Since the release of the blockbuster war-themed video game Call of Duty: Ghosts, the news media has been abuzz with reports of its aweinspiring realism and predictions about its
reaching the dizzying sales heights of Grand Theft Auto V. (It couldn’t.)
There has been nowhere near as much attention paid to growing concerns about the astonishing levels of interactive violence found in wildly popular shooter games like these, and what effect, if any, playing them has on young men’s and women’s belief systems—and psyches.
Antiviolence activist and educator Jackson Katz, a Voice Male contributing editor, has long focused his work on the relationship between cultural ideas about manhood that are both established and reinforced in media, and the ongoing pandemic of violence in U.S. society. “It’s not just that guys merely imitate what they see,” he believes. “It’s also the role of media inshaping men’s and boys ideas about what it means to be a man, and how those norms
contribute to violence.”
Joystick Warriors, a new educational documentary produced by the Media Education Foundation (www.mediaed.org), moves beyond commercial hype to focus on the personal, social, and cultural impact of war-themed video games and other shooter games. Katz interviewed one of the scholars featured in Joystick Warriors, Nina Huntemann, to get some background about issues related to the film’s central concerns about militarism, violence, and video games. Huntemann, a friend and colleague of Katz’s, is also a long-time gamer whose research interests include the image of women in video games, women’s use of the Internet for social change, sexist harassment online and misogyny in gamer culture.
Jackson Katz: One of the knee-jerk reactions to critiques about video games—especially
if those critiques even mention the word “violence”—is that it’s reductive to say
“video games cause violence,” when of course you and other thoughtful critics never
say or imply such simplistic things. Often the next straw argument is that critiquing
video games is tantamount to calling for government censorship. How do you respond
to these sorts of predictable criticisms?
Nina Huntemann: There is a pervasive, knee-jerk reaction to any criticism of video games that someone is going to “take away my games.” Given the history of mainstream culture— and, in particular, news media marginalizing games as pointless and gamers as socially inept teenagers—I sympathize with this wary and fearful response. However, I don’t know of any thoughtful video game critic worth listening to who, first of all, doesn’t play and enjoy video
games and, second, would ever suggest government censorship as a solution to the
more problematic aspects of gaming. The role of criticism is to expose the limitations
of art and culture, and push cultural producers to make better, more engaging and
profound experiences for the consumer, for audiences, and players. Equally important is
the knowledge and perspective that criticism adds to understanding our contemporary
culture, what our society values, how it reacts to tragedy and triumph, and how we
can craft a better future.
JK: In the new documentary Joystick Warriors, in which you’re featured, you talk
a lot about how games like Call of Duty feed certain ideas and ideologies that undergird
American militarism. What’s your essential argument here? NH: Since their creation in the 1960s, there has always been a symbiotic relationship between video and computer games and the U.S. military, particularly in regards to technology. The computer systems upon
which video games were first developed and the engineers who first programmed games
were, in part, funded by contracts with the Department of Defense. The sharing of
hardware innovations and advances in simulation have continued, both formally and
informally, especially as the military’s desire for unmanned strike tactics has increased.
In addition to a technological partnership, military-themed games like Call of Duty and
Battlefield share an ideological vision as well; one that elevates a militaristic response to conflict over diplomacy, fetishizes the technologies of warfare, and minimizes the humanitarian consequences of such warfare on civilians and veterans. The popularity
of military-themed video games, and the central stories they tell, contributes to the
militarization of everyday life: the broad acceptance of militaristic ideas and values,
and a subsequent lack of critique of those ideas and values. Couple this virtual fog of
war with the unchallenged secrecy of the executive branch of government—starting
with former president George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 but continuing with bravado
by President Obama—and it’s no wonder the American public’s perception of war is
literally more likely to be formed by fictionalized fantasies of warfare than by journalistic
accounts of the real actions of the U.S. Armed Forces and intelligence agencies.
JK: Talk a bit more about the relationship between the military, the gun industry, and
the video game industry, and what this relationship has to do with the question of
N.H. I think most people can understand why the U.S. Armed Forces would have a close
relationship with gun manufacturers. As the tactics of contemporary warfare change,
new weapons systems must adapt to the specific needs of the military. What might surprise people, however, is the close relationship between the gun industry and video games, especially in light of the National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre’s comments in the wake of the Sandy Hook mass shooting. LaPierre accused the video game industry of being a “callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people.” If indeed LaPierre believes this to be true, then he is indicting some of the NRA’s top “Gold Ring of Freedom” donors because
many of them contribute to and materially benefit from video games. The desire for
realism in video games drives technological advances such as increasingly complex
physics engines and motion capture–driven animation. In games that feature an arsenal
of weapons, the accurate representation of real-world guns can add to this sense
of realism. To achieve this, game developers will invest a significant amount of
research and design resources—which often means working directly with gun manufacturers— in a relationship similar to product placement in films and television shows.
Simulating everything from the sound of specific guns when fired at close and long
range, rapid fire versus single shot, fail rate and accuracy statistics, and the precise
look of a gun, can add the “juice” a game needs to stand out in the highly competitive
tactical shooter genre. But even if game makers do not work directly with game
developers, they still benefit financially when their products are used in games.
Major gun manufacturers, from Barrett to Bushmaster, license the use of their
name brand weapons for many top-selling video game titles. In either case, seeking
“realism” in video games is a marketing win for gun makers and video game publishers.
JK: In Joystick Warriors, you and others talk about how these games can cultivate not
only certain militaristic attitudes and ideas, but also nationalistic attitudes and ideas.
Given the increasingly global appetite for these games, how do gamers in other parts
of the world experience this glamorization of U.S. militarism and imperialism?
NH: The vast majority of military-themed video games are played from the perspective
of an American soldier fighting on behalf of the U.S. government or an international
force united with the U.S. A common narrative of these games is a technologydriven
“shock and awe” strategy that aligns with U.S. military doctrine adopted since
the first Gulf War in 1990, which aims to deter an opponent by preemptively striking
hard and heavy. The potential effect of this on players outside the U.S. is, like any
seductive soft power tactic, to engender reverence for American exceptionalism
demonstrated by military dominance. In the case of video games, the virtual “shock and
awe” is a reminder of U.S. military might. JK: What would you say to parents who are
wondering if there’s any real harm in their kids playing war-themed games like Call
NH: Most war-themed games are rated M, which means recommended
for people 17 or older. My advice to parents would be to heed this rating.
JK: Would your advice to parents change at all based on whether their kids were boys or girls?
NH: No, my advice would be the same.
JK: In recent years there have been many significant developments in the U.S. military
related to gender and sexuality: the growing number of women in the service, the lifting of
the combat exclusion for women, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and, of course,
the ongoing scandal of sexual assault. Your work for many years has looked at gender and representation in video games. Have any of these historical developments shown
up in war-themed video games? Has there been any shift in the role of women or any
presence of explicitly gay characters or storylines—in video games?
NH: The representation of women in video games has changed some in the past 10 years.
There are a greater number of female characters, both as lead and secondary characters,
and there have been a few notable gay characters. However, the inching toward greater
inclusivity in games and in the military is not at all reflected in war-themed games.
Women and gay characters are practically nonexistent.
JK: Gamer culture has long been a maledominated space which women gamers have
had to negotiate creatively, and carefully. In a number of incidents in the last couple
of years women who offered critiques of sexism in that space have been the victims of
vicious and overtly misogynist online attacks from male gamers. As a gamer yourself, and
someone whose research and writing has taken on these sorts of issues, can you share
any of your experiences with this kind of resistance? Have you worked out a personal
strategy for how to deal with this? Are there organizations and/or support networks for
women in gaming that you would recommend?
NH: When I first started playing games online in the late 1990s, I didn’t experience
much harassment from other gamers. Occasionally I would have to listen to juvenile sex
and fart jokes, but it was rarely directed at me and I didn’t feel as if I wasn’t welcome.
Even frequent, but harmless flirting from squad or guild members didn’t interfere
with my game play. However, when online game play became more popular with the
seventh generation of consoles (PS3 and XBox360), I witnessed and was subjected
to very personal attacks, almost always including threats of rape and other sexualized
violence. And this was across genres. It didn’t seem to matter if the game was set in
a fantasy world or military world. I stopped joining teams with players I didn’t know, I
changed my gamer ID a few times, I don’t use voice chat features anymore, and I avoid
particular games altogether. Of course, these choices I make remove me, not the harassers,
from the game space. In terms of support networks, there are various harassment-free
game environments with zero tolerance policies, though not nearly enough and not on
all platforms or for all games. Also, an illuminating, albeit depressing website called
fatuglyorslutty.com, calls attention to online harassment by posting the sexist and misogynist
comments received by (usually women) gamers. A quick scroll of the first page
demonstrates the frequency and viciousness of these attacks. The problem of online
harassment, particularly harassment motivated by racism, sexism, and homophobia,
is that harassers are rarely, if ever, held accountable for their actions. The entities
that could hold harassers accountable are the companies that control the game servers
and online networks we play in, namely Activision, Microsoft, EA, and Sony. Their
existing policies, if they have any at all, do not adequately address the issue.
JK: As you know, a key focus of my work is the responsibility of men to challenge
and interrupt other men’s sexist attitudes and behaviors. Have you seen examples
in gamer culture of men holding other men accountable for sexist commentary, or
misogynist attacks on women gamers, especially those who dare to speak out? Is there
any sense in male-dominated gamer culture that it is men’s responsibility, rather than the
sole responsibility of women, to respond to online aggression against them?
NH: It has been encouraging to see and hear male players joining female players in
calling out harassing, misogynist behavior. This is happening in games, during gameplay
and also in online forums, directed both at harassers as well as complacent game
companies. Furthermore, prominent game developers have publicly condemned the
toxic culture of gaming, and influenced their companies to create better anti-harassment
policies. So I am hopeful, but still very wary of most online game spaces not specifically
created for safe, harassment-free play.
JK: So what is to be done here? What’s the takeaway from the kind of critique you’re
offering? What’s your hope when you look at the immense popularity of war-themed
games like Call of Duty and the violencedrenched gaming landscape overall?
NH: The hope is for better games that tell more complex, engrossing, and provocative
stories, not excluding stories about conflict. There have been some. Fans of the firstperson,
tactical shooter genre point to Medal of Honor (2010) as one title in the franchise
that attempted to address the horrors of war, including the loss of squad mates, botched
military actions, and the futility of violent engagement. The game sold well, but not
well enough. Like the hit-driven economic calculus for films, video games that are not
chart-topping blockbusters are dropped. This is unfortunate for the potential breadth
and depth of storytelling and game-play. It would be good for games if the industry
supported a broader array of genres, and recognized a much more diverse gameplaying