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America's Depiction in Video Games: Playing With The Stars and Stripes

DennisScimeca

Posted July 4, 2012 - By Dennis Scimeca


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Rush N' Attack

Our Fourth of July celebrations are almost universally upbeat. Military fly-bys and thankfulness for our armed forces and our freedom precede fireworks displays accompanied by orchestras playing patriotic music by John Philip Sousa. We can see much of this spirit in the way video games have depicted America and our culture historically, but as video games have matured and begun to delve into serious subject matter; they’ve also begun featuring criticism of our ideals and our culture ranging from oblique commentary to blunt sarcasm.

One of the most common depictions of an American in the earliest video games was as a soldier. Konami’s arcade game Rush’n Attack was originally released as Green Beret in Japan and Europe. Other arcade games like Commando and Operation Wolf took advantage of the Cold War pro-military popular culture in the United States. The only American character in Street Fighter II was a soldier named Guile, and his stage was set next to a runway on an Air Force base. Americans love to identify with the tough guy and bad-ass. 

In the 1990’s, Steven Spielberg created the Medal of Honor series on the Sony PlayStation as a celebration of the highest military decoration the United States can award a soldier. Medal of Honor recipients put themselves at risk “above and beyond the call of duty” under fire and represent the best of what an American soldier aspires to be. The franchise has stayed true to this ethos as a celebration of the individual bravery of our men and women in uniform. Electronic Arts and Danger Close studios always hammer home that the current incarnation of the franchise is based in large part on consultation with American Tier 1 operatives, who are drawn from the various elite fighting forces like the Navy SEALS and US Army Rangers.

Jason West, Vince Zampella, and the other founding members of Infinity Ward were all part of the development team for the first PC incarnation of the franchise, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. The Call of Duty series they created also celebrated the bravery of the American soldier, but in a darker light, and presents more of a “Hoo-rah” attitude towards the military. United States Armed Forces often set up recruitment tables outside video game stores hosting midnight releases for the annual Call of Duty title. Now, EA and DICE have moved on from the lovable idiots of the Bad Company series campaigns to get grittier with Battlefield 3. All of these games showcase the pro-military sentiment and gung-ho attitude that is typical of American culture.

The fashion in which war is depicted in all of these games also depicts something about America. The original Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series may have drawn their locales and military units from the history books but that was about it. We never saw civilian casualties. We never saw the traumatic psychological damage of war on soldiers. We never saw families grieving for the loss of loved ones. One of the most common and justified criticisms of military shooters in the present day is that they refuse to deal with the serious issues of war.

BioShock 2

The BioShock series can be viewed as both historical and contemporary commentary on the United States. Ken Levine, the Creative Director of Irrational Games, the studio that developed BioShock and is currently developing BioShock Infinite, often states that he believes these games are intended to deal with universal human themes and not themes that are specifically American, but it’s difficult not to see how specific some of this commentary is to the United States.

The first BioShock is famous for its investigation of Objectivism, a philosophy founded by the novelist Ayn Rand and ensconced in the novel Atlas Shrugged. Individualism and capitalism are two founding principles of the United States. Our Revolution was inspired by the Founding Fathers’ refusal to pay taxes to England without having representation in the British Parliament. Our staunch, historical resistance to social legislation is based on the American ethic of self-reliance.

Objectivism is a philosophy of individual rights, unbridled capitalism, and self-interest. BioShock posits a society that is founded on Objectivism, and which collapses under the weight of selfishness and avarice. Considering we’re in the middle of an economic recession that was caused in no small part by deregulation and corporate greed, the allusion to the failure of the city of Rapture in BioShock is impossible to ignore.

BioShock Infinite is still in its preview cycle, so we cannot speak concretely about any commentary the game has to make about American society, but the city of Columbia is founded on American exceptionalism, the idea that America is unique and special among nations and thus is entitled to pursue its destiny unfettered. This is a reasonable summation of the spirit that drove America’s expansion westward, which set the stage for the Mexican-American War in 1846, and America’s push for influence throughout the Western hemisphere, which in turn sparked the Spanish-American War in 1898. The city of Columbia in BioShock Infinite is heavily-armed, xenophobic, and extremely dangerous. Again, the allusion to American policy in a historical sense is difficult to turn a blind eye to, and the xenophobia in particular is relevant to the anti-Muslim sentiment that was rampant in the United States following 9/11.

Grand Theft Auto IV Tests My Patience Because The Dialogue Is Too Good

Rockstar Games often has a lot to say about America, and it’s usually critical. Grand Theft Auto IV is often scathing in its commentary. The Republican Space Rangers cartoon that players can watch on television in GTA IV is a blunt mockery of American pro-military, racist, and anti-gay attitudes. GTA IV puts much of its cultural criticism within the television shows, websites, and radio advertisement that players can watch, read, and hear throughout the course of the game. They speak to consumer greed, unrealistic expectations of success, shallow mentalities, and racism. The team over at Rockstar has always had a way of satirizing some of the darker parts of the American psyche while reveling in rampant destruction in their games. Even when wrapped in absurd comedy, one doesn’t have to dig too deep to find the biting commentary just lying underneath the surface.

Video games may not have been entirely kind in their recent depictions of and commentary on the United States, but embodying more positive commentary in a game might be the greater challenge. We can be a very charitable people. Maybe a serious game could take an idea like philanthropy and turn it into a game mechanic, but for an entertainment product that’s going to be tough. The United States is one of the first nations on Earth to be founded on the principles of representative government. That might work as a lesson to be taught by educational software, but learning about voting and the Electoral College is a tough sell for a triple-A development project.

We shouldn’t read into all of these critical commentaries on America as a statement that there’s something wrong with the USA. We should view them as saying something about how video games are much more than entertainment, and have the potential to say meaningful things about contemporary issues.

America's Depiction in Video Games: Playing With The Stars and Stripes
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