As far as I’m concerned, the biggest problem that faces gaming as an art form is how easy it is proving to be for developers to use it for the purposes of pure propaganda. Whether it is an explicit recruitment tool for the army, or simply a way to align the records of war with the rhetoric and perspective that the West likes to claim is the accurate one (note: it never is) these games are, if anything, increasing in frequency. They’re also increasingly attracting the involvement of actual military interests. It’s not just game developers and publishers that know that video games occupy a dominant role in the mainstream entertainment arts. Those whose job it is to manufacture consent, as Chomsky beautifully explained once, know it too. Seriously, read Manufacturing Consent. It’s all in there.
I’ve written about the overt and egregious forms that these games take often enough at this point, but today’s little op-ed is going to be a little different. This time I’m talking about something that comes across as far less insidious on the surface, and yet in some ways is actually far more dangerous, because these games tend to attract far less criticism for the… nasty… things that they do. This week Team17 announced that a new massively multiplayer FPS, called Hell Let Loose, would be getting a PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series release (it’s currently Early Access on PC). Now for fans of military shooters, this one will certainly sound good. As per the press release:
“Fight in the most iconic battles of the Western Front, including Carentan, Omaha Beach and Foy and more. This is combat at a whole new scale… with lumbering tanks dominating the battlefield, crucial supply chains fuelling the frontlines, you are a cog in the machine of colossal combined arms warfare. Hell Let Loose puts you in the chaos of war, complete with deep player-controlled vehicles, a dynamically evolving front line, and crucial unit-focused gameplay that commands the tide of battle.
Take to the battlefield in 50-versus-50 multiplayer across huge maps. Choose one of 14 playable roles within infantry, recon and armor unit types, each equipped with different weapons, vehicles and equipment. Play as an Officer, Scout, Machine Gunner, Medic, Engineer, Tank Commander and more to experience every aspect of World War II combat.
Dropping you in more than nine iconic battlefields of World War II—such as Omaha Beach, Carentan and Foy is at the heart of the Hell Let Loose experience. Historical vehicles, weapons, uniforms are intricately detailed, and the combat is as brutal and bloody as it was on the day. Combat takes place on huge, to-scale maps from real battle locations, recreated using archival aerial photography and satellite imagery in stunning detail using Unreal Engine 4.
It’s the last paragraph where I have the biggest concern. Hell Let Loose isn’t explicit propaganda. This game isn’t even about narrative storytelling. The developers haven’t secured themselves some Hollywood talent to script up some nonsense to paper over war crimes. In fact, I don’t believe there is even a single-player mode at all, since the press release is entirely focused on the multiplayer experience. It’s not explicitly morally indefensible because it’s not explicitly misleading players to adopt a moral position in line with the western military interests, as the other propaganda games do. But here’s the big problem; this game still has a lot of latent propaganda going on under the surface, and because game critics, influencers, and players have proven to be hopelessly inadequate at peeling an onion down to those latent themes in games, Hell Let Loose isn’t going to be called on any of it.
In short, there is a big problem with depicting “historical accuracy” in video games without providing adequate context to explain the history that it’s depicting. Video games aim to be entertaining and thrilling and so, by associating historical accuracy with entertaining thrills, the developers are, in effect, suggesting that the conflict itself was thrilling. And that’s the wrong angle to take with war. That’s a really, really bad perspective to take on war.
We’ll get back to the crux of the manufacturing consent argument here: the more that people see war as an entertaining adventure, the more open they are to the idea of war. The more they see “their” soldiers in the armies being depicted as heroes, the less willing they become to accept that what actually happens is those soldiers rape, murder, torture and commit other war crimes far too frequently while representing our people overseas. That exact thing just happened in Australia. We find out that some of our soldiers in Afghanistan did truly unspeakable things, and the Government’s response was to divert attention to a massive new investment into the Australian War Memorial (itself a propaganda device), and they did that backed up by a media that is, itself, involved in the machine to manufacture consent. All of this could happen because Australians are, from the day they are born, taught not to be critical of our military. Instead, we’re fed a steady diet of military heroism (and as far as video games go we recognise the American soldiers as proxies to our own armed forces).
There was a great tweet that I saw today that rung true to me: “Kind of ironic how Soviet people were generally very aware when they were exposed to some kind of political propaganda but Americans seem to think that they’re immune to it. Maybe it’s not the socialist regimes the ones that brainwash people.” That backs up my own studies of Soviet-era propaganda. Throughout my years at university studying this stuff, I found it consistently surprising just how aware the people of the soviet states were that what they were experiencing was propaganda, and they actively looked for little ways to subvert it through their entertainment and arts, where they could. Meanwhile, over here in the west with our war shooters, we do know that the media and community can be reliably expected to pick up on those games where the propaganda is explicit (like when Call of Duty blamed Russians for an actual real-history American war crime). But it’s the relatively subtle stuff like Let Hell Loose that goes unchallenged, and so we allow it to turn the nightmare that was Omaha Beach into a fun playground to play pew pews on. Let Hell Loose will go completely uncriticised for what it’s doing to reframe the most horrific war of all time in this way, mark my words.
All of this just goes to show how little awareness western culture has – right and left wings alike – about just how much propaganda we’re exposed to, and how little understanding we have about how dangerous it can be. Because if we did, if all of knew that these games were aesthetically, tonally, and in terms of intent the exact same thing as the war paintings that the Japanese artists were commissioned to create to justify to the population the atrocities that they were getting up to in World War 2, we would all be so much less tolerant of it. Because we would stop and think to ourselves “just what are these games asking us to be tolerant of?”
But hey. It does look like it’ll be a fun game from the publisher of them Worms games, right?
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb