A Bloodless War
At a recent conference, I presented a paper on the increasingly troubling relationship between the military, universities, and the entertainment (video games) industry. Decrying the ways in which games “teach citizens” and soldiers about the nature of war, the paper demanded interrogation of the blurring between the virtual and the real, as well as examining the cooperation between academics, video game developers, the military and the Department of Defense. Given the polemical nature of the paper, it elicited a significant amount of reaction, most of which challenged my criticisms and conclusion. One member of the audience questioned why I saw video games as negative. In fact, video games or even war video games are not the problem—war, murder, and smart bombs are the problem. The place of video games in facilitating (not causing) murder through training soldiers in simulators, teaching American citizens about the power of the war machine, and solidifying a clear enemy for all Americans, as well as the clear working relationships between institutions, prompts necessary critique. Another comment offered the clichéd critique that my work on video games fell into the trap of arguing that war games cause violence. War games do not cause violence; violence and war, unfortunately, predate video games by centuries. Yet, war games facilitate acceptance and participation in the process, demanding that we think about how war games, like Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, serve the war on terrorism by allowing citizens and the military to jointly wage war against virtual enemies. Part propaganda, part military advertisement, therapy session, fantasy adventure, and national project, war games demand critical thought and interrogation.
In 2001, the Department of Defense began to use Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear, yet another game of secretive operatives disarming (murdering) terrorist cells, as part of its military training in how to conduct operations within urban settings. In 2003, the Army developed its own tool of recruitment with America’s Army, which was developed at the Naval Postgraduate School in consultation with Epic games and the THX division of Lucas films. Costing taxpayers upwards of eight million dollars, America’s Army has been a huge success, with over 1.5 million registered users, bringing the training and operations of the military into millions of homes. The Defense Department has also worked closely with the production of games like Rainbow Six: Raven Shield and Socom II: U.S. Navy Seals, utilizing each as a means to test and train military personnel in leadership skills. In 2003, the Army also signed a 3.5 million dollar deal with There Inc. to develop a series of virtual military theaters. Among the projects is the creation of a virtual Kuwait City to train soldiers in a simulated attack on the U.S. embassy there. Additional games, such as Full Spectrum Command, a simulation PC game used to teach light urban warfare, and Full Spectrum Warrior, have been created as part of a forty-five million dollar partnership between the Army and the University of Southern California, which jointly forged the Institute for Creative Technologies to “support leadership development for U.S. army soldiers” (Turge, 2003). Out of this context has emerged a series of games based on the work of Tom Clancy with Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear, and now Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow.
Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow transports its players into a future defined by persistent terrorist threats and an ongoing war against the Axis of Evil. However, America and those adoring democracy need not worry because Sam Fisher, one of America’s greatest spies, is on the job of protecting freedom and democracy from terrorists around the world. Deployed by the secret wing of the National Security Agency, known as the Third Echelon, Fisher jumps from one mission to the next, jointly working with the military in an effort to eradicate terrorists throughout the world
The game begins in East Timor where a radical splinter group under the fanatical leadership of Suhadi Sadona, an infamous terrorist, has taken control of the American embassy. In protest against the presence of the U.S. military in the area, Sadona and his organization kidnapped defense contractors while undertaking control of the embassy. As Sam Fisher, you do not attempt to save the hostages or re-take the embassy, but acquire information concerning the efforts of Sadona to acquire biological weapons.
Pandora Tomorrow encompasses eight clandestine missions, all of which test the player’s intelligence and creativity. Searching for links to biological terror, you travel from East Timor to Paris, with additional stops in Israel and Indonesia. These locales not only bring unique obstacles, but also provide varied geographies, such as a cryogenics storage facility, deserted nighttime streets, and a jungle location with lush vegetation, all of which add to the realism of the game.
A distinct element of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow is its discouragement of violence. Whereas the bulk of video games promote and offer the consumption of violence regardless of genre, and the war entertainment industry sells/glorifies the bloodshed connected to warfare, the virtual reality of the military downplays the violent elements of war, espionage, and nation-building. It is commonplace within all war games to see an erasure of death, blood, or the violent consequences of smart bombs on humanity. Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow takes this to a new level. Throughout the game, players are encouraged to battle the evils of terrorism through critical thought and creativity. While the game simultaneously shows off American military hardware with SC-20K assault rifles, a weapon that can be fired without noise or flashes as to maintain stealth status, and the Sticky Shocker, which incapacitates an enemy via a high voltage discharge, the emphasis lies with success through intelligence, thought, and forward-thinking. For example, during the initial mission in East Timor, leaders instruct Fisher to complete the mission without weapons and casualties. With each step, you are required to creatively tackle the obstacles placed before you as to avoid detection.
Through my early efforts with Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, I almost craved the violence associated with games like Grand Theft Auto. Completing these missions without violence, in absence of weapons, proved challenging, leading to 90-minute communal efforts to pass just one perplexing task.
The focus on problem solving over violence, on creativity over brute force, reflects both the backlash against violent video games and the connection between war games and the military.
In recent years, the media, as well as cultural commentators, have equally excoriated video games for their promotion of violence, questioning the long-term effects of violent games on children. While rarely interrogating war games or the impact of games on adults, understanding this discourse is crucial in examining Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. The game, with its de-emphasis on weapons, its erasure of blood/gore, and its call to solve problems without casualties, appears to be a response to those critics, showing a virtual world without violence.
Of course, the absence of overt instances of violence does not reflect the erasure of (state) violence from Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. Rather, the game repackages state violence (in the form of covert CIA activities) as nonviolent exercises that do not cause harm beyond a few bumps and bruises. This obviously embodies a kinder video game, and an ideological project that seeks to validate U.S. efforts throughout the world as necessary in the war on terror; benevolent as an agent of democracy; and devoid of aggression when possible. Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, thus, chronicles a world of covert counter-terrorism that elevates its goodness as high as its praise for U.S. imperialism.
Beyond the context of video games and the questions of violence, the narrative and specifics of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow speak to the increasing cooperation between the military and the video game industry. The sophistication of weaponry (both fatal and nonfatal) and the elaborate nature of the missions/locales reflect this relationship, as does the emphasis on problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity. Whereas in games past, success came from the unrealistic (or maybe not) process of dropping indiscriminate bombs on the enemy, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow requires nonviolent paths towards victory. The game is less about victory and more about the process. These elements define those of simulators, which ask soldiers to occupy virtual space as part of their training. Thus, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow plays as a military simulator. As a program required of CIA agents in training, the game emphasizes strategy, leadership, and reconnaissance methods—characteristics more commonly associated with military training than with a medium of entertainment.
What makes Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow so fascinating is the cerebral nature of the game. Whereas war movies and other games focus on the action and excitement associated with violence and war, this game emphasizes decision-making, creativity, and leadership. In fact, some missions mandate operating without violence. For example, during the initial mission to infiltrate the American Embassy, use of weapons and mortal violence are forbidden; killing results in a failed mission. These requirements, as well as the numerous decisions prompted by perplexing scenarios, elucidate the nature of the game. Given that, these games attempt to recreate the war on terrorism by offering a range of activities and forcing its players to think. More than demonstrating the ideological/political/aesthetic agenda of the game, the emphasis on thought over violence, of individual creativity over technology, and solving problems rather than destroying enemies, all reveal the entrenched relationship between the video game and war industries. Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow plays like a simulation, a virtual training ground for soldiers and military operatives whose training emphasizes leadership, creativity, and thought. As a game that serves the multiple purposes of military training apparatus, entertainment, propaganda, and space to play war, the orientation of the game reflects its training purposes.
While I lack the needed space to fully explore the dimensions of race and gender, it is crucial to think about Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow as a project of racial and gendered meaning. Not surprisingly, Sam Fisher is a white male, empowered to save the world from evil terrorists, the majority of them being of color and potentially Muslim. Following in the traditions of Rambo and Tears of the Sun, the game elucidates not just how the white, male, American military has the strength and brains to save the world, but how specifically their (your) efforts will save and protect women and children.
Games, more than schools, religion, and other forms of popular culture are increasingly teaching American citizens about war, the enemy, and nationality identity. Even as extreme national agendas (along with the attached racial/gender/military meanings) flourish in this world of electronic games, commentators and academics alike continue to bypass these moments in which we can “teach to transgress” (Hooks, 1994). As academics contemptuously ridicule video games, we miss opportunities to take our theories and ideas into the homes of our students. We not only have the opportunity to elucidate the relevance of issues of race, gender, sexuality, class, nationalism, foreign policy, and media literacy through conversations about video games, but the ability to unsettle their (and our) belief that video games are just games. Discussing the Army’s own video game that is used as a recruitment tool, columnist Reggie Rivers noted the power of these games: “It’s a recruiting tool aimed to win the hearts and minds of children of all ages. The goal is catch them before they develop critical thinking skills that might lead them to question the wisdom of volunteering for slavery” (DenverPost.com. However, we lack the means to intervene, or the language to engage in this process.