Newsbud Exclusive: Nick Robinson on Videogames & the Military Entertainment Complex

A conversation with an expert on military videogames

Nick Robinson is an Associate Professor in Politics and International Studies/Videogames research at the University of Leeds, UK. He has published widely in journals such as Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Perspectives on Politics, Political Studies, JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, the Political Quarterly and Critical Studies on Security. He is author of a couple of books and is presently working on a book for the Popular Culture and World Politics book series (Routledge) entitled Videogames, Popular Culture and World Politics. He is also presently working as part of an international research team on a four-year Framework Grant from the Swedish Research Council as part of its programme, ‘The Digitized Society: Past, Present, and Future’. Their project, ‘Militarization 2.0: Militarization’s Social Media Footprint Through a Gendered Lens’, involves project partners from Sweden, the UK and Germany.

In ‘Videogames, persuasion and the War on Terror: Escaping or embedding the military–entertainment complex?’, published in Political Studies, Nick wrote about how games can be a force for both social stability and social change. The article has examined the different ways in which games have impacted upon the militarisation of society. It argued that the pervasive nature of the military–entertainment complex from the 1980s onwards has created a cycle whereby militarisation has affected the content of games, and at the same time that games have aided in the militarisation of society. It also examined the way in which games have increasingly been employed to challenge creeping militarisation, showing how games are being used as sites of activism (through virtual protest and modifications to the game world) and as forms of political activism (with the procedural powers of games being exploited in order to produce games that challenge the dominant ideological position of the West).

In another one of his articles, Militarism and opposition in the living room: the case of military videogames, published in Critical Studies on Security, Nick explores “the importance of videogames and their associated promotional media for both militarism and the resulting opposition. It focuses on the games Medal of Honor and Medal of Honor Warfighter – two mainstream, commercially successful military combat games which purport to offer an ‘authentic’ experience of post 9/11 military action to the player – to develop a framework to explore the role of videogames in this area. In terms of the military industrial and military entertainment complex, it shows the close association between the game developers and the military, with the military providing consultancy services, access to military hardware and openly celebrating their mutual associations.

“These associations take on an important spatial dimension with the developers and weapons makers producing promotional materials which literally show both parties ‘enjoying one another’s company ’ in the same physical space; games also ‘transport the player’ into the virtual battlefield and allow them to embody the soldier. Finally, gendered militarism is shown in the gameplay and narratives within these games, alongside their associated promotional materials, all of which place significant emphasis on the links between militaristic values and masculinity. In both games, the celebration of militarism was highly controversial, prompting heated debate and active opposition – albeit varying in the two cases – from the military, politicians and players on the appropriateness of using videogames for militaristic entertainment. This suggests that there are limits to society’s acquiescence in militarism and a continuing capacity to critique militaristic popular culture.”

I got the chance to speak with Dr. Robinson, and here’s the full conversation that we had about videogames, popular culture, warfare, virtual reality, political messages, and Mario Kart.

Interview with Nick Robinson

Newsbud: Was there a catalyst that set you off on this career path of research, or was it always your calling?

Nick Robinson: There’s a lot of exploring what might, initially appear to be blind alleys, some guesswork and an element of chance in what I do, but also something which is about a passion that I’ve always had. I’ve always been passionate about playing videogames, and I also loved computers. When I was a small child, I remember having a paper-round to save the money up to buy home computers in those days, in which you had a tape cassette and you shoved them in, things like a Commodore 64. The other thing is what happened, it’s a really strange situation, I was on sabbatical leave a few years ago, and I had a contract for a book, and to cut a long story short, things got delayed and I was sitting there thinking: What should I do with this book project? And I thought, I wonder if there’s anything interesting politically about videogames? I wrote an article, ‘Videogames, Persuasion and the War on Terror: Escaping or Embedding the Military-Entertainment Complex?’ which was published in the journal Political Studies. It was from that kind of segue, that bit of luck combined with that desire to see if there was anything interesting politically in videogames which was the catalyst for moving into that field.

Newsbud: If a prominent game-developing studio enlisted your assistance for designing a game of your choice, with unlimited funding and full commitment to bring your vision to reality, what would the game be like? Would it be complementary of the work you have been doing examining videogame culture and militarism, or something completely different?

NR: What a great question! There was a time – just a few years ago - when that question would’ve been quite easy to answer because the videogames medium wasn’t doing very many interesting things. But in the last few years games have become so much more interesting and so that’s a really hard question to answer. We now have something like This War of Mine, which to me is an extraordinary game in a lot of ways because it suddenly makes us look at war in a completely different way. Now that’s the kind of thing I would’ve wanted to have done, something that gives us an empathetic connection to a victim of warfare in that context. I’ve played Her Story as well recently and it was just incredible. People are now making games that don’t require you to be a gamer, and that is the absolute game-changer. I suppose for me it would be about trying to go about creating the next Spec Ops: The Line, a game which uses the idea of shooting in a subversive fashion to make the player reflect back on themselves and their actions within the game.

There was a campaign by the Red Cross a couple of years ago that talked about creating a game centered around the ethical decisions a soldier makes on the battlefield, which would be really interesting, wouldn’t it? One of the fascinating things about games is that people keep saying “Oh you can’t make games of a certain sort because people won’t want to play them.” I just don’t think that’s true, actually. This War of Mine is not a lot of fun to play, it’s quite a grim game, however people are playing it in huge numbers. It comes from a small studio, and they’ve become incredibly successful through a game which is not instinctively great fun.

If you can break the idea that videogames are games and that they have to be fun, then we can start to give the medium the proper respect that it deserves. Videogames are more like interactive forms of art – yes they can be entertaining, but they can also be challenging and thought provoking. It’s a disservice also to the player if you don’t treat them with a considerable degree of respect.

Something about me: I’m 46 years of age, I’ve been engaging with this medium since I was about 12, so that’s a lot of years. I’m not the same person, now I love Mario, don’t get me wrong - but I also want to play something that makes me go, wow, that can evoke real emotional responses, and that for me within a game, because it’s interactive, is massively more powerful than the effect of a film, for example.

Newsbud: I can definitely see videogames having the potential to be more emotionally moving than a film. One example would be the game Mario Kart: anyone who has hit a banana on the racetracks, spun out of control, and lost the race, can sympathize with this!

NR: I’ve got some nephews and we will play Mario Kart in my house when they come around. They’ll cry when they hit the banana.

Newsbud: Yes, the bananas are pretty brutal, they can quickly derail a race.

NR: Particularly when you’re in the front, there’s nothing more heartbreaking, you can see the line coming towards you and then suddenly you get overtaken by everyone flying past you!

Newsbud: During your gameplay efforts throughout your time investigating certain games with a military edge, did you ever find yourself so immersed in a game that you forgot you were conducting research? Did you have to "try" for the full rhetorical effect to kick in, and allow the game to capture your imagination, 'plugging yourself in' so to speak to simulate how, for example, an American player might feel in response to it?

NR: I do play a lot of games specifically for research purposes, but I also frequently play games for the pure pleasure of playing them. I teach a module called Videogames: Politics, Society, and Culture at the University of Leeds which brings research and teaching together and here the students are constantly bringing incredible games to my attention. But also when you play for fund I’ll often see things when I’m not expecting them but often I am glad that I can play just for pleasure. Not all research, thankfully!

Newsbud: It’s a great stress reliever.

NR: Yes, and/or stress adder, if you keep failing at something, it adds trauma!

Newsbud: That is true, if you’re a very competitive player, it raises your blood pressure up a bit.

NR: About questions of difficulty, games like the Dark Souls series, Bloodborne, I’ve actually avoided those because everybody I know who’s played them has told me they’ve been so stressful to play, and I haven’t the time or the emotional capacity to suffer for that length of time to win, so I just leave those and play something easier and more palatable like Uncharted!

In response to the ‘plugging yourself in’ question, I’m struck by the work by a man named Alexander R. Galloway who wrote some interesting work in which he discussed notions of perspective. Can I embody somebody else? Firstly, I think we need to be very careful about assuming that there would be something like ‘an American player’ because people in the US are so varied. Looking, for example, at something as simple as the recent American election result, and what it throws up to me is that there isn’t any such thing as an American perspective -- there are lots of American perspectives. I can imagine playing a videogame with people in the U.S. who were significantly more liberal than me, and presumably, people who are more conservative than me, and in the same way I would expect to find the same kinds of varied viewpoints within the UK context and elsewhere.

What interests me about games, in what lies partly behind your question about how an American player might respond, is who is represented in those games and who aren’t being represented?. If I’m playing as a gruff, Scottish bloke in the Call of Duty series, does it make me feel more of an affinity with that person given that I am from the UK, than if I’m playing as an American in the context of those games? There are people who I never get to play as, right? I can’t think of a single example where I would play as somebody from the Middle East in a single player story mode fighting against the West, in a Western released military shooter game. That’s an interesting political question: why are certain people are not represented in these fights?

Most single player games, particularly, have a narrative in them, and they have a voice actor in that narrative, so that voice actor is either represented in the third person, like in the Mass Effect series or Uncharted or Tomb Raider, or, very rarely, in war games. Spec Ops: The Line is quite unusual because it’s a third person war game. Normally, of course, it’s first person. So we look through the eyes of the person we play, and the only time we hear them is when they speak and more often than not, they don’t speak at all. When they do speak, we can see what they say with the subtitles turned on, but when we hear them speak, they speak with a particular accent. In Call of Duty, there’s more of a global perspective. You fight as a Russian, or a Scottish SAS, or an American, so there’s a sort of special relationship between realpolitiks which is being played out in the representations in these games.

Newsbud: In Grand Theft Auto IV, the main character is an Eastern European named Niko Bellic who has to become a very violent individual in order to survive in ‘Liberty City’ which consists of four boroughs, based on four of the boroughs of New York City. Is this an example of realpolitiks showing up in a game, popular geopolitics reflected in the portrayal of Eurasian immigrants?

NR: If we’re talking specifically about GTA4, and if we think back to the story, Niko Bellic arrives on a boat. I think he’s a Serbian probably, it’s not totally clear, but he has a particular relationship to conflict. He comes to the U.S. and stays with his nephew Roman, who is a taxi driver. Roman very quickly makes it clear that whatever Niko was told about America is not true - that the dream he was sold when he got on that boat wasn’t the reality he was confronting when he arrives. One of the ways this can be interpreted is as a critique of Russia: there’s a lot stereotyping in it and so forth, Russian gangsters etc., or (and this is my own view) it can be seen as a satire which asks a series of questions about the American Dream. Here comes the immigrant who’s promised the world by America and when he arrives the only way he can survive in that system is through massive violence because the system is stacked against him. In that context, his identity as an outsider is integral to the story.

Until the fifth game in the GTA series, with three main characters, they always used minority figures in different kinds of ways to make those kinds of points, if you see the game as a satire, which I personally do. The new one is interesting because you’ve got these three different characters, causing the relationship to what the message of the game is to become much more ambigious. In GTA 5, you have this traveller/slightly sociopathic hillbilly character, then you have Michael, the slightly dysfunctional guy from Hollywood Hills, and Franklin, an African American, the most rational, sensible, and normal of all three in his own way.

The GTA games are interesting because they are the one game, historically, that have dealt with different racial perspectives, so placing the player in these different racial roles which is still quite rare in the videogame medium, especially for a game as successful as that series is commercially. The numbers that series does is just off the charts.

Newsbud: America's Army, a first-person shooter game published in 2002 by the U.S. Army, representing the first large-scale use of game technology by the U.S. government as a platform for strategic communication and the first use of game technology in support of U.S. Army recruiting. It has been described as an extension of the military entertainment complex or militainment. When a player is killed in the game, blood isn’t shown.

NR: There’s been a lot of research on America’s Army, and it’s fair to say that a lot of it is very critical of it. For two reasons: the sanitization question, and the second concern is that it’s a game that’s playable by young people, so the age rating on the game is lower than is the norm. The average war game in America is rated mature. The question is, should the Department of Defense be producing a videogame which is freely available and targeted at young people? They explicitly make a point that they wanted to have the absence of blood so that young people can play the game. It is about marketing, it is about recruiting people, it is about getting people interested in the U.S. military.

There is something particular about the idea that the game itself is explicitly playable by people under a certain age, which is the ethically problematic issue. So if the blood came in, the short answer is, the age rating would have to go up. Now that raises another question, doesn’t it? In my feeling, generally about war, is it’s less about the blood, and it’s more about ensuring the player is at least in a position to think and be conscious of the ethical questions they are engaging in when they fight in that war, which is one of the reasons I’m worried about a lot of young people playing games such as Call of Duty or Battlefield. It’s not because I’m bothered about the violence, it’s because I’d like them to have at least thought a little bit about what it means to get involved in fighting a war against real people, often – a war which is actually going on outside their own windows, in reality. I wonder about how ethically sophisticated people are when they’re very young, because we know a lot of people are playing huge numbers of videogames under the age rating. We know that to be a truism.

Newsbud: Have you noticed any difference between war games in the U.S. and the UK?

NR: The most important question we’ve got to ask as an academic, in a critically reflexive way, and I don’t think many people do this, is does it matter if lots and lots of people are playing online war? The assumption of most academic writing is that is a real problem. It’s dangerous, it’s desensitizing people, it’s predisposing them to violence. I would actually start in a different position with the online play. I think a lot of that is like team sport, so for me the fact that people are shooting may not be much different from playing a sport, like American football.

We ought to investigate quite seriously and critically whether this is a serious problem, because there are presently strong assumptions that it might be. Much of the existing work comes from psychological research on the relationships between screen-related violence and what it might means to be committing that violence. The other question which we’ve never looked at - which is probably more important in many ways – comes explicitly out of playing offline. When you play the story mode, does it change my perceptions of, for example, the Middle East, if I play a lot of games which involve me killing people in the Middle East? Now that’s nothing to do with violence; that has to do with my attitude, or my predispositions towards another place. Do I associate that place with lawlessness, dysfunctionality, and violence? Do I associate it with a need to control it and dominate it?

If it is the case that players tend to be more persuaded by those kinds of positions, that is really serious, more serious than violence, from my perspective, because then what that means is that already we live in a world where we’re being showered by misinformation, and if videogames are contributing to that, then we should have a very serious ethical and moral conversation about what it is that we’re doing when we’re going into a place like the Middle East and killing people. From my knowledge, that series of questions, has never been asked systematically – in fact, it’s not really been asked at all.

Newsbud: Can you talk about the military entertainment complex and what you’ve found out about it?

NR: There’s some really great work by people like Henry Lowood and Tim Lenoir, and a fantastic book called The Complex by Nick Turse. What they’ve done is looked at and actually tried to start to map it. Nick Turse’s work is quite contemporary, but what’s striking about the videogame sector, is that there’s always more that we can do. The videogames industry is very interesting and quite paradoxical, because on the one hand, it’s very open about the relationships that it has to the military. For example, I’ve written an article in Critical Studies on Security [which you mention above] where I talked about the games Medal of Honor & Medal of Honor: Warfighter, and what was crucial to both those games and their commercial success was this explicit advertising of the military relationship. The military industrial complex, or the military entertainment complex, was laid bare as part of the advertising. They were saying, “We’ve got these weapons associations, we’ve got these relationships with military equipment makers, and we’ve got all these consultants working with us on this game, this is an authentic game!” That all came from that.

What’s strange is that’s common in the videogames industry. Celebrating those relationships is an important part of what the industry does. Normally the military is hiding the MIC from the public, and yet the videogames industry celebrates it. That has led to one of the things I was trying to explore in that recent work, which is some serious backlashes. A lot of gamers are quite uncomfortable, actually, with the idea of an advertising campaign associated with a game where I can then click on a link and buy a sniper rifle or something like that, which is what happened in the Medal of Honor: Warfighter campaign. I think it’s one thing to say we’ve got the real equipment in this game, and there’s quite another thing to say, “Oh, by the way, here’s the link and you can go and buy this thing!” Many players were really unhappy with those direct associations.

What’s even more interesting is another point: we’ve now moved into a really fascinating period in videogame war; the three big games that have come out in the last month: Titanfall 2, set in the future, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, set in the future, Battlefield 1: set during WWI (i.e. the real past). Suddenly, this ethical minefield where they’re dealing with real consultants, using real weapons, fighting in real wars - has been vacated. I wonder a little bit about whether there could be two reasons for this: one is we might have all got bored of shooting the same old people in the same old places. That’s possible, so we go into space war and we go into the past, or maybe the developers are sitting there thinking, “These wars which are happening around us in ‘reality’ are not working out the way we thought that they were gonna work out.”

The war on terror, which was a ‘clean’ war, ethically, as far as it was framed by George W. Bush in the first place. It was framed as Them against us, as simple and easy, it’s like WW2 and all that. Yet now, the conflicts in 2016 appear to be anything like that and maybe videogames developers are picking up on this. If in reality, politically we are saying that this is a mess and we don’t know how, politically, to extricate ourselves from these wars. So now, in entertainment terms, we have a very complicated minefield, and as a result of that, the desire to engage in ‘real war’ seems to have declined and so there is less of this other problem with the military industrial complex because developers are not as explicitly celebrating working with the military.

The kind of work other scholars have done where they literally started to track this complex in granular detail - we really need to continue doing that. We might also want to look into the security industrial or security entertainment complex, which relates to the relationship with, for example, when you make a TV program like Homeland: how much advice and work are they doing with the CIA when they make that program? Is there actual behind the scenes collaboration, a kind of complicit relationship going on when a program like The West Wing is made with anyone from the security or military complexes? We know The West Wing was watched by people within the US presidential team in the U.S., and it was reported that certain themes were run past the American public through that program, and if that’s the case, those kinds of things need much more systematic exposure.

My last comment on this is that Hollywood has moved into the superhero genre, and there’s a lot of military equipment being depicted and used in those films - in Iron Man, particularly. Clearly, again the entertainment sector is being well served by the military in a kind of bad-ass way; this stuff is really cool. We need more of this granular investigatory work where people start to look into it further, because there are questions that come out of it that are important.

Newsbud: You offered three examples of mainstream military shooter games that specifically engage with the military industrial complex, but you note that whether these games offer a critique of the military industrial complex or affirm its dominance is a subjective judgement.

The plot of Splinter Cell: Conviction reveals that a private military contractor is working alongside forces within an organization to overthrow the liberal tendencies of the President who aims to downscale American militarism.

The game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 contains a similar narrative, with the end of the game revealing that a conspiracy of convenience between an American military general (who wishes to maintain the military capabilities of the US) and a Russian ultranationalist (who is similarly motivated to enhance/maintain the military credibility of Russia) prompted the Russian invasion of the USA. Both these individuals are seen as products of the Cold War, with an overwhelming desire to maintain the military capabilities of their respective nations, whose actions lead to all out global war.

The game Army of Two places the player in the role of one of two former military personnel who work for a Private Military and Security Corporation, ‘Security and Strategy Corporation’ (SSC), undertaking assassination operations as paid mercenaries. Early missions in the game appear to conform to a typical post 9/11 narrative arc with the player engaged in missions in Afghanistan and Iraq to kill terrorists who have control of WMD (Afghanistan) and who have taken US army hostages (Iraq). As the game unfolds, however, it becomes clear that the Middle Eastern terrorists are actually collaborating with SSC who stand to gain considerable political and economic power from proposals to privatise the US military. The two men thus become involved in direct conflict with their employers as they reveal the conspiracy and ultimately kill the corporate conspirators.

How did you feel when you came upon these storylines, and did they surprise you?

NR: The thing that really surprised me is that nobody else noticed it, because all the other academic literature (I’m not trying to big myself up here) often criticize these kind of games. The point I was trying to make is that they are ambiguous. If we think back to the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 example, and indeed the more recent Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, what do we make of that game? On the one hand, yes, it’s a military shooter, you’re using lots of equipment and so forth, but actually the enemy proves be malevolent forces within the U.S. government, and so what do we make of that?

The reason I said it was a subjective judgement is because the question becomes, “How powerfully does that message resonate beyond the shooting given that in the majority of the game you are shooting Russian enemies, which is the predominant narrative of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 into Modern Warfare 3? Or does that crucial line where the actual enemy is exposed in that scene, right at the very end of the game in quite dramatic fashion - is that crucial to the message that the player picks up?”

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I would say that most military videogames are more ambiguous and artistically interesting than most people give them credit for. They’re invariably seen in very crude ways, as something that celebrates American military might against an enemy who’s morally defined in a particular way. In fact, the point that’s coming out of those three examples is that it’s much more complicated than that.

Newsbud: You also find in those games a sense of beauty and the aesthetic, such as eye-catching landscapes or tranquil environments before you enter a battle zone, or even while you are in a firefight, you are shooting at trees, rivers of water, or through green vegetation.

NR: They’re quite fleeting aren’t they? They are morally removed from the player. Thinking about Call of Duty: Ghosts, at the beginning of the game there is a father and son (I think) going for a walk, sharing a casual conversation, when suddenly it goes to ‘hell in a handbasket’, and the countryside gets destroyed. When you get a tranquil wilderness like that, it’s often very quickly destroyed. The other great example as far as a place of sanctuary is in Homefront: there’s an area in which the rebels have made their home called Oasis and the player explores that area (he’s fighting as a member of the resistance). There’s a guy digging up vegetables, there are kids on swings etc. and the player has a series of everyday conversations if you wander around, The player is then called off to a mission and then comes back again and that place has been discovered by the North Koreans, and destroyed, and the people in it have been killed. The sanctuary, the place of spiritual leisure is immediately removed from the player. This is very different to, for example, the Legend of Zelda games, where there is a place genuinely of beauty when you can get on a horse and gallop around or you can go fishing(!), there’s no threat, and the sun is shining. There, the countryside becomes a space of idyllic pleasure and relaxation whereas in military games, it’s normally wiped out very quickly.

Newsbud: Is it the case that the production of these games has made it easier to market militarism and American exceptionalism to the public?

NR: First of all, why is it that the military, in its forms would be so interested in supporting the production of entertainment? Presumably, they’re interested because they gained something from that. What is also striking is that there’s a very particular kind of message, both in the general narrative that comes out of the United States, and games. For example, the individual soldier is never ethically questioned, their actions are never questioned in videogames. That is an interesting situation when you think about how we understand Abu Ghraib. Was those horrifying events caused by individuals, were those soldiers as individual people morally responsible, or was it the circumstances that they were put into, was it due to their leadership?

With games, there aren’t those ethical problems, so as a result, a lot of the things we know to be the most complicated when we talk about war, which are about individual decisions that people take, are removed from games (apart from Spec Ops: The Line), which comes back to that whole point about the individual making highly questionable decisions which can lead to all kinds of problematic consequences. The military industrial complex’s relationship to videogames doesn’t get involved in anything that’s ethically complicated, like soldier’s decisions – soldiers don’t kill civilians or violate the ethical codes of the battlefield. What it does do, as well, is it often provides a valorized narrative of heroism but it’s very keen to have equipment used in particular kinds of ways. Equipment is very present in military games. In newer games, there are drones, a lot of high tech equipment, and you get to use high powered weapons which highlight enemies within a targeting sight. We get to use exo-suits - all of that is about a type of extreme sports, or celebratory relationship to warfare.

The technology - it’s clean, you’re not going through villages that you bombed where there are civilians writhing in agony on the floor. The war that you’re fighting in the videogame is a clean war, and that is the vision that is being sold through things like 24 hour news coverage. James Der Derian talks about virtuous war, a clean kind of surgical, precise warfare which is exactly what you perpetrate in a videogame. Those are the kind of messages that the military industry is very happy to see communicated. They don’t want the ethical problems of the soldiers, they don’t want to show soldiers with PTSD, they don’t want drone pilots to be traumatized by the work that they’re doing. They want equipment to be controllable, for it to be exciting, there to be incredible explosions, and there not to be dead civilians all over the place. They don’t get involved in the intractable conflict that you can’t win. That’s the other thing about a videogame, right? 5 hours of playing, chuck it in, I’ve won the war! There is a very different reality to the intractable conflicts that we are engaged in - Britain and the U.S. and many other countries around the world at the moment. We are in a situation, where we literally, I mean Trump can tell us he’s got straightforward answers, but these are not straightforward questions about what should or shouldn’t be done in these circumstances – it’s in fact incredibly complicated. That’s tough too, none of that is what the industry want to sell.

Newsbud: How does virtual reality change the game for videogames? How do you think it’ll affect future research?

NR: There was a wonderful comment by a videogames journalist in a fantastic magazine called Edge which I’ve been reading now for about 20 years. It made the comment that for the first time in his life, he was actually sick playing a game. It wasn’t due to the motion sickness of virtual reality, but it was because he got totally terrified playing a horror game. It’s remarkable. You’re talking about the possibility of playing tricks with the mind, really, where it’s sufficiently immersive to the point where we forget that it isn’t real, and that raises some interesting ethical questions for the industry, because we’ve already been accusing people of making games which are so immersive that people lose touch with reality, and that’s with the physical detachment around me, that’s with the room around me, with potted plants in the corner, with my kids shouting in the back of my ears. Now we’re talking about something immersive in a holistic way. I’m genuinely intrigued to see what comes out of these early games, like a Resident Evil version of virtual reality. That could be stunningly, shockingly traumatizing, or it might be great fun!

Newsbud: For scholars to take up a controller and play a videogame in order to investigate the political messages, enabled insights, possibility spaces, and key concepts being engaged with, what would they need for starters? Clearly, there are steps and methods to approaching this in a formal manner. Is there a way for a casual observer who's interested in playing and reporting their finds to do so, while furthering the overall body of work on the subject?

NR: Definitely. An anecdote that I would give you is as follows: I teach an undergraduate module which I previously mentioned, and all the students that start that module are what you might call ‘casual videogamers’ doing degrees in international relations, physics, economics, etc. All of them, by the end of it, are outstandingly good at critically engaging with games. All that I would say to anyone who is interested in doing this is to ask: Is there any question I have in my mind I feel very informed about? Say I’m a philosopher. What kind of philosophy am I interested in? Say I’m a historian, what sort of history am I interested in? Say I’m somebody who does the social sciences, like gender or racial and ethnicity politics, or what have you. What might you be interested in? That’s the first question, which is don’t throw away your prior learning when you’re thinking about the games.

The second question would be how do I deal with the game? You could look at the games in several different ways. What are the storylines? What are people saying? What are they not saying? How do the male and female characters interact with one another, for example, within the story? Are some characters privileged over other characters, and what might that mean? But the other key questions relate to gameplay. What can I do in the game? What does the game persuade me to do or deny me the opportunity to do? It might help if we think about this with an example. If I played GTA 4, first of all, who am I? Niko Bellic. When I encounter a female character in that game, and they’re represented as a prostitute, does that mean that it’s a sexist game, or is there a message behind that player being represented as a prostitute? What can I do as Niko Bellic? I can become a taxi driver, drive around, and get paid 20$ a day, and it can take me 500 years playing that game to become wealthy. Or I can get a hold of an Uzi 9mm, I can go shoot up a load of people and I can become a millionaire in a few hours. There’s a point to that: the game then is a result of those choices that it allows you to make - you can be a taxi driver forever if you want, working the roads - but if you want to unlock the whole game space you have to perpetrate the violence, so the game forces you into the violence, so then the question becomes why is the game causing me to do violence, and what do I think the violence means?

Earlier I suggested that maybe the violence in GTA is a satirical argument about the American dream. I can only succeed as an immigrant if I kill a load of people, I can’t succeed by hard work, right? It doesn’t do me any good. Why is he an immigrant character, what are the options that I have in that game, and what does that mean about what that game might be saying about American capitalism? So the key point about how to approach games is to keep your prior learning - think about the story and the characterization.

Another example. There is literature on the game Civilization about history. Does this game represent history effectively? What are the choices that you’ve got in key branching moments in the game, how easy is it to augment and develop your technology trees and evolve, and are those things more successful than other things? All of those elements tell us something about history. If you’re a historian, you already know something about the evolution of history, so you bring that historical thinking and apply it onto Civ, and say, if the world was really like Civilization, what would my history class be like? I don’t think everyone has to be a brilliant scholar of games, they just start from what they know and they think for themselves about how they can use that to think about the games that they are playing.

It would be a revolution in intellectual thinking if more people did it, because what would happen is that videogames would have to be considered a valuable art form. If all of us engaged with them critically, it means we respect them as artistically valuable. For me, that’s the most important thing: that the games themselves are respected in the same way that the movie, music or theatre industry is.

There are some crap movies out there, but there are some wonderful films, and nobody will seriously turn around to me and tell me that films aren’t an artistic medium. At the moment,  videogames in that position where they are increasingly being accepted but we need everyone’s grandparents and moms and dads to be playing games, so they can all get to appreciate and enjoy them and start to value them as I do. The more people get involved in this critical engagement with them the more likely that is to happen. So we need more engagement with games at all levels of learning not just for students who are interested in programming. What we actually need are games to be studied in programs like literature programs - not everyone in literature programs is writing novels, a lot of students are engaging with books in terms of the critical value of the text. Kids should be engaging with videogames in the same way that they’re engaging with novels, in my opinion, but that’s a revolution in intellectual thinking in educational programs. That’s what we could do, and should do, because there’s as much value in critically engaging with a game as there is in critically engaging with a novel, play, music, or with any other form of art.

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Erik Moshe, Newsbud Analyst, is an independent writer who resides in Northern Virginia. He served in the U.S. Air Force from 2009-2013, and is currently studying Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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