THE BLOG

Call of Duty and a Generation of Joystick Warriors

11/19/2013 02:10 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Since the recent release of the blockbuster war-themed video game Call of Duty: Ghosts, the news media has been abuzz with reports about its awe-inspiring realism and predictions about whether it could reach the dizzying sales heights of Grand Theft Auto V. (It couldn't).

There has been nowhere near as much attention paid to growing concerns about the astonishing levels of immersive, interactive violence found in wildly popular shooter games like these, and what effect, if any, playing them has on young men and women's belief systems -- and psyches.

My work has long focused on the relationship between cultural ideas about manhood that are established and reinforced in media, and the ongoing pandemic of violence in our society. It's not that guys merely imitate what they see. It's about the role of media in shaping ideas about what it means to be a man, and how those norms contribute to violence.

It is naïve to think we can talk about the forces shaping the socialization of boys and men (and girls and women) and not include a thoughtful discussion about the role of mega-popular video games like C.O.D.

Fortunately, a new educational documentary produced by the Media Education Foundation, Joystick Warriors, moves beyond commercial hype to focus on the personal, social, and cultural impact of war-themed video games and other shooter games. I interviewed one of the scholars featured in Joystick Warriors, Nina Huntemann, to get some background about issues related to the film's central concerns about militarism, violence and video games. Huntemann is also a long-time gamer whose research interests include the image of women in video games, women's use of the Internet for social change, sexist harassment online and misogyny in gamer culture. I asked her about some of those issues as well.

Nina B. Huntemann, Ph.D., is an associate professor of media studies at Suffolk University. Her research focuses on new media technologies, particularly video and computer games, and incorporates feminist, critical cultural studies and political economy perspectives. In addition to co-producing Joystick Warriors, she co-edited, with Matthew Thomas Payne, the anthology Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games (Routledge, 2010). (Full disclosure: Huntemann is also my colleague and friend). The interview follows.

JK: One of the knee-jerk reactions to critiques about video games -- especially if those critiques even mention the word "violence," -- is that it's reductive to say "video games cause violence,'' when of course you and other thoughtful critics never say or imply such simplistic things. Often the next straw argument is that critiquing video games is tantamount to calling for government censorship. How do you respond to these sorts of predictable criticisms?

NH: There is a pervasive, knee-jerk reaction to any criticism of video games that someone is going to 'take away my games.' Given the history of mainstream culture and, in particular, news media marginalizing games as pointless and gamers as socially inept teenagers, I sympathize with this wary and fearful response. However, I don't know of any thoughtful video game critic worth listening to who, first of all, doesn't play and enjoy video games and, second, who would ever suggest government censorship as a solution to the more problematic aspects of gaming.

The role of criticism is to expose the limitations of art and culture, and push cultural producers to make better, more engaging and profound experiences for consumer, audiences, players. Equally important is the knowledge and perspective that criticism adds to understanding our contemporary culture, what our society values, how it reacts to tragedy and triumph, and how we can craft a better future.

JK: In the new documentary Joystick Warriors, which you're featured in, you talk a lot about how games like Call of Duty feed certain ideas and ideologies that undergird American militarism. What's your essential argument here?

NH: Since their creation in the 1960s, there has always been a symbiotic relationship between video and computer games and the US military, particularly in regards to technology. The computer systems upon which video games were first developed and the engineers who first programmed games were, in part, funded by contracts with the Department of Defense. The sharing of hardware innovations and advances in simulation have continued, both formally and informally, especially as the military's desire for unmanned strike tactics has increased.

In addition to a technological partnership, military-themed games like Call of Duty and Battlefield share an ideological vision as well; one that elevates a militaristic response to conflict over diplomacy, fetishizes the technologies of warfare, and minimizes the humanitarian consequences of warfare on civilians and veterans. The popularity of military-themed video games, and the central stories they tell, contribute to the militarization of everyday life: the broad acceptance of militaristic ideas and values, and a subsequent lack of critique of those ideas and values.

Couple this virtual fog of war with the unchallenged secrecy of the Executive Branch - starting with former President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 but continuing with bravado by President Obama - and it is no wonder that the American public's perception of war is literally more likely to be formed by fictionalized fantasies of warfare than by journalistic accounts of the real actions of the US Armed Forces and intelligence agencies.

JK: Can you talk a bit more about the relationship between the military, the gun industry, and the video game industry -- and what this relationship has to do with the question of real-world effects?

I think most people can understand why the US Armed Forces would have a close relationship with gun manufacturers. As the tactics of contemporary warfare change, new weapons systems must adapt to the specific needs of the military. What might surprise people, however, is the close relationship between the gun industry and video games, especially in light of the National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre's comments last year in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting. LaPierre accused the video game industry of being a "callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people." If indeed LaPierre believes this to be true, then he is indicting some of the NRA's top "Gold Ring of Freedom" donors because many of them contribute to and materially benefit from video games.

The desire for realism in video games drives technological advances such as increasingly complex physics engines and motion capture-driven animation. In games that feature an arsenal of weapons, the accurate representation of real-world guns can add to this sense of realism. To achieve this, game developers will invest a significant amount of research and design resources, which often means working directly with gun manufactures in a relationship similar to product placement in film and television. Simulating everything from the sound of specific guns when fired at close and long range, rapid fire versus single shot, fail rate and accuracy statistics, and the precise look of a gun, can add the "juice" a game needs to stand out in the highly competitive tactical shooter genre.

But even if game makers do not work directly with game developers, they still benefit financially when their products are used in games. Major gun manufacturers, like Barrett to Bushmaster, license the use of their name brand weapons for many top-selling video game titles. In either case, seeking "realism" in video games is a marketing win for gun makers and video game publishers.

JK: In Joystick Warriors, you and others talk about how these games can cultivate not only certain militaristic attitudes and ideas, but also nationalistic attitudes and ideas. Given the increasingly global appetite for these games, how do gamers in other parts of the world experience this glamorization of US militarism and imperialism?

NH: The vast majority of military-themed video games are played from the perspective of an American soldier fighting on behalf of the US government or an international force united with the US. A common narrative of these games is a technology-driven "shock and awe" strategy that aligns with US military doctrine adopted since the first Gulf War in 1990, which aims to deter an opponent by pre-emptively striking hard and heavy. The potential effect of this on players outside the US is, like any seductive soft power tactic, to engender reverence for American exceptionalism demonstrated by military dominance. In the case of video games, the virtual "shock and awe" is a reminder of US military might.

JK: What would you say to parents who are wondering if there's any real harm in their kids playing war-themed games like Call of Duty?

NH: Most war-themed games are rated M, which means recommended for people 17 or older. My advice to parents would be to heed this rating.

JK: Would your advice to parents change at all based on whether their kids were boys or girls?

NH: No, my advice would be the same.

JK: In recent years there have been many significant developments in the US military related to gender and sexuality: the growing number of women in the service, the lifting of the combat exclusion for women, the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and of course the ongoing scandal of sexual assault. Your work for many years has looked at gender and representation in video games. Have any of these historical developments shown up in war-themed video games? Has there been any shift in the role of women -- or any presence of explicitly gay characters or story-lines -- in video games?

NH: The representation of women in video games has changed some in the past ten years. There are a greater number of female characters, both as lead and secondary characters, and there have been a few notable gay characters. However, the inching toward greater inclusivity in games and in the military is not at all reflected in war-themed games. Women and gay characters are practically non-existent.

JK: Gamer culture has long been a male-dominated space which women gamers have had to negotiate creatively, and carefully. In a number of incidents in the last couple of years women who offered critiques of sexism in that space have been the victims of vicious and overtly misogynist online attacks from male gamers. As a gamer yourself, and someone whose research and writing has taken on these sorts of issues, can you share any of your experiences with this kind of resistance? Have you worked out a personal strategy for how to deal with this? Are there organizations and/or support networks for women in gaming that you would recommend?

NH: When I first started playing games online in the late 1990s, I didn't experience much harassment from other gamers. Occasionally I would have to listen to juvenile sex and fart jokes, but it was rarely directed at me and I didn't feel as if I wasn't welcome. Even frequent, but harmless flirting from squad or guild members didn't interfere with my gameplay. However, when online gameplay became more popular with the 7th generation of consoles (PS3 and XBox360), I witnessed and was subjected to very personal attacks, almost always including threats of rape and other sexualized violence. And this was across genres. It didn't seem to matter if the game was set in a fantasy world or military world. I stopped joining teams with players I didn't know, I changed my gamer ID a few times, I don't use voice chat features anymore, and I avoid particular games altogether. Of course, these choices I make remove me, not the harassers, from the game space.

In terms of support networks, there are various harassment-free game environments with zero tolerance policies, though not nearly enough and not on all platforms or for all games. Also, an illuminating albeit depressing website called fatuglyorslutty.com calls attention to online harassment by posting the sexist and misogynist comments received by (usually women) gamers. A quick scroll of the first page demonstrates the frequency and viciousness of these attacks.

The problem of online harassment, particularly harassment motivated by racism, sexism and homophobia, is that harassers are rarely, if ever, held accountable for their actions. The entities that could hold harassers accountable are the companies that control the game servers and online networks we play in, namely Activision, Microsoft, EA and Sony. Their existing policies, if they have any at all, do not adequately address the issue.

JK: As you know, a key focus of my work is the responsibility of men to challenge and interrupt other men's sexist attitudes and behaviors. Have you seen examples in gamer culture of men holding other men accountable for sexist commentary, or misogynist attacks on women gamers, especially those who dare to speak out? Is there any sense in male-dominated gamer culture that this is men's responsibility, rather than the sole responsibility of women to respond to online aggression against them?

NH: It has been encouraging to see and hear male players joining female players in calling out harassing, misogynist behavior. This is happening in games, during game play and also in online forums, directed both at harassers as well as complacent game companies. Furthermore, prominent game developers have publicly condemned the toxic culture of gaming, and influenced their companies to create better anti-harassment policies. So I am hopeful, but still very wary of most online game spaces not specifically created for safe, harassment-free play.

JK: So what's to be done here? What's the takeaway from the kind of critique you're offering? What's your hope when you look at the immense popularity of war-themed games like Call of Duty and the violence-drenched gaming landscape overall?

NH: The hope is for better games that tell more complex, engrossing and provocative stories, not excluding stories about conflict. There have been some. Fans of the first person, tactical shooter genre point to Medal of Honor (2010) as one title in the franchise that attempted to address the horrors of war, including the loss of squad mates, botched military actions, and the futility of violent engagement. The game sold well, but not well enough. Like the hit-driven economic calculus for films, video games that are not chart-topping blockbusters are dropped. This is unfortunate for the potential breadth and depth of storytelling and gameplay. It would be good for games if the industry supported a broader array of genres, and recognized a much more diverse game-playing consumer.