Virtual Worlds, Real Wars

Screenshot from America's Army

Screenshot from America's Army

There’s a growing body of literature exploring the political and economic implications of virtual worlds. Although the worlds have frequently been dismissed by the mainstream as mere fiction and fantasy, many of the debates at Terra Nova—a a blog dedicated to covering such issues—provide fascinating insight into important political questions. And now the mainstream is beginning to catch on. The latest edition of Foreign Policy carried a fascinating story by PW Singer entitled “Meet the Sims…And Shoot Them,” in which Singer discusses the increasing use of virtual worlds by the U.S. military in terms of recruitment and traiing. But Singer also highlights another aspect of the question termed “militainment.” According to Singer,

The Pentagon’s embrace of video games is part of a much larger phenomenon—“militainment”—that is reshaping how the public understands today’s conflicts. The term was first coined to describe any public entertainment that celebrated the military, but today it could be redefined to mean the fascinating, but also worrisome, blurring of the line between entertainment and war. For example, while America’s Army is technically a publicly funded recruiting and training platform, its main commercial rival is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a game published by Activision Blizzard. The two games compete for market share, but also over who can better define contemporary war zones. In America’s Army, you deploy to the fictitious country of Ghanzia; in Modern Warfare 2, you join a U.S. special operations team that roams from Afghanistan to the Caucasus, winning hearts and minds (or losing them) with a mix of machine pistols and Predator strikes. The players also fight it out in a range of potential future areas of conflict, from Brazil’s rough urban favelas to a simulated Russian invasion of Washington, D.C. (This is actually a major flaw in the game; any invasion force would clearly get stuck in Beltway traffic.)

Interestingly, this phenomenon is not confined to the United States. Hezbollah produced a pair of games titled “Special Force,” in which players attack Israeli forces, and “Unmah Defense” in which players attack the U.S. military and Israeli settlers.

The games provide an important avenue to aid in recruiting. According to an MIT study, 30 percent of Americans 16-24 years of age had a positive impression of the Army because of the America’s Army game, and “the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined.” The military is using other virtual worlds to train drone pilots, educate soldiers on what constitutes sexual harassment, develop cross-cultural understanding, and help soldiers returning from conflict zones deal with post-traumatic stress.

But beyond the use of the technology for the training of soldiers, virtual world technologies are also changing the nature of warfare itself. Predator drone missions in Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example, are flown by pilots stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, thousands of miles away from the drone itself. This separation—and the way in which conflict is covered in the media—contributes to a sensationalized understanding of contemporary conflicts. Similar problems have been discussed in criminology (the CSI-effect) and in anti-terrorist policy (the Jack Bauer effect). French philosopher Jean Baudrillard makes a similar argument in his essay “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” in which he argues that in the western world war has become a media event hiding the suffering inflicted on those on both sides who experience it.

The interesting question, then, is how do our altered perceptions of war affect our foreign policy?

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