News & Commentary, Screen, Video Games

Video Games are the new medium for propaganda

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Later this month a war game called Homefront: The Revolution will be released. It creates an alternative universe in which Americans get to play heroes defending their country which has been invaded by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

But heroically defending your homeland could not be further from the apparent theme of Battlefield 1, to be released in October. This World War 1 game takes place across that war’s western front, and critically includes battles in the desert against the Ottoman Empire — a nation that spent the majority of World War 1 in a sorry state, simply trying to defend itself.

But in this version the heroes are either American or Allied forces, because this is Battlefield, and Battlefield can’t resist flag waving. So you’ll be taking on the role of a hero invading another country.

It’s a pretty good gig being a hero regardless of whether you are the invader or the invaded.

Of course, that’s somewhat flippant, and the context of those two games is different. One is representing a historically accurate invasion that took place during a state of war. The other is a hypothetical hostile and unprovoked attack. (For some reason, attacks on Americans always happen without provocation, both in American-written history books and in its games).

Despite those differences there is a common thread – the Americans or western soldiers are almost always the heroes and rarely the enemy. The enemy is either a real or poses a existentialist threat to western ideology.

In other words, these games are nationalist propaganda, and the potential for games to do nationalism really well has not been missed. For the last couple of years the Australian military has set up booths at the EB Games Expo in Sydney to proudly show off the real-world versions of the weapons to the kids who’ve just tried the virtual violence at the Call of Duty booth. In America the military has gone as far as to develop games itself, which it then uses as recruitment tools.

The military is using the games industry to “gamify” war. When coupled with the nationalism that is typically already on display in these games we can see how the games industry is an active participant in promoting xenophobic or hostile attitudes towards the “other” – those who don’t abide by western values.

“That the US military and Australian armies are using games and gaming events as recruiting tools is certainly a form of propaganda,” Emily Robertson, a doctoral candidate in history at UNSW told Daily Review.

“This is a deliberate public relations strategy.  It promotes the military by using an existing non-government form of propaganda that functions primarily as entertainment.  The ideological story contained in Call of Duty, in which the player is fighting on the morally ‘good’ side, has been a classic recruiting technique since the South African War (or Boer War),” said Robertson.

“The use of gaming is in fact a technological extension of more than a century of recruiting techniques. From the 1880s onwards, the British Empire produced numerous ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure novels, penny dreadfuls — and board games — to draw the reader/player into an environment in which they envisaged themselves as heroes fighting enemies of the Empire.  These were mostly produced unofficially, much like the gaming industry is owned by private individuals.”

The recruitment of art for propaganda is nothing new. In both World Wars both sides of the conflict used the dominant entertainment media to reach communities and encourage people to enlist or support the war effort. Hollywood, especially, proved to be a masterful resource to the American military.

Even today, in a bid to discourage asylum seekers to try and reach Australia, the Australian defence force has invested millions in the production of a propaganda film to play in South East Asia and the Middle East.

It makes sense that games, now the dominant populist media, are exploited to encourage or capitalise on patriotic attitudes among players. The difference here is that the games industry itself is overwhelmingly dominated by western interests.

There has always been a balance in the film industry with each country producing it own films that reflect heir national identity but there’s no real non- English speaking games industry to speak of — with the exception perhaps of Japan.

But games from Japan that don’t sit within western nationalist rhetoric tend to find little support from players or critics.

“That the Japanese games are westernised to suit a western market, and that westernised games do not need to change to appeal to non-western markets is part of a much broader story of westernisation that has been underway for a considerable period of time,” Robertson said.

“Gaming is a reflection of this process and in this sense, is part of the complex story of globalisation. However, gaming is also a type of ‘soft diplomacy’, in which a country infiltrates and weakens the ideological culture of another country through the dissemination of appealing and entertaining cultural narratives.”

And yet, while the processes of propaganda are readily seen in the video games we play, there is not much much made of it from a critical or consumer perspective. It’s likely that it’s partly because the study of art as propaganda only tends to arise after the fact – there wasn’t too much discussion going on about how the American films during World War II were supporting a nationalist imperative.

But, equally, it’s likely that games are so new – especially as a legitimised art form – that we simply haven’t started to have those discussions yet.

“I think it’s because the industry is relatively new, and perhaps not taken as seriously as it should be. Gaming is an increasingly dominant culture however, so I imagine that there will be increasing interest in the ideologies that underlie games,” Robertson said.

6 responses to “Video Games are the new medium for propaganda

  1. Oh, those discussions have been taking place within the industry for the last twenty years. It’s only in the last five-to-ten that other media have recognised that aspect.

    1. Can you sent me some links? I’d be very interested to see how the conversation itself has changed over the years, and I simply haven’t come across any of this in my own time within the art.

  2. Try getting your fact right. You state…”there’s no real non- English speaking games industry to speak of — with the exception perhaps of Japan.”
    Go have a look at the massive gaming industry that exists in Korea. It’s well known obsession with Starcraft aside (they have professional tournaments broadcast on network tv), the industry is well known for a large range of games that emanate from Seoul. One of the powerhouses in the MMO field is Korean, NCSoft.

    Then there is the vast number of less well known games that are running in China, many of which retell classic Chinese and Asian stories and immerse their players in a viewpoint very different from the western experience.

    Finally we have, which is the developers of some of the most popular on-line games in many years, World of Tanks, World of Warships and World of Warplanes, all are WW2 simulators developed by a Russian company that has vast success worldwide, with servers in Russia, Europe, North America and South East Asia, all delivering exactly the same game to some 110 million individual player.

    Each game features Russian, German, American and other western nations equipment, but equally highlights Japanese and Chinese tanks, ships and warplanes.

    Perhaps you should get outside your own comfort zone and actually do some real research before making such ambit claims, it significantly undermines your article as it calls into question what other obvious errors you might have made.


    1. Hi Unicorn,

      Thanks for the feedback. I’d like to make a couple of responses to your points there, if I may. Hopefully it will help clarify, because I certainly did not mean to demean the good work that the likes of NCSoft are doing.

      1) I’m aware of both Korean and Chinese games. One of my favourite games of all time is Kingdom Under Fire, which is Korean. The thing with these games is that those games are either produced for a domestic audience, or alternatively, they are created without cultural identifiers in order to be viable for global release. e.g. Kingdom Under Fire is not a game you’d identify as a Korean game unless you already knew that. The same goes for Guild Wars.

      2) If those games that were unique to Chinese and/ or Korean (or Iranian, from any of the African or South American nations, etc) were localised and released in English, then that would address my concerns in one go. Just as Bollywood or the Chinese film industry is available generally globally, and thus act as a natural counter to Hollywood ideology. So, I absolutely hope these games start to find their way overseas.

      3) Wargaming is a good example of what I’m talking about – it’s a game that has been stripped of any cultural identifiers that might mark it out as something that isn’t developed in “the west.” That’s not to say it’s not a very good game (I appreciate it a great deal), but it does speak to Roberton’s point above:

      “That the Japanese games are westernised to suit a western market, and that westernised games do not need to change to appeal to non-western markets is part of a much broader story of westernisation that has been underway for a considerable period of time.”

      I hope this clarifies the points of concern you had! Thanks for taking the time to read it, even if you didn’t get on with it.

  3. If the gaming stories dealt with aspects of the perfidy meted out upon the original peoples – that instead the defence of homeland was by Indigenous peoples against the true invaders – those pesky Europeans and their ugly murdering colonising ways – then such stories might make some kind of moral sense. But I have to fully endorse your comments on the fact that that poor benighted-US is so often (always) attacked “without provocation”! Quite likely a kind of guilt given their own westward US expansion to the Pacific coast – and beyond – effected by wars usually engineered in typical devious fashion by the US itself.

  4. “But, equally, it’s likely that games are so new – especially as a legitimised art form – that we simply haven’t started to have those discussions yet.”

    Those conversations have been going on for a while. As Mead says in his book (linked below) they’ve been going on since ID’s Wolfenstein at least in relation to shooters.

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