Video games have come a long from being a niche hobby. Everyone’s a gamer from your older relative who’s platform of choice is Facebook, to perhaps sons, daughters and younger siblings that play Minecraft on the family computer. They have become a mainstream part of society as can be seen by the Pokemon Go phenomenon. Companies spend millions of dollars on developing and marketing video games and the result is billions of dollars in revenue. However few are aware of the military’s big influence on the medium.
War. War never changes. – Fallout
Social commentary has always been popular though entertainment media and video games are no exception. The media we consume is a reflection of society and some video games are very self aware of that. Games like Metal Gear Solid are not afraid on commenting on the human condition. The game explores the romanticism of war versus its gruesome reality. It grounds and breaks down the threats of nuclear warfare, the future of genetic modification, and other very distant but real threats and combines them with very personal feelings, betrayal, love, paranoia, guilt, sorrow, death (yes I know its not a feeling), need I go on. Part of the appeal of games set in topical settings is a feeling of realism and the ability to relate to the game. However war serves a far greater role in video game history than simply inspiration.
The success of World War II for the allied forces was influenced by the cracking of the Enigma Code, which was a form of encrypting messages used by the Germans. The person attributed to this is Allan Turing. Turing is considered the father of Computer Science as well as Artificial Intelligence. Turing gave the world a test to be able to differentiate AI from human as well as all the possible commands needed for a programming language to theoretically compute anything. Laying the groundwork for programming and computers is something that I don’t need to explain how it has impacted video games. Without programming, the medium wouldn’t exist and AI allows for dynamic single player experiences that make games interesting. Without AI something like a virtual chess opponent would not be possible.
Is there such a thing as an absolute, timeless enemy? There is no such thing, and never has been. And the reason is that our enemies are human beings like us. They can only be our enemies in relative terms. – The Boss: Metal Gear Solid 3
Nearly every video game toggles war nowadays and I like to split it into 2 categories. The first is combat, these are titles that are about war being fought. Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Halo are great examples of these. These are games where war is present and you are in it whether it was your choice or not. We criticize games for their showcase of violent war and the over saturation of war based themes but we cannot blame studios. The battlefield is the perfect setting for a video game.
Combat in Video Games
From a merely mechanical perspective, the reasons are obvious. The battlefield provides the perfect for both strategic and fast paced engagements. However we are here for the sociological reasons. Video games need conflict and opponents, especially in multiplayer experiences. This draws theoretical line between “us” and “them” and modern video games are littered with old cliches of Cold War influences. Such as the classic blue vs. red teams. Its so subtle you might not have noticed it but during the time of the red scare, players have been programmed through propaganda to see red as “bad” and this has seeped its way into video games and has stayed as conventional game design. However this is part of a greater point. War allows us to justify killing. Shooting a some brown people in a desert won’t gain backlash, shooting civilians at an airport will. We see traces of the Cold War’s influence in the Russian bad guy cliche all the time for instance. Blonde. Muscular. Tall. However since 2001 we see games take a more modern approach. We fight terrorists, whether Korean or Middle-Eastern. We look to politics to find our enemies and then justify ourselves with the media
Battlefields also allow for feel good stories. Stories in which the few can change the world are some of the more common now that war is fought through proxies and special units rather than infantries. This idea also happens to resonate well with the western ideals associated with individualism as it is the basis of capitalism and democracy. Also it creates enemies that are just more than justifiable targets but actually label them behind the ideas we do not appeal to in this society. We don’t shoot at the terrorists because of who they are but of what they represent in our society.
How Video Games Deal with Aftermath
The second type of war influenced game style is the ever so popular Apocalypse theme. Nuclear war is a big one here. It begs the question “Do we had a deep embedded desire for the demise of the human race?” I think it is actually tied to a similar theme that I briefly mentioned earlier, individualism. The end signals new beginning, one that can be created by us. Most of us are naive into thinking that a restart of humanity would lead to peace since there are no more Americans, Russians, Christians, Muslims, and the ideals and past hatred associated with those terms. But rarely do we have to think will we build up humanity to watch it destroy itself. Nuclear fallout creates an interesting game design opportunity as well as a chance to be the hero (here we go with the individualism again). The Cold War has granted us with this setting to contemplate because before weapons of mass destruction were thought off we didn’t think of a possible end to humanity.
Video Games were cultivated in the Cold War and resemble much of that. Nuclear tension lead to people created worlds of nuclear fallout, our race to the moon lead to an era of space based games, and proxy based warfare has been breathing life into the stealth genre since its conception. With new forms of war has come a change in video games. We rage war on cyber security and terror and we fight those concepts in our game too. War has become a key concept in society because we don’t rage war over land or riches but rather because of ideologies. These ideologies become ingrained in us and we like to see video games embrace these concepts we were wired to like as well as poke holes at them. In many ways these ideas are all we know and its no wonder we see them in the media we consume and that we draw inspiration from them. If your interested in more in depth information on the impact of the Cold War specifically, this YouTube documentary does a great job