rhode Island’s Brown University, maps in great detail the evolving relationship between entertainment companies and the military in his book, Virtuous War.


Call Of Duty 4

“Before electronic representation, the earliest wargames were obviously played out on sand with little toy soldiers,” he observes. “The biggest leap took place with computerisation. It’s interesting how this can be traced to specific individuals, like Ray Macedonia. He was one of the first computerised wargamers in the Pentagon and, in fact, it was his son Mike Macedonia who helped reverse the flow, moving away from these massive internally developed wargames and towards the off-the-shelf movement, going to game developers for the latest technological innovation.”

Among the titles to arise from this initiative are America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior – games keen to emphasise tactics used in the field, and tied directly into the recruitment and training efforts of the military. Since then, the military’s shadow over the retail market has only grown longer, with Call Of Duty tournaments becoming a staple of recruitment fairs, and even a game with such a tangential relationship to the real world as Gears Of War having been reported to have boosted enlistment in the armed forces. When the third game’s writer, and military novelist, Karen Traviss visited Iraq, she found that the US army encampments resounded with the sound of Lancers.

Der Derian: “In some of the earliest marketing for videogames associated with the Iraq war or Afghanistan, they would have a multiplayer game being shown and then they would cut to guys under a camouflage net playing the game while clearly on a forward operating base in Afghanistan. So that line between the representation and execution of warfare has once again been heavily blurred by technology.”

The photographer Richard Mosse has also made the connection. His videos of bored US soldiers in one of Saddam Hussein’s deserted hilltop palaces is full of eerie inaction quite distinct from the constant mayhem seen in gaming. And yet, in another video shot at Walter Reed Veterans Hospital, amputees and other wounded soldiers compete in a rowdy Call Of Duty tournament. Mosse intercuts footage from the plasma displays with actual war footage from the conflict. It acknowledges, if unsubtly, that videogames are part of a movement which fetishises extreme violence while abstracting us from it. GIs in Vietnam took hallucinogens to make combat less real. Now the jarheads are given Gears Of War.