Game Security Part 1: Terror
By Andy Johnson
As videogames continue to rapidly emerge as a major entertainment medium, increasing year on year in their profitability and cultural scope, games are also becoming an increasingly powerful tool for the presentation and dissemination of ideas and messages. Detractors of the gaming experience have long claimed that games do not put forth any ideas at all, labelling the medium as one which thrives on cheap, meaningless thrills. To some, games are regarded as a sort of cultural pariah, a concept which whilst perhaps not explicitly damaging, could be filed alongside taboo media like pornography, which has long been derided for its lack of what is often called “propositional content”.
The truth, obvious to many, is that despite all the hyperbole of supposedly orgiastic murder simulators and so on, games depict a massive variety of situations through a wide range of diverse gameplay mechanics. Inescapably, any media communicates messages about the concepts it portrays, whether or not those messages are deliberate or consciously delivered. Videogames are no exception – but this article is not designed as a repeat of the endlessly ongoing videogame violence argument being conducted both in the mainstream and niche press. Here, we will look at the variety of perspectives games have given us on issues and situations relating to this millennium’s foremost hot topic so far: terrorism.
Whatever we may be led to believe by the so-called “War on Terror”, terrorism as a tactic is not new. The attacks on New York City and elsewhere in September 2001 might be said to have kick-started a new era of political/religious violence, but the idea of using non-military assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, and so on to try to effect political change dates back hundreds of years at the least. Similarly, the depiction of terror in videogames is not a post-9/11 phenomenon, even if it can be said to have grown in popularity since that time. From Counter-Strike to Soldier of Fortune, terrorists have long been among the lesser pantheon of classic videogame antagonists, even if their unconventional real-life habits made them less fashionable in games than Nazis, Soviets, zombies, aliens, or oppressive space-regimes. With that in mind, it might seem easy to come to a conclusion about terrorism in games – it’s just bad, you might argue, a convenient exponent of violence to be used as the bad guy in games which try to create a modern-day, grim atmosphere. There’s no way a games developer would create a game in which the player could commit acts of terrorist atrocity, is there? They just wouldn’t sell, up against all those depictions of good old-fashioned heroism!
But how many among those of us who played Grand Theft Auto 2 rigged remote explosives to stolen cars and detonated them next to commuter trains as they pulled up at stations? I certainly did, and you could argue that it’s entirely natural of us to push the game’s constraints in this way, especially when the GTA series has always thrived on urban mayhem – the chief currency of terror. Alternatively, you might disregard that example as a piece of unscripted player action discouraged by the game itself. But if we think more deeply about definitions of terrorism, we can find other, more thought-provoking examples. What about Counter-Strike? A seasoned player of that game, like myself, has planted hundreds if not thousands of bombs in (admittedly curiously deserted) civilian locations without a second thought – should we be worried about this disconnection between such acts and their effects? I would confidently say the answer is no, but it is an interesting thought nonetheless. Before long, the terrorists in CS cease to be terrorists; they are just another faceless team, given life only by the players who inhabit their polygons. Ever played a Star Wars game? You will have fought for the rebel alliance, clearly a terrorist organisation to some ways of thinking:
We ought to remind ourselves that Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and even those fuzzy little Ewoks were undoubtedly terrorists, although of course the story is not told in that way. Skywalker and his alliance friends called themselves ‘freedom fighters’ and characterize the Empire as the ‘dark side’ but really the Imperial forces were simply the powerful (and corrupt) trying to impose their system of government. [...] Star Wars’ feel good factor’ is much diminished if we tell a different story and instead characterize the Empire’s stormtroopers as counter-insurgency forces engaged in their own war on terror.
Terrorism: The New World War
Lloyd Pettiford and David Harding, 2003
By realising that the way a story is told in any medium – whether it be a Star Wars film or a Star Wars game or any other game – fundamentally changes the way we define the concepts at work inside it, we begin to realise the enormous amount of “propositional content” which games actually display to us each time we fire one up. The messages are magnified when they deal directly with current events – most famous for this is the controversial Kuma\War series. Developed by Kuma Reality Games, these tactical shooters have released dozens of free missions directly based on anti-terror operations in the Middle East, especially Iraq. The games have been episodically, independently, and freely released by Kuma themselves – possibly reflecting the non-commercial nature of the titles, which are both fairly crude in construction and controversial for their perceived insensitivity and tastelessness. But like all games, they contain propositional content, they convey something, betray a position about the places, peoples, forces and events they depict. Arguably, the games depict a strongly pro-western, pro-democratic bias, which in some respects could be said to prop up the legitimacy and necessity of the 2003 Iraq invasion. Coalition troops are the good guys, comprising tight squads of named soldiers, whilst Iraqi troops and insurgents are nameless hordes, just as enemies almost always are in any game.
But just as Star Wars can conceivably be turned on its head and turned into a commentary on terrorism, the portrayal of events in the Middle East as a conflict between the forces of “good” and unquestionable “evil” in the form of terrorism can also be challenged. Occasionally the gaming media has drawn the attention of its readers to obscure, low-budget games developed in the Middle East which allows the player to struggle against Israeli occupation in Gaza, for example.
Terrorism is a complex term which has all too often been used as a weapon of the powerful against the weak. More often than not, games reinforce the idea that terrorism is evil and its opponents are good, but this definition isn’t wholly satisfactory because in the real world, we know (or ought to know) it’s not always so clear-cut. The definitions and uses of the term are far too complex and politically loaded to go into here, but it is not as simple a term as we are sometimes led to believe. Arguably, gaming has thrived on a simplistic, good and evil view of the world, because it is more conducive to entertainment; but as time goes on, perhaps we should hope that lines will be blurred and games will be able to explore rather more grey areas than they have up to now, without sacrificing their entertainment value. But even though games are currently rather shallow in their approach to complex concepts like terror, it would be foolish to deny their potential to change the way we think about such things. Videogames are on the ascendance as a form of human expression. As they continue to grow, they will increasingly look to the world around us for inspiration. Hopefully they can make a challenging, thoughtful contribution, as the “war on terror” makes us look inward and examine the most central tenets of our society.
This is the first in a series of articles about security and related politics within videogames. Keep your eyes peeled for future instalments.