War games

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Russia has fallen to the ultra-nationalists and Imran Zakhaev is now considered a national hero, despite the fact that he very nearly unleashed WWIII on the populace

Michael Schulze von Gasser

Waging war in the virtual world – the blockbuster video game "Battlefield 3" was launched recently. Electronic Arts, which produced the game, is said to have spent US$100 million on its marketing campaign. Advance orders totalled more than 2 million. Gamers were thrilled at how realistically the game depicted military action. And Electronic Arts' competitors have already lined up their own latest combat games. November 2011 saw the launch of "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3", which is projected to yield its producer, Activision, another billion-dollar return. German gamers will also play a part in this success. German research company Gesellschaft für Konsumforschung found out that German video game sales in 2010 totalled €1.86 billion, 3% more than a year earlier. Players of virtual games in German today number more than 22 million.

Critical debate is often confined to the violence which these games depict. Which political messages they convey is barely a subject of public discourse. And yet the storylines of these games are often highly charged. As are the wheelings and dealings of the companies that produce them.

Western bogeymen

Video games nowadays need more than just outstanding graphics if they are to sell in high numbers – they also have to boast a thrilling storyline – the more contentious, the better.

As a case in point, take these comments by David Goldfarb, lead designer and lead writer of "Battlefield 3": "We've sought to keep the game feeling as plausible as possible, because the moment the audience stops believing it could happen, then you're just like every other shooter". This first-person shooter lets gamers slip into the role of US soldiers fighting in places like Iran. Infantrymen storm the streets of Tehran. The desert outside the gates of the Iranian capital is transformed into a battlefield for US tanks. "It needs to feel credible, it needs to connect with emotions," is how Goldfarb describes what the game developers set out to achieve.

China is another popular bogeyman. "Stand together with the US Marines in the ultimate tactical infantry shooter" is how the software company Codemasters markets "Operation Flashpoint: Red River", a game it released in spring 2011. Players can go to war as a grenadier, rifleman or automatic rifleman and call in support from mortars, howitzers and JDAMs, as well as close air support from helicopters and fighter aircraft. For the most part, the targets are Chinese. After all, the story revolves around Peking's efforts to seize Tajikistan's oil reserves. This provokes the United States to then invade the Central Asian state from neighbouring Afghanistan, igniting a bloody conflict which also involves local guerilla groups. "Tajikistan offers such a wealth of history and geography that made it a perfect fit for a contemporary future-fiction clash of super powers, against the backdrop of an insurgent uprising within the country," says Adam Parsons, executive producer at Codemasters.

Many video games also fuel fears of a resurgent Russia. The "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare" series, for instance, sees Russian ultranationalist terrorists scheming to engulf the globe in a third world war. "Modern Warfare 2" alone earned Activision Blizzard sales of US$3 billion, compared with development costs of roughly US$50 million. Berlin is also transformed into the battleground in part three of the series, encouraging millions of gamers to eye Russian policymaking with a deep-seated sense of mistrust. There is a similar line of thinking in the aerial combat game "Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. 2" – Russian forces steal a handful of nuclear warheads, use them to threaten the world and ultimately seize power.

Virtual weapons systems

Software developers producing video games which, like the ones mentioned above, are set in the present day or near future are keen to portray genuine military equipment in the virtual combat environments they create. And weapons produced by Germans arms manufacturers are also an increasingly regular feature in their storylines.

"Elements of War" a video game produced by the Russian Lesta Studios, was released in Germany this spring. This 3D real-time strategy game is set after a global environmental catastrophe in 2022, with the USA, Russia and a "European alliance" waging war using equipment including Leopard 2A5 battle tanks and Fennek reconnaissance vehicles. In real life, both of these vehicles are manufactured by the German firm Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) in Munich and Kassel. Vehicles produced by the Düsseldorf-based Rheinmetall Group also feature on the virtual battlefield. The modular GeFas ("Geschützte Fahrzeugsystem") armoured vehicle system might be still on the drawing board in real life, but in the video game it is already fully operational and even boasts the Rheinmetall logo. The armoured "Boxer" transport vehicle – a bilateral KMW/Rheinmetall project – is only now being introduced into the Bundeswehr, but it can likewise already be deployed in "Elements of War". Weapons made in Germany are hugely popular on virtual battlefields.

As, for instance, in the "H.A.W.X. 2" video game mentioned earlier in this article. "Players of "H.A.W.X. 2" get to use the very latest technology produced by the world's leading defence companies and most advanced military firms, including more than 40 licensed aircraft and prototypes," according to a press release published by Ubisoft, which developed the game. The licensed aircraft include the Eurofighter Typhoon, which is manufactured by Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug GmbH, based in Hallbergmoos near Munich.

The German arms firm was tight-lipped when asked whether the video game had only been granted a licence to depict its aircraft or whether it cooperated more extensively with UbiSoft. Rheinmetall Group was equally reticent when questioned about how its weapons were represented in "Elements of War". Only Krauss-Maffei Wegmann was willing to comment: "KMW expressly does not support computer game producers," a company spokesman stated. And yet it does not seem to mind when its products appear in video games.

The depiction of armaments in games tends to give the arms industry greater legitimacy, particularly so when large-scale weapons systems like combat aircraft, helicopters or tanks are involved. The man on the street rarely gets to see a jet fighter, say, in real life but in a virtual environment he can climb straight into the cockpit and take to the skies himself. And once the general public has been won over by the state-of-the-art machinery, it's easier to justify the mostly huge price tag for the weapons systems.

Military video games nowadays often back arms producers or armies, and vice versa. Crytek is one of Germany's most successful software companies. First-person shooter games like "Far Cry" and "Crysis" made the company, established in 1999 and now headquartered in Frankfurt am Main, a worldwide name. Above all, it was Crytek's engine – ie the visual, acoustic and physical experience in the virtual setting – which garnered praise among players and in the computer game community. "CryEngine" offers a highly realistic and lifelike user experience. In fact, the software is so good that it has not only attracted interest among other vendors – the military is now firmly established in the company's customer base. A host of arms manufacturers use the Frankfurt-based company's software in their training simulators, including German warship manufacturer ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems and the US military group Lockheed Martin.

Up until January 2012, the company Intelligent Decisions equipped the US army with 102 mobile infantry simulators known as "Dismounted Soldier" in which the battlefields were designed using CryEngine. With a budget of US$57 million, the project uses virtual reality helmets to immerse soldiers into highly lifelike and authentic combat scenarios.

The Bundeswehr has also seized upon this technology – the French armaments group Thales is currently developing a new shooting simulator for the German army based on CryEngine 3. Dubbed "Sagittarius Evolution", this ongoing arms project will offer the army a range of capabilities, including the ability to input simple geo data in order to generate highly realistic deployment scenarios. To achieve this, satellite images of a given region are combined with elevation and terrain data, then fine-tuned in order to create an authentic image of the desired region. So no matter where in the world the Bundeswehr is next deployed, the shooting simulator can simply be programmed to simulate the environment they will operate in. This software helps German soldiers to navigate the new terrain and, if need be, shoot even more accurately at "enemies".

Vendors of other military video games are also directly engaged in the munitions industry nowadays. The most remarkable transformation was seen at software company Bohemia Interactive from the Czech Republic. "Bohemia Interactive Simulations is a world leader in providing simulation technologies and integrated training solutions to military and civilian organisations around the globe," is how the company described itself in spring at the ITEC in Cologne, Europe's largest forum for military simulators. The software firm has also been active as an arms firm since 2001, when its programmers released the commercial video game "Operation Flashpoint". The game was well received in military circles, and Bohemia Interactive developed the training simulator "Virtual Battlespace 1". This was followed by "Virtual Battlespace 2" which featured a newer engine. Much like the video game, the training software consists of a detailed three-dimensional environment, allowing users to programme their own missions using an editor tool. Thus soldiers can be deployed virtually to Afghanistan, say, where they can learn to stop cars at a checkpoint. But the soldiers in training often don't just sit at a computer. Faithfully reproduced vehicles are even integrated into the training experience. Soldiers then find themselves at their usual station – manning the machine gun of their military vehicle – while the training software projects the virtual environment around them. "Around fifteen armies use our simulation software today, and the list is getting longer all the time," Martin Vano, senior designer at Bohemia Interactive, proudly explains. The programme was particularly popular among NATO forces, including the Bundeswehr, Vano added.

This two-pronged approach is a lucrative strategy for Bohemia Interactive: 2009 saw the company from Prague generating sales of US$6 million with video games, and as much as US$7 million with its arms unit's training simulators. When "Operation Flashpoint" was released in 2001, the Czech video game firm had just eight employees – today Bohemia Interactive Group boasts a workforce of 140 worldwide. There is no clear-cut boundary between software developed for the military and for video gamers.

Bundeswehr in on the game

The German army uses video game engines in its training simulators. And the Bundeswehr's growing involvement in foreign deployments means that it, too, is becoming a player in an increasing number of commercial video games.

The recently launched "Ace Combat: Assault Horizon" programme allows gamers to take to the air in Eurofighter jets emblazoned with the Bundeswehr logo – the Iron Cross – and hunt down enemy aircraft. And the strategy game "Wargame – European Escalation", which is scheduled for release in mid-November, send gamers into a fictitious war featuring the Bundeswehr's Leopard battle tanks and Marder personnel carriers.

But new releases are not the only games in which the German army plays a starring role. A host of recently launched games revolve around the German military forces and Bundeswehr deployments. The first-person shooter "Terrorist Takedown 2" released in 2009 by City Interactive lists Bundeswehr personnel among its cast. Even the Bundeswehr's own PR department could not have dreamt up a better storyline: "Kidnapped journalists! Two days into the hostage situation, the government begins negotiating the release of the journalists with the terrorists, but it looks like their demands cannot be met. As a member of a special forces team, your mission is to free the hostages from captivity and bring them home alive ..." The German military unit in the game is called the "Special Forces Commando" and was obviously inspired by the Bundeswehr's elite Special Forces Command (Kommando-Spezialkräfte, or KSK). The backdrop looks a lot like Afghanistan – small villages and markets, barren and parched landscapes, bleak mountain ranges.

Flight simulators, which aim to depict aircraft as realistically as possible, also feature the Bundeswehr. Take "Jagdgeschwader 73", an add-on for the Microsoft Flight Simulator developed by German software firm Halycon Media. This software lets you take to the air in Eurofighter and Phantom aircraft from the Rostock-Laage air field – just like the real-life airforce unit. The producer promises a faithful reproduction of the Bundeswehr airbase. The aircraft are equally authentic, right down to the very last detail – even the registration numbers match those of real-life fighter jets. Another add-on released in September 2011, "Jagdbombergeschwader 31" also lets gamers fly into battle in Tornado jets.

But it is not just the software developers which integrate the Bundeswehr into game scenarios: amateur programmers developed the "Operation Peacekeeper" modification for the 2005 first-person shooter game "Battlefield 2". This software allows gamers to move a wide variety of Bundeswehr military vehicles emblazoned with the Iron Cross around the battlefield. The fictitious storyline in "Operation Peacekeeper" is based on the Bundeswehr's Kosovo mission and begins to unfold on 22 December 2004: "At a meeting between German and Serbian military forces, a Serbian officer is shot dead by a sniper. Crossed wires trigger a gunfight between the Bundeswehr and Serbian forces, resulting in casualties on both sides. Serbian and German tanks and German Bo 105 helicopters move in to provide support, escalating the conflict."

Although the German military feature in a raft of video games, and often in considerable detail, the German defence ministry rejects claims that it cooperates in any way with video game producers. Asked to comment, a ministry spokesperson stated that there were no cooperative undertakings between commercial providers and the Bundeswehr. Furthermore, the ministry added, the use of the Bundeswehr logo was strictly regulated. "The Bundeswehr logo may only be used with Bundeswehr approval." No such approval had ever been given hitherto, the spokesperson explained. The legal basis for the Bundeswehr's appearance in "Ace Combat", say, or Halcyon Media's flight simulators remains an open matter – the software firms did not respond when asked to comment on this matter.

But the companies reap dividends from featuring the Bundeswehr in their games and thereby offering highly authentic combat scenarios for the buying public. And it is a set-up which also benefits the Bundeswehr: the games mostly cast the German military in a positive light. This advertising effect is highly beneficial, particularly in times when new recruits are hard to come by.

Laws protecting children and young people from the effects of computer games miss the mark

The laws protecting children and young people from the risks and effects of computer games play a particularly crucial role where military video games are concerned. In Germany, the Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body (Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle, or USK) is responsible for the age classification of media. Since it was established in 1994, this body has checked the suitability of more than 30,000 video games for children and young people. The Berlin-based USK has been incorporated as Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle Unterhaltungssoftware GmbH since May 2008. Its shareholders are the Federal Association of Interactive Entertainment Software (Bundesverband Interaktive Unterhaltungssoftware e.V., or BIU) and the Federal Association of Computer Game Developers (Bundesverband der Entwickler von Computerspielen G.A.M.E. e.V., or G.A.M.E.), both of which lobby on behalf of the video game and computer industry. Before a video game can be released in Germany, it must be presented before the USK together with a walkthough. The USK's games testers then play through the game and draft a presentation containing key scenes from the game, say. Neither the USK nor the testers recommend an age classification; instead they present the game to a Classification Committee. This committee comprises four child protection experts and one permanent representative of the Supreme Youth Protection Authorities of the German federal states (OLJB). The experts recommend an age classification which the OLJB representatives can either accept or veto. The parties involved in protecting children and young people from the effects and risks of computer games focus primarily on the depiction of violence – a topic which regularly attracts public debate. While the debate appears, at first glance, to be a constructive one, it has attracted major criticism, not least from a peace-building perspective.

Author and activist Peter Bürger, for instance, queries the paradigm of violence underlying today's legislation protecting children and young people against the effects of computer games: "Under the prevailing criteria, it's child's play to smuggle a war propaganda game for children and young people into the product line." In any case, he adds, the most effective propaganda was always subtle so it wasn't always compromised by superficial aspects. That's why Bürger thinks we need to change our mindset: "It makes a huge difference whether we look, in a narrow sense, at psychological impact hypotheses surrounding 'media violence' or if we instead define our point of departure in condemning war, say, as the general consensus in civilised countries – a concept manifested in the UN Charter, the constitution and international law." The depiction of violence alone was not the problem, he says, because it could potentially be a key element of very human and critical artworks: "Under certain circumstance, the depiction of violence can even help to build peace," claims the 2006 winner of the German Peace Society's Bertha-von-Suttner Prize for his books on the depiction of the military in films. For Bürger, criticising the "political storylines" of both video games and films was more important than looking superficially at how violence is depicted in the media.

It is also questionable whether the age classification system used nowadays to protect children and young people against the effects of computer games still serves any purpose, given the ability to download games legally or illegally and to import video games from abroad. "It goes without saying that rules can always be circumvented," Felix Falk from the USK concedes. At the end of the day, monitoring how children and young people use media will always be one of the most important parental duties, Falk adds. "Neither the law nor an age classification symbol can relieve them of that duty." That was why the USK offered parents a wide variety of information and other resources on video games. So education is the best way to protect children and young people against the effects of computer games – but the notion that a country that wages war is capable of educating children and young people about the merits of peace and non-violence should certainly be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Source: http://www.imi-online.de

Translated by Ben

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