The Art of War in the Digital Age of Representation

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, which now holds the record for biggest launch spectacle in history across all forms of entertainment and best selling first person shooter ever[1], is the culmination of a long tradition of war video games. Which game heralded this tradition is subject to dispute. The first popular one is mainly considered to be Wolfenstein 3D. Many scholars are attempting at placing video games within an appropriate scientific paradigm. Scientific analysis done by literary and film scholars have been discredited due to the lack of medium specificity. Video games are, according to the bulk of scholars, in need of a separate body of theory. An autonomous paradigm that does not rely on narrative, structural or any other existing theory, this need follows the fact the fact that games are fundamentally different from previously studied media. Jesper Juul argues that narrative analysis does not apply to videogames because of the fact that games are non-narrative: “Games and narratives share some structural traits. Nevertheless my point is that: Games and stories actually do not translate into each other in the way that novels and movies do” (Juul: 2001, p. 10).  From a humanities perspective I would not even agree with novels and movies translating into each other as easily as Juul suggests, let alone games and narratives.

The bulk of the video game theorists seem to agree that the theory applied to previous media analysis does not fit; “They continue to fit a square peg into a round hole” (Pearce: 2002, p. 2). Or as Peter Aarseth puts it: “The cautious search for a methodology which we should have reason to expect of reflective practitioners in any field, is suspiciously absent from most current aesthetic analyses of games ” (Aarseth: 2003, p.1). One of the main struggles seems to be between ludology and narratology, this despite the fact that a broad spectrum of theorists, from over more than 200 disciplines, are trying to place videogames within a paradigm (Aarseth: 2003, p. 2). There is no general consensus in the way games should be studied. There is consensus about the fact that games are fundamentally different than previous media and that videogames are becoming increasingly relevant as an object of study.

There is also an expanding body of literature describing the possible effects of videogames. A lot of these stem from psychologists and sociologists. This work will build on this existing literature regarding the negative behavioral effects of war video games. It focuses on the blurring boundary between the real and the virtual and theorizes the possible role of war video games within culture. I want to argue approaching war video games with a methodology that is medium specific but also treating the war video as an autonomous genre. The main focus will initially be on the specific desensitizing effects war games might have. There are several studies regarding video games and the possible effect on violent behavior. The initial assumption is often connected to already achieved results in television analysis. I want to critically discuss some of these ideas, and through combining them with other media theories, try to push forward to understanding why the war video game is in need of a separate theoretical toolset that takes into account its uniqueness as a game, but also specifically as a war game.

First I will discuss some theoretical approaches towards game studies, then I will focus on the specific desensitizing effects war video games might have according to recent studies, finally I will suggest a dialectical materialist approach to understanding war video games. This will be advocated by placing them in a broader perspective and discussing the way video games might function in society. This function will be theorized along concepts of militarization, megaspectacle, and ludification of culture.

The cultural effects of videogames, a discussion of recent studies

A couple of months ago the Army Experience Center[2] in Philadelphia was officially opened. This was accompanied with many protesters judging the motives of this centre. The AEC is publicly owned by US defense initiatives. The official mission statement was a new definition of the American Army brand. The centre focuses on high tech modern warfare, within it are several virtual simulations and popular war video games that children can play to gain insight in the ‘real army experience’. The protesters focused mainly on the minimum admission age, which is thirteen.  In their opinion the games offered a misrepresentation of what war is about, and about the real consequences of war. The picketers argued that children do not know the difference between the games and real war, and that the centre was a recruitment tool based on false truths of clean technological warfare. It was said to be preparing the world for joystick warriors that are militarized without parental consent. Many veterans also joined the rallies and were actively stressing the difference between real war and virtual war, according to these the spectacular image of war as portrayed in the games were evil misrepresentations of reality. The question remains however, how different are they really? Looking at the perception and experience of war in modern times, which blur the boundary between the virtual and the real, one wonders to what extent it is still relevant to distinguish the former separate realms. I also wonder to what extent the fears of these protesters are founded to begin with. Do we really not understand the difference between a game and reality anymore? Could these former separate realms be converging?

The relation between video games and violence has been analyzed by many theorists. The tradition of linking the seeing of violent imagery and acting violent has many precedents in psychology. The main focus of violent image analysis however has been on television. By 1975 there were already eighty elaborate studies on the effects of TV violence on aggressive behavior. In 2001 this number has reached over one thousand (Carnagey & Anderson: 2004, p.4). The same studies in television have been used as arguments for the correlation between games and real-life violence. Ludology condemns narratology for trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, similarly one could argue that applying the conclusions of television violence studies to video games is the same theoretical misconception. The differences between television and video games are vast. An argument made by psychologists in the nineties was: videogames are less violent because they don’t carry the same reality effect that television does. Due to inferior graphics video games were perceived as less realistic. Arguably this argument is no longer relevant in a time of verisimilitude created by full High Definition graphics[3]. One could argue that in the light of the reality discourse, its importance in video games (particularly in war games), and the exponential growth in video graphics technology, that video game imagery can be perceived of as realistic, or even more realistic than television today. The point I am making here is that this argument is somewhat outdated. More relevant differences however are: the stress on active involvement and character identification within video games, the higher frequency of violence within games and the reinforcement of violent acts within these games (Carnagey & Anderson: 2004, p. 6).

The above mentioned factors (among others) make video games unique in character and fundamentally different from television. Therefore conclusions made within television studies are not applicable and should merely serve as a foundation for hypothesis. One of the common models used by psychologists to study aggression is the general aggression model (GAM). Without getting too deep into specifics this model can be seen as independent of the type of media analyzed. It can be fruitfully used to study the way games might influence behavior negatively. The model describes a cyclical interaction between the person and the environment. It measures how stimuli influence the three main aspects of the human mind state: cognition, affect and arousal (Carnagey & Anderson: 2004, p.12). Several studies done by psychologists based on this model show correlation between violent video games and increases in violent behavior. Of course correlation is not causation, however there is still a general consensus within social studies and psychology regarding specific effects of violent games, such as an increase in aggressive cognition and affect and a decrease in prosocial behavior[4] (Carnagey & Anderson: 2004, p. 7). The main critiques of the above described studies are that the sample groups are too small, the differences between games are neglected and that no longitudinal studies are done (Carnagey & Anderson: 2004, p. 12). To this I would like to add that the research does not specify which games are used and why.

Another important concept related to aggression and video game violence is desensitization. Some psychologists argue that prolonged exposure to violent imagery can desensitize an individual to real-life violence. Desensitization is an ambiguous term. It has been used by many fields which uphold different definitions of the concept: an increase in aggressive behavior, a flattening of affective reactions, a reduction in sympathy for victims, a reduction in perceived guilt and many other definitions exist. I suggest using the definition that best suits the consequences of video game exposure; desensitization in a recent game study done by psychologists is defined as: “a reduction in emotion-related physiological reactivity to real-life violence” (Carnagey et. al.: 2007, p. 490). Before continuing I would like to point out that desensitization is not per definition a negative phenomenon. Systematic desensitization can eliminate unwanted behavior like fear and anxiety (like fear of spiders or other phobia). Recent studies showed that the US military has also used video games to create effective desensitization to violence for the purpose of training American soldiers (Grossman & DeGaetano: 1999, p. 23). This desensitization can be a good thing; if you want to create a better emotionally equipped soldier or one that is less prone to post traumatic stress disorder it would seem that a selectively desensitized warrior is a better warrior. The keyword here is selectively. It is a known fact that soldiers are desensitized to certain things to improve results in war: “There is an important body of literature on the desensitizing of killers in the twentieth century warfare” (Power 2007: p, 281).  Marcus Power suggests extending the debates on desensitizing soldiers by focusing on war video games (Power 2007: p, 282). An interesting study would be the effects of these games on the behavior of soldiers. The effects on children or the general public linked to desensitization seem to be a great source of concern. Clearly there is a difference between desensitizing a trained soldier to certain things and desensitizing the general consumer public playing video games for fun. Given the fact that the same media (war video games) are used in different contexts, it seems important to analyze exactly what the consumer is being desensitized to and how, maybe even why.

In a unique study performed by Nicholas Carnagey, Craig Anderson and Brad Bushman for the department of psychology in Iowa, the causal relation between video games and desensitization has been examined for the first time[5]. The study extended on the above described General Aggression Model. Desensitization was similarly defined; a reduction in emotion-related physiological reactivity to real-life violence. The heart rate and galvanic skin response were monitored and used to measure the decrease in physical arousal. Participants played either a violent or a non-violent game for twenty minutes before watching a ten minute video tape containing real-life violence. The conclusion was clear-cut: “The present experiment demonstrates that violent video game exposure can cause desensitization to real-life violence. In this experiment, violent games players were less physiologically aroused by real-life violence than were non-violent game players” (Carnagey et. al.: 2007, p. 491-495). This study can also be partly discredited; I could not find what games where used and why. Also the use of real-life video images seems to indicate a trust in response to video images as representative for a response to actual violence. One could argue that all that is proven here is the relation between video game violence and its influence on the reaction to violent video images. The causal relation between violent video images and violent behavior is still not conclusively determined; it seems unjust to take this hypothesis as the foundation for utterances regarding the relation between video games and human behavior. It could be seen another case of the square peg being forced into the round hole. However, studies still indicate a possible correlation between videogames and actual desensitization to violence and the above described one is the first to yield concrete results with regards to specifically video games (Carnagey & Anderson: 2004, p.8).

For future analysis it might also be fruitful to focus solely on war video games and research the effects on soldiers and or consumers. It might be more interesting to analyze the desensitization by war video games with regards to actual war instead of video images. The conditions of this experiment however would require actual war violence; this could be considered as immoral. A possible solution to this could be performing the same study on soldiers that are already active in a war. The measurement of desensitization is of course a complicated concept linked strongly to definition and methods used.  However, correlation between playing violent video games and getting desensitized to particular violent phenomena has been indicated in the above described research.

As I stated above, when it comes to desensitization the keyword is selective. Another relevant worry related to desensitization caused by video games is the negative impact on a soldier’s perception of reality. Studies have suggested that soldiers get charged by games and this also happens in real war. This can create a ‘disconnect’ between the real and the virtual leading to killing without any consideration of the consequences in a: “hyper adrenalized disconnect” (Seal: 2003, p.2). The same study done by  Cheryl Seal also discusses the effective use of video games in avoiding PTST (post traumatic stress disorder). This study suggests that desensitization takes place by playing war video games, but it also warns for its dehumanizing effects. Soldiers can get more violent because of the blurring boundary between the virtual and the real: “In this high-tech rehearsal for war, one learns how to kill but not to take responsibility for it, one experiences death, but not the tragic consequences of it” (Derian: 2000, p. 774).  James Derian discusses a closing gap between the digital and the virtual: “as the confusion of one for the other grows, we now face the danger of a new kind of trauma without sight, without tragedy, where television wars and video war games blur together” (Derian: 2000, p. 774).  Imagine playing a game of chess in which all pawns are connected to human lives, but the realization of this is absent. This resembles the scenario in the movie war games, in which Matthew Broderick is determining the actual fate of the world in a nuclear war, all the while thinking he is playing a virtual game which turns out to be grounded in the real. Without understanding the difference between virtual and real certain scary scenarios might indeed develop.

Whether or not video games desensitize players to real-life violence is not an easy question. The answer depends strongly on the definitions used and the individuals being studied. That video games operate in a way that is fundamentally different than television however is generally agreed upon (Aerseth, Pearce). The same goes for the blurring of the virtual with the real in a converging world. The current struggle with defining the virtual as part of or as separate from the real can be seen as indicative of its ambiguous status. Augmented Reality and other technologies will possibly only increase this struggle. The war video game is unique in this light, for the blurring of the real with the virtual caused by a war video game has completely different cultural implications than say the blurring done by a game like Guitar Hero. The relation between the war game, actual war and the reality effect that is strived for within these games create a unique set of circumstances which have implications that go beyond any other genre of games produced by the culture industry. The fact that interfaces in real war machines match interfaces used in video games is an eloquent example of this different unique condition which needs critical assessment.

I would like to elaborate further on the difference between traditional media and video games, and the importance of critical game analysis, by briefly discussing the didactic potential of videogames. Along with psychologists stressing the dangers of video games are theorists that stress the positive potentials of video games. James Paul Gee[6] describes in what ways video games can teach, and how this learning is different and arguably more effective than traditional learning. Certain principles (also stemming from psychoanalysis) employed by video games ensure effective learning potential according to Gee. The regime of competence principle results in a simultaneous feeling of pleasure and frustration which makes concepts that need to be learned challenging but still interesting, while the principle of expertise challenges players to attain certain skills that are momentarily needed while afterwards having to undo all that mastery in the next level where players are forced to adapt and learn new things (Gee: 2003, p. 134). These principles combined with specific game properties like situational learning and identification create a powerful medium that is unique in its didactic abilities. They illustrate that games have a potential to teach and thus do good, by the same logic it can also have the potential to teach unwanted things and thus do wrong. In light of the above it seems of great importance to critically study what war video games teach us. The didactic potential combined with the possible desensitizing effects and the blurring of the real with the virtual creates an obvious potential danger in video games. It is important to analyze video game content and the context of production of the popular war video games, in order to gain insights to the way they operate in popular culture. In the next part I will discuss methodological approaches to studying games and plea for a specific method for the war game by placing the genre of the war game within a larger context. I will discuss how it may function culturally by using theoretical concepts of militarization, megaspectacle, and the ludification of culture.

War video games, how should they be studied?

In his work discussing the methodological approaches to game studies, Eespen Aarseth discusses the model devised by Lars Konzack to analyze video games; a model that divides video games in seven layers in order to analyze technical, aesthetic and socio-cultural perspectives. (Aarseth: 2003, p. 2).  Aarseth claims the Konzack model is one of the most concise and comprehensive for studying video games. To this he adds that the model: “is best used as an open framework, where the analyst can choose any 2-4 of the seven layers to work with, and ignore the rest”. The complete analysis of all layers is redundant and does not serve the conciseness of a research. According to the hypothesis and the object of study a method should be devised, in other words it is dependent of the researcher and its interests. Treating the war video game, in particular the first person shooter war video game as a separate genre, one should stress the socio-cultural aspects and not the other layers as theorized by Kozack. With regards to researching the specific desensitizing effects as described above one could argue it to be the most relevant dimension. The unique character of the war video game, which comes into being in a specific context of production and its unique under-theorized function in society, should be studied socially and culturally.

I propose using a dialectic-materialist approach in order to analyze the specific function and role in society. Materialist because it is a result of a unique context of production, dialectically because the resulting effect of the war video game is not predetermined by definition, it comes into being by an active negotiation between the production and the consumption side of its existence. The cultural effects of these games have been theorized by many, I want to suggest analyzing the games along the lines of these thoughts which are founded in critical theory. This of course is not to say that aesthetics or the technical aspects of war games are irrelevant to their possible effects. It would seem logical however that the war video game should be discussed from a socio-cultural angle and should also take into account the unique context of production that exists in war video games. In the following part I elaborate on this specific context of production and discuss other theoretical notions regarding the recently theorized specific socio cultural effects of war games.

I shall connect the war video games with larger cultural trends theorized as: the concept of militarization, the concept of the megaspectacle, and the ludification of culture. By discussing these concepts I try to sketch an image of how the war game is perceived by critical game theorists and why the war game analysis should take into account specific cultural functions and a specific context of production. This could best be achieved through a critical dialectical materialist approach. This way its means of productions can be connected with its possible function within society, without neglecting the dialectical nature of culture.

Theorizing war video games; the plead for a dialectic-materialist approach

The first uniqueness of the war video game is founded in the way it comes into being. The unique context of production is what James Der Derian calls: “the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network, the post industrial cousin of the military-industrial complex” (Power: 2007, p. 274). This unique complex (MIME-NET for short) between the American Army, industry and the entertainment industry is often linked to specific war games and war related consumerism. It is the only one of its kind, combining industry, entertainment and military. It is often held responsible for negative effects this consumerism based on war related matter, many war games are direct spawns of this collaboration and many others are associated with it. As a genre the war game is particularly connected with it, much more than other commercial games.

Many theorists have critically analyzed the MIME NET and it has been held responsible for a larger cultural phenomenon in which the war video game is only part of: the militarization of popular culture. Militarization can be defined as: “The shaping of civilian space and social relations by military objectives, rationales and structures” (Power: 2007, p.273). According to theorists, militarization works in a twofold manner; being based on a productive economy of fear, but also (and arguably more importantly) based on an economy of desire (Power: 2007, p.374). War video games should be placed within this larger perspective, as functioning to further militarize popular culture through aesthetics: “Digital war games invite Americans to ‘participate in a militarism of consumption and pleasure’, and they do so by presenting a clean, sanitized and enjoyable version of war for popular consumption, obscuring the ‘realities’, contexts and consequences of war” (Power: 2007, p.273). James Der Derian calls thisvirtuous war, pointing out to the virtualization of violence and “the ascending of war to an even higher plane, from the virtual to the virtuous”. Within virtuous war the difference between virtual and real cannot be made, and the art of war is a virtual affair, one that is no longer grounded in the real.

Another way to look at the war video game is through the theoretical notion of the spectacle as it is recently redefined by Douglas Kellner: “Under the influence of a multimedia image culture, seductive spectacles fascinate the denizens of the world and consumer society and involve them in the semiotics on an ever-expanding world of entertainment, information, and consumption, which deeply influence thought and action” (Kellner: 2009, p. 3). This “permanent opium war” also seems to be fuelled by an economy of desire; its strong persuasive power can be resisted only by the view. The war video game is also a spectacle; if we look at the worldwide release of Modern Warfare 2 we get an indication of its magnitude. Kellner, in his work on cultural media megaspectacles (spectacles that become defining moments of their era), does however leave us with a side note regarding megaspectacles; this is that spectacles are also highly unpredictable. In this he differs from Guy Debord. According to Kellner there is always room for contestation. Whereas arguably Gubord considers this room a mere formality, the drowning effect of the hegemony created by the status quo is absent in the approach offered by Kellner. In video games this room could of course be considered as the realm of modding, but also merely denying protocol or ideal story lines as one plays. The questions that remain of course are to what extent is this being done? And to what extent is it even relevant?

The world constructed by war video games could arguably be seen as a persuasive megaspectacle that combines conventions of the movie spectacle with the spectacle of macho-militarism. In this the war game is unique; the already known spectacles of militarism and Hollywood style movie spectacles are combined, remediated if you will, in the war video game. It only takes one glance at the game’s success and how the game is played online to realize the extent of the spectacle’s persuasiveness. This is not to say that exceptions and contestations do not exist, I myself am a very active player of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 and contend that this essay can be considered a contestation of the spectacle. But it seems that not contesting is the rule. The combination of the unique context of production, the social trend of cultural militarization and the persuasiveness of the megaspectacle are arguments for the separate treatment of the war video game. It is a unique genre that needs an approach that takes all the above into account. The role of the MIME NET should not be taken lightly. The above described factors also stress the importance of a proper understanding of the genre, for it may be causing harmful effects that are unknown, effects beyond desensitization, larger than this particular subjective effect that introduced this essay. For if the virtual and the real become inseparable in the art of war, the results could be devastating. Real life knows no continues. Game over is game over.

At this point I would also like to introduce the research done by Joost Raessens, Jos de Mul and Valerie Frissen on the play element in culture: “Because digital technologies seem to stimulate ‘playful goals’ or the play element in culture, we investigate the ways in which mobile phones, the Internet, and computer games not only facilitate the construction of these playful identities but also the advance of the ludification of culture in the spirit of Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens” (Raessens: 2009, p. 3). According to their thesis new media are furthering our understanding of our identity through elements of play. If we look at the war video game with the idea that it is play, and not myth or narrative that forms our identity, we might want to critically analyze what this identity is, and how much it is steeped in military rationale. We also should ask ourselves to what extent the game metaphor is becoming our principle instrument of understanding the world, and how this might function in a militarized society.

Arguably this analyzing of our own identity as being formed by metaphors of play and being part of a spectacle is becoming harder because of its increasing persuasiveness and naturalness. The main point I want to make however is that we need a critical understanding of the cultural function of the war game, the war game needs to be understood as a separate genre. This because of its unique context of production and its under theorized function within popular culture. Walter Benjamin warned us for the aesthetic rendering of politics; his warning was that it culminates to only one thing: war. I propose that the current danger lies not in the aesthetic rendering of politics, rather the concept of war being rendered aesthetically. The question remains however, in what will it culminate?

[1] Shack Network <>

[2] <>

[3] This argument was made in 2004, the graphic capability at that time was less than one billion polygons per second. Since then the reality discourse has dominated the genre of war games and significant progress has been made regarding graphics (Carnagey and Anderson: 2004, p. 5)

[4] Helping victims or people in general

[5] Other studies have shown correlation between TV violence and desensitization. This is the first to show the possible link between specifically violent video games and desensitization.

[6] Research has also been done by Kurt Squire, David Shaffer, David Hutchison and many other theorists stressing the didactic potential of video games.


Aarseth, Espen. Playing Research: Methodological approaches to games analysis. University of Bergen, 2003

Carnagey, N. & Anderson C. Video game exposure and aggression, a literary review. In: ‘Minerva Psichiatrica’. Vol. 45; No.1; 1-18, 2004

Carnagey, N. Anderson, C. & Bushman, B. The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violence. In: ‘Journal of experimental Social Psychology’. Vol 43; 489-496. 2007

Derian, James der. Virtuous war/virtual theory. In: ‘International Affairs’. Vol. 76; 4; 771-788. 2000

Gee, J.P. What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York Press, 2003

Grossman, D. & Degaetano, G. Stop teaching our kids to kill: a call to action against TV, movie and video game violence. New York Crown Publishers, 1999

Juul, Jesper. Games Telling Stories? A brief note on Games and Narratives. In ‘Game Studies’. Vol. 1, issue 1. July 2001

Kellner, Douglas. Media Spectacle. New York Roatledge, 2003

Power, Marcus. Digitized Virtuosity: Video War Games and Post 9/11 Cyber-Deterrence. In: ‘Security Dialogue’. Vol. 38; No 2; 271-286

Raessens, Joost. Playful Identities or the Ludification of Culture. In: ‘Games and Culture’ Vol 1;  52-57. 2006

Seal, Cheryl. Was the Excessive Violence of US Troops in Iraq fueled by Military Funded Computer Games? In: ‘The Baltimore IMC’.(accessed 14 January 2019) <>


~ by Rakesh Kanhai on March 8, 2010.

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