Analysis: What Metal Gear Solid 4 Teaches Us About the War Economy
Continuing his series of analyses of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, writer Zoran Iovanovici examines Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, looking at the polarizing game's relationship with the military-industrial complex and the war ec
[Continuing his series of analyses of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, writer Zoran Iovanovici examines the fourth title in the series -- Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (the direct sequel to MGS2) looking at the polarizing game's relationship with the military-industrial complex and the war economy.]
Far from being eliminated at the conclusion of MGS2, the influence of The Patriots resurfaces as an even greater threat in MGS4 in the form of The System. The System is not simply a term used to define a hypothetical collection of political, social, or economic institutions; it is a tangible cluster of AI (artificial-intelligence) supercomputers developed by The Patriots to oversee and maintain the financial, political, and social stability of the United States from behind the scenes.
At some point between the events of MGS2 and MGS4, The System’s influence became so great that it began to have an impact on politics, technological development, and the global economy.
At the very heart of The System’s dominance is the establishment of the game’s war economy. The war economy in MGS4 is composed of many layers including the PMCs (private military companies) and soldiers that make up the majority of the world’s standing forces along with the laws that regulate and keep the PMCs at center of economic stability. More importantly, The System controls the entire weapons market from production to distribution to actual end-use. This control over the global economy is essentially what gives The System total global control.
The most important factor as it applies to gameplay in MGS4 is The System’s applied proliferation of ID locked weapons. In previous MGS games, players could acquire and procure weapons and ammunition from downed opponents or random weapon caches discovered throughout missions. In MGS4, however, this tactic is rendered obsolete as nearly all mass-produced weapons are digitally ID-locked by The System. Each weapon is assigned to a particular soldier and tied to them via nano-machine identification between the soldier and weapon. If a change in ownership takes place, it must first go through System checks and protocols.
This ID system has wide-ranging military and tactical implications: it prevents raids on weapon caches by guerilla groups, it helps keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists, and it prevents the staging of armed revolutions. As a result, ID weapons become highly revered by the general public for creating what Colonel Campbell calls a “cleaner, safer battlefield.”
At the same time, it helps The System control who can use weapons and regulate how the weapons are used as only System sanctioned PMCs gain access to ID weapons. MGS4’s token arms dealer Drebin explains: “ID guns can't be sold on the black market. The System's practically a license for us arms dealers to print money.”
The Implications of The System
While presented to the public as a safety measure, The System’s complete control over all weapons is really more of an economic stranglehold. Weapons development, manufacturing, distribution, and use are all controlled and regulated by The System. It’s a complete monopoly in every sense.
In fact, a major element of progress for PMC soldiers in MGS4 revolves around the economic structure of weapon purchasing and upgrading. By proving themselves in battle, they are rewarded with better weapons and items to kill opposing forces in order to gain even better weapons in an unending cycle of consumption. Even the typical video game reward system seen in similar titles in the genre are nowhere to be seen – soldiers don’t fight for medals, prestige, or even promotions in rank; they fight for access to superior ID locked weapons.
This in-game economy of weapon purchasing and unlocking implies an outright capitalist system and it’s the first time that players have had to directly deal with the issue of economy in the MGS series. As Snake is not officially employed by a PMC, he is at the mercy of gun launderers like Drebin who are willing and able to take the risk in dealing in rare non-ID weapons. However, Drebin doesn’t offer this service simply out of good grace, he does it under the condition that Snake continually procure ID weapons and items on the battlefield. Drebin explains: “You'll be picking up a lot of guns out in the field, I'm sure. I'll take and buy 'em off ya. That'll earn you points you can cash in for services.”
It’s a wholly capitalist arrangement on which Snake is utterly dependent on for survival, and on which the player, in turn, is dependent on for progress. Even when Snake discovers a new weapon on the battlefield, he must pay Drebin a fee to ‘unlock’ the weapon from System ID checks.
There is yet another major gameplay component plays into this capitalist arrangement. The Mk. II device that Snake uses from the outset of the game is initially touted as an advanced self-cloaking robotic device capable of scouting the battlefield for reconnaissance while providing battlefield maps and real-time situational data. While this is certainly the case early on in the game, once Snake meets Drebin, the Mk. II’s primary function shifts from a battlefield support device to a tool used for economic advancement. Even Otacon, the man who created the Mk. II, encourages Snake to play into this business arrangement:
"We'll use the Mk. II to deal with Drebin from here on out. The Mk.II can act as a kind of delivery boy - connect you with him. I'm adding a 'Drebin' menu item to the Mk.II's interface. Whenever you pick up multiple units of the same weapon, any extras will automatically be sold to Drebin on your next visit."
Gaining more currency (in this case Drebin Points) in order to buy and unlock guns, mods, and supplies subsequently becomes a focal point of the game. As the game progresses, Snake’s reliance on the Mk. II as a delivery mechanism for profit becomes increasingly prominent. It automatically picks up weapons and ammo that can later be bartered and sold for custom parts and upgrades. It’s an unprecedented focus on commerce that the series has never seen before, and players are absolutely required to participate in this new monetary gameplay system.
The fact that there is an economy in the game that stands in the way of the player/avatar succeeding is of particular interest as it solidifies the war economy as an inescapable element of society in MGS4 on both a gameplay and narrative level. This new age in history is explained by Campbell during the game’s initial mission briefing:
"The System has turned war into a form of economic activity. Analysts are calling it the 'war economy' in that it's picking up the slack for the downward-sloping oil market. Because of the military might of the PMCs and the effect they have on the economy, war is to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th: the pillar that supports the global economy. For PMCs, market expansion entails fanning the flames of war. The global community is concerned, but they're all too afraid of the war economy collapsing to do anything."
It is equally important to note how the player obtains currency in the game. They are rewarded monetarily for killing enemy soldiers and selling any ransacked weapons and equipment. As Snake exists outside of The System, he is not under the employ of any government organization or PMC and he receives no payment for the work he does, yet he is still stuck within the confines of the global war economy.
War Is Life
While the player takes on the role of Snake and the story is delivered largely through his point of view, the player is constantly haunted by the figure of the average PMC soldier as most of Snake’s missions and objectives function in relation to them. The average PMC soldier in MGS4 can claim one thing with certainty: life is war. Even more disconcerting is just how expansive the PMCs are as Drebin explains:
"The line between civilian and soldier is getting real blurry. Sooner or later, the whole damn human race is gonna be green collars. More like, we're all gonna be fighting proxy wars. But hey, this war economy puts the food on my table."
Even before the game starts players are given a peek into the widespread popularity and influence of PMCs and the war economy in the form of cleverly directed faux commercials. These live-action commercials are the first thing players experience upon pressing the START button. They also play in loops whenever the player takes a break from the game or if they leave the game idle on the menu screen. It’s a well executed postmodern narrative technique that glamorizes PMC life and perpetuates the ‘war is life’ ideology.
When compared to real-life military recruitment ads there is no mention of serving one’s country or fighting to defend any nation; they are simply stylized montages depicting choreographed action sequences, women, and money. They allude to a life of freedom and success through economic enrichment.
While the commercials presented at the opening of the game promote a wide variety of PMCs and suggest that potential PMC recruits can choose the company they will work for when they start their military careers, these choices are completely removed from which nation they will represent or which ideology they fight for in any given battle. It’s purely an economic lifestyle choice. In essence, the PMC soldier is the embodiment of the PMC itself and fights for personal profit under a banner of a profiteering entity. They are treated as anonymous assets in random battles for random causes.
Moreover, since The System largely controls and regulates the global economy (via the war economy), it influences the standard of living for the common individual as it plays a part in defining what career choices are viable. Unfortunately for the world in MGS4, the most profitable and readily available career choices involve participating in the global war economy via enlistment and recruitment into PMCs. If society deems that war is necessary, natural, and profitable, then war becomes a cornerstone of human existence and a commonplace for the majority of humanity.
When it all boils down, MGS4 is a stark commentary on the disposable nature of human life in a commodity based culture where private military companies are at the heart of economic progress. Perhaps Big Boss’s closing words at the end of the game are meant to be considered as a warning to any government, real or fictional, that may choose to walk down a similar path:
"This age chose to act through economics instead of nation-states. Powered by the industrial and digital revolutions that came before it, this age gave birth to a twisted economic revolution - a battlefield revolution. It created a new world without substance. In this new world, there were no ideologies, no principles, no ideals.
There was only the war economy."