This is going to be a long read, a long but worthwhile read about something that has been bugging me over the past few months. First of all, I'd like to say to everyone that is reading these words, that this article is not about you or your countrymen, but about the way certain nations are portrayed and presented in video games. For I won't have to tell you, or anyone with gaming experience for that matter, that the majority of the video game stories, especially when they're action-oriented, involve bulky American or otherwise Anglosaxon (super) soldiers whose objective is to single handedly rid the world of communists, nazis, aliens, terrorists or terrorist alien nazicommies.
Perhaps the most known example of this odd phenomenon is Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Some Russian terrorists have managed to obtain a nuclear warhead, and they're not afraid of using it to pursue their clearly evil goals. You play as both a British and an American soldier, and spend the entire game shooting Russians and Arabs in an effort to try and prevent a disaster from happening.
When you look at that story for what it is, nothing much seems wrong with it. Sure, it has all the clichés you could come up with, from crashing helicopters to the story revolving around nukes acquired on the black market, and it's basically just another variation on the crappy B-movie plot we've seen about a million times before. But that's just the way the cookie crumbles in video game land, where story and storytelling usually aren't the main focus of the experience.
It's when placed in a larger context, though, that you'll notice a trend that is actually becoming a little bit disturbing. Whether it's Medal of Honor, Halo*, the other Call of Duties, or even non-American games such as Battlefield: Bad Company, Vanquish, Arma II** and Crysis: Americans, occasionally aided by Brits, are always busy saving us from some kind of world threatening situation, often caused by the aforementioned array of enemies.
So where does this fascination with a bunch of roided-up potty mouths saving us from Russians, Arabs or random sentient evil thingies from outer space come from? I'm not the one to quickly attach political motives to a seemingly unrelated industry, but I can't help but think that the origins of this phenomenon have something to do with the social context in which these games were developed.
These suspicions arose when I compared the industry's fetish with American super soldiers to the Dutch habit of cracking jokes about Belgians being dumb. This is a cultural thing that's a bit difficult to explain to someone who's not from either one of those countries, but it's roughly in the same ballpark as Americans and their frequent jokes about the French and their alleged military incompetence. The curious thing is, though, that the 'dumb Belgian' funnies started emerging when the Dutch where at war with the Belgians, back in the 19th century. As is normal in a war, the fear of being captured and/or killed by the enemy was omnipresent, and as a result, Dutch soldiers started sharing jokes about their Belgian opponents, insulting their intelligence, in an effort to trivialise the fear for their enemies.
While it's a long way from there to the present state of the video game industry, it's very likely that the virtual humiliation of, say, Russia, is in fact the trivialisation of the threat the country still poses in the eyes of many. Because while the thousands of Russian Spetsnaz soldiers that have perished at your hands in any random war game may have been pushovers, the American government still considers their real life equivalents a huge threat, and trains specifically dedicated units to counter these Russian spec ops to this very day.
Even though the vast majority of the general populace, including video game designers, isn't aware of such details, the mistrust towards Russians is still widely spread among the Western world. A lot of people have lived through the Cold War, and have thus always learned to fear and maybe even hate Russians. While the Iron Curtain has been raised long ago, tons of Hollywood movies have since reminded us that there's no reason to get too cozy with our Eastern neighbours. With September 11 in mind, it's not very hard to guess where the more recent obsession with Middle Eastern terrorists in scruffy clothing comes from.
I personally do not share sentiments of the category described above, as I consider it inherently flawed to judge entire nations on the way their policies are portrayed by Western media. Yet it wasn't long ago that I blasted anyone with a Slavic accent in whatever video game without hesitation. You'll notice that the previous sentence was written in past tense, because the sheer overkill (literally) of this stuff in said video games made me become more aware of the political context that often guides a video game plot in the background. I'm not ashamed to admit that, nowadays, I am quite often disgusted by events in some of the previously listed games.
Sure, you can dismiss all of this by simply playing the 'it's just a video game' card, and that's understandable, because a lot of gamers never think this far into it. But we all know that the moment an established developer presents us with a first person shooter that puts us in the shoes of a Russian soldier who has to save the world by annihilating Americans by the numbers, public figures and individuals alike would give a new meaning to the word 'controversy'.
Something along these lines already occurred when it was announced that Medal of Honor would offer the possibility of playing as the Taliban. At one point, the developers were even accused of sabotaging the NATO cause. Not that I approve of what the Taliban does, nor do I want to compare a Talib to the common Russian man, but it showed that a lot of people suddenly didn't see Medal of Honor as being 'just a video game' anymore. Of course, the critics played it safe by saying they were against the idea because the Afghanistan war is an ongoing conflict that still demands the lives of many, but it doesn't take a lot of cynism or imagination to see what the underlying arguement is here: A lot of people seemingly had more issues with the idea of scruffy Middle Eastern men shooting god-fearing, square-chinned American roughnecks than when the non-Westerners were on the receiving end of the gun barrel. Allegations of the game 'sabotaging' or 'damaging the NATO cause' and the subsequent calls for boycotting or even banning the game showed that a lot of people out there seem to recognise the influence video games can have on our perception of the real world. What was it they were afraid of? That playing from the perspective of a Talib would somehow create more sympathy for their cause?
Then what does that say about the possible effects of the extremely negative portrayal of Russians game after game? Not that I want to go all 'video games are controlling the minds of our children', but it'd be naive to deny the possibility of this having an influence on how some of the gamers view the world. Maybe it's because I, unlike many other Westerners, don't have such a raging hard-on for the NATO and as a result am more sceptical towards that organisation, but the more I play (mainly American-made) war games, the more I get the idea that I'm actually playing interactive propaganda material. The fact that the US Navy has long advertised on this very website with Modern Warfare-esque videos only raises the suspicion, and when both the US Army and some British government officials protested when the tables were about to be turned in Medal of Honor, they confirmed that Western governmental bodies also recognise the ability to influence the public opinion through a medium such as video gaming. And they have enough reason to do so. If we are to believe the commonly used phrase that if you repeat something often enough, people will start believing you, then what are the odds of someone who's constantly being told that Russians are evil and dangerous, eventually starting to consider this a credible idea?
As said, I don't believe that video games can put ideas into our heads just like that, but I do believe that the opinion of some, generally more weak-minded people can be guided by whatever medium they have frequent contact with. Often it's not even the general idea that influences us the most, but the small details. Notice, for example, how it's always the enemies in war-themed games that commit war crimes and use dirty tactics. It's like we constantly have to be reminded that it is morally justified to shoot anyone with a funny accent. Take, for example, Frontlines: Fuel of War. Now, the story of that game is as horrid as you'd expect from a pretty basic shooter, but it was like the writers purposefully tried to evade all real world-logic in presenting the war between America and Russia in that game. When the American troops enter Moscow, they are resisted by armed civilians. We are then informed that the civilians were 'forced by the Russian authorities' to either fight the Americans or face the death penalty. It was probably too risky to present us with the possibility of innocent civilians actually wanting to fight any invader that came rolling over their front lawn in search for oil. With this in mind, it's not very surprising that Homefront, the next game by Kaos Studios, the developers of Frontlines, will show us scenes of Koreans murdering children to allegedly remind us how horrible war is.
If the Wikileaks scandal has taught us anything, it's that war is always dirty. And be it ordered from above or conducted by a few mentally twisted individuals, atrocities are always committed by both sides. I'm not saying that video game developers should start incorporating this reality into products that ultimately serve as entertainment, but let them never claim again that their upcoming that war-themed game will realistically portray the idea of war as long as that alleged realism actually consists of the same fictional, heroic, black-and-white tripe that you normally see in propaganda movies.
I am fully aware that me pointing this out will not change anything, but consider it my own modest version of an awareness campaign. If anything, I want to confirm what you already know: video games ARE just video games. Never be fooled into thinking that what you see on your computer or TV screen holds any corelation to the real world, even if the developers claim it does. The mere idea of war being used as entertainment proves that there's an unbridgeable gap between video games and reality. I know it's easy to forget this at times, especially with the realistic appearance a lot of modern games have. As such, I'm often still annoyed by the socio-political context of video games.
Luckily, some titles do offer a way out. For example, I mostly play as the Russians in Arma II. Not that I prefer one nation over another, but at least I won't feel like I'm playing the lead role in Hollywood's latest crappy war flick. So far, I've spent about 50 hours among the virtual Russians I used to shoot all the time. And you know what? They're not so bad after all.
* The protagonists in Halo technically aren't from the USA, but it's blatantly obvious that they were modelled after the US military.
** Arma II also lets you play as the Russians in separate missions, and as anyone you'd like in the sandbox editor, but I'm refering to the main campaign, in which you play as an American.