Military-themed video games can promote a damaging vision of real war

“We need less killing and more war,” argued writer and veteran Andrew Barron. “Combat is dangerous and game mechanics should reflect this.”

Increasingly the entertainment industry, in particular video games, shape civilian understanding of the nature of war, and how we talk and think about combat.

So much so that, according to Andrew Barron, a writer for military simulations who served a tour in Afghanistan, game makers have become "society’s teachers when it comes to war.”

This has become a problem, said Barron, who currently works at Bohemia Interactive Simulations, a developer of game-based training simulators designed specifically for professional military use.

There is, he argued, a major disconnect between the depiction of contemporary war in books, games, and movies and the reality of action on the frontline.

“As a veteran, I routinely find that people have a deep appreciation for the military, but a shallow understanding of what war is and does,” said Barron during his talk on the topic at the Game Developers Conference today.

While Barron was on tour in Sangin in 2011, a town in Helmand province and site of some of the bloodiest battles during the War in Afghanistan, he recalled hearing another marine say of life on the frontline: “This isn’t what I expected. I thought I’d be doing hero shit, like in Call of Duty.”

Thanks to a disproportionate and unrealistic focus on shooting, video games are “several orders of magnitude” more violent than military deployments.

Barron likened the focus on shooting in so-called realistic war-themed video games to like a movie studio, when making a film about love, choosing to only focus on sex. “You’d be making a porn film,” he said.

It may be exciting, but it would not prove particularly holistic or instructive when it comes to the subject of love. A soldier’s experience of actual war is far more diverse than merely shooting at people, Barron said, involving, among other things, engaging in diplomacy with local civilians.  

Barron suggested a number of ways in which video games could present more useful and instructive depictions of war. Simply by having a greater number of friendly troops on the battlefield, he said, a war game will look and feel more like a real-life military deployment.   

There is also a need for greater moral complexity in video game depictions of war, Barron said. In war, when lives are on the line, you often don’t have enough time to consider what the “right” course of action might be. While soldiers are issued with a legal code that provides guidelines for behavior during a conflict, there are few situations where the correct course of action is straightforward.

Barron gave the example of insurgent activity that he frequently encountered in Iraq whereby a convoy passes under a bridge on which two insurgents were poised. One insurgent is a lookout, while the other holds an IED, ready to throw it down onto a convoy as it passes.

“If some of your team are killed in this manner and, a week later, you’re driving down the same stretch of road and see two men on the same overpass, do you have the right to shoot in order to defend yourself?” Barron asked. “In modern warfare there are all sorts of events like this, when you have only a small amount of time to decide on how to act.”

How might this kind of moral complexity be introduced into a video game, Barron asked? He pointed to the Telltale series of adventure games as an instructive example of how morally complex decisions are presented to a player under high time pressure, and suggested that a similar approach might potentially be folded into commercial war games.

Barron concluded by pointing out that, in war, typically civilians pay the highest price. He explained that, when his unit first arrived in Sangin, the Taliban marked buried IEDs in the ground with rows of stones as a way to warn off civilians. After some time operating in the city, when trust had been built between the local Afghans and Americans, civilians began pointing out to the Marines where the IEDs were buried.

Thereafter the Taliban stopped alerting civilians as to the whereabouts of the explosive devices. Barron explained that numerous children were blown up as a result of this obfuscation. Barron pointed to This War of Mine as an example of a video game that successfully shows the cost to civilians of war, but bemoaned the absence of this kind of depiction more generally in war-themed games.

“We need less killing and more war,” Barron said. “Combat is dangerous and game mechanics should reflect this.”

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