Video Games as Propaganda

american sniperNote: Some of the media reproduced in the article (mainly tweets) includes anti-Islam and anti-Arab sentiments and slurs.

Since the invention of the printed word, media has been used to control people’s hearts, minds and actions almost as much as it has been used to liberate them. In the beginning, this was easy – with a lack of universally recognized freedoms, states could censor what they wished, and commission their own propaganda to be written as truth. As the idea of freedom of speech spread from Enlightenment France and England to the rest of the world, this became markedly less acceptable.

Yet the propaganda goes on, now in subtle, behind-the-scenes ways. Whenever a country goes so far as to openly censor opposition viewpoints and promulgate its own (see: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Mubarak’s Egypt), it faces heavy criticism from the West. But this conveniently ignores the West’s own propaganda, both open and hidden.

I learned about the Civil War for the first time in fourth grade. Then, I got a superficial overview: it was about right and wrong, brothers fought brothers, and Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. When, in the following years we finally got around to learning what actually caused the war, my textbook told me the war had very little to do with slavery. It was about state’s rights, the overbearing North, and liberty. The slavery was just a little coincidence, and was shoved to the side for the majority of my education. This is because I was in Virginia, and reading a textbook printed in Texas with a very specific agenda: don’t teach little kids the Civil War was about slavery.

When I moved to Brussels for eighth grade, I was very quick to correct my history teacher when she said that the war broke out over slavery. “It was about state’s rights,” I asserted, and somewhere in the distance Robert E. Lee smiled in his grave. Of course, I was quickly corrected, and astounded by the magnitude to which I’d been misled.

This all serves to say that I’ve had quite a lot of experience with American propaganda. My time in Europe, learning how other countries teach their children, has given me a sort of unique perspective. Apparently, the rest of the world doesn’t brainwash their children into memorizing founding documents and pledging allegiance to a star-spangled rag on a daily basis.

Media has been used as propaganda for hundreds of years. Now it’s less open. It’s not as much in the newspapers, but it’s in the textbooks. And it’s very rarely directly requested by the government. The Virginia government certainly had a hand in creating the Civil War narrative I learned, but it was also created by private-sector individuals wanting to make sure everyone grew up with their version of the truth – the War of Northern Aggression, not the War of Southern Atrocities and Human Rights Abuses.

And the same thing happens with other forms of media. Take American Sniper for example. American Sniper recently outsold Saving Private Ryan to become the biggest box office war movie, and it hasn’t stopped since. That would be great if American Sniper wasn’t a piece of hateful propaganda, designed to paint all Arabs and Muslims as the enemy, and designed to paint the United States as the God-inspired, freedom-soaked heroes. Now that sounds terrifying to me – very Hitler, as comedian Seth Rogen pointed out in a tweet.

Here he’s referencing a film-in-film called Stolz der Nation about a German sniper in the Second World War. Stolz der Nation was essentially blatant Nazi propaganda. The biggest difference between Nation and Sniper (besides switching swastika for stars and adding in blue and white) is that Sniper was neither commissioned nor funded by the state. It was instead created by private individuals who wanted the world to embrace their nationalistic patriotic vision.

The same thing happens with video games. In fact, the biggest offender is American video games that portrays Arabs and Muslims as the enemy – sound familiar? In 2011, 5 of the 10 top-selling first-person shooters of all time were set from the viewpoint of American soldiers in the Middle East. Video games, in large part because of the massive market they reach, are a powerful propaganda tool.

Now I’m not arguing that a video game which depicts violence against Muslims is going to make the kids playing it go out and burn down a mosque. I don’t actually believe video games make people more violent at all. But, like movies, they can certainly make people more hateful, and orient already violent people’s actions towards a specific group. Looking again at American Sniper we can see the outpouring of hate such a work can create:

Video games can take on a similarly orientalist view, placing the player in the body of a patriotic soldier who defends his country with every generic Arab bad guy – or innocent – he kills. When I play these games, I’m often reminded of the scene in Indiana Jones when the title character has no time for his sword-wielding foe and merely shoots him. Civilization conquers savagery is the message of that scene. We’re white, we’re Christian, and we’ve got guns – you’re not white, you’re not Christian, and all you have is swords. Similarly, piloting the GI in a video game has you charging through buildings, gunning down Arabs left and right with seeming immunity.

Ismael Soliman wrote a great essay on the subject, in which he notes the dangerous effects of such games:

The protagonists in video games are usually romanticized American soldiers, whereas the Middle East is usually perceived as the aggressor, terrorist, outsider and as “suicide bombers with explosives strapped to their bodies.” [A] study of 224 participants showed that playing violent video games, even those featuring Russians as terrorists, increased anti-Arab attitudes.

Even the much-feared ISIS has caught onto the power of video games and has since announced it is creating its own Grand Theft Auto. So next time you pick up the controller and start blasting away men with turbans and AK-47s, take a moment to think not just about what the narrative of the game is, but also what the anticipated result of that narrative is. Are you meant to finish the game a complex veteran, or an American hero just back from slaughtering hundreds of Arab Muslims?

0 thoughts on “Video Games as Propaganda

  1. This was a great read, and unfortunately very true. On the bright side, there’s been research that shows that video games can act as “positive” propaganda as well. Here, people who played a game about helping fellow citizens were more than twice as likely to help the research conductor in a harassment situation than people who played a neutral game, Tetris (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ulterior-motives/201002/video-games-can-teach-positive-lessons-too).

    1. I definitely agree – I love video games and they’re as much a force for good as bad! Thanks for this study, I didn’t really think to look into that aspect.

  2. Great post. Really interesting to think about how many tropes, conventions and commonly accepted things in gaming can influence popular thought as an insidious form of propaganda. Another way to project “soft power”.

    1. Exactly – everyone has an agenda and it’ll always make it into their work, consciously or unconsciously, but almost always seemingly innocuous.

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