Videogames haven't had much to say on the subjects of domestic violence, global warming or the U.S. mortgage crisis, but they have a lot to say about war. After all, the games industry has been meditating on armed conflict since the days of Spacewar! Sometimes it's ugly and cruel, other times it's good and just. In one game you're dug into the trenches, in another you're high above the battlefield. You can be part of the resistance or a member of the invasion force. Most of the time it's fun; occasionally it's dead serious.
Videogames have a complex relationship with war. War has provided gaming with many of its most enduring mechanics; entire genres have grown around simulating the experience of battle. But it's not a one-way street. For the last decade, the U.S. Military has been using videogames to recruit, train and even fight in modern conflicts.
There are some disturbing gray areas. Consider that in the last week, U.S. Military drones have killed around 50 enemy combatants along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. It's hard for me not look to look back at my childhood obsession with flight sims and wonder how quickly a game can become an instrument of death.
And yet, for as many examples as there are of the Military using videogame technology to enhance the effectiveness of its operations abroad, there are comparatively few of developers using videogames to elevate the public's understanding of these conflicts. Think of Act 1 of Call of Duty 4, in which you orbit the battlefield in an AC-130 gunship to provide air support for a covert SAS operation. In this scenario, your remoteness from the action isn't simply a convenient game mechanic: It illustrates how frighteningly easy it is at an altitude of 5000 feet to mistake your friend for your enemy. Why haven't other developers learned that a game about war can be thoughtful and fun?
This week, our contributors look at the interaction between videogames and military operations as both consumers and commissioned officers. Is it still just a game when lives are on the line? Read on, and decide for yourself.
At ease, soldier.