A recent report in Newsweek’s NewsGeek section has drawn attention to how video games, just like other forms of entertainment, can carry political messages. The article by Andrew Whalen criticises Call of Duty: Modern Warfare for grossly distorting the Highway of Death incident, depicting it as a Russian war crime rather than an American one.
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The real event saw the US military attack a column of retreating Iraqi forces — a column that included Kuwaiti refugees and hostages, the very people the US were supposedly ‘liberating’. In the game this war crime is slightly fictionalised but it’s clear it is the Highway of Death slaughter, and this time it’s the Russian military who violate the Geneva Conventions. As a result, the game has been banned from release in the Russian Federation.
So (having been alerted to this article by the eagle-eyed Max Parry) this seemed like an opportune moment to share with you some of my thoughts and findings about the international censorship of video games, and the Pentagon’s role in the game industry.
The Politics of Video Games
I am not much of a gamer, and the only first-person shooter I’ve ever got into was Goldeneye back in the 1990s. An awesome soundtrack, a tie-in with one of my favourite movies of that decade, a highly intuitive control set-up and a top-notch multiplayer mode had me hooked.
But the notion of continually playing what’s essentially the same game in different settings, killing marginally different brown people each time, holds no appeal to me. For the men in their 30s and 40s who are still playing these games, fantasising about being Rambo, I say grow the fuck up. It’s one thing for adolescents to daydream about macho violence and being an elite fighter, but adults have no such excuses. These games are simply infantile, racist abattoirs.
And they’re really fucking boring.
Shoot, move, repeat. Shoot, move, repeat. You might as well be playing Farmville.
Nonetheless, I am interested in the underlying politics of these games, which almost invariably involve a Western hero (usually a soldier who is white, male and under 40) laying the smack down on some indigenous types, where the only motivation is a Fox News-style cut scene explaining that they’re terrorists or drug dealers or some other designated reprobate in need of extreme prejudice.
In older war games such as the Command and Conquer series the player was able to play all sides — Soviets, NATO, US, UN, China, even jihadi terrorists with WMDs. Not so in most modern war games, where you are given no choice but to fight on the side of the Western, capitalist empire. The notion that war is hell, no matter which side you’re on, has been excised from war-themed games and replaced by pure Western supremacism and righteousness.
(Yes, I know this is the point at which some gamer is shouting ‘what about…?!?!?!’ because there are always counter-examples, but the trend I’m referring to is real)
The Politics and Censorship of Command and Conquer
Despite this multi-sided approach to the politics of war the Command and Conquer series has benefited from Pentagon support, and has been subject to political censorship.
For example, in November 2005 the developers attended an air show at Edwards Air Force Base and went on a Civic Leader Tour arranged by the US Air Force. They USAF also provided them with a copy of their 2025 report so they could ‘include futuristic AF elements in their successful C&C videogame franchise’.
The superiority of their technology is a consistent PR concern for the US military. The implicit message in a huge number of films is that if you can innovate a new technology then you automagically have the right to use it, even to kill people. This is most obvious in Pentagon-supported productions, but it’s an meme that has replicated across much of our screen entertainment.
For example, in Transformers 3 the Army were delighted with the opportunity it represented, with one report noting, ‘It will give us the opportunity to showcase the bravery and values of our Soldiers and the excellent technology of today’s Army to a global audience, in an apolitical blockbuster.’
Numerous other projects from Battle Lab to Jay Leno’s Garage were supported for the same reason — to showcase superior military tech. Part of this is psychological warfare — it makes the domestic population feel they are protected by a hi-tech military, and intimidates potential opponents — and part of it is recruitment, because all this equipment requires a huge number of mechanics, engineers and other support staff. Recruiting from the ‘nerd’ demographic is vital to the military.
In 2003 EA released Command and Conquer: Generals, which allowed players to select either the US, China or the jihadi GLA as their side as they traversed a truly global war. The three different sides had their own unique technology, equipment and super-weapons and demanded the use of different tactics in order to succeed.
But the game was banned outright in China, due to the depiction of the casual use of nuclear weapons by the Chinese faction. Even relatively small tanks can be equipped with nuclear shells, and the storyline has the Chinese nuking everything that stands in its way.
The Global Censorship of Video Games
However, a much more sophisticated form of censorship was applied in Germany, who wanted to remove most of the ‘realistic warlike elements’ from the game. As a consequence the US was renamed the ‘Western Alliance’, China became the ‘Asian Pact’ and the GLA were rebranded too. All the human units were replaced with cyborgs and robots, Baghdad was renamed ‘Twin Sword City’ (the game was released just weeks before the invasion of Iraq in 2003) and all the civilians were removed from the game. Some missions were removed or renamed to avoid parallels with real events, so Germans ended up playing a vastly different version of the same game.
Indeed, there is a law in Germany banning video games that allow you to shoot real people, which has affected several games in the Command and Conquer and Grand Theft Auto franchises. In the German version of GTA III when you shoot civilians there’s no blood, and they don’t drop money for you to collect. Likewise, they removed the ‘rampage’ challenges (where you have to kill a large number of targets in short timespan) because they felt it could inspire spree killings.
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The German censors have also removed swastikas — and even entire playing modes because they contained swastikas — from German releases of major games.
In Japan Fallout 3 was only released after an option to detonate a nuclear bomb was removed from one quest, and a reference to the Fat Man (the bomb used on Nagasaki) was changed. The Japanese censors have also toned down sexual content and nudity in games before granting them access to their market.
The European version of South Park: The Stick of Truth had all references to anal probing deleted before release, while the Australian version of Saints Row IV was only allowed on the market after a mission was removed where the gang members take alien drugs to give them enhanced powers. In the US, Final Fantasy IV had references to Christianity and religious images censored before release.
Given that Germany is the biggest gaming market in Europe and Japan is the third biggest in the world (the US is the biggest), this has just the same ‘upstream’ effect as Chinese censorship of movies has on Hollywood. Developers are disinclined from having to make late changes and edits to their carefully-crafted games, so they start self-censoring to accommodate for the demands of different markets.
Indeed, Nintendo have their own internal censorship policies which saw major changes to games like Lethal Enforcers before they were put on the market. One mission where you shoot drug runners was changed to shooting gun runners, supposedly to avoid glamourising the drug trade, and all references to female criminals were removed from the game.
From the banana/heroin controversy in Final Fantasy Legend II to Saudi Arabia’s fatwa against Pokemon for encouraging polytheism and evolution, video games are just as subject to political and social censorship as any other form of entertainment. Perhaps even more so, because the gaming industry is bigger than Hollywood. It also has some pretty horrific industrial practices and treats a lot of its workers like crap.
The Pentagon’s Censorship of Video Games
An aspect of video game development and censorship that hasn’t received as much attention is the Pentagon’s role in all this. The DOD paid for the development of Spacewar! in 1962, widely considered to be the first computer game.
This was the first step in a long relationship between the US military and the gaming industry, which has included the Marine Corps using a modified version of Doom to train troops, and both the Army and National Guard developing recruitment propaganda games like Guard Force and America’s Army.
Oh, and the Army-funded Institute for Creative Technologies developing games such as Full Spectrum Warrior and Full Spectrum Command for military training purposes and developing a war on terror training simulation for the CIA. Indeed, the US Army University Affiliated Research Center helped create Full Spectrum Warrior but it ended up as a commercial release on Xbox, alongside being used for military training purposes.
When it comes to first-person shooters like the Call of Duty franchise, the producers are especially close with the Pentagon. As a former Call of Duty scriptwriter Dave Anthony explained, they work closely with military advisors to shape and craft the games:
My greatest honour was to consult with Lieut. Col. Oliver North on the story of Black Ops 2. I will never forget the stories he told me about the times he met former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. There are so many small details we could never have known about if it wasn’t for his involvement.
What few journalists and commentators have appreciated is that the same script review process the DOD applies to movies and TV shows that it supports also applies to games. For example, they turned down the developers of Operation Flashpoint 2 because the story pitted the Marine Corps against a ‘Chinese faction’. As documents released by the Marine Corps entertainment liaison office show, they provided no formal support to the game ‘due to anti-China sentiment’.
Along similar lines was an Activision/Blizzard game in 2010 which was due to feature ‘a realistic representation of a soldier in 2075’. But after a meeting in late 2010 the Army realised that the game ‘involves future war with China’, so they stopped cooperating on the project.
As a result, the game was never made — the ultimate in government censorship of the gaming industry.
Cultural Warfare and Computer Games
Following NewsGeek’s reporting and other comments on the new Call of Duty: Modern Warfare release the BBC decided to throw their hat into the ring and do their usual thing of pretending they’re journalists.
Why is CoD Modern Warfare 2019 controversial?
Missions that mirror real-life events may leave some players feeling uncomfortable.
As is so often the case with the BBC’s reporting, it is difficult to explain just how much is wrong with this. But I’ll try.
The most important failing of this report is that the BBC tried to make out that the controversy was over the game depicting a terrorist attack and a mission where a child is involved in combat. Even though the BBC were clearly inspired by NewsGeek’s original reporting, they twisted the facts to avoid the issue of the game rewriting history and depicting a US war crime as a Russian atrocity.
Because the BBC simply cannot admit that anti-Russian propaganda exists.
Because then their audience might realise that the BBC is engaged in anti-Russian propaganda.
So, instead of being honest or having any personal or professional integrity, Marc Cieslak decided to lie to the audience for his report, knowingly and wilfully misleading them in order to maintain the Foreign Office’s desired slant on world events. Once more, a news report on cultural warfare turns out to be a kind of cultural warfare in itself.
Cieslak interviewed Taylor Kurosaki, the ‘Narrative Director’ for Infinity Ward, the developers of Modern Warfare. His response is exactly what you’d expect from a game developer who is isolated from the real world and probably only communicates with other people via Snapchat.
No one asks if a film like Sicario should exist. No one asks if a film like Joker should exist. These are mature stories delving deep into subjects about the human experience. And video games has a way of telling these stories in a way that’s more immersive than linear media.
In reality, films are subject to the exact same cultural critiques that videos games are. People accuse them of inspiring violence, of containing political or social agendas, of being propaganda for Tom, Dick and Harry. It is simply the cultural landscape we live in.
So for Kurosaki to make out like his game is somehow being unfairly targeted is just as misleading as this entire report’s framing of the Modern Warfare issue. His comparison with Joker is especially poorly-chosen because that film was subject to a storm of accusations before anyone had even seen. Allegations that it was incel porn designed to inspire mass shootings at cinemas were recycled for weeks, and even the FBI and US Army issued warnings in the run-up to the premiere.
But rather than actually hold cultural producers to account for rewriting history and covering up a war crime in which hundreds of people were killed, Cieslak offered only softball questions and let this soulless prick spout off on matters he clearly doesn’t understand.
In order to cover up for covering up for a war crime.
Well done BBC, you’ve knocked it out of the park yet again.
But aside from beating up on the BBC for their abject failure to do any real journalism, there is a serious point here. Video games do offer a more immersive, active experience than watching a film does, particularly when we factor in that most gamers are comfortable in their own homes, not trapped in a sweaty cinema full of children with colds and bored people rustling food wrappers.
So developers have an ability to shape the mental patterns, prejudices and beliefs of their audience that is greater than even that of movie and TV producers. You feel like you’re part of the action, your choices have consequences within the world of the game. Offering people digital rewards for being a virtual serial killer is not the sign of a healthy culture on the path to peace.
It’s a yardstick of just how systemically violent and militarised our society has become and while major media outlets such as the BBC continue to lie and mislead their audiences about the powers behind pop culture, the dialogue will remain in this state of arrested development and nothing will change.
Tom Secker is a journalist and author who specialises in government involvement in the entertainment industry. He has been using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain unique government documents on Hollywood since 2014. His most recent book is National Security Cinema, you can find more of his work via his site Spy Culture.