When videogames become tools for politics. Battlefield 3, America’s Army and Glorious Mission compared.

It’s already well known: videogames have definitively ceased to be a niche cultural product. Even if ten years ago someone could still consider them something mainly useful to entertain kids and adolescents (and in a completely unproductive way!), the latter exponential growth of the sector in terms of numbers and incomes forced even the most conservatives to open their eyes.

Indeed, the videogames market global income in 2015 has been higher than cinema and music earnings combined: 92 billions of dollars, according to HIS Technology, compared to the 62 billions of cinema revenues and the ‘meagre’ 18 billions of the musical universe.

Moreover, statistics pointed out that in Italy in 2015 the highest percentage of gamers were between 35 and 44 years old, followed by the 44-60 age range. At the same time, women and men were equally represented, with a fair 50% each.

Relying on these values, the industry of videogames started to invest huge efforts and money developing products which go far beyond the simple entertainment, distinguishing themselves as proper media, able to convey information, knowledge and ideologies.

To make a relevant example – but you’ll forgive me if I will not get into details – in June 2014 Ubisoft Montpellier released Valiant Hearts: The Great War, an adventure/brain-teaser game settled during World War One. It has been created expressly for the centennial of the war with deep educative purposes.

So, the old idea of videogames as completely self-referential objects, simply able to offer a few hours of entertainment by the price of a temporarily isolation from reality, has been luckily put aside. Stated the economic relevance of the videogames industry, as well as its possibility to reach an impressive amount of people, it is very interesting to investigate how ‘political’ a videogame can be, and how subliminal information can be (and are) transmitted during a normal match.

Indeed, specific characteristics such as realism, cinematography and high roles characterisation, have made enormous progress, distinguishing videogames with a high emotive potential.

I am referring particularly to first-person shooter games, (RPG, MMORPG etc.), in which the role division between the goods and the evils is clear and immediate: the good is an ethic character, usually very well characterized, while the evil…. Well, the evil is ugly (at least the times he\she has a visible face), awful and acts evilly.

Of course, we as players are the goods by definition, even in that cases in which we play in the evil’s clothes. The emotive participation to the game always entails that we immediately have this feeling to be “on the right side” while we play. It is a psychological mechanism, subtle still already well known, which could have relevant implications when it comes to videogames with a historical background. The risk to learn and get convinced of real historical fake news is dramatically high. Besides, who would desire to establish an emotional involvement with the Nazis?

Battlefield 3

In order to exemplify this concept, let me present two games as coordinates. The first one is Battlefield 3, released in 2011 by the two leading companies SEGA and Electronic Arts. It is the eleventh release of a truly blessed saga and it won more than 40 awards during the first year.

On the contrary, the second coordinate is amply unknown: it is called Glorious Mission On Line, developed in 2013 by the Chinese Giant Interactive Group and sponsored by the People’s Liberation Army.

Lets start from the beginning. At the end of 2011 the Islamic Republic of Iran formally complained at the UN against DICE (Battlefield’s developing house). Why? Because one of the first missions of the game see the player, in the clothes of a US marine, assaulting Teheran, almost devastated after massive US bombardments (In the game plot, the US bombing force Iran to endorse a series of terrorist attacks in several European cities, which of course the player has to prevent. Also Russia actually is involved in this hotchpotch, but better not to overload).

The general indifference of the world to its complaining encouraged the Iranian government to move the conflict on the same field: the virtual one. Italian newspaper Repubblica.it emphatically reported: “Attack on Tel-Aviv against Battlefield 3. Iran will answer to the American game with a new videogame of state settled in Israel […] Behroom Minaei, CEO of the Iranian Foundation for Electronic Games stated”. What can we say. If you really have to drop a bomb, always better a digital one.

Glorious Mission On Line

The case of Glorious Mission On Line is even more interesting. It is a free-to-play massive online game; its main characteristic is that the game refers to a real and actual geopolitical crisis instead of a virtual, still plausible, one.

The game, as I already pointed out, was sponsored by China’s Army and it has been even released in the day of its 86th anniversary. The player dresses the clothes of a Chinese commander in charge of the defence of a tiny, still highly strategic archipelago, bone of contention between China and Japan since almost a century. China calls these islands Diaoyu, while Japan calls them Senkaku.

The players of Glorious Mission must patrol the territorial waters of Diaoyu against Japanese raids, they can ask for air strikes from the Liaoning air carrier (China’s first air carrier, on duty since 2012), reacting by all means to enemy invasions. Glorious Mission On Line, as one of the developers stated, is used by China’s Army as a combat and strategic simulator for their soldier’s training and, at the same time, it is specifically minded to encourage young people to join the army.

Indeed, the main target of the game are the university students, who in China are also the main consumers of videogames and the ones who spend the highest amount of time surfing the Internet. Therefore, this game is a perfect example of the intrinsic convincing potentiality of videogames which are, already now, a great tool for education and propaganda.

America’s Army

Actually, however this Chinese idea could seem disquieting to us, someone already beat them widely to the punch. Indeed, the Pentagon started to produce electronic war simulator in 1999, making use of several experts from Hollywood and using these videogames for training purposes.

This experimentation dramatically increased in 2008, when the US Army invested over 50 million dollars to develop a futuristic simulator, equipped with all the optional, from joypads to virtual reality helmets.

Besides, the US Army already opened a proper institution exclusively dedicated to develop war videogames in 2004 in North Carolina, while a specific section has been opened in 2007 within the US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC).

And if someone could think that all these developments have only little to do with videogames after all, well, it is not the case. Indeed, the American equivalent of Glorious Mission On Line exists since 2002 and is called America’s Army. Openly developed by the US Army to stimulate new enlistments, this game is a free-to-play specifically addressed to teenagers between 13 and 21.

It has seen four new editions and over 2200 servers around the world so far, with roughly 13 million players. Think about this: during an audition at the US Congress in 2009, America’s Army has been painted as

more effective at recruiting than any other method of contact. […] the game has had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined.

General’s word for it.

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in: Italian