11 December 2013

War Games: Video Games in an Era of Digital Militarism

“In this sense, then, war has always been a virtual reality, too traumatic for immediate comprehension.  But now there is an added danger, a further barrier to understanding it . . . In this high-tech rehearsal for war, one learns how to kill but not to take responsibility for it, one experiences “death” but not the tragic consequences of it . . .we face the danger of a new kind of trauma without sight, drama without tragedy, where television wars and video war games blur together.  We witness this not only at an international level, but also on the domestic front, where two teenagers predisposed to violence confused the video game Doom for the high school classroom.” (Virtuous War, Der Derian 10)
It is unsurprising that as the holidays approach, we see more and more television commercials advertising the sale of video game consoles and their games.  There is no doubt that video games are one of the most popular forms of electronic media. They submerse users in a realm of virtual reality that has the ability to teach as well as entertain.  In February 2013, Sony Computer Entertainment announced a successor to the PlayStation 3, the PlayStation 4, that would be released in November 2013—as of December 3rd, over 2.1 million units have sold in over thirty countries worldwide.  This is a record breaking rate of sale with 1 million units being sold in the US in just one night of its release.

Consumers clearly have a high demand for new consoles and the video games that are to come.  However, the dilemma that is on the concerned parent's mind is the implications of people (particularly young adults) who are constantly exposed to video games and very graphic scenes of violence.  Frankly, could the exposure to so much virtual violence have negative consequences?

The video taken from the documentary Joystick Warriors seems to explore how the immersive experience these games offer link up with the larger stories we tell ourselves as a culture about violence, militarism, guns, and manhood.  One of Der Derian's arguments in his book is that video games are becoming more and more appropriated by the MIME-NET (Military Industrial Media Entertainment Network) and that there seems to be a level of disconnect between the realism of users and the levels of violence they experience in virtual reality.  On page 89 of Virtuous War, Der Derian discusses the military itself appropriating the video game Doom and adapting it for military training purposes into Marine Doom.  He notes that the game Doom was not intended for military use, yet the military complex saw it so useful as a combat-training tool that they decided to use it and just replace some of the graphics (instead of shooting monsters, the users shoot terrorists and masked men).  It's clear that some violent video games intended for citizens may actually be useful as shooter training tools for the military.  Even Der Derian himself says that he thought he’d be good at the military’s version of the video game because he had played many games like it in arcades.

"War as entertainment; A leisurely activity."
Is there a danger here? Some would argue yes because they believe that violent video games can cause an increase of violent tendencies in their users.  Worse yet is that if these violent video games are truly causing aggression, then what does it say when the MIME-NET seemingly tries to recruit youths via video games to prepare them for future militaristic endeavors?  Is it a shocking perspective that the military industrial complex may be taking advantage of hobbies such as video gaming to essentially brainwash younger people into toy soldiers?

This is where the debate gets very touchy:  While many agree that unsupervised violence in ANY form of media can have a negative impact on a young person's psyche, they argue that the video games themselves are not what causes aggression, and no less makes a person a militarized killing machine.  Yet there are theories that exist that do make the attempt to link video games with increased aggression in kids and teenagers.  

Theories such as Cognitive Neoassociation and Symbolic Catharsis seem to be the most popular when addressing this debate.  Cognitive Neoassociation posits that the discharge of aggressive emotions in video games, through behaving aggressively at inanimate objects, should increase rather than decrease angry feelings and aggressive behaviors. These aggressive thoughts form an associative network in memory so when stimulated in real life, it will provoke aggressive action based on the in-game behaviors and ideas.

Symbolic Catharsis on the other hand claims that 
the aggressive content of video games could allow players to release their stress and aggression in a nondestructive way, which would actually have a relaxing effect on the users.  Thus the users are actually discharging aggression by purging aggressive emotions, hence they arrive at an emotional purification (or catharsis).

While both theories seem compelling, neither seem to offer concrete solutions to the MIME-NET dilemma. Nor do any of the highly varying studies which try to prove or disprove a link between video games and aggression itself.  Not to mention leaving the issue of whether or not the military would seek to abuse this link up in the air.  Der Derian himself seems to struggle with the issue.

“The social sciences, especially its dominant methodology of rational choice, have shown a reluctance to enter into proximity talks with violence.” (Der Derian 38)
 With this in mind, perhaps the commentary of Der Derian towards the relationship between the MIME-NET and video games is not to take any one position, but rather draw awareness to its existence in ways that many might not have noticed before.  As anyone who has taken Dr. McVicker's English 500 course would ask: What is the role of the intellectual?  Is it simply to know facts and make claims, or does it imply a bigger responsibility in the public sphere of raising awareness to issues?  I for one would hope that discourse such as this would open the floodgates of civil debate, and at the very least draw attention to these issues in ways which highlight their importance.


Naomi Coufal said...

It's really interesting the way these two opposite theories appear in the arena of violent video games. Earlier in the semester, I was talking with my students in ENGL 100 about macabre or violent literature. The exact same dilemma appeared quickly. Does violent, macabre literature help the reader overcome fear? Or does it encourage violent or macabre thoughts and actions?

The conclusion that the class reached as a whole was that it depends strongly upon the person involved. Some people, they thought, would be effected very negatively. Meanwhile, others could greatly benefit from the literature.

I think the same is true of violent video games. Some individuals can play such games with little to no psychological effects. Yet, others may be very affected by exposure to such material.

Overall, I think the key here is "playing it safe." If you have children, monitor their games when they are young. When they are older, if they show responsibility and a calm temperament, then, perhaps, they can branch out in their gaming experience.

Ellen Scherer said...

I have been very interested in the argument between neoassociation and catharsis in video games. I would like to say that I don't know where the violence in video gaming comes from, but it's hard to argue with society's idea of winning/conquering. Children are encouraged to use words over violence to solve their problems, but the message is clouded by representations of violence in society. Contact sports are a violence hot spot and our country solves international crises with virtuous war.

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Anonymous said...

Naomi, as we all know kids do not have limits by themselves. They either need to be limited or not be introduced to something in the first place. Don't you think? Imagine telling your kids about violent video games and then asking them to not kill so many people?? That just seems unreachable to me. Or maybe I have got what you're saying wrong.

Abigail Griffin said...

Well I think all of you are right on the factor of supervision. I think the pervasiveness of violence in video games (and even in other forms of media) today calls for the parents to take on the duties of getting involved with the kinds of media their kids are watching. Maybe even realizing that not all violence is virtuous, and that even subtle shows of violence (like military recruit videos) still have an agenda to show their kids an aggressive message even if it's not forwardly gruesome.

Melissa said...

I thought it would be interesting to look at other countries and see if there was a link between video games and violence. Japan has more per capita use of violent gaming, but with limited access to firearms and strict laws, there is minimal violence.
I also read that the media actually inaccurately links violent criminals, or often over exaggerates the connection. That's ironic to me.