From Iraq and Afghanistan to Mali: Wars, Masks and Video-games

Last January, a photograph distributed by an international wire service made quite buzz in internet chat rooms. It showed a French soldier standing guard in front of armored army vehicles. In the picture, apparently taken in Niono (central Mali), the French Special Forces soldier was wearing combat goggles and a black balaclava mask with a skeleton-face design.
There were those who protested the picture as a display of insensitivity and detachment from the local Malian population. Others saw in it a rather benign manifestation of video-game culture, since the mask worn by the soldier was reminiscent of “Ghost”, one of the characters of the blockbuster video-game series Call of Duty.
In defense of the masked soldier (and of the videogame), Luke Plunkett, a video-gaming critic, said: “This isn't one guy acting alone; it's an established "fashion" amongst soldiers worldwide”. He explained that this military fashion trend was “inspired by the mask’s use by soldiers in real life, as it’s been worn by US troops—who first took as a fashionable alternative from regular gear at the beginning of the Iraq war”, well before the videogame was even developed.
So there you have it. The controversial Mali war picture was not a case of a soldier mimicking a fictional videogame character but rather that of a videogame mimicking the real-life behavior of American soldiers in a Middle East war.
Plunkett slammed French military spokesmen for denouncing the attire of the French soldier as “unacceptable” in the middle of a bloody war. “The fact they're worried about this shows their PR priorities are entirely broken,” he said.
The Call of Duty videogame series, launched in 2007, has sold more than 100 million copies and attracts millions of online players.
P.W. Singer author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century has coined the word "'militainment' to refer to the uses by the military of video gaming tools.
For the US military, in particular, video games are an important tool for recruitment and training. In other cases, the military itself develops combat video games. A “Massachusetts Institute of Technology” survey, about the effects of a particular Pentagon-developed video game, called America’s Army, found that "30 percent of all Americans age 16 to 24 had a more positive impression of the Army because of the game and, even more amazingly, the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined." Private developers also seek the advice of veteran military officers to achieve a realistic level of war simulation. Some of the Call of Duty scenarios were based on the “expert advice” of Oliver North of the Iran-Contra fame and Navy SEAL members.
Prince Harry of Britain gave a shockingly vivid, even if spontaneous, testimony about the risks involved. Describing his use of the weapon-systems aboard his helicopter, against the Taliban, he said: "It's a joy for me because I'm one of those people who loves playing PlayStation and Xbox, so with my thumbs I like to think I'm probably quite useful.” This sense of “joy” is certainly out of place. But that is the price to be paid when “militainment” blurs the line between war and entertainment.
Another problem is that combat video games often draw from war experiences in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. It is easy to see how the “first-person payer”, who looks at the outside world down the barrel of a gun, is unlikely to be Third World-friendly. Video games have been involved more than once in cross-cultural controversies. After the release of their Modern Warfare 2 and Modern Warfare 3 games, the producers of the Call of Duty videogame series had to deal with strong Moslem protests because their game included scenes of framed Coranic scripts in a bathroom setting. To their credit, however, they apologized and volunteered to edit out the scenes. Recently, “Call of Duty: Black Ops II” was boycotted in Pakistan for showing the country’s security agencies as collaborating with Al Qaida. In 2012, the videogame series producers were criticized for releasing a “new Call of Duty” which contained an opening battle where the player shoots down fleeing African rebels. Excessive violence (in this somewhat prescient fictional rendition of the war in Mali) was described by videogame critics as serving no purpose but “shock value”.
With all due respect to all well-meaning critics, the video-gaming industry is, before anything else, a provider of instant gratification to “digital youth” all-around the world. As interactive versions of the action comic-books and spy novels, videogames have no claims to intellectualism. “Pop culture” is too often a commercial venture that thrives on shock-value.
In a world where wars are being increasingly fought with worrying detachment, remote technologies and sophisticated air-systems can render the victims as virtual as videogame targets. Some have called this the “Avatar Fatigue”-syndrome. Ken Robinson, a US military video-game developer defines this syndrome, from a soldier’s experience: "You lose an avatar; just reboot the game. In real life, you lose your guy; you've lost your guy. And then you've got to bury him, and then you've got to call his wife."
The potential impact of video gaming on the real-life behavior of soldiers is taken seriously not only by the military but also by humanitarian groups such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Geneva-based organization has even expressed its readiness to establish a dialogue with the video gaming industry about “the place of humanitarian rules” in war video-games.
Human folly (with the help of modern technologies) might lead us not to see wars’ blood and gore. But it is important that the large global audience of young video-game players never lose sight of the fact that the violence and counter-violence of war, unlike video-games, unavoidably kill and maim people. Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of communication, currently an international media analyst.