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While video games have been around for some time now, they have emerged, in recent years, as a major player on the profit scene. Indeed, for the past two years, the video game market has made more money than the motion picture business. Perhaps that's why filmmakers often release video game versions of their films months before theatrical release – in order to heat up the marketplace for their film.

The latest trend in video games, such as the Medal of Honor series, the Battlefield series, and America's Army, is to be especially "realistic." Such games proudly transport the gamer into immersive, gut wrenching virtual battlefields. They persuade the gamer that, in an echo of WWII-era journalism, "You Are There" – on the beaches of Normandy, in the jungles of Vietnam, in modern military hotspots.

Upon examination, this now-common claim raises other key questions. First, and perhaps most obviously: To what degree is this claim to realism justified? In other words, are the games truly as historically accurate as their makers and players claim? Answering that question raises a series of more significant and telling questions: What do these games signify? Being war games, why are they so popular now? Who benefits from this popularity, and how?

The games that most stridently and persuasively claim to be realistic, and therefore those games on which I will focus, are first-person shooters (FPSs) which purport to recreate full-scale real-world battles. For the uninitiated, the phrase "first-person" in "first-person shooters" refers to the player's point of view: onscreen appears a pair of forearms and hands aiming a weapon forward "into" the screen. The hands are "you." That gun is "your" gun. Players use controls (keyboard, mouse, and/or game controller) to virtually look up, down, and around onscreen, and the result looks and feels like brandishing a weapon. The word "shooter" in "first-person shooter" refers to what the player does: move around a "map" (virtual battlefield) and deploy an arsenal of weapons against virtual enemies.

Unreal Tournament provides clear examples of standard FPS conventions. One key convention is that weapons, ammunition, armor, and first-aid kits regularly and frequently "spawn," that is, suddenly appear out of nowhere. Simply running over them onscreen confers their benefits immediately; there is almost no time wasted simulating using the first-aid kits, or reloading the weapons. Second, all FPS players die a lot, even when they're winning. The goal is to rack up the most "frags," or kills, so how often they die is really irrelevant. Dead players immediately respawn at a semi-random spot on the map, then get right back to killing. Finally, FPSs revel in offering ungenteel, gore-intensive gameplay. Players can be slimed, shot, sniped, razored, exploded, or chainsawed to death onscreen. Bodies hit just right, with the right weapon, fly apart into bloody chunks of flesh.

Realistic war games are recent specialized offshoots of the broader FPS genre. The first FPS was Wolfenstein; Medal of Honor, published a decade later, is probably the first realistic war game. This genealogical relationship – realistic war games' direct descent from FPSs – becomes apparent with close scrutiny. This genealogical relationship also means that while realistic war games are generally more realistic than other FPSs, they still retain significant unrealistic qualities.

One key unrealistic quality of putatively realistic war games might be called "self-assessment." Players have onscreen at all times thorough, accessible-at-a-glance information regarding their condition. They can see the status of their armor, their physical health expressed as a precise percentage, and their ammunition stores for every single weapon. Obviously, this level of self-knowledge is unavailable in real life. We may have a fairly keen sense of how healthy or unhealthy we feel, and if we have just had a blood or other test we may even be able to express this feeling with some precision. But this precision never approaches that in a FPS: we could never say, "I'm 81% healthy, and my clothes are providing 34% protection." Thus, for a simulation of war truly to be realistic, such information would have to remain vague or difficult to obtain. Yet there it is, right onscreen constantly in all of the new war games – just as in unashamedly unrealistic other FPSs.

Surprisingly, another FPS convention preserved by the realistic war games is respawning. For example, in the Medal of Honor games, when players die they are magically transported back to the beginning of the scenario, with all their original weapons and health restored, to try again. This makes sense not only from a games-history perspective, but also from an entertainment perspective: it's no fun if dying onscreen means the game is over. Players want to get right back up and fight some more. Obviously, though, real life does not work this way. Death tends to be final – but not in war video games.

Not only is death in this way banished from the games, but significantly, so is bodily dismemberment. Game makers systematically exclude it, much in the way Paul Fussell shows it was excluded from images and accounts of World War II. He observes that in such accounts, with very few exceptions, "the bodies of the dead, if inert, are intact. Bloody, sometimes, and sprawled in awkward positions, but except for the absence of life, plausible and acceptable simulacra of the people they once were. . . . American bodies (decently clothed) are occasionally in evidence, but they are notably intact." The famous photographic collection Life Goes to War, for example, shows only three dismembered bodies – specifically, heads. It is significant that they are not American but Asian heads. They are displayed as trophies of our soldiers' prowess. Always showing American bodies intact directly counters real-world facts and probabilities: as Fussell points out, it was "as likely for the man next to you to be shot through the eye, ear, testicles, or brain as (the way the cinema does it) through the shoulder. A shell is as likely to blow his whole face off as to lodge a fragment in some mentionable and unvital tissue." In fact, it was also quite common for a soldier to be wounded or killed not by a bullet or shell but by a flying body part – a foot, a skull, a ribcage.

Obviously, game makers could include such graphic details if they wanted to: Unreal Tournament, five years old at this writing, which is a dinosaur in computer time, displays gore galore. The technology for depicting dismemberment convincingly onscreen is quite capable nowadays, so clearly war game makers choose not to do it. They do in war video games what wartime journalists such as Ernie Pyle did in writing: purposely, systematically remove gory details so as to make the war more palatable – as opposed to more truly realistic. One of Pyle’s best-known stories involves the return of the body of one Captain Henry T. Waskow “of Belton, Texas," to his grieving company. One of the men reportedly sat by the body for a long time, holding the captain’s hand and looking into his face; then he “reached over and gently straightened the points of the captain’s shirt collar, and then he sort of arranged the tattered edges of the uniform around the wound." As Fussell points out, Pyle’s geographical and behavioral precision calls attention to the essential information that he glosses over:

1. What killed Captain Waskow? Bullet, shell fragments, a mine, or what?
2. Where was his wound? How large was it? He implies that it was in the traditional noble place, the chest. Was it? Was it a little hole, or was it a great red missing place? Was it perhaps in the crotch, or in the testicles, or in the belly? Were his entrails extruded, or in any way visible?
3. How much blood was there? Was the captain’s uniform bloody? Did the faithful soldier wash off his hands after toying with those “tattered edges"? Were the captain’s eyes open? Did his face look happy? Surprised? Satisfied? Angry?

Like wartime press reports, war video games carefully elide this most basic fact of wartime: bodily damage.

The most plainly unrealistic element of the war games is the existence of the games themselves. That is, players always remain inescapably aware of two very important facts. First, the war is never finally real. Players are not, in fact, dashing around a battlefield but rather sitting in a comfortable chair. They grip a controller, or keyboard and mouse, not a Garand rifle. There is no actual danger of being killed, or physically harmed beyond getting stiff and fat from playing video games too long. No matter how immersive or even realistic the game, one can never forget that it is “just a game." Second, players may play the game, but in an important sense the game plays them. There is always a “proper" outcome, a pre-scripted story one must complete correctly, especially when the game pits the player against the computer rather than against other flesh-and-blood players. There is always a specific task to carry out, such as to storm Normandy Beach and rout the Germans from their bunkers; the ideal for game programmers is to make such tasks challenging but possible. Players’ job, then, is to find the correct solution to a puzzle someone else constructed; they are in a significant sense acted upon rather than acting. In life, of course, we can choose badly or well, but we can choose. This rat-in-a-maze aspect, together with the game’s inescapable “game-ness," reminds players every moment that games fundamentally differ from real life; playing a game is inherently unrealistic.

Nevertheless, talk abounds regarding how realistic the current war video games are. Official Xbox Magazine’s comments on Full Spectrum Warrior are typical of the glee with which players and critics greet the newly “realistic" war games. The magazine effuses, “Now when you send your troops into a slaughter in Full Spectrum Warrior, you’ll have to look in their eyes and hear their screams." Apparently this is a good thing. OXM also raves, “with [its] 5:1 [sound] it really feels like you are in the middle of a combat zone (turn it up loud enough and your neighbors might think so as well)." One fan anticipating Battlefield: Vietnam’s release on writes, “this will alow a more real taste of the war [sic]." Another, purporting to speak for all of us, claims, “U know how u always wanted to know what the Vietnam War was like [sic]. I think this game will show you."

There is some justification for these claims to realism. Sound is one area in which the new war games truly do reproduce wartime accurately. Sound effects are as accurate and inclusive as visual representations are sanitized and edited. The realistic war games – for example, America’s Army, the Battlefield series, and the Medal of Honor series – reproduce all of the rumbling machinery, gunfire, artillery, explosions, footsteps, splats, ricochets, shouted orders, swearing, and wounded cries one would hear in a real war. And current computer/television sound technology – now standardized at seven points in the room – reproduces all these sounds with perfect clarity at 100+ decibels.

In addition to sound, the war games also reproduce historical circumstances with comparative accuracy. The games do allow players to virtually fight in battles that really did occur – famous ones such as the Normandy invasion, Pearl Harbor, and the Tet Offensive. In-game soldiers use weapons that look and perform more or less like real weapons that real soldiers used. In-game soldiers dress, look, and speak like real soldiers did. The games may not be completely historically faithful in these elements, but they certainly are more so than other, older FPSs. The genealogical relationship makes the newer war games seem more realistic than they are.

Compare any current realistic war game, for example, with Unreal Tournament. In UT, the voices and character models (“skins") are a self-consciously over-the-top assortment of idealized macho warriors and ridiculous comic figures. In addition to the macho grunts, my copy features the downloaded voices of Fat Bastard (from the Austin Powers movies), Eric Cartman (from South Park), and Homer Simpson (from The Simpsons). Players can choose UT deathmatchers’ appearances: onscreen fighters can be assigned any skin from a giant, scary lizardman, to a stereotypical macho male (or female), to Captain America, to Dr. Frankenfurter (from The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Any voice can be assigned to any skin: one might arrange a Dr. Frankenfurter with Cartman’s voice, or a skull-faced badass who talks like Homer Simpson. These zany characters’ weapons similarly aim for entertaining gameplay rather than factual accuracy. UT features rocket launchers, handheld frag cannons, plasma rifles, and sludge guns. The battles in which these crazy weapons are used take place on obviously artificial, nonreferential staging grounds. That is, the in-game battle sites are not intended to reproduce historical locations. They clearly exist solely so that players can virtually blast the hell out of each other in visually interesting, strategically challenging settings – and the more fantastic, the better. References to real-world locales tend to be ironic, humorous: “Hey look, here’s a map like a football field!" “Here’s one set on a cruise ship!" I certainly hope real deathmatches never take place in such locales. Classic FPSs, as opposed to realistic war games, are judged by how intense a deathmatch they can produce, not by how accurately they reproduce “the real Normandy."

Overall “presentation," too, proves comparatively realistic in the new war games. “Presentation" refers to the way a game is laid out for the player in terms of menu choices, art, and sound; we might call it “atmosphere." In Medal of Honor: Frontline, for example, menu choices take the form of file folders stamped with the (now-defunct) Office of Strategic Services logo. All in-game fonts look typewritten by period typewriters. “Your" portrait in the menu file appears attached by low-tech paper clip. Selecting a menu option produces a gunshot or file-rustling sound. In the America’s Army game, menu headings use terminology lifted from the real-world America’s Army: “Personnel Jacket," “Training Missions," “Deployment," and so on. This kind of attention to making the presentation realistic enhances the overall impression that the game accurately recreates history. Compared to the three-ring FPS circus that is their origin, the new realistic war games appear positively photographic in their historical fidelity. Even gamers, disposed by nature to find all flaws, perceive them as faithful to what the games purport to recreate.

So far, I have discussed two fairly black-and-white categories, “realistic" and “unrealistic," so that I can make descriptions clearly. But the truth is, the issue is much more complicated than that binary choice. It’s more accurate to say that the games blur the boundaries between real and virtual, or mix elements of the one in among the other, so thoroughly that players finally cannot tell where reality ends and virtual reality begins.

One telling example appears in the required marksman-training mission that begins America’s Army. The player must hit a specified number of targets within a time limit. After passing the test, the player receives hearty applause from the drill sergeant: “Congratulations, soldier! You have just qualified as a marksman in the United States Army!" I must admit: the first time I passed this test, I became moderately alarmed – he did mean I virtually qualified, right? So many other kinds of transactions take place online nowadays; why not real-life recruitment and qualification?

The idea that by playing a realistic war game for a few minutes I may have inadvertently enlisted is not as outlandish as it may seem out of context. Consider: the real-world America’s Army created, programmed, and distributed, for free online, the game called America’s Army, specifically for the purpose of recruitment. Anyone can download it for free, right now, at The real army counts on people, mostly young men ripe for recruitment, to download the game, enjoy it, think to themselves, “Hey, you know, I should do this for real," and then go enlist. Apparently the strategy is working very effectively. In late March 2004, the CBS Evening News reported on a huge America’s Army gaming tournament. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money and computer equipment were at stake. Several recruiters sat in the competition room. Hundreds of players walked directly from their round of competition over to sign up with recruiters. CBS reported that since the game was released in 2002, recruitment has spiked; the video game is the most effective recruitment tool since the Uncle Sam “I Want You" posters during World War II.

This video game recruitment strategy meshes very neatly with the Army’s recent advertising campaign. The Army shows images of underage kids essentially playing games – flying a remote-controlled plane in one, and actually playing a video game in another. Then the same people (presumably) are shown as young adults doing pretty much the same activities in the Army: the model plane flyer pilots a decoy drone plane, and the video gamer efficiently directs real tanks and troops around a battlefield. The clear message is: “You should join the real Army because we will pay you to play pretty much the same games you play for fun right now. You were born for this."

Full Spectrum Warrior blurs reality and gaming perhaps even more thoroughly. Like America’s Army, this game was produced by the real U.S. Army. In fact, it’s not entirely clear that the end result was the choice of the game’s original developer, William Stahl. In an interview with Official Xbox Magazine, Stahl describes how the game got made: "Three years ago, I was pitching a . . . game for the PC. Representatives of the Army were looking for a developer to create a training simulation on a videogame console. They got ahold of those early documents and thought the concept was right in line with what they wanted to achieve. . . . This game was developed in conjunction with the Army. They were essentially our publisher, and as such, they had the final say on what they wanted in the game, how it looked, etc." This statement raises worrisome questions:

1. How did the Army get "ahold" of those early documents"?
2. How much choice of publisher did Stahl and company actually have?

In any case, the Army ultimately made two versions, one of which is being used right now by real American soldiers for training, and a very similar version being sold in stores. Real soldiers and couch bound warriors alike learn battle tactics by playing a video game. Thus, the real and the virtual become indistinguishable. The U.S. Army recruits real soldiers by appealing to them through video games and suggests that video gamers’ virtual prowess and enjoyment translate directly into real-world Army suitability and success.

In one important sense, the first-person-shooter genre itself contributes to this fusion of the real and the virtual. In recent years, in-game instructions have become standard parts of all FPSs and most video games in general; James Paul Gee explains in detail, in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, how they help the player learn to “read" and understand the game, to figure out what to do in the game world. So, for example, in America’s Army, the sergeant character gives the player basic directions to get started. He gives commands like, “Press <G> to fix jammed weapon," “Press <T> to bring up sights," and “Press <B> to reload." In doing so, he merges the player’s onscreen and real-life identities. The sergeant is onscreen, talking to the player’s onscreen representation, but he’s giving directions that only the real-world person can carry out. The onscreen representation doesn’t have a G, T, or B button to push – it’s the real-world person doing that. Similarly, in Medal of Honor: Frontline the player is to “press Select to get hints from HQ," and “press Start to review mission objectives." In-game, players are spoken to as their real-world self and their onscreen self simultaneously and without differentiation, which means those identities merge.

With the real and the virtual mingling so thoroughly in war video games, perhaps it’s only natural that both players and game makers reproduce and perpetuate this fusion in the way they talk. It’s not some kind of schizophrenia or delusion, it’s the ordinary, proper response to the postmodern facts. For example, imagining someone playing Full Spectrum Warrior with guns blazing rather than cautiously and strategically, William Stahl predicts, “His men will die. Mothers will lose their son, wives will lose their husbands, and children will lose their fathers." OXM also warns, “Don’t press [the Action] button [in this game] until you’ve assessed the situation and made the right plan or it’ll be the last button you press." Er, they do mean in-game...right? Thus, it’s not so outlandish for the magazine to call Full Spectrum Warrior “The Game That Captured Saddam." OXM explains, “This game was made to train the US Army infantry...they’re the ones who dug Saddam out of his hole. So technically this game caught Saddam." Nor is it as insane as it might first appear when one gamer writes in anticipation of playing Battlefield: Vietnam, “The Vietnam War was said to be a draw, but when this game comes out everyone will see that the U.S.A. is the best army in the world." His comment suggests that an alleged misperception of history – namely, that the U.S. did not decisively win that war – will be corrected by people’s playing the game. He’s epistemologically assuming, and rhetorically suggesting, that not only do video games refer to and simulate real-world battles, but because this is so, they also provide players an accurate recreative picture of history. In this understanding, war games not only borrow from history, they also teach it.

Many veterans’ and historical organizations have bestowed awards on games such as the Medal of Honor series for their educational value. Medal of Honor: Frontline’s official sales copy at boasts, “Authentic WWII content with the assistance of the Smithsonian’s . . . expert Russ Lee and renowned technical consultant Capt. Dale Dye," and, “The MOH team continues to work closely with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society to ensure the ideals and integrity of this prestigious commendation." Not incidentally, that game awards the Congressional Medal of Honor for especially meritorious military action – in-game. If players complete a given mission quickly enough and safely enough, they win a virtual medal. MOH: Frontline also unlocks documentary movie clips and historical speech excerpts as rewards for good performance in the game, and it mixes game elements, such as the game’s logo and menus, and historical elements, such as documentary film clips and an exhortative speech by Dwight D. Eisenhower, without any differentiation of importance or validity. They all “feel real." Current war video games have blended and blurred the real and the virtual.

Because that is so, the games’ romanticizing of war becomes all the more seductive and powerful. Any truly realistic recreation of war would cast some doubt on the idea that war is cool and enjoyable, and that, as in sports, all one has to do is “step up" and become an instant hero. But the titles alone hint at how current war video games support this old myth: Call of Duty, Full Spectrum Warrior, Medal of Honor. Players can almost taste the medals, just reading the game box. In-game, it immediately becomes clear that the war effort would never get off the ground without the player’s personal, constant heroics. What the U. S. Army claims in its current advertising slogan is absolutely true: the player really is “An Army of One." Never mind the Army’s famous unwieldy, illogical bureaucracy made famous in works such as Catch-22 and M*A*S*H*. Never mind the fact that boot camp is famously designed to tear down the individual to replace that entity with a small cog in a giant machine. Contrary to common-sense facts, the war game player is always “An Army of One." Medal of Honor: Frontline’s first mission provides a brilliant example of this. During this mission, “you" are ordered onscreen to storm the beach at Normandy under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, provide covering fire for three soldiers widely separated along the beach, run lengthwise down the beach to an engineer then cover his run all the way back, cross a minefield, storm a machine-gun nest and take it over, mow down a wave of advancing German soldiers with that machine-gun, and finally snipe two far-off machine-gunners while still under fire. And that’s just the first mission! What must the odds be that any individual would a) be present at D-Day; b) be asked to personally complete every single necessary task at that battle; and c) survive to complete them all successfully, thus winning that battle singlehandedly? The whole game continues like that: the player is assigned all the work at all the key European battles, eventually bringing about V-E Day completely solo.

This begins to answer the important question, “Why would someone want to realistically recreate the experience of war? Isn’t it just common sense to avoid being there?" One game magazine editor raises exactly this question when he writes, “With the new wave of games pushing the envelope of realism it begs the question: how real do we want it? Do we want games that’ll simulate war to such a degree that it’s possible to suffer from post-game-atic syndrome?" Judging by the state of the games now, the answer for both gamers and game makers is a resounding “No." For all their attention to accurately recreating sounds, weapons, locales, and uniforms, and for all their visual drama and flair, the new “realistic" war video games do not, in fact, reproduce the real conditions of war. They still play too much like other FPSs, and significantly, like goreless FPSs. Although players see soldiers being blown into the air by mines, riddled with machine-gun fire, and sniped from all directions, they never see blood or a flying body part, ever.

Thus, I would argue, what the new war games are is not realistic, but cinematic. They don’t reproduce the real world experience of war; they do reproduce the theatrical experience of war. Games use all of the same techniques as movies for framing shots, editing, pacing, and narration. Playing one of the new war video games is very much like starring in a war movie. For example, the MOH: Frontline opening mission is a rather accurate, if condensed, version of the first thirty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, even down to individual camera shots: bullets whizzing along underwater past slowly sinking soldiers, and the company’s seeking cover under a low hill while the engineer blows away the barbed wire barrier. Medal of Honor: Rising Sun similarly steals heavily from the much less well-made movie Pearl Harbor. H. L. Mencken once described art as “life with all the boring parts taken out." War has been described as 99 percent boredom punctuated by short bursts of abject terror. No one in their right mind would want to reproduce that, and, in recent war video games, no one does. Instead, the games are, in essence, interactive movies about war with all the boring parts taken out. But the boring parts were already pretty much taken out by the movies, so in the games, all that’s left is action, action, action – the player winning a war single handedly. The war games make players heroes, in a bloodless, risk-free environment where they can show off their “mad skillz."

As it turns out, then, logical answers do exist for the question, “Why in the world would anyone want to recreate the experience of war?" First, the games don’t do quite that; rather, they recreate movies about the experience of war. The additional remove is key. Playing the games provides an entertaining, cinematic experience, rather than the horrible one a true recreation would give. Even if the imagery is not pleasing, it certainly is immersive. And as Miroslaw Filiciak points out, we value the experience of immersion in itself. We intentionally overlook unconvincing elements of the experience so as to become more fully immersed: “We desire the experience of immersion, so we use our intelligence to reinforce rather than to question the reality of the experience." In short, it doesn’t really matter that the war games aren’t fully realistic; gamers enjoy them for what they are, interactive movies that temporarily immerse us in the games’ battles. The second answer to the question, “Why would anyone want to recreate the experience of war?" is to play the hero, in a cinematically intense experience in which we can play an active part rather than just settling passively down into our couches and watching as movies force us to do. And third, we get to see ourselves onscreen playing the hero. Filiciak observes: "Contemporary people have a fascination with electronic media, something we cannot define, something that escapes our rationalizations. . . . We make the screen a fetish; we desire it, not only do we want to watch the screen but also to 'be seen' on it . . . being on the screen ennobles. All the time we have the feeling (more or less true) that others are watching us. The existence of an audience is an absolute necessity." We can see “ourselves" onscreen in any video game, but in online war games such as America’s Army and Battlefield: Vietnam, we can also be seen by other players. We can show off our skills, and brag about our victories, to others who have just witnessed them. We can enact the electronic equivalent of dancing in the end zone.

The reasons for making the new war video games are even more obvious than those for playing them. Foremost, there’s the money. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, Americans now spend more money on video games than on movies. Games are huge business, and they’re steadily getting huger. One key game maker, the real-world U.S. Army – and by extension, the other service branches and the federal government as a whole – reaps huge benefits from the games’ popularity. Not only does the current hawkish regime gain flesh-and-blood recruits for the armed services, it also gains general credibility and support as the games work their propagandist magic. By hiding ugly realities and producing cinematic cotton candy, the games make real war seem exciting, heroic, even fun. And so hawkish political candidates seem not bellicose, but reasonable. Rapidly escalating defense costs look not wasteful, but common-sensical. Thus our two-front war rolls on and on and on.

January 2005

From Brian Cowlishaw, Assistant Professor of English at Northeastern State University
(He would like to extend special thanks to NSU’s Living Literature Program, for which this study was originally begun.)

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