Is there ever any merit to video games about real-life war zones?

Due to public backlash, a mobile game called "Bomb Gaza" that allows you to play as an Israeli pilot delivering attacks on the Gaza Strip was pulled from Google's app store. (Reuters)

On Monday, Twitter-pundits spotted a pair of smartphone games so repugnant, so offensive, so utterly, dreadfully gross — that their uproar got the games pulled from Google’s app store within the span of an afternoon.

One game, Bomb Gaza, lets you play as an Israeli jet pilot, dropping bombs on Hamas operatives and civilians. (You lose when too many civilians die.)

The other, Gaza Assault: Code Red, involves steering an unmanned Israeli drone over a city and deploying “powerful weapons” to take out “terrorism” and “missile threats.”

Neither of the apps exist any longer, thanks to their hasty removal from the app store; Google representatives told multiple media outlets only that they remove apps that “violate our policies.” But oddly, lots of other games about the Gaza conflict, most of them uploaded within the past two weeks, remain.

There’s Defending Israel: Southern Escalation, which involves intercepting Kassam and Grad targets to “minimize civilian casualties.”

There’s Iron Dome: Rocket Destroyer, which appears to include real photos from the ground.

There’s even Iron Dome: The Game, released July 22, which involves firing missiles at caricature-like terrorists as they “infiltrate the city and explode their-selves (sic) in the name of their god.”

And further afield, many miles from Gaza, other wildly popular “military shooters” — like Medal of Honor, Kuma\War and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare — essentially “gamify” real conflict situations in which real people, many of them civilians, died. And with more than 100 million copies sold of the Call of Duty franchise alone, conflict games aren’t in any way a fringe or niche phenomenon. Many conflict games are viewed more times than conflict movies. This is the primary medium in which many people consume commentary and context about war.

This is not, to be clear, a commentary on the offensiveness or the inoffensiveness of conflict-based video games, which is already a subject of debate all over the Internet/academic literature. Nor is it in any way a comment on the severity or morality of the war in Gaza relative other conflicts. But there is a glaring disparity here, and one that deserves examining: Why did Bomb Gaza and Gaza Assault cross some inviolable line of public opinion … and every other game did not?


A screenshot from Iron Dome the Game. (BiGapps/Google Play)

Unsurprisingly, the issue seems to be have many aspects. Much of the reason lies with the games themselves, which are arguably more reductionist, and thus more offensive, than their Xbox and desktop predecessors. (The patriotically phrased “Call of Duty” is one thing — the blunt, inflammatory “Bomb Gaza,” which has no nuance or narrative arc, is another.)

Much of the outrage also comes from the nature, and the proximity, of the Gaza conflict. Whereas games like Delta Force: Blackhawk Down came out years after the conflict they describe, and games like Modern Warfare describe a conflict in the ambiguous immediate-future, Gaza is going on … right now. Israel and Hamas have only just begun a delicate, drawn-breath ceasefire. And in the U.S., at least, public opinion on the morality of the Gaza conflict is far more divided than the morality of, say, capturing Osama bin Laden: according to one CNN poll, 57 percent of Americans think Israel’s incursion in Gaza was justified, versus a third who think it was not.

But to a certain extent, none of that’s relevant. If you read through some of the tweets on Bomb Gaza and Gaza Assault, you’ll see another type of moral panic, too — one that long predates the specific circumstances of these specific games. It’s the knee-jerk (and totally viable!) opinion that “war” and “game” should repel each other, like two poles on a magnet. When the Japanese game-maker Konami cancelled the military shooter “Six Days in Fallujah” in 2009, an executive working on the game explained the controversy this way to the New York Times: “the stereotypes that are associated with the word ‘game’ and the incompatibility of that with the word ‘Iraq.’”


A screenshot from Iron Dome: Rocket Destroyer. (Shap Games/Google Play)

The researcher Marcus Schulzke would disagree. Writing on the academic Web site E-IR earlier this week, Schulzke argued — convincingly — that video games that “simulate international conflict” fill an important narrative function. Because games allow individuals a different venue to grapple with current events, Schulzke writes, they enable gamers to better reconstruct and understand those events — as well as “the efficacy of military force, and the moral boundaries of warfare.” He writes:

Even games that seem to glorify war or that are used as tools of strategic communication frequently contain critical themes, though they are usually subtle … The presence of critical themes and opportunities for critical interventions in games makes it important to avoid reductionist analyses of games that focus entirely on how they distort real events or glorify war.

Schulzke cites games like Spec Ops: The Line, which include important, implicit criticisms of war — in that game, players can accidentally kill civilians or develop PTSD. The Times also reported in 2010 on a survey out of the University of Pennsylvania that suggested games might emotionally engage players in the process and pain of war; one respondent purportedly said Medal of Honor and Call of Duty deepened his “respect for those who have died.”

It’s unlikely, of course, that a game with a title as insensitive as “Bomb Gaza” would have had of these enviable effects. But nonetheless, we shouldn’t assume that all games about Gaza are inherently repugnant, or offensive, or worthy of deletion — and neither should Google.

After all, video games are ultimately just another form of media. And like any other media, they can be a force for good: One game called “PeaceMaker,” created by game developers at Carnegie Mellon in 2007, famously attempted to humanize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“There is nothing more challenging than expressing empathy for the other side, especially when your side is under attack,” one of PeaceMaker’s consultants, Asi Burak, recently wrote in Kotaku. One of PeaceMaker’s objectives was to encourage that kind of empathy — to help players see the political needs, and the pain, of both sides.

The situation in Gaza has arguably gotten more complicated since then; but maybe a certain kind of game, in a certain small way, could still help.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · August 5