Virtual Conflict as Cultural Catharsis: Re-fighting Vietnam 2.0

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Online Game Call of Duty, courtesy of Movistar Campus Party México

This article was originally published by Strife on 12 June 2014.

Storytelling is a core part of how we communicate with each other, understand complex issues and come to terms with the world around us. The prevalence of so-called ‘talking therapies’ show that such processes are important in helping to overcome and move past negative events and experiences. The experience of 9/11 left long-lasting and deep collective and cultural damage on the US/Western collective psyches. The ‘War on Terror’ has been compared to what Vietnam was for Lyndon Johnson: ‘a vast, tragic distraction in which he must be seen to be winning, lest the domestic agenda he really cares about be derailed.’ Popular culture, in this case Western-developed video/computer games, have become a medium in which the cathartic and curative process of storytelling is taking place on a cultural level, to move past and overcome both of these ‘unfinished’ conflicts.

War and conflict have been staple thematic topics in games for decades, as far back as Space Invaders and Missile Command in the late 1970s. However, the games released after 9/11 show an interesting pattern indicating a marked swing in direction and focus. Between 2002 and 2005 there were two games released that were set during the first Gulf War (Conflict: Desert Storm I & II), at least nine games released set during the Vietnam War (Vietcong, Vietcong 2, Battlefield: Vietnam, Conflict: Vietnam, Shellshock: ‘Nam 67, Wings over Vietnam, Platoon, Men of Valor, Line of Sight: Vietnam) as well as many more set in the modern day in real or analogous Middle-Eastern theatres. One of the most stand-out titles from this period was America’s 10 Most Wanted, whose finale consists of the player fighting Osama Bin Laden in hand-to-hand combat, and subsequently bundling him into a helicopter that flies off into the sunset while the credits roll. From this period mainstream game development began to shift to reflect changing current events. From 2008 games in this thematic field have often adopted Private Military Contractors in both pro and antagonistic roles. after the details of Blackwater’s/Xe’s involvement in Iraq became wider public knowledge and a hot topic of the time.

The ability of popular culture to serve as a space for cultural catharsis and as a coping mechanism isn’t a new one; after the collective cultural trauma of Vietnam a similar process of mourning and understanding took place. The trajectory of tone and content in the ‘war is hell’ films from the 1970s such as Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter shifted dramatically to the restorative and cathartic films from the 1980s like Top Gun and Rambo. These films either painted the US military in a far more positive and victorious light or, in the case of Rambo, literally re-fighting Vietnam on-screen.

What is interesting is that in games after 9/11 this process moved in the opposite direction. The games that emerged in the first few years after 9/11 can broadly be interpreted as revenge power-fantasies. The largely tactical focus of these titles place the player in the position of a soldier with a ‘grunt’s-eye view’. This creates a space in which the player can rewrite history, restore agency and re-establish the ‘correct’ order of the world on an individual level; winning the battles AND winning the war. It is only in recent years that some developers have taken steps to question and critique what can be seen as a largely jingoistic and cynically simplified streamlining of complex geopolitical issues.

The 2012 game Spec Ops: The Line was a deeply critical response to the way in which war and conflict had been portrayed in games. Taking Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as inspiration, the game took a cynical approach to the increasingly detailed yet sanitised depiction of war. Starting out as a formulaic tale of Western intervention to help a sandstorm-buried Dubai, the game depicts ambiguous moral choices as well as civilian collateral damage in a highly critical and subversive way. The game makes the player stop to reflect on their actions, something that is normally outside the usually simplistic and circular justifications other games use for the violent acts that the player witnesses and facilitates. Similarly, the 2008 game Far Cry 2 borrows lightly from Heart of Darkness, taking place in a fictional African country in the grips of a civil war between two greedy and ruthless militias.

As western military involvement in the Middle East has, at least in the eyes of the western audiences, wound down to be out of sight and out of mind, western popular culture has adapted to react to new threats. Wikileaks, Anonymous and Edward Snowden are being explored as the new sources of cultural anxiety and trauma; Call of Duty: Black Ops II features a hacker antagonist, who in the near future takes control of the United States’ expanded drone forces. The recently released Watch_Dogs puts the player in the shoes of a skilled hacker in a near-future Chicago, and can be interpreted as a warning against the danger hackers pose to increasingly centralised and interconnected systems. At the same time it offers up a new revenge fantasy to anyone who has been the victim of the seemingly unending frauds, data thefts and security breaches of many internet-based services.

Why does this matter? The medium of games is a uniquely textured and tactile environment to continue the human necessity of storytelling; whether it be in moment-to-moment gameplay experiences or the underlying story or theme a particular game is exploring. A generation has grown up being bombarded with messages about the necessity for increased security, updates on the latest protracted conflict in a place they have never seen or heard of in any other context, and the constant threat of terrorism hanging over them like the sword of Damocles; all of this is delivered through a ubiquitous, 24-hour news media. It is entirely possible that games are the first instance of many people engaging with any of these topics on a participatory and interactive level. It is worth considering the way that game portray war and conflict, and how these messages are received by audiences due to the potential for their affecting of popular thought relating to real world events and issues. The condensing and streamlining of conflicts like Vietnam and the ‘War on Terror’ into simple and easily digestible narratives applies the same maximal and binary filtering logic of George W. Bush’s “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” speech. As a medium that lets us tell ourselves the stories through interactivity, games should be telling us what we need to know rather than what we want to hear. The difficult truths about these traumatic moments in our cultural memory are important. Without them the conflicts they depict will remain ‘unfinished’ and the cultural catharsis sought through them will remain out of reach.

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