Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Affective Continuity between Modern War and "Modern Warfare"

The front page of today's New York Times presents an important story about a video decrypted by and posted on, as well as shared on YouTube. The Times headline, "Airstrike Video Brings Notice to a Web Site," focuses on the ongoing competition between mainstream and socially networked digital media. The article takes up the controversial nature of, especially in the eyes of the US military and other governmental agencies. For me, the more powerful impact of the video, posted in greater detail on a Wikileaks website called Collateral Murder, is the way in which it reveals, or perhaps more accurately makes us feel, the continuity of the socially mediated collective affect of our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with that of the multiplayer online shooter games that my son plays with his friends, and which are played by millions of youth across the globe.

This Wikileaks video is the most powerful documentary video I can remember seeing. For me this is in some sense more powerful even than the Abu Ghraib photos, precisely because of the apparent ordinariness of the experience. In my forthcoming book I argue that the affective force of the Abu Ghraib photos derived in large part from their continuity with our everyday media practices. My argument is that the affective continuity of these socially networked digital photos with our media everyday explains why the incidents at Abu Ghraib, unlike similar incidents at Guantanamo or at dark sites across the globe, became a matter of widespread political concern, a global media news event. I do not know if this event will have a similar impact--the length of time required to watch the video makes me almost certain that it will not. Nonetheless, I want to comment here on the affective and medial affinities between this video (and by extension of course the incident it documents) and the current practices of online video game playing not only on PCs but more powerfully I think on video-game platforms like X-Box Live and PSN (Play Station Network).

Multiplayer shooter games, like other online games, involve teams of players, sharing the same networked space but in different physical spaces, competing against other teams or against the game itself (in this latter scenario teams of 2-4 players can also share the same physical space, playing in a family media room). My son, presumably like many players, sometimes plays against the game, sometimes joins teams randomly on line, but most often plays with a pretty constant team of friends. This last option produces a kind of affective sociality, held together through the networked mediation of online gaming, that bears affinities with, and helps to premediate, the kinds of social interactions that occur among soldiers in the field,

The scenarios in these games, most notably the Modern Warfare series, are remarkably similar to what US soldiers experience, as the Wikileaks video makes clear. Take, for example, a single-player AC-130 sequence from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. In this sequence the individual player interacts with his enemies/targets via video screens with black-and-white images (infrared in the game but remarkably similar in look and feel to the videos in Collateral Murder). The player must wait for permission to engage and is told which targets he must avoid. Targets are vehicles or individuals on foot, just like the Collateral Murder footage. Especially interesting is the dialogue programmed into the mission. After particular kills, one of the characters in the game is programmed to say things like "nice shot" or "way to go"--just like the soldiers say in the video.

There are other striking affinities between the Collateral Murder video and Modern Warfare 2, which help in some sense to illuminate, if not to account for or justify, some of the actions undertaken by the soldiers in the video. For one, it is interesting to note that in MW2, becoming a helicopter gunner is one of the rewards in the game, which a player achieves by sccomplishing eleven "kills." So the position of the helicopter gunner is already something of a privileged position.

A more interesting connection with the Modern Warfare games concerns what is called "last stand" or "final stand," which are perks available to players who reach a certain level of gameplay. In multiplayer games especially, if a character who has this perk is shot and wounded, he is given the ability to crawl away and keep firing, even to stand up if he is not quickly killed. This perk perhaps helps to illuminate the scene in the Wikileaks video where one of the two Reuters photographers is spotted wounded on the ground. The soldiers are eager to kill him, but according to rules of engagement cannot shoot an injured man unless he goes for his weapon, which is the explicit reason you hear them hoping aloud that he will do so (a weapon which is, as we know, only his camera). But their eagerness might also be attributed to the premediated video game scenarios of last or final stands, where wounded enemies have the ability to keep fighting as if they had not been shot before. This unrealistic feature of MW2 could easily contribute to the impulse to use excessive force against already wounded enemy combatants.

One point in comparing Collateral Murder with multiplayer shooters, particularly the Modern Warfare franchise, has been to call attention to their similar video and medial interfaces. Of course I do not mean to understate the significant differences between the experience of playing a video game and fighting in a war--beginning of course with the difference between human and algorithmically generated victims. And certainly the embodiment of flying in a helicopter with its ambient noise and vibration and smells and its sensations of physical movement, is fundamentally different from the experience of playing a video game in the proverbial comforts of your home. But these differences are not between an embodied and a disembodied experience but between two different embodied experiences. With vibrating controllers providing feedback when one "shoots" in a game, these differences, though still profound, are being lessened--and will likely continue to be lessened with technological advances in the gaming experience.

But the point I am most interested in making concerns some of the uncanny similarities between the affectivity and sociality of the two experiences, the ways in which the collective affect of multiplayer gaming simultaneously remediates and premediates the affectivity of soldiers in the field. Not only are video game designers basing the affective and social behavior of their algorithmically generated characters on the behavior of soldiers in the field, but it is undoubtedly the case that soldiers in the field are remediating affective behaviors that they have themselves experienced and participated in while playing video games at home. And when you remember that these games are not only being played by teenagers at home in the US and across the globalized West, but are being played by the soldiers themselves both before they deploy abroad and in between missions back at their base, then the force of Wikileaks' Collateral Murder video is to make the boundaries between these two experiences ever more difficult to secure. By premediating the sociality and affectivity of warfare for American youth, video games like Modern Warfare work not only to prepare a new generation of soldiers for combat but also (given the demographics of our current volunteer military) to modulate the collective affect of an even larger group of US and global citizens to accept modern war as an unexceptional feature of our everyday media landscape.

NB: I want to give a shout-out to my son Sam for his essential insights on the Modern Warfare games.