According to President Obama, the death of Osama bin Laden “marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat Al Qaeda.” On May 1st, a team of Navy SEALs infiltrated an Abbottabad compound occupied by the Al Qaeda leader, ending the search for the most-wanted man in the world. Just days after Bin Laden’s death, civilians are being given the opportunity to relive the firefight that killed him – through a computer game.
On May 7th, Kuma Games released KumaWar Episode 107: Osama 2011. The online game company promises to put the consumer behind the trigger that takes down bin Laden. All you have to do is log on, download, and play. The tag line reads, "Storm his Mansion. Kill his guards. Don’t expect him to come quietly.”
The game has already raised some important questions: Most important, does this virtualization trivialize the incident? Kuma CEO Keith Halper claims that the group hopes “that by telling [American soldiers] stories with such a powerful medium that we enable the American public to gain a better appreciation of the conflicts and the dangers they face.” In short, he contends the game is educational. But if these games are to be labeled as educational, then it is only fair to recognize their idiosyncrasies. For example, Halper acknowledged the news that there were 27 children present in the Abbottabad compound. When asked if the children would be included in the game, Halper said it is possible, “but not as children.” He continued, “Maybe they’ll be depicted as unarmed adults.”
Of course, this is hardly the first virtualization of America’s foreign conflicts. In 1999 Electronic Arts released its first installment of Medal of Honor, a World War II-themed game for Sony PlayStation. Sequels followed: Pacific Assault, European Assault, and Rising Sun among others. The 2010 edition featured a theme set in Afghanistan. At the time Craig Owens, marketing director for EA, remarked, “This is going to be the most realistic war game yet."
But should the word game ever be placed next to war? And do these virtualizations distort reality? In other words, do games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which netted $310 million in sales in its first 24 hours, give the consumer a false adaptation of war? One can argue that these games disconnect us from the essence of mortality. In real warfare, once a person is killed, they don’t re-spawn.
Next, do these virtualizations in-fact dehumanize people and places that we deem to be un-American? As absurd as this may sound to some, there is more than one perspective to a conflict. And, believe it or not, not every international who dons non-Western clothing is a member of the Taliban.
Finally, if these games are a distortion of reality, do they lend themselves to perceptions of the foreign void of a human element? If so, then can we call them educational? As one critic points out, “There is no moral nuance at play in any of the first-person military shooters on the market today, no greater cultural lesson to be learned.” He continues, “There is only the opportunity to use a cool-looking machine gun to take the head off a bad-looking dude, in a beautiful-looking environment.”
While some believe it is wrong to cast these games in such a negative light, there is a final question that must be put forth. What are the larger implications of these virtualizations? Specifically, is the United States’ expanding practice of drone warfare a real-life application of video games such as Call of Duty?
Philip Alston, special representative for the U.N. Human Right Council, says yes. "Because operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield,” Alston argues, “and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio-feed, there is a risk of developing a 'PlayStation' mentality to killing." In other words, the person operating the lethal machine is removed from the killing while sitting in front of computer screens. Once the job is done, the feed is gone and the monitors are turned off. Mission accomplished.
Regardless, virtualization of America’s wars isn’t going anywhere. In fact, in the wake of the May 1st event, I wouldn’t be surprised if sales increase. But if these games aren’t educational, then what are they? Perhaps we can identify them with another word – entertainment.