In our conclusion to Kiersey and Neumann’s Battlestar Galatica and International Relations, Peter Henne and I lament the relative lack of interest among cultural-turn international-relations scholars in video games. Our case rests on a comparison of the number of people who have played franchises such as Halo and Mass Effect to those who have watched the re-imagined BSG.
But the downside to neglect isn’t simply about the size of audience and consequent real-world significance. Non-gamers may not know it, but recent years have seen a wave of experimentation in video games driven by the rise of independent developers. Sure, much of the work has been, at best, incremental and, at worst, hackneyed, but the overall trend has pushed gaming into something more recognizable to non-gamers as artistic expression. Continue reading
Last week I purchased a Nintendo handheld (on steep discount) for the express purpose of playing Okamiden. Okami is one of my most favoritist games evah; even though Okamiden is basically more of the same, I’m cool with that.
Yesterday we had to buy off the wee one–we did, in fact, have a pretty terrible day from her perspective–so we offered to purchase her a game to play. That led to Animal Crossing: A New Leaf and a complete loss of custody over the Nintendo. So complete, in fact, that she basically bought it from me. Continue reading
The Internet has slapped down my arrogance. I told myself I wouldn’t write about k-pop, but that post on ‘Kangnam Style’ drove so much traffic to my site and twitter, that here is a response to all the comments. It’s kinda of depressing how my posts on Asian political economy or what-not get little traffic and a lot of yawns, but K-pop brings huge numbers. It’s like those Facebook posts on something you find interesting that no one bothers to look at, but put up a pic of yourself blotto on a beach, and everyone ‘likes’ it.
1. I am not sure K-pop is really ‘family-friendly,’ as one of my commenters argued. I hadn’t really thought about that, but I guess it’s nice to have light, fluffy lyrics instead of gangster rap or Robert Plant screaming that he’s ‘your backdoor man.’ But if you watch the performances and look at the appearance of these ‘bands,’ it is highly sexualized and teasing – and that is obviously far more important the music itself, which just comes from a music machine. These band members can’t play instruments, but they do look like sex symbols and swing around on poles wearing leather boots like strippers. (*sigh* you see why I wanted to avoid writing about k-pop?) Is that what you want the kids watching? What kind of signal does that send?
Video Games as the Fear-Mongering Pop Adjunct of America’s post-9/11 ‘forever wars’
Even tea-partying righties should be pretty shocked at this shameless, exploitative (and wildly inaccurate) manipulation of Americans’ post-9/11 paranoia as a marketing gimmick. And you thought 24 was off the air. Well here’s the video game version, all designed to scare you s—less – for cash. When the Homeland Security Department terrified the country 10 years ago by telling us to buy ducktape and sheetwrap, at least they had public safety goals, however confusedly, in mind. But this pseudodocumentarian ‘they’re-everywhere!-no-one-is-safe!’ crap is just to shill some video game. Bleh.
And Oliver North?! Good lord – the guy violated the appropriations clause, the Logan Act, and who knows how much other statute, and should have been in jail next to Frank Colson. Yet this guy is credible for the (apparently) largest entertainment franchise in the world now? Wow. H/t to Kotaku: “What does this say, then, about the market for a game like Call of Duty? Does Activision really believe its core market is so full of gun-crazy, right-wing types that it feels entirely comfortable employing Oliver North as someone to help sell the game?” Activision’s Modern Warfare series has a well-known, morally dubious (yet best-selling) record of brutality-celebrating, militaristic, war-glorifying gaming, but invoking Oliver North’s pseudo-gravitas for right-wing street cred must be a new low. Is the first-person shooter genre now politicized too? So Sarah Palin’s ‘Real Americans’ blow away commies and terrorists with extreme prejudice, while you wimpy liberals play girlie games like Final Fantasy or something? The red state-blue state divide has come to your Xbox too. How nice; how healthy for democracy. Is it necessary to remind all those Tea Parties who adore the Constitution that North blatantly, repeatedly violated the appropriations clause of said ‘sacred,’ ‘holy’ end-all-be-all document?
At a time when the President is asserting an unprecedented right to kill overseas Americans without Constitutional protections, we really don’t need yet another wildly overhyped, quick-cut, paranoia-inducing threat assessment. Somewhere neocons are smiling, because I guess we all need our own drone now, right? But this stuff is pummeling our democracy and leading to all sorts behavior, like warrantless wiretaps or the Patriot Act, that we’d never tolerate otherwise and about which we will one day be ashamed.
The irony too is how baldly this ‘documentary’ contradicts the actual social science work on war – you know, from people who actually know what the hell they’re talking about, like Pinker, Goldstein, the democratic peace, nuclear peace, Long Peace, or security community theorists. War seems to be becoming less frequent, less cost-beneficial, more hemmed-in with rules and norms, and less general (i.e., not involving all the system’s big players anymore). If there’s one thing just about everybody in IR today seems to agree on, it’s that the US spends way, way more money on defense than it needs to. But I guess there’s no money in a game entitled ‘Threatlessness,‘ so let’s amp up the fear-factor by rolling out the Gordon Liddy of the Reagan administration to freak out the consumer.
More generally, I find it pretty worrisome just how brutal post-9/11 American geopolitical entertainment has become. I don’t mean violent; many movies and games are violent, even graphically so. Rather I am thinking of the unabashed relish for pro-American killing, the zealous bloodlust that’s morally fig-leafed by American patriotism so as to be defensible to the viewer. The same people who cheered for Rick Perry’s talibanic enthusiasm for the death penalty and waterboarding are thrilled to see the gleeful embrace of pro-American torture, mass-killings, and executions in even mainstream, hugely popular franchises like Modern Warfare, 24, or Transformers.
24 constantly found a way to work in torture by the good guys, as if to say that real men, genuinely committed to America, don’t have time for rules and due process. Lawyers are for sissies and liberals; patriots will gladly go over to Cheney’s ‘dark side’ beat the hell out of anyone, violate any law, to defend America. Modern Warfare 2 became globally notorious by requiring the gamer to participate in a mass atrocity (machine-gunning hundreds of civilians). In Battle: Los Angeles, the American hero performed a battlefield vivisection on wounded opponent. In Modern Warfare 3, the protagonists shoot a defenseless, surrendered enemy in the face even after he has cooperated in giving information. Homefrontportrays the execution of parents in front of their screaming child, has the gamer hide under the bodies in a mass grave, and later encourages you not to waste ammunition on enemies on fire after an airstrike. Transformers 3 includes four battlefield executions (because it’s a movie for kids you know) and gives the antagonist the startling, downright revelatory post-9/11 line: ‘We will kill them all in the name of freedom.’ Wow – why not just give Michael Bay a job at some neocon think-tank? EA’s Battlefield 3, in the same year as the US is debating striking Iran, spun up a story of Iranian-sponsored MWD use in Western cities, which then provokes an in-game US invasion of Iran in which the gamer participates. Good lord; Bill Kristol himself could have written that script. And I have no doubt after this paranoid video above that Black Ops 2 will include some gratuitously vicious sequence packaged as ‘defending’ America.
The basic trick in all these the-defense-of-America-requires-cruelty narratives is to structure the story with such extreme bad guys and circumstances that the viewer can morally excuse the American hero for egregious violations of the law or rules of engagement that would otherwise get the cop/soldier/good guy rightfully thrown in jail as a dangerous sociopath. 24’s constant portrayals of torture justified by the wildly unrealistic ticking time-bomb scenario is the most obvious example. So long as Jack Bauer can say he’s trying to save a million people in LA, he’s allowed to do anything – torture, maim, execute civilians, violate due process, steal passwords, etc.
This stuff is tea party nirvana – strong, a—kicking men stand-up for America while liberal sissies at the ACLU worry about lawyers for terrorists. Conveniently the hero’s brutality is shielded/morally excused by some lame narrative fig-leaf about MWDs or alien invasions. But the real point is to show vengeful, post-9/11 killing on behalf of America without feeling guilty about it. This is why it’s terrifying.
So if you wonder why stories about American misbehavior in Afghanistan, like trophy taking or killing squads, get so little attention, consider just how coopted the post-9/11 geopolitical entertainment industry is, constantly presenting America’s opponents as unworthy of any rights, justifiably tortured, and fit to be wiped out with extreme prejudice at all time. Conversely, if you wonder why Apocalypse Now or Platoon are vastly more gripping and engaging, while you can’t even remember the story of last summer Transformers, it’s because in the real world, the moral certainty imparted by the ticking bomb scenario (much less cartoonish alien invasions) almost never happens. Jack Bauer’s 100% certainty in the bomb threat, which justifies his tearing out some Muslim’s fingernails or something, is a narrative figment. Lots of studies of war and intelligence gathering have told us just how much confusion and uncertainty there is. This is the whole reason we have the rules of engagement.
This why Jack Bauer would be in prison for life in the real world, no matter how much the right thinks he should be a role model for GWoT CT. Real world bad guys usually aren’t all wholly unredeemable villains – unlike in the black-and-white, ‘moral clarity,’ tea-party/neo-con dreamworld of Michael Bay, John Milius, Keifer Sutherland, Fox News, and even Peter Jackson. Even after the ’good war,’ de-nazification didn’t lead to mass executions of the Wehrmacht. Someday we’re going to look back on this post-9/11 bloody-minded entertainment with cringe-inducing shame, in the same way we think about Rambo or Red Dawn today.
I don’t want to sound like some boring old dude who doesn’t get this stuff. I like gaming. I waste too much time on it also. I enjoy action movies and FPS’s like Halo; I’ve played Modern Warfare and even Homefront. What unnerves isn’t the thrill of the violence. (That is also morally dubious, of course, but given that it underlines the viewing rush of every action movie ever made, hold that for a moment.) What I find really noticeable and increasingly disturbing is the post-9/11 gleeful depiction of pro-American carnage. 9/11 ‘took the gloves off’ and allowed so many directors – Bay, Milius, Sutherland, the Activision guys – to unleash their chauvinistic, reptilian id, all their inner xenophobia, cruelty, militarism, war-glorifying machismo, and sheer bloody-mindedness. And the Tea-Party loves them for it.
Every time I see one of these movies in Korea (Battleship and Act of Valor just arrived), or whenever my students tell me how great some new shooter game is, I always wonder what foreigners must think of us and this endless diet of jingoistic movie and gaming violence we produce. One movie after another game of over-the-top violence, huge CGI, American flags waving, uniforms and saluting, troopers barking canned, macho dialogue like ‘Marines never give up,’ killing, and then more killing, flirtation with torture. I understand why my students tell me America is an empire; we sure entertain ourselves as if we are, and foreigners can see this stuff. I know the Tea Party couldn’t care less what foreigners think of us – that’s they whole point, right? And I know that the Pentagon approves Hollywood scripts before it lends its hardware, but I can’t imagine that even the brass really wants only this kind of jingoistic, bloodthirsty pap. Who wouldn’t exchange one Apocalypse Now for all these awful, cruel, rah-rah post-9/11 movies and games? But they gross huge amounts, of course; as will Black Ops 2, I have no doubt. And what self-respecting tea-partier wouldn’t want to help Oliver North’s rehabilitation to credibility?
Christian conservative crusaders have targeted Electronic Arts for its inclusion of LGBT relationships in its games, including Bioware’s Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and Old Republic series. A notable feature of all three series is that they allow players to make “evil” choices: killing innocents, betraying comrades, profitting from illicit ventures, and even contributing to genocide.
So, in short, this is apparently worthy of protest:
What do zombies have to do with world politics? How might the Twilight sagas inform and illuminate our way of understanding world politics and changes in the global political economy? In what ways do videogames, the sales of which now exceed those of music CDs and DVDS combined, shape the identities and political understandings of frequent players? Is visual media destined to replace print as the primary source of news and entertainment in advanced industrial societies and how might this affect the construction of meaning of world affairs? As a means of communication readily available to an ever-expanding number of individuals and groups, how might the internet offer paths of resistance to corporate and Western news and entertainment hegemony? How can tango dancing make the world a more peaceful place?
This conference explores the multiple ways of investigating the intersections of world politics and the production, circulation, content, and consumption of various popular cultural forms. Engaging a range of disciplines and practices in the social sciences, humanities and the arts, the conference encourages participants to question what terms such as ‘global,’ ‘popular,’ and ‘culture’ mean both in isolation and when used in conjunction. It asks in what ways and with what effects popular culture has become a series of sites at which political meaning is made, where political contestation takes place, and where political orthodoxy is reproduced and challenged. The conference provides a highly-focused and interdisciplinary environment in which the increasing numbers of scholars that are engaging in culture-related research can present their work and participate in the kind of extended discussion that larger conferences do not permit. The conference aims to provide an intimate forum at which debates about interdisciplinary methods and theoretical approaches can be developed to facilitate debate across disciplines that share interests in world politics and culture. We welcome proposals for performances, screenings, panels, or individual papers, on any aspect of world politics and popular culture.
Building on the precedingfour PCWP conferences, version 5.0 will be held on the campus of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, a small liberal arts institution located in the beautiful Finger Lakes (wine-making) region of western New York state.
Continuing the Duck series on highly improbable dystopian scenarios, here is an advertisement for the not yet released video game, “Homefront.” The story is set in 2027 when a united Korea under the rule of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un invades a severely weakened United States.
Cold War buffs will note that the video game’s narrative is from the writer of the awful 1984 film, “Red Dawn.” Personally, I would have preferred a scenario in line with the eighties board game, “Fortress America,” but that is probably too sophisticated for a first-person shooter style game.
Along with the writer of Red Dawn, the game makers apparently also hired CIA consultants to make a “convincing” fictional plot line. You just gotta love the use of a sound byte from Hillary Clinton in the back story promo video…
The aim of the study is to raise public awareness among developers and publishers of the games, as well as among authorities, educators and the media about virtually committed crimes in computer and videogames, and to engage in a dialogue with game producers and distributors on the idea of incorporating the essential rules of IHL and IHRL into their games which may, in turn, render them more varied, realistic and entertaining.
Do we need international law requiring video game makers to follow international law in their video games? Sure, as long as this resulted in lucrative consulting gigs for law professors….
Well, the report does not actually propose game-makers ‘follow the law’ but rather ‘incorporate the law’ so that, for example, players who commit war crimes incur at least the risk of punishment.
The goal is not to prohibit the games, to make them less violent or to turn them into IHL or IHRL training tools. The message we want to send to developers and distributors of video games, particularly those portraying armed conflict scenarios, is that they should also portray the rules that apply to such conflicts in real life, namely IHRL and IHL.
At any rate, it certain strikes me that this is a candidate issue for a corporate social responsibility campaign. We ask companies to acknowledge and minimize negative externalities of their products with respect to the environment, public safety or health. Why not with video game content as well?
It has been a busy week in world politics, but despite finishing my book I’ve been too squeezed to provide insightful commentary. A bit of geek-blogging, on the other hand, takes far less energy.
While I was trolling around Gamespot this discussion of Halo’s influences caught my eye:
GS: With Halo, you’ve succeeded in creating a unique sci-fi setting and storyline in a rather overcrowded genre. What were the inspirations for the game’s mythology?
Jaime Griesemer: That’s tough. Halo was created by a group of people, all with their own personal flavors and influences, so the end product is the result of all of those influences bouncing around and ricocheting off everything else. If I had to pick a handful of the more obvious ones, though, the Culture books by Iain Banks had a lot of influence on the technological and historical parts of the universe. The Vang by Christopher Rowley was a big inspiration for the flood, and Armor by John Steakley and the original Starship Troopersby Heinlein (not the movie version) gave us lots of good ideas for the Mjolnir armor. For movies, obviously there is a big Aliens influence, but the Bungie team has a very wide range of interests, so everything from old-school Westerns to 1950s sci-fi to obscure Japanese cult horror movies and the latest Michael Bay flick is fair game.
It turns out that at least one website devotes an entire page to The Culture novels’ influence on Halo. That’s nice, insofar as some Halo fans might decide to read the novels as a result.
But also somewhat odd. I guess Halo, like any ringworld, might be likened to a Culture Orbital. Certainly, the designers “quote” Iain Banks’ novels. But the direct influence seems pretty mediated.
Given that our own Patrick Jackson has a book chapter on The Culture, and Excession in particular, in Clyde Wilcox’s forthcoming edited volume on Science Fiction and Politics, it struck me as appropriate to bring the issue to the Duck. Anyone have any thoughts on the matter, on Halo in general, or on The Culture and world politics?
PS: Patrick would never write this on the Duck, but Banks told him that his essay was one of the best commentaries he’d ever read on The Culture novels.
Dan Drezner reveals that he was (is?) a Civilization addict:
Occasionally, despite my mental efforts, one of these activities sneaks it’s way through my defenses. I’m convinced that had I not gotten hooked on Sid Meier’s Civilization game, I’d have another article somewhere on my cv. [What about blogging?–ed. A more complex answer — I’d probably have another article or two, but the articles on outsourcing and blogging would not be there either.]
Without a doubt, Europa Universalis II cost me more hours in lost productivity than any other computer game. I warn all International Relations scholars who are both interested in historical world politics and have a gaming bent to keep far, far away from it.
Good simulation of diplomatic parameters, balancing behavior, the chronic instability of early modern states, trade competition, religious dynamics, and lots of opportunity to create historical counterfactuals (so what might have happened if the French Crown had converted to Calvinism anyway? If China had turned towards outward exploration? If the Eastern Roman Empire survived and turned the tide against the Turks?). In sum, a nightmare for an International Relations nerd.
For me, it was like “playing” my dissertation. If a dissertation could be a really, really fun game.