Tuesday, March 22, 2011

It's just a game.

A review of the soon to be released documentary film "Returning Fire
Interventions in Video Game Culture" by Professor Roger Stahl.

Professor Roger Stahl is someone I am glad to call my friend. His work on the documentary film and book “Militainment Inc.” really helped me to open my eyes to the reality of how our culture here in the United States and in many other countries we are continually bombarded by war as a form of entertainment by the media. Through his work I was able to realize the realities of such terms such as “Techno Fetishism”. That is the idea that we can actually look at weapons of war as beautiful. I spent a lot of time on Air Force bases growing up as my older brother was an Engineer working for the United States Air Force at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton Ohio. I remember very clearly looking at the various planes as things that looked “cool” and contemplating on how the A-10 Warthog was my favorite because of the destructive capacity of the main cannon mounted on the front of the plane. I remember in those days all I wanted to be was a fighter pilot. My walls were covered in promotional posters of various fighter planes my brother would bring home for me. In retrospect I remember that all of these posters also had the names of the various corporations that made the planes in question. I used to be able to list them off. McDonnel/Douglas, Boeing, etc. I knew which company made each plane.

I also remember my various toys. G.I. Joe was highly popular at that time and I recall the reverence I treated my “Cobra Raven” bomber jet with. I took it everywhere with me and I remember quite clearly my mother's complaints about having “that monstrosity” (It was a very large toy) on her coffee table while I was sitting in the living room watching the G.I. Joe cartoon. The funny thing about all of these memories though is that I had largely forgot about them until I watched Professor Stahl's film “Militainment Inc” and had the privilege of having him on V-RADIO.

When Jacque Fresco talked about how we are formed by our early environment, I decided to go on a journey into my past by going back and watching the movies I watched when I was very young. And one of them in particular I had watched shortly after watching “Militainment Inc.” and right before my first interview with Roger, a film called “The boy who could fly.” Now, the only reason this film is relevant to this particular article is the main heroine of the story had a little brother who was extremely militarized in his focus. He wore camouflage all the time. His room was decorated with nothing but G.I. Joe, he had virtually every action figure and vehicle. Hell, even his big wheel (Small plastic tri-cycle) was the G.I. Joe version. When re-watching this film I remembered distinctly being in huge envy of that kid's collection when I was a young boy watching that film. I remember when wearing camouflage was actually fashionable.

And I remembered the cold war. I remembered watching “Red Dawn” with my family and how we would play “Guns” or “Army” with toy guns and one side would be the United States, and the others of course would be the “evil” Russians. I remembered how when I was in school they would give you these forms to fill out to tell the school system what you might be interested in being when you grew up and I put military on every one. I had my whole life planned out. Was going to graduate, become a fighter pilot, and then afterward the only other interest I had left from my childhood pre-militarization was to fly the space shuttle. To be an astronaut. Thanks to the combination of the media, my toys, etc. all of my other thoughts of what I wanted to be when I grew up kind of faded to the way side.

A lot of things happened to me during my time in high school that I at the time figured were bad luck. The school I went to was highly overcrowded and in a very low income area of Pontiac, Michigan. Metal detectors on the doors, school shootings fairly prominent. I got involved in a rock band and my musical mentor was an older fellow named Tyrone Scott. He had a love of guitar and playing chess. So he took me to the public library, where there was often a large number of homeless people who were rather good at chess. They were also largely Viet Nam veterans. I sat getting to know these people and got a very real dose of what the end of the road looks like after a military career. Suddenly my attitude about joining the military started to change forever. There was nothing glorious about being homeless and forgotten and spending time in a public library not because you wanted to read, but because it was warmer in the library then it was outside. And you could play chess for free.

Roger's work on “Militainment Inc.” came to me at a time when I was already becoming more aware of just what had been done to me and most of my generation. But it added a whole new dimension to what that meant. And after 911, I realized we didn't have the Soviet red scare anymore. We had the terrorists. And the war was not cold anymore. But the media's approach to it made it look like more of a video game then reality. After watching that film I never looked at the TV news the same way again. And it contributed a great deal to why I don't watch it at all anymore other then in select clips on YouTube. And why I don't intend to expose my kids to it either. But that of course brings us to the natural progression from Roger's first film to his new one. “Returning Fire Interventions in Video Game Culture”. I was grateful when Roger gave me access to a sneak preview of the film so that I could review it for our upcoming show about the film. And I am going to share my feelings on it here and why I feel this film is another must see for anyone who wants to understand the war propaganda machine and the dark place humanity is headed if we continue to desensitize ourselves to the reality of war.

Professor Stahl tells three stories in his film. If I had any criticism it would only be that I wish he had done more. I was engrossed from beginning to end and found myself motivated to look into more examples of the sort of activism the three people he interviewed for his film had engaged in. Two of the people in question did various provocative things while logged in to two popular first person shooter games. Including the extremely obvious recruiting tool known as “America's Army” a free online first person shooter put together by the U.S. Army. In watching the stories I remember thinking to myself that there was a time that I could have been one of the players in the games in question.

The first story revolved around an internet activist named Joseph DeLappe who logged in to “America's Army” with the name of “Dead_in_Iraq”. As people spent hours clicking away and shooting at the virtual avatars of other people he would list off the names of dead soldiers who had died in Iraq, along with the dates of their deaths. The reactions he got were mixed and I won't spoil the film for you, but I do wish to take one compelling point that came up when the brother of one of the soldiers he listed off while playing who had died in Iraq went out of his way to stop him from using his brother's name. The two ended up debating on a radio show about it. The brother of the dead soldier said that this activists actions were in some way trivializing the death of his brother. The activist countered with the very powerful point. The fact that there is a game wherein you play a United States soldier and are frequently killed over and over and over again is trivializing the death of his brother. And every soldier who dies in war. The fact that such a tragedy could be part of a “game” in of itself was a trivialization.

One of the powerful points that was also brought out in this segment was that these games go out of their way to try and capture the realism. I remember very distinctively in the past actively seeking out war games based on this. But as Mr. DeLappe pointedly stated, there is a serious element of realism that is always left out. That would be the fact that when you get shot in war you are often maimed for life, and spend the rest of your life dealing with the VA, and being in a lot of pain. If you survive. In real life, you don't get to respawn in a few seconds. And this recruiting tool of course doesn't have a segment of the game where you are being pushed around in a wheel chair for the rest of your life, or the glory of becoming part of the statistic of being 1 in 4 of the homeless in the United States, or watching your own funeral wherein your loved ones are mourning you and they hand one of them a folded American flag. Any video game that featured this part of the soldier's career would not be a good recruitment tool for the army. And it certainly wouldn't sell a lot of video games.

In the second segment we move on to an interview with Anne-Marie Schleiner. She was part of the former internet activist group “Velvet-Strike” which made quite a ruckus on various servers for the popular first person shooter “Counter-Strike”. Ms. Schleiner and her fellow activists would log on to “Counter-Strike” servers and use the game's ability to spray your own graphics into the game to put anti-war messages all over the virtual battlefield. A couple of things struck me when I was watching this segment. The first was the reaction that her group of activists from the community within the game that was in some cases extremely negative including death threats. One hate mail in particular came from someone who had watched the twin towers burn during the September 11th attacks who used the game “therapeutically” to get the sensation that he was getting back at the terrorists who carried out the attacks on the twin towers. The final line of the email that hit me the hardest was the person saying “Please don't ruin my game.”

I have a roommate who played more “Counter-Strike” then any human being should ever do anything. I remember him coming home from work stressed out and angry at people and going into his room and shooting people to get out their aggressions. I remembered doing the same thing myself with video games while I was working on the fast food industry which can be a highly stressful and frustrating job. This lead me to truly appreciate one of the major concepts that both “Militainment Inc.” and “Returning Fire” try to convey. And that is that these video games allow us to distance ourselves from the conflict. To make it “normal” to shoot people. And to dehumanize people who are killed in war. The whole thing reminded me of a very old episode of the original Star Trek TV series wherein they came to a planet that had been in war for thousand's of years. And the reason was that they had decided it would be more humane to wage war via a computer simulation. People who died in the simulation would voluntarily go and disintegrate themselves if they were listed as “killed” during these simulations because it had been determined that they would of died if the combat were real and that it was better for their planet as a whole to do this rather then wage real war. Their society had become completely detached from the bloody and grizzly aspects of war. This again brought me back to considering the vast difference in the way wars are covered now. As pointed out in “Militainment Inc.” the differnece between the way the Viet Nam war was covered and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is staggering. No pictures of wounded soldiers. War becomes video screens of bombs being dropped on buildings that are shown on low quality video so as to be blurry. Rather different then the video of an Apache gunship shooting people on a street corner released by Wikileaks. It allows us to forget that there are real people with real lives who had real families and real friends who were blown to pieces in those video clips.

The third and final segment was certainly the most powerful, but it was also different then anything I had ever seen. And it kind of brought this last comparison I made to that Star Trek episode very much to the forefront of my mind. The segment about an Iraqi artist and activist named Wafaa Bilal. His father was killed by a missile fired from a Predator drone in Iraq. What many people don't know is that these drones are often operated by pilots who are thousands of miles away from the action here in the United States. Totally disconnected from the action. I learned about that while watching a lecture by Professor Robert Sapolsky, one of the behavior experts featured in “Zeitgeist: Moving Forward” when he was talking about the vast differences between the way that animals make war and the ways mankind does in this currently sick system. As war becomes more mechanized, it becomes less real, and more “clean”. And therefore easier to ignore.

The story of Wafaa Bilal was certainly one of the most unique activism stories I had ever seen. Inspired by the remote control means that was used to kill his father, Mr. Bilal fashioned a remote control paint ball gun that people on the internet could fire at him. For the project he locked himself in a room for 30 days allowing people to make the decision to shoot at him, or not shoot at him. His original name for the project was going to be “Shoot an Iraqi”. I again don't want to get into too much detail as you will get a far greater impact by watching the film when it comes to this story. But suffice it to say by the time it was done, something as absurd as someone rigging a paintball gun to be fired at them via the internet was not funny at all. One thing I will mention was during the segment Mr. Bilal was featured on a talk radio show hosted by Mathew “Mancow” Muller. The reason I am going to mention it is I hope someone shows this particular radio host my blog so that he can read the words here wherein I will describe the image of my middle finger being extended at him. The plus side of that part of the film is that it reminded me of one of the most important reasons that I am helping make the “TROLL” documentary. The fact that people actually make money be being extremely poor examples of humanity on purpose is intellectually offensive. If you want to know why I say this, watch the film and you will understand. However, there was a heart-warming end to this segment wherein some internet activists took action.

In conclusion I will wrap up by saying that “Returning Fire” is a must see for any anti-war activist. I think it should also be viewed by any parent considering buying their children a video game about war. I think anyone considering joining the military should watch both of Professor Stahl's films before they make their final decision so that they can get an idea for where their motivation to join the military likely came from. As I said earlier I only wish the film was longer. And I look forward to any further works by Professor Roger Stahl.


About Roger Stahl:
Roger Stahl is Associate Professor of Speech Communication at the University of Georgia. His work has appeared in publications such as Rhetoric and Public Affairs, Encyclopedia of Political Communication, and Critical Studies in Media Communication. His latest book, Militainment, Inc.: War, Media, and Popular Culture, has just been released by Routledge Press.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review Neil. Many jobs are romanticized to some extent, but people need to make choices based on reality, not on an overly sanitized version of war. It is sad that there is an increase in war-related video games when there are better options out there. Martial arts games can make one take classes in martial arts for self-mastery. Action/adventure games can get a suburbanite to live or work adventures in the outdoors. Role playing games can make one believe that triumphing over evil is possible. Finally, anti-war games exist. It is important to have an environment that allows a game developer to make decent games instead of promoting war and putting product placement in games.