Thursday, September 16, 2010

War Games R Us

(From Medal of Honor 2 / Heroes)
As a native Californian, when I got transplanted to the South, all the rules of our childhood games changed. Suddenly we were at war and as an outsider I had to play the despised Yankee. Maybe this time, the Confederacy would win? In Virginia, the Old Dominion, the Civil War was still dominating our imaginations. It was 1960, the Civil Rights Act was four years away; schools and buses and bathrooms were still marked “colored.”  When we ragtag Yankee kids laid siege to a well-stocked tree fort of Confederate children, chestnuts rained down on our heads. Always, we were defeated. No matter that history said otherwise. 

I was thinking about growing up playing war games in the forests of my childhood after I read a recent New York Times magazine article, "War Games." I was so surprised by the statistics about virtual war far outpacing any real connection or even interest in the two wars our country is fighting, that I wrote a Huffington Post.

Video games and how they shape our imaginations, our abilities to mediate conflict, and our psychological health, have long concerned me. In 1996 I wrote an article for New Age Journal "Healing Visual Violence."

I tell the story of a friend's 12-year-old son who, until recently, was addicted to video games. His grades were plummeting and he blamed this on his teacher, Miss Haines. Every afternoon he'd sit in front of his video games and imagine that with every "kill" he was getting rid of Miss Haines and all of his school problems.

One day, Miss Haines didn't appear at school, and the substitute gently told the students she had died from an aneurysm. Freddie was guilt-stricken, convinced his video game assassinations had reached out through virtual reality and killed his teacher. A kind of child-like voodoo. 

Freddie gave away all his video games and is now afraid to enter cyberspace. This is affecting his schoolwork and his learning skills. But he is haunted and depressed. He wonders if Miss Haines would still be alive if he had not targeted her in his game. And from time to time now, Freddie contemplates suicide.

A survey estimated that by the end of elementary school, the average child has already witnessed 8,000 screen murders and more than 100,00 acts of TV or film violence; those numbers have dramatically increased with war games. The Columbine High School boys who massacred their teachers and classmates in 1999, were immersed in the first-person shooter games of the popular “Doom” video. Almost a decade later, the boom in virtual warriors is staggering. 

Added to the sky-rocketing sales of virtual war games like “Medal of Honor,” which is advertised as “authentically” set in Afghanistan, there is a truly disturbing (and highly marketable) series of war videos based on the violent End Times novels by Tim LeHaye. “Left Behind: Eternal Forces” is religious warfare in the streets of post-apocalyptic New York. Virtual warriors can command their fundamentalist paramilitary armies to convert opponents. Sound like the Crusades in cyberspace? Pray or die. 

At least there is some real emotion in the screenshot below from Left Behind: Eternal Forces. But the battle armor and the other images of paramilitary forces battling for souls with automatic weapons is disturbing.

(screenshot from left Behind: Eternal Forces)

There was much criticism when these “Left Behind” war games were first released in 2006, especially when reports that this Christian fundamentalist game was actually being provided to American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan – Muslim nations.

Religious war, with its simplistic “God on our Side” morality is the most toxic of all. So why recreate it in our virtual imaginations? What does this kind of religious insensitivity and intolerance say about Americans – the demographic who most buys video war games?

After the media got wind of the Pentagon's plans to distribute to troops in the field, the "Left Behind"  war games of Armageddon battles and soldiers fighting the AntiChrist -- something wonderful happened. The "Left Behind" games garnered intense criticism. Left Behind games stocks tanked and there were even a few firings. Thank God. Here's a link to that controversy at the excellent website: Talk to Action: 

But the fact still remains, as the 9.11 anniversary September 12, 2010 issue of New York Times magazines reveals, that war video games are still reaping huge profits. 

And the military has sent off its soldiers with video war games like "Conflict: Desert Storm" in their backpacks. Are war games being used as a recruiting tool for young men who believe they will triumphantly march from virtual victory to real war? 

A media report "War Games: Thinking Critically About Video Games That Play at War" offers in-class discussion of how these games might be "propaganda" and asks "what information or aspects of war do these images ignore or gloss over?"

Is it war profiteering? And when these war games are marketed to teenagers, like Freddie, how does it shape their ability to face conflict in their real worlds? Does it limit their options, their survival skills? And what about bullying – the bane of school poltics?

We’ve come a long way from the Civil Wars of my childhood, the tree forts and acorns and Yankee-Rebel battles. One of my therapist friends tells me that he always asks his clients:
         “If you had to describe your inner wars, what historic war would it most resemble?”

         “The Revolutionary War,” a majority of his teenage clients answered who were struggling for their own independence.
         “Oh, the Civil War, for sure,” those clients who were more mature responded.

They realized that the most intimate evil and most elusive enemies are often hidden in one’s own shadows. These clients were engaged in the difficult and brave art of not projecting their own demons onto the outside world or The Other.

         After all these decades, I’m still fighting the Civil War, but I realize it is a life-long internal struggle. My wars are within me. Just like God.~

“War Games,” New York Times magazine link: 

“War as Entertainment: The Real, the Game, and the Ugly Truth” on Huffington Post:Huffington Post

Media Education Foundation "War Games: Thinking Critically About Video Games That Play at War" download pdf.

"Healing Visual Violence" by Brenda Peterson, New Age Journal, December, 1996