Why Don’t Gamers Fight More Terrorists?

Brandon Valeriano examines the most common themes in bestselling first person shooter videogames (FPSs). Among other things, he finds that Russia is the most common enemy. On the other hand, terrorist foes are scant:

North Korea and China, nation-states that might be considered more pressing and relevant rivals to the West only show up as enemies in games once each. On the other hand, Russia shows up as the enemy 11 times. Either as a future Russian Federation or Ultra Russian nationalists, the most prevalent outcome for an enemy is the Russian context. Terrorists likewise might be considered the most promising enemy in digital games, yet they still are not as prevalent as one might think appearing seven times, mostly in various Tom Clancy series.

The “Russia” result is likely because they are ongoing rivals with the US, it is hard to shake Cold War images, and the fact that China represents a large market for video games and other entertainment forms that is best not annoyed (see my book on Tibet and China for similar themes). The reason we see few games covering terrorism is likely because these fights might hit too close to home and lose the element of fun important in games.

This is not to say that games will make people kill, but who the enemy is in these popular games tells us about who we fear, what we value, and the future of international interactions.

I’m not sure I buy the “hits too close to home” argument for why terrorism isn’t covered more often. I think the more plausible explanation is that our inflated concern for terrorism doesn’t translate well to the gaming style that sells the most copies. Rather, my sense is that the FPSs with the broadest appeal tend to feature resource-rich state- or planet-level adversaries.

So in Call of Duty, we tend to see mutineering Russian armies or classic WWII opponents. In Halo, we see the Covenant Aliens, who are conscripted from several species across an entire galaxy. In both series, these large enemies drive an epic plot that sucks the player into defending the very existence of humanity as we know it (perhaps supporting the hypothesis that Russian enemies are more salient than Chinese enemies due to Cold War imagery). Large enemy armies are also a plausible source of the hordes of enemy combatants shot down over the course of the game.

Terrorists, on the other hand, are not large or powerful enemies. They cannot field the hordes of enemies necessary for the minute-to-minute action of the games described above. Instead, they tend to be the antagonist in games that reward patience, diligence, and tactical cunning.

In SOCOM: US Navy SEALs, individual terrorist opponents are far more capable than their faceless Call of Duty counterparts but the stakes of the game are much lower. Since the SOCOM player commands a four-man team against capable opponents, stealth is paramount. Often, firing a single shot from an unsilenced weapon is enough to attract the attention of the entire terrorist camp, negating the mission objectives. On a given raid or POW extraction, a player might only kill five or ten terrorists, preferably by slitting their throats from behind and dumping their bodies out of sight.

I think the latter style of gameplay is more interesting than mowing down the world-ending hordes but you can imagine that many gamers find it boring.

Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.

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