“Frames of War” meets Games of War

On: October 31, 2009
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About Thomas Wielemaker
Graduate of UvA's MA in New Media New Media and Digital Culture, Thomas Wielemaker currently works as new media strategist whilst also pursuing his interests in information visualization.


In Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?, Judith Butler posits that modern warfare is waged both on the battlefield and in the media. As this is nothing new to propaganda studies, Butler qualifies her views by propounding that the modern media’s goal is to trivialize the lives of those being killed in the Middle East and preventing the viewer from valuing these lives as “grievable.” The way this is done is to, in effect, portray the deceased as not being sufficiently alive in the first place. The media manages this by focusing their reporting on high rates of imprisonment, unemployment, hunger and disease that are common in this area instead of more positive aspects of their lives. By classifying these people as already dead, the responsibility lies with the armed forces to secure the lives and livelihoods of “the living.”   The overall effects, Butler argues, are that the media become capable of controlling “when we feel horror, guilt, loss and indifference.” First person shooters have, for a long time, been reflections of past conflicts in which there has been a clearly defined enemy but with recent releases these depictions of war have come increasingly close to influencing contemporary thought about current conflicts.

In the seventeen years that first person shooters have been widely, the market has been dominated by two types of story lines; those that detail war time events (Wolfenstein 3D, 1992) and those dominated by futuristic settings and alien or monstrous enemies (Doom, 1993). Wolfenstein 3D is the game credited with popularizing the first person shooter genre. The story line follows an American soldier attempting to escape a Nazi stronghold. The atrocities that occurred during the Second World War seemed to justify the game’s use of Nazis as the enemy and the elapsed time since the end of the war seemed to, for a long time, have established a statute of limitations that governed which conflicts could be transformed into video games. Since then, however, this statute of limitations has been shrinking at an accelerating rate and has, in the past 2 years, disappeared completely.

Most recently, games like America’s Army and the cancelled Six Days in Fallujah have aimed to depict conflicts in the Middle East, promising to bring you the battlefield of the 21st century both as a recruiting technique and, as I believe Butler would argue, the desensitization of the users. As depictions of war in the media and video games overlap, it is important to analyze features of these “games” that may be contributing to the problem at hand.

My experience with first person shooters has been mostly limited to those that deal with the Second World War. My most recent experience, though, has been with a game released for Playstation 2 and XBOX called Black (2006). Black follows the missions of a covert American agent in the region of Chechnya in western Russia. Although it is unclear what exactly the enemies in the video game are after it is made clear that their organization, Seventh Wave, is participating in terrorist activity. As the current conflict in the Middle East is largely the result of the previous administration’s “War on Terror” the game could be interpreted as a response to these events. The game has been recognized for its cutting edge graphics and realism, but do the two have anything to do with one another? Realism would suggest that every character in the game be identifiable as a human being, the environments the enemies are placed in are a far cry from what would pass as human or humanizing. The houses that the enemies inhabit show no sign of a true human environment. Houses are sparsely furnished with bullet-ridden sofas and dilapidated shelves. There is no sign of personal belongings or interests besides waging war stereotyping the enemy as lifeless individuals who are focused solely on death. Another interesting aspect of the game is that an entire level consists of battling against the enemy in a cemetery. Visually the experience resembles that of killing blood-thirsty automatons rising from among the gravestones like zombies, if you will. Popular ideas in the media that terrorism has been, in part, a result of rising unemployment is thus further reinforced in these games by a marked absence of any sort of legal productive industry.   Furthermore, links made between terrorists and the drug trade may further encourage use of force under the banner of the “War on Drugs” justifying the in-game violence. The game dehumanizes the enemies even more by designing a significant portion of them wearing ski masks thus making them faceless and in so doing, renders them incapable of showing emotion.

As these elements have long been trademarks of the first person shooter it stands to reason that first person shooters will continue to ignore the civilian lives of the enemy and ignore war as the underlying cause of many of symptoms, like unemployment and disease that forms the basis of the devoid depiction of the “enemy” and their lives. It has been argued that video games cause violence among users but what Butler describes in her text could exacerbate these effects as enemy avatars are increasingly serving as representatives of people and places that actually exist today, creating an increased callousness to war and its very real and personal results. I don’t mean to lay blame specifically on Black and its creators. The precedence set by other game designers has set a precedence and a formula for success that is difficult to deny. I would argue, however, that the use of unresolved conflicts as the basis for these video games will further some of the more concerning, deleterious effects of the first person shooter and the depictions of the “enemy” in mainstream media.

Black "cemetary level"


Book of the Week: Frames of War




Judith Butler – Frames of War: The Politics of Ungrievable Life”


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