The shout of joy from my 6 year old caught me by surprise. I’d been distractedly reading and his exclamation shocked me enough to make me look up from my book. “Headshot” joyously spouting out of the mouth of my sweet little 6 year old that still doesn’t like to sleep with the light off? 

He was playing the single player mode of Star Wars Battlefront 2. My oldest son had played the first Battlefront at a friends house when he was 8 and came home begging for the game . My wife and I saw it was a Star Wars game and thought it looked fine. We assumed that the kids (8 and 5 at the time) would have fun pretending to be Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader running around with light sabers or flying tie fighters. Only after a few games did we realize that the game is just a Star Wars themed Call of Duty; replace M-16s with Blasters and you have Battlefront. We have let the boys keep playing the game for a few reasons. They love playing the game and since it’s a Star Wars game I had rationalized a layer of fantasy to the violence. Besides, I had grown up playing similar games and in the debate over whether video games cause violent behavior I have fallen into the camp that camp the “they do not” side. 

But Headshot coming out of my baby’s mouth?

It has made me rethink some of my assumptions. Let me rephrase. It was the joy in the action that is making me rethink my assumptions. Do I think that games make people violent? Not really. I mean, I played Grand Theft Auto and never had a desire to beat up random strangers or steal a car.

As a second job I am a teaching assistant (like an adjunct without the prestige) for Coastal Carolina Uversity. I am preparing a class for next semester called HIST205 American History Through Pop Culture. One of the central ideas of the class is how popular culture is both a product of and driver of the prevailing attitudes of the time period. This is my first time teaching this class and I am building it from the ground up so I have been immersed in these ideas which probably primed me  to be thinking about the roll of video games in the cultural zeitgeist. 

This is a long way of getting to this. A couple of weeks ago, in fact a few days after hearing “Headshot” out of my beautiful boys mouth and while I am planning a pop culture class, I saw this commercial during an NBA Basketball Playoff Game.

My jaw dropped. I was disturbed.

It took me awhile to understand why I was so upset by the commercial. I am not anti-military. I have had family members that have served in the various branches and have even recorded interviews for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. Over the last few weeks of reflection I think what bothered me was how closely this commercial matches the visual aesthetic of a first or third person shooter video game.

The Go Army “Warriors Wanted” commercial uses the same visual language as a video game. The game trailer and the Army commercial both use a jumpy camera and exciting music. The soldiers in the army commercial are filmed from a 3rd person shooter angle. The soldiers’ guns even look like the oversized and even a bit cartoonish video game versions. In what feels like a very meta statement one soldier is even tapping on a tablet. The commercial tagline sounds like it could come right out of an eSports league promo – “They fight for country, They fight for honor. They fight to Win.”

War is just game to be won not a tragedy to be avoided.

I would argue that video games are cultural literature. Games like Call of Duty and other First Person Shooters are part of the cultural waters that much of our country swims in. If we can assume this is true then I would argue that it is possible that the messages portrayed in video game normalize the message within the culture. Shooters may not make a person violent but it does make the violence less shocking.

When we get to World War I in my US History Class my class often reads the poem Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen. This is not an original lesson. Owen was a soldier living in the trenches when he wrote this poem and would soon be killed in action and is used to illustrate the horrors of life for the WWI soldier.

Dulce et Decorum Est  BY WILFRED OWEN

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The kicker in the lesson is the final line. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is a Latin phrase popular during the Roman Empire and roughly translates to “It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country”. Obviously Owen is saying there is nothing sweet or honorable in the millions of deaths caused by the Great Conflagration. The poem is a scathing rebuke to the people back in England convincing soldiers to join the military by telling this “old lie”.

When discussing this poem with students I like to ask who they think Owens calling “My Friend” in the last stanza. Who is Owen accusing of telling children the old lie? Through discussion they often determine that Owen is talking about Government Officials, Teachers, Parents, Radio personalities; in other words the adults that don’t have to fight in these wars. These are the leaders that create propaganda and cultural items to “teach” people that the War was good; to spread the message that to fight and die for one’s country is part sweet, honorable, and an assumed role of young men of the era. In other words, they created a campaign of cultural literature that was part of the cultural waters which a young man in the WWI era would have been exposed to. Owen is attempting to show that the entire society was lying to these young men to get them to join the military and it was all a waste.

Are we living in a modern Dulce Est Decorum Est moment?

Since 9/11 the United States has been locked in a forever war. The Congressional authorization for the War on Terror really doesn’t have a limit or required stopping point and there doesn’t seem to be any plan to successfully end military engagements. The armed forces need soldiers to fight in these wars and in future engagements but the soldiers that have been fighting are being worn thin. A shrinking percentage of the population makes up the volunteer army and, since Vietnam, a draft seems out of the question. The answer is recruitment and I think that is where the 1st Person Shooter games and visual aesthetic plays.

I don’t think there is much evidence to suggest video games make people violent but are games becoming unwitting tools of militarism? Propaganda is usually directed by the government but cultural literature is as much a reflection as an implementation device.

Back to “HEADSHOT”

James Paul Gee has done some work on Identity Theory which has worked its way into Gamification theory. This is a very boiled down version but essentially a player imagines themselves in the identity of their onscreen Avatar. For example, in Call of Duty the player’s Avatar is a soldier. The soldier is walking through various scenarios and is targeting and killing the enemy. It is not an exact simulation. A soldier that is shot will be wounded or killed where as in the video game the player has to wait about 20 seconds without getting harmed again and is back to 100% strength. However, by assuming the role of the Avatar the player is working towards merging their identity with that of the Avatar. In other words, the player begins to see themselves as a soldier and rewires their programing to aim towards that identity. I have used this in my class. By Placing students in the position of acting like a Historian and giving them work similar to that of a Historian they will begin to think of themselves as Historians.

Are these militaristic games helping to recruit soldiers? If so, like Gee suggests, we are not giving them the actual soldiers experience but a faux simulation and yet are we helping to create an mentality susceptible to this false identity?

At 6 years old my son now knows that a headshot is the most likely instant kill but it is easier to hit center mass. He is learning that violent militant actions are the answer to problems and not communication and diplomacy. Both genders play games at about equal rates. I worry that we are creating a generation of young Americans that are learning the same lessons. In these games when a player dies they regenerate and try again. There is no pain. There is no loss. Just an endless stream of honor, glory and blood. What if we made a game that was destroyed the first time the player died? Maybe we can make a MMORPG that permanently disconnects members of a war party that die in battle? What if we set up an electroshock to people that are just watching the game being played?

Watch the Warriors Wanted ad again. At the 15 second mark -in real time it looks like the soldier is shot but keeps right on fighting. Slow down I think the soldier is making a quick move to aim the weapon higher but it reminds me of a move that my son would make after getting shot in Battlefront. Just get shot and keep fighting. No Blood – No Worries. Just be a warrior. National Defense and soldiers are necessary but are we being honest with our youth or is this just our generation’s Dulce Est Decorum Est…?

I want to leave you with a pop culture moment from the 1970s show MASH when the country was dealing with the trauma of Vietnam. War is War and Hell is Hell.