Video games are the new contested space for public policy

A gamer wearing headphones plays the Call of Duty first person shooter.

In February, the video game publisher Victura announced it would launch what it described as a realistic video-game portrayal of the Second Battle for Fallujah. Based on dozens of interviews with troops who fought in the 2004 battle, Six Days in Fallujah was billed as more of a documentary than an action experience. “We track several units through the process and you get to know what it was like from day to day.” Peter Tamte, Victura’s CEO, told The Wall Street Journal. He explained that the game would avoid the politics of the Iraq war and the perspectives of civilians who experienced brutality at the hands of U.S. forces, since that was a divisive subject. Instead, the game would “engender empathy” for the U.S. Marines who fought in the battle.

This promotional campaign encountered immediate opposition. Veterans of the battle argued that a documentary story about a controversial battle in a controversial war could hardly be stripped of its politics while remaining true to its subject. “War is inherently political,” the Fallujah veteran John Phipps explained to The Gamer. “So to say you’re going to make an apolitical video game about war is nonsense. Show me a war that wasn’t started because of politics. You can’t. War is politics. It’s just a different form of politics.”

The controversy about Six Days in Fallujah is really a larger story about video games, militarism in the media, and the expanding boundaries of politics. Video games are not only a contested cultural space in America, but also a contested political space in which governments and corporations, journalists and activists, and players of every stripe, are competing to tell stories and shape perceptions about the world. This multi-billion dollar industry plays an increasingly important role in shaping the world-view of its participants and the politics of their societies. It is far past time that the policy community writ large treat this industry with a rigor equal to its influence.

 The persuasive medium

A game about the Iraq War might not seem like it poses big questions about the politics of war, but as a hugely popular form of mass media, video games can influence people’s emotional states, thought patterns, and perceptions. Every year, military-themed first person shooters (FPS), which simulate combat from the point of view of a combatant, generate billions of dollars of revenue. The most popular franchises, like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Counter-Strike and Halo, have sold hundreds of millions of copies and feature varying degrees of realism, inspiration from real-world events, and science-fiction elements. Unlike print, radio, television, or movies, video games are an interactive format that allows them to affect people differently than more traditional forms of broadcast media. Ian Bogost, a professor of media studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has argued that the interactive nature of video games makes them an inherently persuasive medium—a system of “procedural rhetoric” that encourages players to create abstract mental models for how systems work and to form judgments about those systems through the act of playing. The design of a game’s models and systems of interactions are intentional choices by the designers, and they set the terms for how a person encounters the game. One video game designer called this effort to induce a certain type of player reaction “emotion engineering” in the design process.

Research has demonstrated that some game design choices improve the way people focus and increase feelings of well-being. Other design choices can trigger addictive behavior. While research is ongoing, experimental studies have shown that some military FPS games can cause players to become measurably more militarist in outlook. In a “realistic” military FPS game, the presence or absence of rules of engagement, for example, will dramatically change how the player approaches a mission. When the military itself consults on the design of such a game, this leads to a number of uncomfortable questions about why those choices were made. Consider Full Spectrum Warrior, a 2004 game that began development as a training simulator for U.S. Army soldiers. The company behind it, Pandemic, modified the game into a commercial release that so the Army could send the game downrange for soldiers to play while deployed. Set in a fictionalized version of Iraq, the game features an empty, crumbling urban landscape coded to be obviously Middle Eastern, filled only with Arab men to shoot. The strongest incentive not to engage in combat isn’t to safeguard civilians, but to avoid personal injury to your squad mates. Despite its marketing as “realistic” and messaging that it was developed with input from the Pentagon, the game-world it creates removes the complexity of urban insurgency and substitutes simplified moral dilemmas that portray the military in unambiguously good terms—an enjoyable setting for a game, but hardly reflective of the reality of the war in Iraq.

Examples from traditional media help elaborate why this is a concern. Emotionally resonant media about real issues have changed public’s perception. Researchers have found, for example, that ostensibly realistic films like Argo (depicting the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis) or Zero Dark Thirty (chronicling the search for Osama bin Laden) altered public opinion about those events. There is also evidence that such media can result in real world behavioral change in agents of the state. In his 2008 book, Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values, Philippe Sands interviewed a former lawyer stationed at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who claimed that the television show “24” inspired interrogators to “go further than they otherwise might.” The journalist Jane Mayer interviewed an Army interrogator in Iraq, who said that after people watched “24,” they would “walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they’ve just seen.”

This is perhaps one reason why the Pentagon has collaborated with Hollywood since the early 20th century to create sympathetic portrayals on television and in film through the Entertainment Office—an arrangement often called the “military-entertainment complex.” For television shows like “24” and films like “American Sniper,” the office will not only analyze the scripts for accuracy, it will also alter scripts to improve the portrayal of the military on screen. The Entertainment Office is in enough demand to be selective in what it will advise, reportedly turning down 95% of the scripts or story treatments it receives. “We’re not going to support a program that disgraces a uniform or presents us in a compromising way,” Captain Russell Coons, director of the Navy Office of Information West, told Al Jazeera in 2014. This selectivity creates a powerful incentive for writers, producers, and directors to cede narrative ground to the Pentagon in order to secure access to their expertise, equipment, and approval.

In many ways, video games are just another branch of the military-entertainment complex, since developers will collaborate with the Pentagon to ensure a degree of realism. The developers of the 2014 title Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which is set in the near future, not only consulted with soldiers and futurists to generate realistic combat scenarios and rules of engagement, they also recruited a Pentagon scenario planner to the design team. The Pentagon scenario planner helped the game developers think through a realistic set of threats for a futuristic war scenario, which prompted them to select private military contractors as the most plausible enemy over their first choice, China’s People’s Liberation Army. In doing so, the Pentagon influenced the design of the game to shape how players will envision future real-world threats. Considering the game sold more than 21 million copies, this represented an enormous audience for the Pentagon to influence. (It is notable that one of the game’s directors was later hired by the Atlantic Council think tank to advise the military on future warfare scenarios, cycling the same threat model from the Pentagon to video games, to think tanks, and back to the Pentagon.)

The U.S. military also appears to have been involved in the production of Six Days in Fallujah, which raises questions about how it is intended to shape perceptions of the Iraq war. In the mid-2000s, Tamte led a different video game developer named Destineer, which partnered with the Japanese publisher Konami to release a version of Six Days. Back then, Tamte claimed the game had no stance on the politics of the war in Iraq, as he repeated this year. At the time, Destineer ran a thriving side business making training simulations for the Pentagon and the intelligence community. The U.S. Marine Corps was an official consultant for the company’s first game, Close Combat: First to Fight. And In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture investment arm, partnered with the company in 2005. The suggestion that a company with such deep ties to the government could make a game without politics sparked an outcry, and Konami deemed the game too controversial. They canceled its publication in 2009. No one is canceling Six Days in Fallujah anymore. Tamte’s current company, Victura, is also a publisher, so he is moving forward with a new developer contracted to update the game’s code and gameplay. The game is slated for release later this year.

Video games are culture

Today, the global video game industry is one of the world’s largest culture industries. According to market research firm IDC, the global video game market topped $179 billion in revenue in 2020, making it larger than the global film industry ($100 billion) and North American professional sports (around $75 billion) combined. Video games’ cultural impact skews young: According to the Entertainment Software Association, 70% of people under the age of 18 regularly play video games. Younger players also tend to be male: According to a Pew survey, almost twice as many young men regularly play games as young women. That doesn’t mean all players are young; 64% of players are between 18 and 54 years old—prime voting age.

The Pentagon certainly views gamers as a high-value target for outreach and has spent 20 years using video games for recruitment. The most famous of these efforts, America’s Army, was a free-to-play military FPS game launched in 2002 to persuade young players to enlist. Its portrayal of army service was neutral and de-politicized and avoided portraying the hardships of basic training or graphic bloodshed during combat sequences. It instead focused on exacting detail in weaponry, uniforms, and mission design.

While America’s Army did not result in a recruitment boom, by the 2010s, as the number of new enlisted flagged, the U.S. military revisited video games as a way to boost its numbers. In 2018, the Pentagon created a new service track of professional video game players to compete in the growing field of esports—professional, competitive video game play. These new service tracks are part of the recruiting commands in the Air Force, Navy, and Army, a recognition of the power of the growing power of esports to generate interest among younger people. “I would argue that in looking at these generations, we have to begin thinking about how they approach this question of where they will apply their talent,” Dr. E. Casey Wardynski, an Army recruiting official, told journalists about the program. “We have to confront this question of, will we wait until they’re 17, or will be start talking to them at age 12, 13, 14, 15, when they form the set of things they are thinking about doing with their life?”

The growth of online streaming has only expanded the audience for video games and has had a powerful effect on culture. Popular online streamers, using services such as Twitch, livestream feeds of the games they play alongside their commentary. They interact with viewers via chat functions and build loyal followings. The streamer popularly known as PewDiePie (real name Felix Kjellberg) is the highest-earning creator on YouTube, pulling in roughly $8 million per month mainly by broadcasting himself playing video games to the more than 100 million subscribers to his channel. He briefly had a lucrative partnership with Disney that the entertainment giant ended after a series of his videos featured anti-Semitic imagery and slurs. While Kjellberg’s beliefs are all but impossible to pin down, he has used racist and anti-Semitic slurs on his livestreams and for a time was a cult-hero on the right. The gunman who attacked a New Zealand mosque in 2019 urged those watching a livestream of the attack to subscribe to Pewdiepie’s channel before opening fire. Kjellberg has disavowed the far-right and has spoken about his struggles to balance the tongue-in-cheek style of video game livestreams with the real-world political fallout such talk can have. Kjellberg’s success—and the controversy around him—speaks to the centrality of video games and video game culture in online life.

The policy implications of video games

Video games are not neutral spaces stripped of politics in which people engage in neutral play together. They are vibrant, contested, growing, lucrative, politicized spaces, where actors of all sizes and ideologies compete to influence the minds of their audiences. Video games are where politics happen. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been a leader in using games to reach voters. She recognizes, just as the Pentagon does, that games are an important site for political speech, especially when live-streamed. This past October, she hosted a get-out-the-vote event on the video game streaming service Twitch that attracted more than 430,000 live spectators to her channel, the third-largest audience the site had ever attracted to a single stream.

Games can tell us a lot about how the world works. Johan Huizinga theorized in Homo Ludens that play is essential to culture and the formation of society. The concept of play, he argues, is foundational to how humans form their beliefs about rule-based systems, which are the foundation of modern civilization. Video games began as a new way to play with computers but have evolved into rich texts filled with politics and arguments for how the world should work.

The cultural dominance of video games lends them political salience. Studying how video game communities form and discuss issues can offer unexpected insight into how audiences are built and come to share common beliefs, including malignant ones. As an example, consider how video games presaged the rise of the alt-right in American politics. In 2005, the far-right provocateur Steve Bannon started a business to pay Chinese players to farm assets in the online multiplayer game World of Warcraft to sell to other players at a profit. The business itself flopped, but Bannon learned from the experience that video game players can be mobilized outside the game. “These guys, these rootless white males,” he told the journalist Joshua Green, referring to his perceived customers, “had monster power.”

When he took over the online news outlet Brietbart, Bannon realized he could use video games to power the online alt-right that ultimately helped Donald Trump win the White House. In 2014, Bannon led Breitbart to take an active role in publicizing and encouraging Gamergate, an explosion of organized, violent, and misogynist harassment carried out by some video game players angry at the rise of feminist perspectives in games. Mobilizing gamers to fight for conservative values in the culture war turned out to be wildly popular. Bannon turned the rhetorical strategies and organizing tools of Gamergate into powerful weapons for the Trump campaign, and with them, he mobilized a small army of very angry, very online young men into effective political operatives.

Gamergate had a transformative effect on the nature of online discourse. One of its most enthusiastic proponents, Mike Cernovich, moved on from Gamergate to write fake news stories attacking Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election and later hosted a show for Alex Jones’ conspiracy show Info Wars. The pattern of coordinated abuse, harassment, and threats perfected by GamerGate has come to define much of the Trump-supporting internet. Charlie Warzel, a technology journalist at the New York Times observed last year that “Gamergate’s DNA is everywhere on the internet.”

Obviously not all video game players are misogynist harassers, just as not all games are funded by the Pentagon to present tailored narratives about a controversial war. But all video games do present a worldview to the player, whether it is explicit or not, and understanding that world view can help us understand what the players themselves believe. As an inescapable part of public discourse and an enormous media market we ignore at our peril, video games are not just video games: They are the site of political contention, of negotiation over social boundaries, and of free speech itself.

Joshua Foust is a PhD student studying strategic communication at the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Media, Communication, and Information. His website is