Video games are everywhere. Forty percent of U.S. adults own game consoles; many more play on their mobiles. According to some reports, most gamers are women. Digital games now rake in more annual revenues than movie box-office ticket sales.
So are games affecting the way humans think about the world and about each other?
Researchers have shown that entertainment media, like movies, can shift public opinion and shape behaviors. But there is much less research on the impact of video games. There’s some political science research on the link between the military and the entertainment industry, dubbed the “military-entertainment complex.” There’s also work on game play during the 2014 Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But our knowledge of how digital games influence public opinion, public policy or political culture is limited. So we investigated.
The first step in answering this question is to look at the enemies that players encounter in digital games. To use a more precise term, we look at how enemies are “framed” — how games package information that resonates with audiences. In an article (currently ungated) published in International Studies Review, we turn to a popular genre, First Person Shooters (FPS), in which a player armed with a weapon seeks to destroy an enemy. FPS players experience conflict and violence firsthand, albeit simulated. But representations of the bad guys in video games could shape players’ perceptions of who is a threat.
To understand the framing of enemies in games, we compiled a dataset of the best-selling FPS during 2001-2013, a total of 57 games, each with more than 1.5 million units sold. Even non-gamers will recognize such popular titles from our dataset, including the “Call of Duty” series or “Halo.” We coded information such as the identity of the protagonist (the shooter), the context and location of the conflict, and the identity of the enemy in each game. We grouped enemies into several categories: generic humans; aliens; monsters, including zombies; those depicted as terrorists from the Middle East or Latin America; Russians, as the state, ultra-nationalists, or separatists; and World War II enemies and others, including Iraq and North Korea.
We find that Russians are enemies in 21 percent of games (12 games), one fewer instance than generic humans (13 games) and one more than aliens (11 games). Even if we consider Latin American (6 games) and Middle Eastern terrorists (5 games) as a single combined category, the number of games with Russian enemies is still greater.
Our findings suggest that FPS gamers often encounter Russians as the enemy. Long after the end of the Cold War, and despite real-world concerns over global terrorism and other security issues, Cold War-era enemies in video games could be shaping attitudes toward modern-day Russia.
We think this is an interesting finding, given Russia’s deteriorating relations with the West and ongoing tension over Russian engagement in Ukraine and Syria.
The follow-up question is whether having seen Russians depicted as enemies in games means that Western gamers will be less likely to be tolerant of Russian aggression.
Our next research will study the effects of enemy images, examine representations of gender and ethnic diversity in games, and investigate whether playing in cooperation with others has differing effects than playing as an individual. That games have recently delved into themes including the use of robots in conflict, artificial intelligence, privacy and cyber conflict suggests that there is much room for future research related to ongoing security challenges.
We hope that our work is the beginning of a new generation of scholarship on digital games. Who we battle in our imaginations could be critical in the development of our individual and collective assessments of threat.
Brandon Valeriano is a reader in international relations at Cardiff University with a research focus on cybersecurity and popular culture in international relations. Follow him on Twitter @drbvaler.
Philip Habel is lecturer at the University of Glasgow studying political communication and political behavior, including work on entertainment media and public opinion. Follow him on Twitter @philiphabel.