Video games are worth considering in this context, not only because of their pervasiveness but because of their narrative power. They share much in common with film: interaction with them is mediated by a monitor, and they almost always feature a narrative of some kind that drives the action on the screen. However, video games are also different from other forms of media in that they are simulations – they go beyond audio-visual narrative and into at least an attempt to approximate a particular kind of experience. Further, unlike movies and TV, a feature of the experience they offer is active participation. This isn’t to say that movies and TV are passive; they’ve been too often dismissed as such, when viewing those forms of media in fact often involves complex patterns of interpretation and meaning-making. However, the difference is still worth some attention.
I want to argue that this difference has particular implications for how we as a largely civilian population understand war and reproduce the meanings we attach to it. Further, I think that how our games tell stories about war reveals some powerful things about how storytelling in war has changed over time – along with war itself – and how we can understand our own collective psychological reactions to those changes. Finally, I argue that our relationship to war in the context of games highlights some of the ways in which war is digitally augmented – not only on the battlefield and among military population but here among civilians.
Given that we’re talking about games in the larger context of media and warfare, I’ll begin by outlining some of the ways in which media narratives – especially film – have historically contributed to the cultural construction of meanings of war.
As I said above, meaning-making and the construction of understandings of war are traditionally narrative in nature, or at least narratives of various kinds make up a great deal of what there is. Myths and legends are some of the oldest forms of this, and help to construct and maintain cultural ideas regarding what war is like, how it is to be fought and how a warrior should conduct themselves, and what is at stake in war (territory, property, beliefs, etc.). In addition to myths and legends—and sometimes inseparable from them—are historical accounts of war, which relate details about the wars that a nation or a people have been involved in over the course of the past and are therefore pivotal in a people’s understanding of how they arrived at their present condition, who their enemies were and are, who they themselves are in opposition to others, and what they hold valuable and worth fighting for—as well as what they might fight for in the future, and who they might fight for it.
This is an important thing to make an additional note of: images and stories of war tell not only about the wars that have been fought, but about what wars might be fought in the future; they contain information regarding what is both possible and appropriate in terms of war-making. But I want to focus this more narrowly in the recent past, so I rather than the older forms of war narrative, I’ll focus on propaganda, journalism, and film/television.
Wartime propaganda reached a new level