3. Third Wave: Modern Reenactments and Al-Qaeda Clones (circa 2002-2008)
The third wave of First Person Shooter (FPS) video games involves a combination of the two previous game styles: reenactments of currently occurring conflicts and conflicts with entities that are clearly stand-ins for Al-Qaeda. Beginning in about 2002, video games started to make the jump from historical and generic battle scenes to battle scenes that parallel real wars that are occurring today. Inevitably, political entanglements accompanied this increase in realism, as unlike their predecessors, these games cannot claim to be abstract diversions that are independent of actualy events. They are, necessarily, commentary on war and international disputes, whether the developers intend them to be or not.
It is not just the plots that cause the political entanglements; these games are also political in their very origin. What is unique about the third wave of video games is that it was not private developers that first pushed the boundaries, making it acceptable for video games to be set in modern day conflicts. Rather it was the U.S. military that first developed games that attempt to recreated on-going, real life wars.
The U.S. military has been using video games for training purposes for as long as the medium has existed, starting way back in the 1970s. The Atari tank shooter game Battlezone was adapted for military use by the Army, and the Marines even had their own version of Doom — appropriately called Marine Doom — which was developed by the Marine Corps Modeling and Simulation Management Office (MCMSMO) in 1996.
By the start of the 21st century, the U.S. Military had more experience with creating video game simulations of modern realistic warfare than did any single private game developer. For literally decades, they had been taking the abstract, mutant-shooter commercial games and adapting them into approximations of real-life warfare.
From the very beginning, a large proportion of these ultra-realistic games have featured fighting arising from or related to the 9/11 terrorists attacks, but this is in large part an artifact of timing. In 1999, the US Army ventured into original video game development with the creation of the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), a joint Army/University of Southern California project. It was about the time these early military video game ventures came to fruition that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started, and thus those theaters became the logical setting for games that wanted to be heavy on the realism.
The first major game of this genre was America’s Army (2002), which served both as propaganda and as a recruitment tool for the U.S. Army. The game’s missions featured highly realistic scenarios, recreating U.S. military operations in Afghanistan — a war that had begun scarcely months before the game’s release:
Afghanistan is the setting for this map and you will be fighting against the Taliban. Combat will be outdoors and indoors, therefore you will need to be efficient in your CQB and open combat skills. Here you can use the M4 Carbine, if you choose to be a rifleman class. The M4 Carbine is similar but smaller assault rifle with 80% commonality with its older brother, the M16A2. Mountainous terrain and darkness provide cover for both sides. (Therefore your players must be careful where you are throwing grenades as on Bridge Crossing.)
America’s Army has been one of the U.S. Army’s most successful recruiting tools, and several new versions have been released since the original. A year after the U.S. Army created America’s Army, the ICT venture came out with a new game, Full Spectrum Warrior (2003), which had, for its time, a hyper-realistic plot. In the game’s story-line, which follows a series of terrorist attacks against US and UK interests around the globe,
US led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced Al-Qaeda and Taliban loyalists to flee, seeking refuge in the nation of Zekistan by invitation of the nation’s dictator, Mohammad Jabbour Al-Afad. His tyrannical regime houses death camps and training centers for the terrorist networks, and promotes cleansing of the ethnic Zeki population. After several failed diplomatic solutions and repeated warning by the UN, NATO votes to invade Zekistan to remove Al-Afad from power.
Pakistan grants US access through its airspace, the invasion begins.
Although it still uses the crutch of a fictional nation to serve as the game’s antagonist, the rest of the plot is heavy on realism. Considering that this game was developed in conjunction with the U.S. military, it is notable that the plot contains many hot-button political issues, including the use of Pakistani airspace to stage the attack; the idea that NATO — and not the UN! — is the body authorizing the invasion of a country that hosts terrorist organizations; and the inclusion of the genocide as a plot point. In terms of gameplay, however, Full Spectrum Warrior lacked the realism of America’s Army, leading to disputes about the venture’s success in creating an effective training tool.
There is also the ultra-realistic Kuma/War (2004), developed in conjunction with the Department of Defense, which features plots that are truer to life than any other FPS ever created. It is an episodic game which features exacting recreations of real U.S. military strikes. Episodes of Kuma/War include “Uday and Qusay’s Last Stand”, which depicts the battle in which Saddam Hussein’s sons were killed. The first-person shooter sequel Kuma/War 2 (2006) featured even more up-to-the-minute gameplay, starting with a recreation of the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and ending in 2011 with a mission featuring the strike against Osama Bin Laden’s compound that was released less than a week after the actual raid had taken place.
Although it partially just a matter of the timing, Full Spectrum Warrior, America’s Army, and Kuma/War — along with other games developed with US Military involvement, such as the Navy’s SOCOM II — are all noticeably focused on fights against Middle Eastern targets. This makes sense, given that the majority of the games the military helps develop are intended to have a training (or recruiting) function, which necessarily requires that the games be set in situations where the military expects to be fighting. And, right now, that would largely be the Middle East.
However, this new generation of Middle Eastern shoot’em ups hit too close to home for some players. Radwan Kasmiya, the creator of the Palestinian point-of-view game Under Ash, cited the prevalence of games where Middle Easterners were the enemy as motivation for the development of his own game:
The players of the game were Arabs only – Under the Ash was never translated. But in general, the players were really keen for the game, they looked at it with pride – do you know the term “Digital Dignity”? They saw that Under the Ash offers a true perspective. The player community is interested in games which offer a different point of view, whereas all the games here, like Delta Force, involve you shooting Arabic-speaking enemies… The Arabic players felt that something was wrong, after completing such a game you feel some bitterness, you feel like… like being guilty a bit, do you understand? That was the reason why Under the Ash was accepted so positively among them. It offers a different point of view and mainly the game is not about reverting to the usual scenario, the game is not about an Arabic-speaking hero shooting different-language-speaking enemies.
Kasmiya’s game, Under Ash, is also notable in that its gameplay emphasizes adherence to humanitarian law principles; should you accidentally strike a civilian, the game is over.
Under Ash and its sequel Under Siege (2005) are not the only games that take the Middle Eastern viewpoint. Hezbollah has also tried its hand at video game propaganda with Special Force (2003), in which the player takes on the role of a Hezbollah militant fighting against the Israel Defense Force. As with Under Ash, the creators of Special Force have tried to portray their game as a freedom movement, and attempted to emphasize the focus on military targets only. Special Force is much more clearly political propaganda, however. In contrast, Under Siege is half video game and half documentary, featuring gameplay that is intended to recreate actual events.
A third, and less subtler still, Middle Eastern viewpoint game was released in 2006 by the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF): Night of Bush Capturing. It is the most poorly made game of the three — and in fact, not really “created” by its releasers at all. Rather, it is simply a skin for a prior game, Quest for Saddam, which had been found to be particularly offensive by GIMF.
Middle Eastern political organizations are not the only non-US entities that have tried out the propaganda video game genre. China, for instance, has Learn from Lei Feng (2006), in which the player takes on the role of an iconic soldier of the Communist Party of China. Non-state organizations also have contributed, with games like Ethnic Cleansing (2002), a recruiting tool for the KKK, and ZOG’s Nightmare (2006), which was a recruitment effort made by the National Socialists Movement.
For mainstream video game developers in the private sector, however, the era of the ultra-realistic video game was short lived. Most titles in this genre were released from 2002-2004, and essentially all of them are set in that same chronological time period, in the opening days of the war in Afghanistan. These games include Delta Force: Task Force Dagger (2002), CTU: Marine Sharpshooter (2003), and America’s 10 Most Wanted (2003). After that, developers largely moved on to the next generation of games: Speculative Warfare. Post-2005, there are only two major games that fall into the ultra-realism category: Army of Two (2008) and Medal of Honor (2010). In fact, Medal of Honor may be the best example of why these games have become so rare. Upon its release, Medal of Honor was immediately subjected to widespread criticism. The game, set at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, featured multiplayer gameplay in which one side would play U.S. troops, while the other would play in the role of Taliban insurgents.
As it turns out, American and European gamers, just like Middle Eastern gamers, are a bit conflicted about playing the side of an enemy that is currently fighting and killing their nation’s troops in present-day war. Nevertheless, the game’s developers tried to pass it off as being no more controversial than a game of cops and robbers:
Most of us having been doing this since we were 7 — if someone’s the cop, someone’s gotta be the robber, someone’s gotta be the pirate and someone’s gotta be the alien… In ‘Medal of Honor’ multiplayer, someone’s gotta be the Taliban.
Not everyone was able to take such an abstract perspective on an active military operation, however, and widespread criticism continued. The game was ultimately prohibited from being sold on U.S. military bases, and ranking politicians from Western nations around the globe spoke out against it. A few months after the game’s release, its developers broke down and changed the name of the enemy faction in multiplayer to “Opposing Force” rather than “Taliban.” Consequently, it is doubtful we will see another multiplayer FPS set in Afghanistan, at least for a few decades to come. As shown by Medal of Honor, having a game set in a modern conflict can severely limit the range of acceptable gameplay options available to you.
As a result of this sharp decline in games set in modern and ongoing conflicts, the very first game of this genre, America’s Army, remains, even today, one of the most highly realistic FPS games ever created. Future versions of the game have backed away from the ultra-realism of the first, however, and the most recent release, America’s Army 3, no longer features the geographically accurate missions of the original. Instead of fighting in Afghanistan, players battle it out in the fictional, Eastern European, and utterly inoffensive faux-nation of Czervenia. It seems even the U.S. Military finally realized that, when it comes to video games, hyper-realism may not always be desirable.
To be continued in Pt. 3, Speculative Warfare.