The Problem With War Video Games

The Problem With War Video Games

On Monday night I attended a Modern Warfare 3 launch party at a national video game retailer. I was particularly pleased with the diversity of the crowd. I was not the only lady in the house! I spoke with students, an investment banker, a librarian, a building manager, mums, dads, kids, etc.

As Kotaku readers know well, everyone plays video games. The medium has finally, at long last for people like me who have been playing since the 1970s, pervaded our culture and brought some measured level of respect, admiration and thoughtful criticism. And thank goodness for thoughtful criticism, which not only marks the cultural significance video games has achieved (after years locked in the basement), it also plays a vital role in advancing the medium.


Video games — like film, television, theatre, dance, music, news, literature, comic books, etc — are persuasive rhetorical forms. By this I mean, video games tell stories (in both single-player and multiplayer mode) about the world in which we currently live (Kuma War), have lived (COD: World at War) or might some day live (Battlefield 3). These stories, along with all the others that circulate in our media, are expressions of who we are and what we value. The fact that war video games sell so well, tells us these stories are compelling to many millions of people.

So what are the stories of war that generally — though not solely — circulate among the most popular video games? As I said in comments posted to Kotaku on Monday, military-themed video games simplify, glamorise and fetishise global conflict. The narrative possibilities offered players are exclusively militaristic and indiscriminately destructive.

If the response to my critique is to say, “Hey, movies do it too”, then we might as well let Jerry Bruckheimer make all the games.

These action-packed blockbusters reduce the complex world of counter-terrorism to an array of advanced weapons systems and precision-guided munitions in a lock-and-load shoot fest. Blind faith is placed in the technologies of war, and the photo-realistic graphics capabilities of contemporary video game consoles create breathtaking, heart-pumping explosions. However, the cost and consequences of these shock-and-awe machines are largely missing.

And yes, this does concern me.

It concerns me at a time when unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) are now flying over US borders. When the US Congressional super committee is debating national budget priorities, which includes critical decisions about defence spending. When the fear and anxiety caused by the attacks of September 11, 2001 has been used to elect politicians, justify war in Iraq, misrepresent an entire religious faith, and sell entertainment.

I am not scapegoating video games as the first and only medium to appropriate a seductive, simplistic and techno-fetishistic rhetoric of war. Films have a much longer history of this than games. But, if the response to my critique is to say, “Hey, movies do it too”, then we might as well let Jerry Bruckheimer make all the games. Furthermore, video games are not movies or television. We play video games because they offer us opportunities to engage with media and each other in more active ways than film or television.

My interest in taking video games seriously and posing challenging questions about the fictional and half-real stories they tell is because video games matter. Our attitudes and actions about war, conflict, death and the use of weapons certainly matter. We cannot afford to be seduced by the technologies of war, hypnotised by the glow of explosions on our screens and silenced by this claim that “it’s only a game.”

Nina Huntemann, coeditor of the book Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games, is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Suffolk University. She can be reached at


    • Yes you can say its just a video game but like other forms of contemporary media, it’s a reflection on the current thoughts and fears of our society. Terrorists, overseas combat, the question of what is a ‘just cause’.
      What this article simply says that while war games are only games and such, it is turning and perverting the audiences idea of warfare. It takes the ultimate form of violence, the takin of a life and puts in a video game and aims to reward us for ‘kills’. It’s such a base primal nature that people lap this up. But it’s not the developers at fault. They are every much a victim of it all as we are. They are merely products of their generation and environment.

      • i dont think people sway towards shooters as a genre because we have a lust for war or whatever i think its merely because people play to have an escape from reality and to get their adrenaline rush and the fast pace nature of these games combined with the competitive nature of them makes the genre good genre for competitive play and then the public sway towards games such as cod because even people who arent as good can still remain semi competitive because if they join the lobby of a realistic racing game or a fighting game like street fighter or even a sports game like nba or fifa they wont stand a chance against someone that knows what they are doing.

        • Regardless of people’s reason for playing the games they are still getting exposed to this version of global conflict. But I agree, most people are in it for the fast paced , competitive gameplay.

    • It’s not just a game.

      Popular media like this reinforce the prejudices of people who access them, and legitimise opinions that promote and incite conflict based on racial vilification.

      They’re not to blame, obviously, but they do have an effect beyond being ‘just a game’.

  • Interesting stuff, and a good follow-up to the piece earlier on. Cool to see someone willing to engage with the masses through a site like Kotaku.

  • War based fantasies been ‘fun’ since who-knows-when.
    Even without the influence of films or videogames, people (mostly children) have been enacting wars/battles for centuries.
    The popularity of videogames of this genre is neither surprising nor concerning.
    Conflict and destruction excites most people. That’s why contact sports are so popular – they’re just a ‘war-alternative’.

  • It is just a game after all, but we’re forgetting about how much these forms of entertainment shape our perceptions of the world, especially for the younger generations. Being exposed to real war (albeit on the news) and simulated war (games, tv, movies) at almost every turn desensitizes us to the realities of it and makes it normal as well as that it combines it into something that is not only to be feared (in the real world) but also enjoyed (playing games and watching movies as a pleasure past time.

    Having worked on the front lines (retail game store) I’ve seen countless people, especially kids younger than 18 come in and all they want is COD. It’s like they have blinkers on, nothing else matters, just COD. They don’t even know WHY they want it or WHY they like it, (or they do know why and it’s to kill people) it’s just what you play, everyone else plays it, it’s normal. It’s not really anything to do with ‘gamer’ (i hate that word) culture, it’s just ‘normal’ to play COD and nothing else (ok maybe madden, even though we live in Australia…?), why would they play anything other than COD? All other games are shit, COD is the best. the end.

  • I think it would be more productive to examine the apathetic nature of society towards warfare, starvation, and suffering of people outside their circle of friends and family. We live in a world where death and destruction in all forms of media has never been more readily available e.g. the crazy horse 18 incident, which can be easily viewed among other disturbing military incidents on youtube. The developer’s of these games are just catering to an increasingly world-weary and jaded audience, whom are becoming more and more aware of the harsh realities of life. Regardless of the interactive nature of games, they have never come close to accurately depicting the realism and horror of war. Movies, documentaries and leaked footage have, in my opinion, a far greater impact of desensitization than current video games do. I am totally against any form of censorship, if I don’t like something I chose not to watch it. Like in any art form, there will always be controversy and clashes of opinion. I believe any sane person does not use forms of entertainment, such as war video games, to inform their world views and morality. Cheers

  • I don’t think anything less than a fully-fledged historical analysis can ever really attempt to convey a comprehensive picture of the dynamics in war, and even that lacks the visceral horrors of the front line.

    Personally, I take no interest in these ‘realistic’ shooters. I want to play games in order to be entertained, not simulate the human atrocities that take place on a daily basis.

  • “It concerns me at a time when unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) are now flying over US borders. When the US Congressional super committee is debating national budget priorities, which includes critical decisions about defence spending. When the fear and anxiety caused by the attacks of September 11, 2001 has been used to elect politicians, justify war in Iraq, misrepresent an entire religious faith, and sell entertainment”

    I don’t see how she is able to link the values stemming from war themed video games to the actions of the US Government. Even if such games “simplify, glamorise and fetishise global conflict,” that doesn’t mean they translate into elements of international policy. Also, to suggest that the reaction to the attacks on September 11 was manipulative is wrong; Bush for instance never misrepresented the Islamic religion, and had actually recognised that they too suffered equally from that event.

  • I think Metal Gear Solid is a good example of an anti-war war game. You don’t have to kill people, and three quarters of the game is story about the dangers of nuclear weapons, war and the effect it has on soldiers lives.

  • War has always been roleplayed, it’s hardly a new phenomenon. For proof, see toy soldiers, toy guns, toy swords, etc.

  • The trick is to stay diverse and concurrent in your consumption of media.

    Play MW3/Battlefield 3. Read Karl Marlantes’ excellent new book ‘What it’s Like to go to War’ and ‘The Good Soldiers’ by David Finkel. Watch Restrepo and the various Four Corners/Frontline reports from Afghanistan etc.

    Keep across investigative journalism that reports on British and US preparations for conflict scenarios with Iran, and the startling rise of UAV Drones in modern warfare, and the international legal debates escalating around their use. I listened to an interview with George Gittoes the other day in which he said they flew over some parts of Afghanistan every ten minutes, so low you can easily hear them. On the other side of the world is someone who commutes to work, controls these things (like a video game) and goes back to dinner with the family at night…

    If you can keep your viewpoint diverse and educated, the context for games like MW3 and Battlefield is also enriched, and not as threatening.

  • The content and backstory to the games market and its glorifications of violence and war don’t bother me as much as how 10 year olds are playing games like Modern Warfare. We had this kind of stuff when I was younger, but the realism in environments and enemies simply wasn’t there – you let your imagination do the hard work. Imagination is good at filling that hole, but there’s the safety net that you know there’s more to a story.

    There’s not danger of games being more dangerous than other media, because the participating aspect actually lessens that, but if they become to realistic in their motives, people will start recalling behavioural cues from them.

    That by itself isn’t going to mean the end of the world, in part because most people still understand the concept of consequences, but it’s another nudge.

    Then again, that isn’t a problem caused by games at all, but the people playing them.

    Similar to how most of my knives aren’t for stabbin’, but if I’m feelin’ stabby you’d best watch out, lest you find yourself to be a sort of modern-art pin cushion.

  • My son and I play these games together so it helps trying to be a cool dad… However I also keep an eye on my sons attitudes in this space but to them it is just a competitive game.

    If you are concerned about the impact these games has on someone,then sit them down and make them watch Black Hawk Down… If they are not moved when the two snipers volunteer to secure the second downed Blackhawk and seeing what they did (my son cried) then you have a problem…

    War is hell, you need to remind people of this occasionally…

  • I think we’re yet to see a gaming genre that delivers a multiplayer experience as accessible and entertaining as an FPS and, by definition, it should come as no surprise that these are “war games”.
    When developers and publishers innovate and take risks, maybe we’ll all stop buying new (identical/sequel) shooters every year.

  • Your whole article seems to be based on asking why war games are the best sellers. Fact of the matter is, they’re not.

    Highest Selling Games (PRE-MW3)
    Halo 3 (14.5 million)
    Call of Duty: Black Ops (12 million)

    **PlayStation 3**
    Gran Turismo 5 (6.37 million)
    Gran Turismo 5 Prologue (5.20 million)
    Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (4.8 million)

    Now the NON war games

    **Nintendo DS**
    New Super Mario Bros. (26.88 million)
    Nintendogs All versions (23.26 million)
    Mario Kart DS (21.04 million)
    Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day! (18.72 million)
    Pokémon Diamond and Pearl (17.39 million)

    **Nintendo Wii**
    Wii Sports (76.76 million)
    Mario Kart Wii (28.23 million)
    Wii Sports Resort (27.68 million)
    Wii Play (27.38 million)
    Wii Fit (22.61 million)
    New Super Mario Bros. Wii (21.94 million)
    Wii Fit Plus (18.49 million)

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