Returning Fire

War-themed video games that restage the multiple conflicts of the War on Terror have posted record-breaking sales. In real dollars, the November 8, 2011 appearance of Modern Warfare 3, which recapitulates the drama of fighting a global terror network, was the largest entertainment release of any kind to date. The phenomenon is even more notable considering that US wars have fallen off nearly every other screen. With the brief exception of Libya in 2011, the now myriad US interventions and occupations around the planet have achieved a remarkable invisibility on the news and in Hollywood, where the war film has been declared “a toxic genre.” This has by default left the video game as the signature medium for the public understanding of war. Of course, many have argued that the consumption of the video game war poses problems for civic deliberation on these important matters. One might go so far as to say that the war-as-game mode may represent a new mode of social control: a grid of emerging practices and narratives that discipline the citizen and divert critical questions. War game culture has its own set of paradoxes and contradictions, however. While the name of the game is fidelity to ongoing conflicts and the faithful reproduction of weapons, there is a noted absence of the ugliness of conflict – the shattered families, starvation, and overflowing hospitals. There is the sense of alienation in ruthlessly separating the “conflict zone” from the “comfort zone.” At the heart of the war game is the experience of driving an avatar through the paradoxical thrills of “safe danger,” an analogue to the post-industrial West’s uneasy relationship with long-distance drone warfare. And while war games generally align themselves to a nationalistic narrative, there is little reference to the larger policy choices that precipitated the conflict, leaving the player in the curious position of fighting for “freedom” while adhering to the totalitarian and unquestionable dictates of the state. Returning Fire: Interventions in War Game Culture is an attempt to understand these internal contradictions. The film itself does not present a critique, but rather surveys the ways that artists and activists have engaged the politics of the war-themed game. The film follows Iraqi expatriate Wafaa Bilal and his project, Domestic Tension, which invited visitors to his website to shoot him, via mouse click, with an actual paintball gun in actual physical space – a recapitulation of the logics of seduction and long-distance weaponry that animate the experience of contemporary warfare. Anne-Marie Schleiner’s project, Velvet Strike, is a study in how political space, physical space, and virtual space mesh in war games and how the virtual street corner should be reconsidered as a valid space for activism.  The clip included here features the story of Joseph Delappe, who created a media stir by going into the official Army recruiting game, America’s Army, and listing the US war dead in a painstaking virtual memorial.  These three vignettes provide glimpses into the instabilities of war game culture and offer strategies for opening the narrative to more critical questions.

2 thoughts on “Returning Fire

  1. […] in the top-selling video wargame series, Call of Duty. How we — and young men especially — are conditioned to consider conflict by pervasive wargaming is increasingly debated. And the cross-cultural context is also rich: “Ghost’s death mask […]


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