War Porn: Part Two

War Porn: Part Two

You can read part one of this feature, here.

You can read part one of this feature, here.

The distinction between games and the reality of war becomes trickier when battles are fought remotely. With the use of drones, high-altitude support and the infrared vision systems of Apache gunships, war is being ever more virtualised – co-opting videogame trappings and control schemes in the process. Defence contractor Raytheon hired game developers to design its drone operation (its ‘synthetic environment’ is powered by an Xbox processor), while iRobot’s XM1216 Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle is controlled by a gamepad. The pilots for these craft are usually in the US – Washington, Texas and Nevada. They have breakfast with their families, see their children to school, sit down for a few hours of intense combat operations, then clock off to go home.

While such methods have a proven record in reducing frontline casualties, there are fears that the distance from combat may also make their operators more blasé about their actions. Certainly this is an accusation vigorously denied by the military, which points to its stringent procedures before clearing drones to fire. It’s clear that many drone operations are conducted with great care and discrimination, but things do go wrong: in May, a military investigation blamed the deaths of 23 Afghan civilians on the “inaccurate and unprofessional” reporting of Predator operators based in Nevada.

Behind all of this is the chill spectre of the leaked video footage of an Apache gunship which formed part of the WikiLeaks scandal earlier this year. The disturbing sequence shows an Apache crew blithely gunning down two journalists, having mistaken a camera for a weapon, and later, while riddling a vehicle with bullets, wounding two children inside.


Modern Warfare 2's notorious No Russian mission

Anyone who has played the similar sections in Modern Warfare and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 will recognise that these games emulate everything but the difficulty and consequences of making these mortal decisions at a distance. Perhaps more disturbing is the familiarity of it all. Developers have looked to TV news coverage in order to authenticate their own versions of war, creating an exchange of images between their frivolous digital carnage and the desperate sensationalism of 24-hour rolling reports that sends the depiction of conflict into a spiral of exaggeration and voyeurism. In the world of war porn, videogames are the Readers’ Wives.

“Commercial videogames show some of the elements of combat that might prepare somebody for knowing the structure of war, but I don’t know if an artificial environment where there’s no consequences can deliver an ethical understanding.” So says Dr Albert Rizzo, co-director of the Virtual Reality, Psychology and Social Neuroscience Lab at the University of Southern California, where he works alongside the military to develop simulations to be used in PTSD treatment. “But the military are trying to [enforce ethical concerns] with cultural sensitivity training. I think they’ve recognised that with a digital generation of recruits you’re going to get a little bit more awareness of a combat environment, but some of that may not be accurate or useful for accomplishing the mission or survival. The balance to that stuff is to build a response to others in your group – to protect your team. I think that taps into a deeper survival instinct than playing 1,000 hours of Call Of Duty.”

Rizzo also points out that even among drone operators, psychological damage has been reported – an indication that distance hasn’t wholly allayed their understanding of ethical responsibility. Perhaps the military is right – operating a drone isn’t considered a videogame; the majority of pilots and gunners do their duty with great care and gravity. Perhaps these relatively rare tragedies are simply the real cost of war. But you wouldn’t know it from videogames.

The effect this powerful entertainment medium has on the way soldiers actually fight is uncertain, but a more evident disservice is to be found in the censored message these games deliver to the public at large. These are wars in which the west is righteous, or its righteousness is made irrelevant. These are wars in which troops don’t make bad decisions, and innocent people don’t get killed through negligence, willful malevolence or even simple accident. Often, these are wars fought by decent, upstanding, square-jawed heroes against animalistic subhumans that swarm like bees out of their dishevelled, makeshift dwellings.

sssss