War in Video Games: Propaganda or Entertainment?

Propaganda in Video Games: Modern Warfare in the Call of Duty Series | pikubytes.wordpress.com

It all started a few years ago when I had to write a short paper for my media studies course. Thing is, all I wanted to do that week was laze about and play video games. In the end, I sort of managed to do both as I decided to look at three Call of Duty games from a critical approach. While shooting people in the face was still fun, my goal was to stay conscious (in both senses of the word) and pause to write down anything I found relevant to my analysis of warfare propaganda and glamourization. Today I can definitely challenge some of the claims I made, but I choose to share my article unamended and unabridged. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic and how you think these issues apply to more recent titles in the industry! Here goes.

Propaganda in Video Games: Modern Warfare in the Call of Duty Series
Article by Ieva Pikutytė (2012)

Alongside the rapid technological advances throughout the years, video games have remarkably progressed to complex narratives and stunning visuals, which made them as emotionally engaging as films are. However, while merely watching explosions on screen is a more passive experience for the viewer, playing video games is an engaging interactive activity which trains players into certain behaviours. Even if not done deliberately, a particular set of cultural values and ideologies are imbued in video games just like in films, which encourages one to analyse how such values are propagated and marketed. This paper will primarily focus on the analysis of military and cultural propaganda in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007), Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009) and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (2011), exploring the ways in which both the gameplay and the cutscenes of this globally successful franchise serve to promote certain worldviews. The choice of such a topic was influenced by my own personal interest in video games and the intention to approach their content from a more critical perspective, reflecting also on how underlying meanings emerge once one is playing not just for entertainment.

To begin with, propaganda has been defined in a number of ways in terms of its power of persuasion in a broad variety of contexts, where the focus lies in reinforcing a particular viewpoint. More specifically, one should consider any propaganda as “a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group” (Bernays 1928:25). In his essay on detecting propaganda, Clyde Raymond Miller also describes it as “an expression of opinion or action by individuals or groups, deliberately designed to influence opinions or actions of other individuals or groups with reference to pre-determined ends“. Therefore, when considering any attempts of persuasion, one should not only regard the ideas promoted, but also take into account the groups or individuals who possess sufficient power and means to influence the masses. Finally, effective propaganda primarily relies on human irrationality, where “necessary illusions” and “emotionally potent oversimplifications” are created to provoke emotions and suspend reason (Chomsky 1991:4).

For the purposes of this paper, it is important to consider the enormous power that the entertainment industry nowadays holds over the youth. This is readily apparent from the sales numbers, as MW3 sold for more than $400 million in the first 24 hours in Britain and the United States alone. According to the chief executive of Activision Blizzard, this was “the biggest entertainment launch of all time in any medium”. Not only did this make MW3 the most successful of the Call of Duty games, but also exceeded even the box office sales for the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings film series. As a result, if such a game contains a number of underlying messages regarding warfare and social stereotypes, they will reach and possibly indoctrinate a remarkably wide target audience. This provides digital media with far greater power of propaganda than any World War II leaflets or recruitment posters could have ever achieved. Finally, here one can agree with Bernays (1928:150) when he states that “the relative value of the various instruments of propaganda, and their relation to the masses, are constantly changing”.

According to Nick Turse, for decades the US army has been building partnerships with both Hollywood and the gaming industry, which resulted in “a reliance on remote-controlled warfare” and made combat “more palatable”. While it is difficult to determine the level of military’s involvement in the commission of the Call of Duty games, the glamorization of war is seemingly obvious and will be addressed in due course. Presently, it is perhaps relevant to consider the reasons behind the enduring popularity of this series in comparison to other warfare games, many of which explicitly assume a certain position. For instance, it was revealed that Kuma Games was funded by the CIA to design propaganda films and video games, distributing them free of charge among residents of the Middle East. In the Kuma\War games, players are invited to participate in simulations of the real-world missions which America has conducted, such as the capture of Saddam Hussein. However, the perspective is entirely pro-American and the gameplay aims to convince people both in Iraq and globally that US military intervention is justifiable and to everyone’s benefit. It is equally important to note here that the missions of Kuma\War are “based on the news, the research of military experts, and Department of Defense records” (Perron and Wolf 2008:39). The representation of such contemporary contexts in video games is then heavily based on how they have been reported by the media, due to the lack of historical analysis and counter evidence.

To push similar propaganda even further, Kuma also released Assault on Iran (2005) which constructs a hypothetical scenario where the United States invade Iran to eliminate the increasing nuclear threat and propagates a rather paranoid worldview. The game was countered with Special Operation 85: Hostage Rescue (2007), designed by a group of Iranian students, in which the Iranian protagonist sets out to rescue the atomic scientists endangered by the US forces. On the other hand, a more radical Islamic perspective is provided by games such as the extreme Quest for Bush (2006), which was released by the Global Islamic Media Front as a response to the Western Quest for Saddam (2003). It is interesting to reflect how Quest for Bush unconsciously seems more shocking only because it does not represent the reality which is socially desirable for the Western world, i.e. the one which we have been indoctrinated to accept. Finally, Ethnic Cleansing (2002) is an example of blatant right-wing propaganda, where the player controls “a man in a Ku Klux Klan outfit or a skinhead, and shoots people of other ethnicity than white” (Perron and Wolf 2008:39). However, it is fairly doubtful that this could considerably influence the mindsets of people who do not already hold neo-Nazi beliefs. All in all, the first-person shooter genre alone can offer a vast variety of warfare games which promote a particular ideology, but none of them have enjoyed the success of Call of Duty, and it is high time to discuss why that is the case.

One of the reasons why broader audiences find little attraction in the games mentioned above is that they are explicitly propagandistic. Their developers have not attempted to carefully promote the desired beliefs by manipulating symbols or emotions, but instead chose to overtly appeal with references to real-life events and personas. What is more, the sources of propaganda in Kuma/War were neither concealed nor transferred successfully, whereas Herz (1949:483) proposed that “black propaganda must be like the voice of a master ventriloquist which really appears to come out of the mouth of an entirely different individual”. However, this does not mean that scrupulously careful planning is necessary for effective propaganda, or that it is altogether possible to avoid presenting a particular viewpoint. In fact, “even if a game designer does not intentionally control and design the philosophy behind the game, one will exist anyway, just as in film” (Perron and Wolf 2008:34). Although the events and characters in all three relevant Call of Duty games are entirely fictional, they are still reflective of the contemporary reality as the intended Western audiences understand it, which is truly the basis of successful propaganda.

To illustrate this, the opening to the campaign of CoD4 immediately presents the player with the antagonists from both Russia and the Middle East, who are portrayed as delusional maniacs obsessed with nationalism and full of hatred for the Western world. While Imran Zakhaev is attempting to return to the days of the Soviet Union, Khaled Al-Asad leads a violent revolution in his native unnamed Middle Eastern country and executes its president on national television for “colluding with the West with only self interest at heart”. However, the way that this uprising is reflected in one of the interactive cutscenes propagates a number of attitudes regarding tyranny. The player controls the kidnapped president, but is only allowed to helplessly look around in the car while being driven to his execution. During the five minutes of this episode, one is presented with a considerable amount of disturbing images on the streets of the city, most of which focus on portraying the rebels as cold-blooded killers, beating and opening fire on civilians for no reason. Moreover, Al-Asad’s voice and rhetoric, as he speaks about liberating his country and retaliating to the West, appears to have an uncanny similarity to Hitler’s propaganda speeches. All this successfully arouses the emotion of fear and produces a sense of reality due to our sudden awareness of the dangers of totalitarian regimes. More importantly, however, the player is immediately persuaded that the following invasion by the US military forces is not only justifiable, but also necessary to stop the terror from spreading. If one agrees with the claim that “emotions depend on evaluations of what has happened in relation to the person’s goals and beliefs”, it will not seem surprising that a player holding predominantly Western values is put in such an emotional state (Perron and Wolf 2008:87). Likewise, little explanation is required as to why CoD4 was banned in the Middle East, and the demonization of Arabs is prominent throughout the whole game.

When it comes to Russia’s portrayal, the influence of the Ultranationalists on the Russian population grows throughout the games, as a statue for Zakhaev is erected, naming him “Hero of the New Russia” (MW2). Although the party is never directly referred to as terrorists, its ways of controlling the Russian people by spreading fear while neglecting any rules of war promotes such an image. In CoD4, the player witnesses an execution of an innocent old man, whereas during their preparations to ambush a safe house in a Russian village, the troops hear screaming in the distance which is explained by Captain Price as “the Ultranationalists killing the villagers”. Moreover, while sneaking through the occupied Prague in MW3, one can see the Ultranationalists both shooting civilians and throwing their bodies into the canals. Nevertheless, the roots of all evil are embodied in Vladimir Makarov, who is the most ruthless antagonist and the greatest threat in both MW2 and MW3. Extremely radical in his nationalist views, Makarov appears to be willing to use any drastic measures to pursue his political agenda, and the “No Russian” mission is the clearest example in MW2. Here the player controls an undercover US private who is forced to assist Makarov in his plan to provoke a full scale war between Russia and the US. This involves a brutal massacre of hundreds of people in a fictional Russian airport and staging this terrorist act to appear as if it had been committed by the Americans. The imagery is extremely violent just as the scenario itself is shocking, and players are allowed to skip this mission with no penalty if they choose to. All in all, both Makarov and the Russian Ultranationalists are presented as a dire threat not only to their own country, but to humanity in general, mercilessly killing innocent people in the name of their ideologies.

Similarly to the case of the Middle East, here the game cultivates the attitude that Russia is constantly breeding hatred towards America and oppressing her own citizens. What is more, even such a large country appears to be incapable of handling her own terrorists, as Makarov kidnaps both the Russian president and his daughter to gain the nuclear missile launch codes (MW3). The game itself conveys this message by allowing the player to control a Russian agent hired to protect the president, but not giving him any agency to succeed: instead, one is presented with an “Objective failed” on the screen and the image of Makarov leaving with his hostage. This is again suggestive of the idea that assistance from the West is urgently required, and indeed it is the British Captain Price who kills Makarov at the end of MW3, only to smoke a cigar shortly afterwards, as if to suggest that one can breathe easily now that terrorism has been stopped.

While it can be argued that a video game needs its antagonists and attempting to decode any underlying messages will simply lead to finding what one is looking for, this is not entirely true. According to Bernays (1928:22), any society is practicing propaganda if it sets out to promote certain beliefs that it possesses. It is then worth considering why the developers have not chosen to present the enemy as, for instance, a demented Swiss scientist threatening to sabotage the nuclear power plants and cause a catastrophe in Switzerland. Similarly, Makarov‘s airport massacre could have been recontextualized to the JFK Airport in New York, where an extremely unsatisfied American would be making his statement regarding the country‘s policies. However, it is highly unlikely that ideas like these would be implemented into such successful video games as the Call of Duty series. As it was previously discussed, video games are now a significant part of the popular entertainment media, hence they often abide by the same rules which are followed by Hollywood films. That is, “because pictures are made to meet market demands, they reflect, emphasize and even exaggerate broad popular tendencies, rather than stimulate new ideas and opinions” Bernays (1928:156). Therefore, by maintaining the dominant attitudes, video games not only rise in sales, but also further propagate the viewpoints which people have adopted from other media.

Another example includes the negative stereotype of African people as savages, which is reinforced by the African Militia who douse the civilians of Sierra Leone in gasoline and set them on fire (MW3). Despite only being featured in the game for a relatively short period of time, the ruthlessness of this group still evokes negative emotions and makes one feel hostile. At this point, it is reasonable to claim that civilians have played an important part in shaping the image of the enemies as merciless and deserving of punishment. On the other hand, throughout all three games, the player is constantly warned to watch one’s fire and avoid hurting any civilians, as doing so immediately returns the player to his last checkpoint. Not even during the high-speed train chase in the London Underground is the player allowed to let a bullet go astray and hit one of the panicking people on the platform (MW3). This shows how the game mechanics are designed to promote the idea that the American and British troops would avoid collateral damage at all costs. In fact, General Shepherd directly states this in one of the cutscenes in MW2: “Despite what the world may say, we are not savages, we don’t kill civilians. We use precision”. Furthermore, a fair amount of hostage rescue objectives also serves to convey the impression that the military will take huge risks to ensure the safety of people. When discussing ideological levels of a game, Frasca (2001:48) stated that any action which leads to the player’s success is considered a desirable action. In order to succeed in Call of Duty, then, one must follow the rules which are governed by the cultivated attitudes, i.e. that the US forces pay full regard to civilians.

While there may be as many different ways to evoke strong emotions as there are people, it is reasonable to argue that the idea of our children being threatened is bound to shock the majority of us. “Davis Family Vacation” in MW3 is another interactive cutscene which serves no specific purpose for the plot, but takes place less than a minute before chemical explosives are detonated around London. The player assumes the point of view of a father, who takes a photo of his wife and little daughter enjoying the view of the Big Ben. Soon a nearby truck in which the terrorists had planted their bombs explodes, instantly killing the whole family and leaving only the British flag still fluttering through the smoke. This is a striking example of the amount of propaganda that can be conveyed in such a short period of time. One is struck by the emotion of terror and the realization that your beloved ones could be gone in a matter of seconds, as could the whole nation which the flag symbolizes. As a result, when one is overwhelmed by such strong feelings, questioning the foreign policies or the military action of one’s country is unlikely to be a primary concern. Finally, it is possible to draw an analogy between the real-world London bombings in 2005 and the fictional coordinated attacks in MW3, which makes the later scenario grimly realistic.

In addition to this, it is easier to detach oneself from the war which is waging far away from home (as in CoD4), but MW3 brings the player to the major European and American cities under heavy attacks from Russia, which cease only when the US forces rescue the Russian president and his daughter from Makarov’s captivity. The visual effects and amount of detail in episodes such as the fall of the Eiffel Tower are almost comparable to those of contemporary films, and this makes the unfolding events seem more plausible. Moreover, other types of media are incorporated into the game for the same purposes: fictional news casters reporting on the events, newspapers printing articles on Makarov, or even smoldering buildings shown on TV asking whether this is “the end of America” (MW3). It is also relevant to discuss the background music which only plays in some missions, but suggests that particular emotions should be evoked in relation to the events. For instance, as the US troops invade the capital of the Middle Eastern country (CoD4), the music is considerably more heroic as opposed to the sad tunes during the battle at the White House or the aftermath of the initial Russian attacks on American homes (MW2). While all these episodes focus on military action which devastates large communities, it is apparent which side of the conflict is favoured.

Grossman claims that video games are generally unable to offer a moral context which would distinguish between “good” and “bad” violence, as they “teach that all violence is fun and inconsequential” (Rauch 2004:14). It can be argued that Call of Duty presents violence as “justified” or “unjustified” and categorizes it according to the previously analyzed Western attitudes of what is necessary to be done to achieve global stability. Moreover, the violence which is not employed by the enemy is mitigated, and even the scenes of violent interrogations are censored. For example, the player only sees a black screen for most of the time as Price is beating Al-Asad for information (CoD4), while “Soap” just exclaims that his interrogation is “gonna take a while” and closes the garage door before the player’s eyes (MW2). Even though one is aware of what is happening, the lack of visual stimulation does not make the violence as striking as the stark images of, for instance, African Militia torturing the civilians. This allows one to assume that the interrogations are most likely carried out for the greater good and there is little need to dwell upon the measures taken. Finally, euphemistic language is also used effectively, as Price tactfully refers to the crew of a cargo ship as “expendable” instead of stating that they will be killed during the raid (CoD4).

Perpetuating social stereotypes and improving the image of the armed forces is not only essential for effective control, but also to encourage people to sign up to fight. Even though video-game technologies have been used for military training since the electronic flight simulators, their distribution also aids recruitment. For instance, America’s Army (2002) and Start Thinking Soldier (2009) were published by the US and British military respectively to increase the enlistment of young people. Here video games can be effective tools as they reach very young people who cannot yet be directly approached to be recruited into the army. Naturally, they shape opinions about the life of a soldier and, if presented with strong appeal, may persuade one to eventually enlist. It is fairly reasonable to claim that the youth predominantly acquire their understanding of the world from the entertainment media of films and video games. This is also hinted at in MW2, where during his recruit training the player is instructed to shoot from the hip “like in the movies”, which is both amusing and reflective of the previous statement. On the whole, the warfare in Call of Duty is glamorized, one can engage and eliminate multiple enemies in a short period of time, while the constant adrenaline rush from the narrow escapes out of exploding vehicles makes one feel more like a hero from an action film rather than a common soldier. The dangers ahead are minimized by light-hearted conversations between Griggs and Price regarding the types of beer they will be having once the fighting is over (CoD4).

One of the principal aspects of being a soldier which is propagated in Call of Duty is the opportunity to make a difference by devoting oneself entirely to one‘s country. When briefing Allen on his undercover mission alongside Makarov, Shepherd tells him: “It will cost you a piece of yourself. It will cost nothing to everything you’ll save” (MW2). Similarly, if the player dies, he is presented with a randomly generated quote, for instance: “I only regret that I gave but one life for my country” (MW2), ”Some people live an entire lifetime and wonder if they have ever made a difference in the world, but the Marines don’t have that problem” (CoD4). Perhaps the most overt pro-war propaganda can be exemplified by Shepherd’s speech in the “Team Player” cutscene:

“We are the most powerful military force in the history of man. Every fight is our fight, because what happens over here matters over there. We don’t get to sit one out. Learning to use the tools of modern warfare is the difference between the prospering of your people, and utter destruction. We can’t give you freedom. But we can give you the know-how to acquire it. And that, my friends, is worth more than a whole army base of steel. Sure it matters who’s got the biggest stick, but it matters a helluva lot more who’s swinging it. This is a time for heroes. A time for legends. History is written by the victors. Let’s get to work.” (MW2)

Here the propagandist not only plays with generalities such as “freedom”, but also promotes the idea that any ordinary soldier is capable of becoming a “legend” and a “hero” if only he undertakes any mission that might “matter”. While numerous similar examples could further be cited, they are all built on patriotic slogans aiming to aid recruitment.

On the other hand, nationalistic fervour on its own may not suffice to persuade that the military is strong and capable of winning its wars. The prosperity of the US armed forces is primarily emphasized in the cutscenes prior to missions, as the blueprints or pictures of modern military technology and vehicles are presented along with their specifications and costs of production. What is more, Shepherd emphasizes that he was granted a blank check to fight against the Russians, which suggests that the army can gain access to unlimited resources and spending if such a need arises (MW2). According to Halter (2006:xiii), realism in war games depends on “the veracity of any number of real life elements” such as “accurate depictions of weapons that could only fire a certain amount of rounds before reloading”. As a result, such detailed accounts of military equipment in the Call of Duty games convince one that the real army is as rich and powerful as the fictional one.

If one chooses to play all three games in their chronological sequence, it becomes apparent that an particular attitude towards army life is cultivated. Even if a recruit may be initially mocked by his superiors, he will eventually advance his career by shaping the course of events of international importance, as well as build strong relationships with his brothers in arms. This is the case of “Soap“ MacTavish and Price, who no longer maintain the captain-private relationship of CoD4 in MW3, but share close bonds of camaradery and rely on each other to succeed in their assignments. The impression that one is never alone on the battlefield is successfully conveyed in several instances where the player has no control of his actions, but is always courageously saved by his team member. For example, when the player does not manage to jump a gap and hangs helplessly on the edge of a cliff, he is quickly grabbed and pulled up by “Soap” (MW2). What is more, the whole squad risk their lives in the warzone of the Middle Eastern city to save a single pilot of an aircraft which has been shot down (CoD4). The player is instructed to do so with an inspiring  “no one gets left behind”, while Nikolai is freed from the Ultranationalists after Price reassures that “we always take care of our friends” (CoD4). All in all, this not only communicates the view that the US military is honorable and similar to a brotherhood, but also that one should not be discouraged to enlist because of one’s fear to fail alone.

Should one be killed in action, however, the service which one did for the country will not be forgotten. In the brief cutscene following “Soap’s” death in MW3, Price reflects on the unfortunate event by saying that “we try to honor their deeds even as their faces fade from our memory”. The bloodied dog tag of the soldier is pinned to the wall along with some photographs of the team, illustrating Price’s words in a symbolic way. It is questionable whether this corresponds to the reality, though it continuously fosters the myth that dying for one’s country is the honorable thing to do.  But if the military is presented “as a protector of our values, a champion of our dreams, and a model of virtue and propriety”, positive attitudes towards it are strongly reinforced (Lasswell 1927:630). This is not only done by employing the propaganda techniques discussed throughout this paper, but also by creating sympathetic characters such as captain Price, for whom the player cares for and wants to identify with.

Finally, when considering Bernays’ (1928:25) claim that propaganda has to be “enduring” and “consistent”, it is equally important to take into account the addictive nature of video games.  One of the strategies that game designers can apply to make the video game more pleasurable for a broader audience is to include an adaptive difficulty system. There is always a contradiction between “players wanting to win and players wanting games to be challenging”, thus giving the player an option to choose the difficulty improves his experience of the game (Perron and Wolf 2008:238). In both CoD4 and MW2, one has to run a training course which determines the skill of the player and only allows him to proceed with the campaign in the difficulty he has earned. However, if the following missions prove to be too challenging, the player is allowed to lower the difficulty at any point in the game, while MW3 simply gives the option to freely choose out of four difficulty levels before starting a new game. Consequently, more players will be able to thoroughly enjoy the content and the propagated viewpoints will reach a considerably higher amount of intended targets. Moreover, the multiplayer mode which is offered by all three games provides the player with endless hours of gaming experience, as competing with others can be extremely addictive. Although a detailed analysis of the propaganda in multiplayer could not be conducted due to the limitations of this paper, many of it follows the same principles of stereotyping and militarization of society. More importantly, the desired opinions and actions are repeatedly promoted to the young people who are competing for the highest scores.

In conclusion, the Call of Duty games seem to conform to the same messages and attitudes which are conveyed by the mass media in the Western world. The enemy is embodied in the antagonists from Russia and the Middle East, while both the cutscenes and the gameplay foster hostile emotions towards these nations. In contrast, the US military is portrayed as virtuous, considerate towards the civilians, and it is essential that it establishes peace all over the world. Not only are the military actions justified by polarizing countries in such ways, but this also mitigates the perception of violence and mass destruction caused for a “good cause”. The glamourization of war, which is achieved by stimulating visuals and heroic myths of army life, is also beneficial for recruitment. And while it is perhaps difficult to speculate whether Anders Breivik was influenced by Makarov‘s massacre when he committed his in Norway, there is no doubt that video games are now a powerful medium to effectively promote the dominant ideologies.

List of References
Bernays, E. L. 1928. Propaganda, accessed 10 April 2012, available here.
Chomsky, N. 1991. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. The Open Media Pamphlet Series.
Berron, P. & M. J. P. Wolf (eds.). 2008. The Video Game Theory Reader 2. Taylor & Francis e-Library.
Herz, M. 1949. Some Psychological Lessons from Leaflet Propaganda in World War II, The Public Opinion Quarterly, 13/3: 471-486.
Frasca, G. 2001. Videogames of the Oppressed: Videogames as a Means for Critical Thinking and Debate. Atlanta: Georgia Institute of Technology.
Rauch, P. 2004. Playing with Good and Evil: Videogames and Moral Philosophy. Boca Raton: Florida Atlantic University.
Halter, E. 2006. From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games. New York: Thunder Mouth Press.
Lasswell, H. D. 1927. The Theory of Political Propaganda, The American Political Science Review, 21/3: 627-631.


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