The Enjoyable Banality of Evil

Battlefield4The subject: “new frontiers of cultural warfare”.

XB: While I disagree with the Chinese government’s assertion that a video game could in any way pose a threat to the “national security” of another state, I think it’s not only true but uncontroversially true that American depictions of Chinese people has long been a central component in advancing what can be called a form of “cultural warfare.” The history of this is quite deep with consequences that resonate to this day. In fact, the origins of this hostile depiction of Chinese people can be traced back to the late 19th century when there was a proliferation of literature that warned Americans of the so-called “Yellow Peril.” H. Bruce Franklin discusses this cultural project in great detail in his 1988 book War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination.

Popular books at this time included Pierton Dooner’s The Last Days of the Republic, which was published in 1879 and warned readers of the “holy tradition of China” embodied in the ambition to “rule the world.” In this book Chinese workers win “civil rights” and take over the governments of California, Nevada and Oregon. The novel ends with a horror-filled scene of “Asian hordes rampaging and pillaging their way into Washington,” or as Dooner wrote, “the Imperial Dragon of China … floated from the dome of the [US] Capitol. The very name of the United States of America was thus blotted from the record of nations and peoples.” Incidentally, it deserves notice that just three years after this book was published the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed, banning Chinese immigration to the US.

Other authors like Jack London went considerably beyond Dooner in racist jingoism. His 1910 book The Unparalleled Invasion glorified the genocidal extermination of the entire population of China via bacteriological warfare, what he chillingly called “the great sanitation of China.” An interesting contemporary analogue to this genocidal fantasy emerged recently on an episode of Late Night with Jimmy Kimmel when a kid (doubtlessly unaware of this huge, historically-based culture of racism) suggested America deal with its national debt by “killing everyone in China.”

So while I think the Chinese government is overstating the importance of the game (presumably for their own doctrinal purposes) by discussing it in the context of “national security,” I think it would be really unfortunate for Americans to summarily dismiss these allegations as if they carry no credibility or present no opportunity for serious self-reflection. As deeply ingrained as the demonization of China is, it’s worth remembering that this is merely one expression of a much larger intellectual culture of orientalism that expands to Pashtuns, Arabs, Persians and so-called “eastern” people generally.

Quite apart from a mere video game, this intellectual enterprise is highly influential in shaping popular attitudes about “the Other” and its imagery and concepts are regularly invoked for use in official US policy. If the conversation were to be steered in this direction–asking serious questions about the social, cultural and historical factors that could have possibly informed the creation of a video game like Battlefield 4–I think a lot can be learned from this dispute. If not, it will just serve as another distraction to illustrate the “irrationality” and “emotionalism” of “easterners.”


War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination by H. Bruce Franklin

WF: I was going to say something like what XB said, but FAR less articulately. Only thing I can think to add, is that this, or things like it, has happened before with video games, Mercenaries 2 was almost banned in Venezuela a few years ago. North Korea has banned, or at least [condemned], most Tom Clancy games, Command & Conquer Generals was banned in China (smearing China’s military), Football Manager 2005 & Hearts of Iron (recognizing Tibet).

As for the “new frontiers of cultural warfare” I think, as XB said the assertion that it’s a threat to national security is nonsensical, but I do think that the idea that video games can be cultural propaganda isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

I mean look at games like Homefront (which plays to almost every one of the “Us V. Them” of the cold war), Call of Duty (war porn, casual war crimes, etc. is a pretty good video on this), America’s Army (U.S. Military recruitment tool, and taxes at work…). Bluntly, yes I think that some games really are legitimate pieces of propaganda, but China’s claims of a threat to national security is nonsense.

Only other thing I can think to add: according to a kotaku article [from] a few days ago (…) China has, apparently, banned some Call of Duty games (2, 4, 5, and Modern Warfare 2), plus the True Crime series, Scarface & the 50 Cent games (published by Sierra, when it was active, a subsidiary of Activision) also published by Activision. That said, a LOT on that list of those were published by Japanese companies, Square Enix (or a subsidiary thereof) 5, 6, 20, 21, 26, 37, 38, and 39.

EH: I have little to add to, as I agree with, what XB and WF said about prefacing the banning with security concerns. Perhaps, that the Chinese government is reaching imperial status is indicated by their US-like obsession with “national security”. But in the spirit of “serious self-reflection” that XB invoked, I have a few thoughts to share about video games as “cultural warfare”. This form of “warfare” is a well-studied phenomenon. Since the release of America’s Army in 2002, the research into this form of “warfare” has increased and is readily available.

Brian Keilen in his dissertation titled “Echoes of Invasion: Cultural Anxieties and Video Games” does a thorough study of a collection of video games and observes how in every one of these narratives the aliens “are linked to cultural anxieties concerning Otherness.” The infamous Call of Duty that portrays “Muslim and Arab people as invading Others” play into the bipartisan state-terrorism that mushroomed under the name of “War on Terror”. Such a game “renders Otherness inhuman and an object of fear.” This game also attempts “to validate American foreign policy since September 11 by guiding players towards specific subjectivities.”

Another researcher, Aaron Hess, studying “Narrative Public Memory Construction in Medal of Honor: Rising Sun”, points out how this particular Electronic Arts’ game “constructs a narrative of World War II that selectively retells history and constructs an Orientalist representation of the Japanese Empire.”

This tendency of selectively retelling history appears in all war games studies I have come across so far. Certain aspects of these retellings deserve our close attention.

In these games, Tanine Allison argued, “the focus of history is on the enlisted man and his experience of close combat, not on the strategy or overarching view of the generals… This narrowing of the scope celebrates the citizen soldier, allowing for th‘apolitical’ stance of honouring those in the service, while ostensibly being ‘antiwar’.”

Although in these games, “history is made interactive… in just about every case, it is still already written. The success or failure of battles cannot be changed and does not hinge upon the actions of the individual player. As long as the player has the requisite skill, he or she will continue progressing through a preplanned route. And since death in a video game is never final, the player has unlimited chances at success.”

Such games form a bridge between military training and home entertainment as “the digital interface of a video game mirrors the interface on dozens of computerised instruments and weapons currently being used by the American military.” There have been reports of corporations like Raytheon hiring “video game developers to redesign their drone aircraft guidance systems to look and respond to the user more like the video games with which military recruits are increasingly familiar.”

I find it particularly disturbing that such games portray war as “something that can be controlled and mastered, without post-traumatic stress disorder or real death,” or war crimes, massacres. In other words, a war without any substance, not only devoid of the Real, but erasing the Real. “History becomes action, and action only. Broader historical connections, larger causes and consequences, considerations of strategy and supply—these are neglected in favour of the immediate gratification of activity.”

We can talk about the massive worldwide market of buyers and sellers that has spawned around this militainment, but for a dialogue of self-reflection we must take into account the ideological forces and powerful institutions that form the bedrock of this military industrial complex. It is precisely in this fashion that video games, on all sides, are becoming a form of rhetoric, a form of re-writing collective memory which can, in the lack of education, be a selective memory riddled with prejudice and repressed violence always ready for state powers to tap into in time of need.

To deal with this form of rhetoric and warfare, whether in US or China or Israel, I claim, we need to study games and develop public education programs that enrich the public’s understanding of video games as transitional spaces where intersubjectivities develop into subjectivities. We need to study the ethnographies of the players themselves. In a state-capitalist paradigm, in East or West, that commands us to “enjoy” everything from medicine to work, and tells us also how to “enjoy”, video games will otherwise, in the absence of education about them, become, to parallel Arendt, the enjoyable banality of evil.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s