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The Patriotism Problem in Video Games

Video Games can usually emulate the spirit of a holiday with its symbols. The Fourth of July is special because it has no Santa (though an ill-advised “Best Games for the 4th” list would likely include one in the form of Bioshock Infinite’s mecha-Washingtons or the cadre of Constitutionalists pawned off on the parkour-murder quests in Assassin’s Creed III). The way video games really represent the Fourth of July is more basic than symbols, on a level deeper in the specs of their most basic design. Patriotism is etched into the video game code, but as a myth of itself that transgresses and destroys the original.

That was a big statement, worth breaking down. I should first explain what I mean by patriotism exactly, and where it comes into the foreground of discussing video games. Buckle up. This is about to get theoretical.

The idea of patriotism has been media-smeared into a hazier concept that usually looks like one big bad nation blowing down the rest of the world. But what does it mean, that we can no longer imagine how patriotism, how acting in the national self-interest, could benefit the whole world? That we now see a world made entirely of wolves and policemen?

Well first it means that Matt Stone and Trey Parker educated a generation. But it also means that the word “patriotism” has become its own opposite, since we no longer consider national values when we say it, but only the wrongful enforcement of one code against all other, equal-even-if-opposite codes (likely, we can’t clearly define either of them). The modern view of patriotism is of strapping Amurricans stamping over badlands, springing oil fields and prisons in their boot prints. In other words, patriotism and isolationism have become the same. They fit together as a new idea, as a man and a fly do.

Video games provide a brilliant example of exactly what this idea of patriotism looks like.

The art form of interactive storytelling has had a passivist niche since the beginning. Death count is relatively low in point-and-click adventures and all’s quiet in modern artistic movement simulators like Flower, Flow, and Journey. But an average game is about bloodshed, even if the fallen are pixel squares the size of post-it notes.

As soon as guns invaded video games, America itself became the subject of the shooting. Contra, one of the fastest action games of its day, was probably a reference to Iran-Contra, but let’s not bother doing Wikipedia’s job. The important thing is that the “you” was an American superman called Bill Rizer or Lance Bean, while the “them” was Iranians or Pygmies or aliens or whatever. “You” moved right, “they” moved left. “You” shoot, “they” die.

The 2015 run-and-gun Indie game Broforce knows exactly what Contra was aiming at emulating all those Schwarzenegger pectorals. The Steam reviews have George Washington saying that “Broforce is pretty much what I had in mind when I invented America.”

Not likely. But it is what video games have in mind when they act American.

How many first-person shooters have you ever played as the barely discernible brown smears popping up from behind chest-high walls with combat knives, right into the discharge of an M1A1 carbine? As Duke Nukem eloquently observes, “Good, bad, I’m the guy with the gun!” Doesn’t he mean, I’m the guy who’s American?

The Modern Warfare and Black Ops games do an infamous job playing out as NRA infomercials and war bond ads, a lot of chest-thumping and guns blazing. They’re preceded by a lot of WWII games, Wolfenstein to Medal of Honor, but I’ll venture that Gatling-gunning down mecha-Hitler isn’t the most fertile subject for intellectual debate. Modern Warfare 2 on the other hand,had that optional part where you played as the terrorist shooting up an airport. Is that an exception? A step towards progressive representation? Let’s talk about that.

The vast majority of games that put players behind guns do so in foreign nations and over fake conflicts against parties tenderly similar to real ones, but almost always as Americans. I’m not sure why Modern Warfare 2 reversed the roles, but I’ll tell you that the result breaks and desensitizes the player’s psyche. Graphics and resolution so realistic that you feel really there, combine with this ultimate breaking down of the cause of your reaction as a player. The catharsis of killing loses even the limited conscience it has as a patriotic act, and becomes the sport of imaginary death-dealing that video games mutate into when left unchecked by values.

Grand Theft Auto, the classic straw man for all inappropriate video games degrading the brains of children everywhere, is less impactful because its violence has no object. Its Americanness doesn’t motivate or thwart it. This isn’t the case for the games where you’re roleplaying as Seal Team Six, popping the brains out of turbans in an abandoned schoolyard in downtown Palestine. Then all the worse, if you’re asked to inhabit your enemy by killing crowds of children outside the airport giftshop.

Now listen, I’m not saying anything at all about real soldiers. I’m talking about their representations. And the fact is that while a soldier dies for their country, a video game player can only die for their high score. There is no value behind your actions but those inherent in a video game – killing for its own sake – and so the facsimile of patriotism becomes its own opposite. Representing soldiers, even seriously, tells us a lot about how we view them and our country.

The genre of games that pretends at the patriotic has been treated as being beyond great storytelling or deep narratives, and that should change. If there’s one thing to think about on the Fourth, a holiday that usually leaves video game players out of the fold, maybe consider that we should play more games that contain values, no matter what they are.

Consider for instance how far Spec Ops: The Line ventured to give the military shooter emotional depth. Consider too this interesting conundrum: by having a troubled soldier wracked by guilt, Spec Ops succeeded in being more values-centric, and thus more truly patriotic, by forcing you to think about actions and consequences, right causes and wrong wars, than any game that issued your call to duty over a cause you had no idea of.

The shooter has troubled me ever since it got serious, after Id and 3D Realms fell from grace. Video games don’t have to be about something important, and they can even make light of important things. But they shouldn’t thwart the whole discussion with appearances, turning a country against itself by play-pretending as its brave and bold, just without the codes or the consciences behind them. No video game should be banned for its content. But we should think about what we play, now and again, while the leaderboard loads, or before the Steam keys get delivered. We owe the country that made them possible that much at least.

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