Digital Video Games and International Interactions

10 January 2014, 0647 EST

It has been an interesting week, I have been at a small conference in the US on cyber security and the question frequently asked is what are you working on?  I think the assumption was that I would reply with something in the realm of cyber security, but that would be too clichéd for me.  This week my research focus has been video games (we prefer to use the digital games since it encompasses all forms of the gaming industry).images

Digital games have surpassed movies as the most profitable dimension of the entertainment industry.  Due to this shift, an interesting question is if there are international relations implications for this development.  Along with my co-author Phillip Habel, we argue that there are some key considerations that can be examined by focusing on games as a transmission and framing device for enemy images.  Our paper for the Southern Political Science Association investigates enemy images in digital games.  To this end, we coded 37 first person shooters (FPS) from 2001 to 2013 along many dimensions to investigate this question (sorry, we did not code Duck Hunt).

While still a work in progress, I need to code a few more games, we are interested in feedback as this project develops. (Also plan on adding codes for the nationality of the developer of the game)

The results to the project demonstrate some interesting trends.  Of the 37 games coded, the US represents the protagonist 20 times and the UK 1.  Genetic and generic humans are represented 16 times.  There is a remarkable lack of diversity in the gaming industry.  While the West is the main consumer of games, there is a lack of imagination in who is seen as the main actor in such games.

North Korea and China, nation-states that might be considered more pressing and relevant rivals to the West only show up as enemies in games once each.  On the other hand, Russia shows up as the enemy 11 times.  Either as a future Russian Federation or Ultra Russian nationalists, the most prevalent outcome for an enemy is the Russian context.   Terrorists likewise might be considered the most promising enemy in digital games, yet they still are not as prevalent as one might think appearing seven times, mostly in various Tom Clancy series.  Tom Clancy series also tend to use Latin American terrorists rather than Middle Eastern.  Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Serbia do not appear as enemies at all, but Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan do sometimes appear as locations in campaign modes of some games.  Historical enemies, such as World War II battles, also appear often (yes, I did just want to have an excuse to post riod-Hitler with machine guns). hitler2

One might also think that the most successful games (I only coded games with more than 1.5 or 2 million in sales) might be off world alien adventures such as Halo or what I term monster games like Resident Evil and Left 4 Dead, but we do not see very many of these games represented based on sales.  Only eight games feature aliens and six feature monsters.  This might change with the success of Walking Dead the TV show and game, yet we don’t see this working so far in the FPS world (we did not code third person viewpoint shooters like Grand Theft Auto).

There are various reasons for these results, but I am interested in hearing what the public might think of these outcomes.  The “Russia” result is likely because they are ongoing rivals with the US, it is hard to shake Cold War images, and the fact that China represents a large market for video games and other entertainment forms that is best not annoyed (see my book on Tibet and China for similar themes).  The reason we see few games covering terrorism is likely because these fights might hit too close to home and lose the element of fun important in games.  Medal of Honor Warfighter was a huge failure for this reason, killing the entire franchise.

Regardless of the reasons behind these findings, video games represent an interesting avenue of research.  They certainly can be transmission modes for ideas.  This is not to say that games will make people kill, but who the enemy is in these popular games tells us about who we fear, what we value, and the future of international interactions.  I look forward to comments on these ideas and what others might do in this area of research.

Here is a draft of the paper if you would like to read the whole thing and see the tables.