Weaponized Xbox Controllers, The Myth of Redemptive Violence and the Militarization of Play

Posted: September 5, 2008 in Uncategorized
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One of the deepest challenges that comes with the Christian faith is the constant struggle to reject false dilemmas, the most pervasive of which is the false dilemma of “fight or flight.” We learn to see conflicts in terms of this false choice from an early age, and we learn that “fight” is the “honorable” choice among the two. The strong stay and fight; the weak flee. Strong has a good connotation; weak has a bad connotation. We learn from countless social cues, in this way, to use violence in personal and political conflict. This false dilemma infects our social systems, including our religions, giving rise to the myth of redemptive violence. God favors the strong, the violent, endorses their dominance.

Then comes Christ, this strange revelation of the nature of God as love, revealing God on the side of the victims of violence, not the perpetrators of it. In the course of his life he lays bare the false nature of the “fight or flight” dilemma. He teaches a way of life that does not shrink from conflict but rejects violence against the other. He reveals another option, what Wink calls “Jesus’ third way,” — turning the other cheek (refusing to be cowed by violence without returning it), going the second mile (placing the occupying Roman soldier in a precarious legal situation by showing love for him), giving the undergarment when the outer garment is asked for (disrobing, as it were, injustice, without violence). Christ teaches that we must love our enemies so much that we would die for them. And then he does it himself.

Following Christ into the rejection of the false dilemma requires a constant conscious effort. A mind must be trained to follow different patterns, and that training often has to take place in a hostile cultural atmosphere.

The purpose of that hostile cultural atmosphere is to do the opposite — to train people to participate in violent domination. That training is creeping into new areas of society and is becoming more sophisticated as it targets people at earlier ages. This training has become most explicit in the video game industry. Take, for example, America’s Army:

Launched in July 2002 the America’s Army game, which is rated “T” for Teen by the ESRB, has become one of the most popular computer games in the world. America’s Army has penetrated contemporary culture and is one of the most recognizable game brands as a result of its unique inside perspective of the U.S. Army and its exciting gameplay. As the game’s popularity continued to grow with each of its dozens of new version releases, the Army has expanded its brand through a variety of products including console and cell phone games, America’s Army merchandise such as t-shirts, the Real Heroes program which tells the stories of heroic Soldiers, training applications for use within the military and government sectors, and the incredible Virtual Army Experience. In the near future, the America’s Army brand will expand with the launch of America’s Army: True Soldiers for Xbox 360 in the Fall of 2007 and America’s Army version 3.0 next year.

In the America’s Army game, players are bound by Rules of Engagement (ROE) and grow in experience as they navigate challenges in teamwork-based, multiplayer, force versus force operations. In the game, as in the Army, accomplishing missions requires a team effort and adherence to the seven Army Core Values. Through its emphasis on team play, the game demonstrates these values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage and makes them integral to success in America’s Army.

In keeping with the dynamic nature of Soldiering, the America’s Army game will continue to expand and will allow players to explore the Army of today, tomorrow and the future.

There’s strong, and then there’s Army Strong!

Even though “the minimum age for enlistment in the United States Military is 17 (with parental consent),” this game – which the above shows is without a doubt a recruitment tool – has a “Teen” rating with the ESRB, meaning it is “suitable for ages 13 and older.” Through this “game,” which is actually a combat simulator developed in partnership between the gaming industry and the defense industry, the military begins training children before they are even recruited, teaching them to kill the state’s enemies rather than love them. And, the military has found a way to weaponize even non-combat-simulator playtime. From Popular Mechanics’ Glenn Derene:

“I used the controls to perform a target lock on an unsuspecting civilian Fleet Week spectator, and as the rooftop turret followed the poor fellow around the area, I remarked to one of the ONR representatives how frighteningly similar the whole system was to a video game. He agreed, then showed me a military spec version of an Xbox 360 gamepad that was an alternate interface for the same machine. (It wasn’t all that different from the one we thumbed to test-drive the Army’s robotic MULE vehicle from Lockheed Martin earlier this year.)”

Console game controllers are not the most accurate interfaces, as any hardcore PC gamer would love to tell you.  So why use them? The answer is simple: those targeted for military recruitment grew up playing video games, and they still play them. They’re already trained in their use, which is a nicer way to say that this simple innovation allowed the military to “draft” all the time kids spend playing video games into the military training process. But there’s more to it than that:

There is, of course, a real concern that appropriating the game interface into the military space will also bring with it an emotional and moral disassociation from the act of fighting wars…Already, Bigham says that Raytheon has been experimenting with Wii controllers to explore the possibilities for training simulators and other applications that require physical movement. Just think, one day, the R&D that Nintendo put into Wii bowling could end up influencing basic training.”

The medium is the message, and the message is frightening: War is a game.

Nick Turse wrote in his book, The Complex:

“[Microsoft’s Xbox game Close Combat: First to Fight] is typical of a recently emerging trend that has melded the video game industry (and entertainment industries more broadly) with the U.S. military in a set of symbiotic relationships that literally immerse civilian gamers in a virtual world of war while training soldiers using the hottest gaming technology available. It’s the creation of a digital cradle-to-grave concept in which games created by or for the military are used as recruiting tools and also, as it were, to pretrain youngsters. Then, when they’re old enough to enlist, these kids find themselves using video game-like controllers to pilot real military vehicles and are taught tactics and trained in strategy using specially designed video games and commercially available, off-the-shelf games that have been drafted into service by the military.”

I am a lapsed gamer. I will admit to having levelled a World of Warcraft (WoW) warlock all the way to level 70, playing Player-versus-Player (PvP) Arena matches and battlegrounds enough to get some of the best PvP armor in the game at the time. I devoted almost all of my freetime to improving my character’s gear. It’s fair to say that I was addicted to the game (which, I think, plays on a deeply rooted, competitive materialism in our culture…but I digress). It might seem silly (and maybe it is) that a person completely convinced of Jesus’ normative nonviolence would spend a lot of time playing a character that summons demons and runs around attacking members of opposing factions just because they are members of the opposing faction for (virtual) material benefit. I was aware of that contradiction, often acutely, but I shrugged it off with the familiar throwaway: “It’s just a game.” I could differentiate between fantasy and reality, and that was that.

These days I’m much more inclined to see games like WoW and especially like America’s Army and Close Combat: First to Fight in a different way: practice.

Some might think I’m being silly by including WoW in this category. Compared to America’s Army, which is a first-person multiplayer combat simulator, WoW seems juvenile and cute: you run around throwing bolts of energy at people and summoning meteors from the sky to defeat opponents who always come back to life, on a timer. I cannot really learn to summon demons, hit a target with my dwarven-crafted blunderbuss, by playing WoW, and the same is not true for America’s Army.

And yet…the dynamic of WoW is simple. The enemy faction speaks a different language and even their gestures are often unintelligible. Communication is very, very difficult. You cannot learn their language or negotiate within the confines of the game. The enemy is wholly other to you. Players are grouped into one of two factions based on which species (the game calls it race!) you choose to play, generally allowing you to look at people and determine immediately if they are “good” or “bad.” You learn very quickly that they are the enemy, and that the game rewards you with points for killing them.  In short, even in a very unrealistic, very sterilized, cartoon-like dreamworld, players are learning to live by the myth of redemptive violence, and that the only real method of communication between enemies is violent combat.


“More and more toys are now poised to become clandestine combat teaching tools, and more and more simulators are destined to be tomorrow’s toys. And what of America’s children and young adults in all this? How will they be affected by the dazzling set of military training devices now landing in their living rooms and on their PCs, produced by video game giants under the watchful eyes of the Pentagon? After all, what these games offer is less a matter of a simple military indoctrination and more like a near immersion in a virtual world of war, where armed conflict is not the last, but the first–and indeed the only–resort.”

This is the ultimate crux of it. By blurring the line between fantasy and reality, by utilizing the trappings of a gaming experience to ease the transition into the role of real-world killing, by using play to train generations of soldiers in complex tactical combat scenarios before they are even of legal recruiting age, a pervasive force in our culture is pushing a world view in which violent domination of enemies–whom Christ taught us that we must love in a self-sacrificial way–is the default. It slithers its way from the military industries all the way down into the family den, groping at every spare synapse in the brains of the youngest children possible.

There is a war going on for your mind.” Be aware of it.

  1. […] This is hardly a case of overt recruitment, but it is part of a continuing pattern of the militarization of “cool” in the attempt to hook more and more young people on the idea of military service to the U.S. government. This adds to a trend in the militarization of the movie and video game industries, which I’ve blogged about before. […]

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