video games, military culture and new narratives of war
When I was 19, in the autumn of 1918, I was private Harvey Nottoway, serving in Kitchener’s Army on the Western Front in France. In my final, desperate moments, squatting beneath a wall in the mud, I reloaded my rifle, aimed down the sights and fired until the “ping” of the bolt told me I was out of ammunition and the knife at my throat told me I was out of time.
In 1918, I was also machine gunner Dean Stevenson, ordered to defend the ruins of a village church, before it was engulfed in flame. I was Paul McClaren, a Lewis gunner in a Mark IV tank, when it was annihilated by a German field gun. I was Wyeth Wright and then Needham Jackson. Through their eyes, I was all of them and none.
In the opening sequence of Electronic Arts’ blockbuster game Battlefield I – released in 2016 to coincide with the centenary of the First World War – I am told I am not expected to survive. It feels real, but in spite of the bullets and the mud, Battlefield I is not war, merely a convincing replica. Everyone is a hero, nobody really dies. My Lee-Enfield rifle bucks and jams and spits fire, but the game does not simulate the tap of hard tack on billy tin, or the taste of the weevils inside.
Yet the relationship of video games to history, politics and modern military cultures is no mere child’s play. Battlefield I is making a point, brutal and violent and pornographic though it is. That point is that in video games, enactment is akin to remembrance.
These links are deeply embedded in contemporary visual culture and their operations can be observed and exploited. Take, for example, a slick 2014 advertisement for Royal Australian Air Force pilots, viewed over 430,000 times on the RAAF’s official YouTube channel, as well as broadcast widely on TV.
In it, graphic overlays mimicking the heads-up display (HUD) of a fighter jet augment scenes of young Australian gamers playing Xbox and chess, and pursuing each other in go-karts like dogfighting aces. The tagline? Take your skills up a notch.
There is a young but sophisticated history of the use of video games as military recruitment and training tools, and much has been written about the success of pioneering games such as America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior as both PR platforms and commercial enterprises. Literacy and education historian Corey Mead’s book War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict traces the methods by which modern soldiers are trained through interactive media.
The Australian Defence Force website alone lists an impressive array of games with titles such as Rise & Command, Army Artillery, Strike Fighter and Secure the Deck, inviting gamers to “battle online against your opponents in this Army Artillery warfare game”.
“Could you airdrop people from a swinging rope attached to your Seahawk helicopter?” it asks. Another, less exciting, option: “Learn how to tie Navy knots, the proper way”. Clearly, there is utility in gamifying life in the military.
Let’s put aside for the moment the awkward ethics of recruiting through the enculturation of play-based violence. While the relationship of war gaming to violent behaviour is still yet to be fully understood, we know that games and war orbit each other in a relatively predictable cosmology, each supporting the other.
But what happens when the system turns inward, when the physics of this cosmology becomes the subject of critical enquiry by both artists taking games as their medium, and gamers themselves forging narratives through play? How can the network of war and games be gamed?
Playing serious games
This network is the subject of the late German filmic essayist Harun Farocki’s series Serious Games (2009-10): four video works that explore the relationship between game simulation, combat training and traumatic reconciliation. Farocki’s works are often built from the stuff of surveillance – tapes, archival materials – and real-life footage of soldiers being trained using video game technology.
Serious Games was mostly filmed at Marine Corps Base 29 Palms in California in 2009. Between them, the first three works unveil a narrative that describes the trajectory of a soldier’s tour of duty. The footage can barely be described as aesthetic; the images are documentary, raw, somehow staid in spite of the spectacle of their subject. Farocki describes his material as “operative images” not intended for individual consumption out of context.
In Serious Games I: Watson is Down, on one side of the screen we see the crew of a Humvee at laptops as they play out a training mission in digitised Afghanistan. On the other side, we see their actions in the virtual world. An instructor simulates insurgents and IEDs and, at one point, shoots one of the men dead. They are being taught how to respond in real life.