War as Entertainment: The Real, the Game, and the Ugly Truth

09/14/2010 05:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On this anniversary of 9/11, the disconnect between a real war's losses and any virtual victory was stirred when I read "War Games" in this Sunday's New York Times magazine. Citing the telling fact that while movies such as The Hurt Locker gross only $16 million in theatres, "video games that evoke our current wars," like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (set in Afghanistan), has made "Avatar-like profits." Why do real wars lose our attention while virtual ones engage millions?

What happens to our brains and our imaginations when we spend so much time in the fictional killing fields -- as opposed to witnessing and understanding the two very real and complex wars that our country is engaged in fighting? If a video warrior is beating the Taliban in Afghanistan does that "win" somehow deny and even demean the losses on the actual ground where real soldiers are ambushed and die?

Video games strip war of its complications and paradoxes, its lovers who cross enemy lines, its Catch-22 dark comedy. They are not stories; they are statistics. And what do they teach our children and us about how to live?

Do video war games do anything to increase our empathy and connection to the actual wars or the soldiers and their families who are suffering? Do they lessen the distance and distrust between human beings -- as does the best reporting and the greatest fiction? Does a virtual world inspire understanding of the other side, even if it is our so-called enemy?

And how about the environment -- mountain caves blown up in search of Osama bin Laden, the greatest oil spill in world history during the Gulf War, and real city markets with innocent people blasted to smithereens by suicide bombers? Or, Twin Towers falling.

The Hurt Locker is the most grueling and realistic war film I've ever seen. It took me three nights to endure its tense authenticity. Though it won an Academy Award, it was not a blockbuster. I guess following the story of the gritty and sacrificial work of soldiers defusing bombs in Iraq pales next to the giddy bloodlust of video war games.

A soldier patrolling Iraqi streets or Afghan mountains never knows who is an insurgent and who is an ally -- and a real life may be lost. But a Pac-man video warrior risks only in his imagination. As one of the video gamers casually tells the New York Times reporter, "I killed a lot and was killed a lot."

War gamers are "adults mostly between ages 18 and 29 (though some were in their 50s), largely Americans and almost all men." Some video game designers, like Will Wright (SimCity and The Sims) argues, "games are about agency (the ability to navigate a virtual world), not empathy (relating emotionally to the particulars of the world). So manual dexterity trumps mindfulness."

Critics of these lucrative war games claim that it is war profiteering -- and worse. A mother of a Marine rifleman who was killed in the Fallujah fighting said of the banned "Six Days in Fallujah" action game, "they don't show the heartache of family members who are left without a spouse, or a father, or a child who does not return."

So what is the difference between playing a video war game and witnessing a film like The Hurt Locker? Everything.

When one reads a novel, such as Tolstoy's War and Peace with young Prince Nicolai wounded on the battlefield or watches the characters in The Hurt Locker bravely suiting up to face a ticking bomb -- one becomes all of those characters -- even the antagonists. Villains are often as complex and tragic as heroes. When we inhabit a fictional world created with the full spectrum of human folly and glory, we engage our whole selves. The finest fiction evokes the miracle of empathy. We participate in the whole story, not just the body count.

In both worlds, the costs are real. In his books, On Killing and Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a psychology professor at West Point, decries the video war games. He believes that bloody, but unrealistic "murder simulation" is not only unethical, but dangerous -- especially for young people.

"We are leaning to kill," Grossman warns, "and we are learning to like it." He worries that we've "taken the safety catch off our nation."

The virtual killing field of war games, with its simplistic rewards, desensitizes us to the genuine shock of slaughter. Soldiers in real wars lose limbs, friends, hope. Sometimes when they return home, shattered, they lose their families and futures. How to we jive the record suicide rate of Iraq and Afghan soldiers with the soaring sales of video war games?

The truth about war is that it is ugly, horrifying, and heartbreaking. This is why every soldier suffers. War stories should evoke our compassion, a word that means "to suffer with." The virtual war is about detachment; the real war is about engagement.

There are no winners in war. War is much too subtle to score. Imagining war without complexity, compassion, or consequences makes us all losers. So if you have the courage -- go see The Hurt Locker. And give that trigger finger a rest.

Brenda Peterson is the author of many books, including Duck and Cover, a New York Times "Notable Book of the Year" and the new memoir I Want To be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth.