Playing the Empire's game

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Computer games are now a massive industry, with a huge reach into many people's lives. Ruairidh MacLean discusses the political significance of some recent games and asks how socialists should engage with this expanding cultural industry

Not long ago video games were seen as being exclusively the refuge of children and of men unable to escape their childhoods. Perhaps little has changed, but the huge profits recorded by the industry over the last decade have proved, if nothing else, that for many video games have become a medium of choice. Moreover, games like Braid and Penumbra have proven that, even when commercial, games can still present challenges that test not only players' reflexes, but the nature of the medium itself and even the society that has produced it.

In 2006, supporters of Hugo Chavez accused the US government of resorting to "psychological terror" following the release of shooter Mercenaries 2 - the action of which hinges on a US invasion of Venezuela. Similarly, prominent elements in Iran and North Korea have interpreted commercial simulations of attacks on their own countries as carrying a real-world threat.

In every case the private developers involved have denied that their games have any political effects. What makes these claims less credible is that serious money has passed between the US military and video game developers. This has gone from being serious to bloody humourless as Afghanistan is now bombed by remotely operated Predator planes from the comfort of the US.

By the late 1970s the US military was making use of strategic board games as a means to model and train for real-world conflicts, and has been using made-for-purpose technologies such as flight simulators since 1934.

In 2000 the Institute for Creative Technologies (a research affiliate of the US army) began work on a training simulation making use of software specifically designed by and for the video game industry. The simulation they developed would eventually emerge as Full Spectrum Warrior - a commercial game produced by Pandemic Studios, the developers behind Mercenaries 2.

Although the military appears to have been happy with the outcome, the game was apparently considered too unrealistic to be a useful training tool.

While the US army may regard the video game industry as a valuable resource of ever more ingenious systems of violence, its greatest value has proved to be the time-honoured tradition of making that violence appear not only legitimate, but cool. If simulations like Full Spectrum Warrior and America's Army can be said to be "just like war", then surely war is just like the simulation, and you loved the simulation didn't you?

Nor is the ideological relationship between US imperialism and the action-shooter game limited to the question of military recruitment. The key to the success of this genre of games has been the ongoing imperialist wars themselves and culture that legitimises them. That being said, there are features particular to the whole concept of the "simulation" game which naturally lend themselves to the promotion of the interests of imperialism.

A major selling point, especially of the latest titles of this type, is the degree of "realism" they offer. This "realism" is based on the sophisticated simulation of real-world physics, of patterns of light, particles of texture, force, space and time. This forms the basis of their claims to legitimacy. This bears a curious resemblance to ideas that surround "embedded" reporters in the highly stage-managed footage of the Iraq war - you have been brought close to the action, and so somehow, close to the truth.

The claim to "simulate" is the claim to precisely represent reality, but representation is always a matter of struggle. In 2010 the US army denounced a Medal of Honour game for allowing online players to take on the role of Taliban fighters. Famously, supporters of Hezbollah produced their own computer game, Special Force, that purported to represent real battles fought at the turn of this century.

It's fruitless to look to ban such games, not least because it gives the impression that the problem lies with the people playing them - but we do have a responsibility to expose the agenda they normalise. We don't have to accept the simulation we're offered uncritically; neither do we have to passively accept its claim to represent the real world.

The future suggested by the imperialist imagination is one of catastrophic conflict. We cannot allow it to pass unnoticed and unresisted. We can no longer afford to say, "It's only a game."