Playing from the Other Side: the Discomfort of Militainment Avatars

This post is the latest in my series of short blog posts following a burst of creative time to think at SXSW 2007 Interactive. Although this concept doesn’t have any panel in particular that it originated in, it does strongly relate to the numerous panels on game avatars that I attended at the conference.

If you’re like me, playing militainment — that is, military simulation games — is purely for fun; the side i’m on doesn’t really matter to me, aside from possible differences in gameplay characteristics of the characters. I’ve played games like Counterstrike, Battlefield 2, WWII games, etc., and i’ve never had a problem playing on the side of the terrorist, Axis, or US-opposing troops. These are games, and I’d imagine that most people from my generation don’t give the side they’re on a second thought.

Battlefield 2 teams - US, MEC, Chinese

In Project Reality, a mod for Battlefield 2 that enhances the realism level of the basic game, some balance issues were present early on that gave a huge advantage to a weapons on the US side. Rampant teamswitching would almost always occur, so that the “Middle Eastern Coalition” or Chinese in-game team would lose players early in the game. My buddies and I always figured that it was to take advantage of the better guns, but recently I came across a forum post that got me thinking.

Do we have to play both sides??? We could just choose another map, I just don’t fond(sic) the idea of playing the enemy!

Now there was an interesting concept! I’d never considered before that players might be switching to the US side in a video game due to ethical problems with playing “the enemy.” I began to wonder if he was alone, or if these moral problems with playing as enemy avatars could explain why there was such a built-in preference for the home teams.

It also touched off a long-dead memory of my gaming past: Counterstrike, a popular game pitting Terrorists vs. Counter-Terrorists, had its second year of competition at the Cyberatheletes Professional League scheduled for October of 2001. Taking drastic steps to try and avoid being cast in the light of September 11th, Shacknews obtained word that the CPL would be completely modding the game to a custom version. It was reported to replace the team names with “Offensive Team” and “Defensive Team,” forced a single model per team side, and significantly, would ditch the old model of defusing explosives, replacing it with disabling “a communications device.”

A few days later, Shacknews reported that, due to gamer complaints, the “communications device” change would be reverted, and the sound and text files for the bomb objective would be reinstated. They managed to get the gameplay back to traditional levels, but kept the “Offensive Team” and “Defensive Team” rebranding from the traditional T’s vs. CT’s. Given the intense amount of backlash from the competitive gaming community, it would be easy to assume that matters in this day and age are little different — that somehow, gamers still don’t care whether they put on the avatar of a terrorist and go forth to do virtual battle.

However, after doing some research, it’s clear to me that attitudes are changing. I can’t fault an Iraq veteran for not wanting to play on a Middle-Eastern Insurgent team.

I WILL NOT play on the Insurgents team. I think it has something to do with them trying to kill me while i was in Iraq.

However, in the same thread, forum goers found themselves confronting a member of the community who hurled racial slurs to explain his preference for game teams. It doesn’t seem to me like the gaming community tolerates racist attitudes, and it even has trouble grappling with the concept of people who team up to strictly roleplay the military side of the SS in WWII.

America's Army These are some very real discussions going on, and although they’re anecdotal, they do make one think for a bit about whether there a complete psychological disconnect is possible between the characters we play, and our real personas. THE WAR BETWEEN EFFECTS AND MEANING: RETHINKING THE VIDEO GAME VIOLENCE DEBATE references Zhan Li’s thesis on America’s Army.

Veterans and current GIs were often critical of the casual and playful attitudes with which nonmilitary people play the game. For the veterans, playing the game represented a place to come together and talk about the way that war had impacted their lives. Many discussions surrounded the design choices the military made in order to promote official standards of behavior – such as preventing players from fragging team-mates in the back or rewarding them for ethical and valorous behavior. The military had built the game to get young people excited about military service. They had created something more – a place where civilians and service folk could discuss the serious experience of real life war.

I, like many of my peers at the time, saw America’s Army as a propagandist recruitment toy. Still I recall downloading it and playing it for a short time, out of curiosity about its gameplay. I didn’t feel it was odd at the time, but I can see how my detached attitude towards lies in stark contrast in this context. When does a person cross the line, and is it natural to play a military simulation game and not somehow question the meaning behind it all? Is there a game that I wouldn’t play? One that i’d finally draw a line in the sand for, and one that I couldn’t bring myself to step into the simulated shoes of another modern military group?

It turns out that there is.

I found it via a reference in Alexander Galloway’s Social Realism in Gaming.. In his fascinating article, he mentions two Palestinian-developed games juxtaposed against America’s Army: Special Force and Under Ash.

Published by the Central Internet Bureau of Hizbullah, Special Force is a first person shooter based on the armed Islamic movement in South Lebanon. [...] So while the action in Special Force is quite militaristic, it feels like a simple role reversal, a transplant of its American counterparts, with Israelis as the enemies rather than dark-skinned Arabs.

Special Force on Wikipedia

Although I am not Israeli, the thought of playing from the side of a Palestinian paramilitary organization, in a game that parallels the promotion of ideological realism of America’s Army, is one that I do not relish. The world we live in, the “war against terror,” and the possibility of my brother going to Iraq to fight, these are all things that I don’t normally think about when I open up a game like Battlefield 2. But I don’t think I could play a game like this without thinking about all of that.

Perhaps that’s why Battlefield 2 is set in the near future, instead of modern-day war. There’s something about dissociating the avatar you play as and the ideology or concepts they represent. I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing that I can play on the MEC or Chinese team without thinking about the killing of real Americans, or vice versa — but I think it’s okay to be able to differentiate between the fantasy of simulation gaming and reality.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid i’ve probably opened up more questions than answers here. There are some really serious issues behind modern military gaming and society, and especially those games that try to use the avatar as some sort of vehicle to try and push a particular ideolology on their players. When do people become unable to play as an enemy of the US? Is it a nationalistic thing? Is it racism? Or are people just overreacting to a harmless fantasy world? I guess everyone has their own line that they draw — when the roles that we play start hitting too close to home.

2 thoughts on “Playing from the Other Side: the Discomfort of Militainment Avatars

  1. thank you for brienging this up. i am a soldier in the israel reserve force. 5 years ago my sister’s fiance, was shot by a snipper in on one of the road blocks in the Ot. before that incident i was an avid player of the “commandos” series. i remmeber the first time i played it after the incident. seeing the guard thru the snippers cross made me stop playing war games.

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