Gamification of the Military-Industrial Complex

Decolonial Critical and Curatorial Perspectives on Art and Technological Practices. Midterm final, 2021

The art world is full of violence. The market toys with power in its ebbs and flows of billions of dollars. Artists, galleries, institutions and donors compete in high-stake territories of cultural and social capital. To some this is what drives it, to others this is what holds it back. On the other side of the world, a fourteen-year-old dismisses another US Army recruitment advertisement as he strategizes with his online friends how to regain territories from their opponent in the new Call of Duty game on Xbox. When art attempts to teach us about the world it does so by interrogating what is around us and presenting it back to the viewer in the hopes of an altered perspective, sometimes. Do we engage in everyday content with the same level of open-mindedness or criticality? One would hope that when art interrogates certain systems of violence, the 1889 Oscar Wilde anti-mimesis position of how “Life imitates art” is but a romantic perspective. This notion of anti-mimesis, as described by Wilde, is a cyclical phenomenon which “results not merely from Life's imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy.” This essay will be exploring this phenomenon in relation to art and videos games in the age of ‘forever wars’ and furthermore will attempt to draw both abstract and physical parallels between the culture we consume, the art world’s ties with violence and what the US military has to do with all of this.

On imitating life, my instinct is to begin by unpacking our virtual life counterparts: video games; the virtual worlds for exploration, escapism, creation and destruction. Some aim to recreate our world – allowing us to do things ‘in real life’ that we would otherwise not be able to – while others aim to create entirely new fictional worlds. Artist Harun Farocki (whose work we will be discussing later) describes these phenomena in relation to cinema and photography’s recreation of reality, in a 2016 short film produced by Tate Modern, as “…strange new images, which are somehow on the verge of competing with, and defeating finally, the cinematic and photographic image, so that the era of reproduction seems to be over more or less and the era of construction of new worlds seems to be somehow on the horizon – or not on the horizon – it is already here.” (Tate Modern, 2016) In her lecture at the opening of the 2016 Harun Farocki exhibition "Harun Farocki. Empathy" at Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Hito Steyerl argues that some people are far too dismissive of what video games are and how they can affect our reality. She goes on to note how when we are dealing with technology as complex and participatory as video games, we are dealing with very real extensions of reality: “You should not dismiss video games at all, because most people think they are unreal, pure fictions or distortions of reality. On the contrary, games are reality. Games are new technologies of government ... of trying to compute and manage populations ... [People] think they don't have to deal with [video games] because they see them as a totally minor and abject form of distraction.” (Steyerl, 2016) It is with this in mind that we will discuss how and why video games facilitate certain systems of violence within and by the military.

It has been argued countless times that violent video games beget violent actions. This is an argument I will neither attempt to prove nor disprove, but will assume there is a potential of this being the case. One of the main case studies for this research surrounds the 1999 Columbine High School shooting – a tragic massacre where 12 students and one teacher were killed and 24 injured in Colorado by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. This particular event has had lasting impacts some refer to as the ‘Columbine Effect’ (Cloud, 1999) referring to legacy of schools implementing nationwide bans on weaponry and other security measures such as metal detectors and safety drills. Beyond the safety measures, the Columbine shooting also led to several follow-up ‘copycat’ crimes, with assailants referencing the original shooters as “martyrs like Eric and Dylan” (CNN, 2007).

To this day, the United States has regularly experienced mass shootings of predominantly white national terrorists seeing themselves as heroes. With the growing culture and regularity, a crowd-sourced tool known as the Mass Shooting Tracker ( emerged where new entries, paired with published news reporting’s, are collected in ongoing datasheets. With their definition of a mass shooting as “an incident where four or more people are shot in a single shooting spree”, since 2013 when the website began, the US has had 3705 mass shootings as of writing (31 March 2021). This averages more than one mass shooting per day. Several have argued that video games were a large cause, or at least influence, of the original Columbine shooting, (Brown & Merritt, 2002) whereas others like psychiatrist Jerald J. Block has argued that it was more the restriction of their computer use: both shooters in their personal journals wrote about how their use of computers and computer games were restricted at home (Block, 2007)

The Columbine shooting has also been referenced culturally outside of the news. For example, my personal first experience of really engaging with this very particular type of violence was watching Gus Van Sant’s 2003 film Elephant, a fictional recreation of the events of the Columbine shooting portraying largely the build-up to the event with insight into the teen male psyche. In the film, one particular scene portrays Eric, one of the main characters, playing a rudimentary first-person shooter game called Gerrycount(a reference to Van Sant’s prequel in the series titled Gerry). The scene begins with Alex quietly playing Beethoven’s Für Elise on his piano in his room as Eric controls the player on his laptop walking around on screen in a wide-open space gunning down random pedestrians with a stacking a high score in the bottom-left corner. The scene cuts to the two of them sitting on the bed browsing a website titled GUNS-USA with special deals on online gun orders. The film treads a fine line between revisiting or recreating Trauma, and critically engaging with societal ailments. Could it be said that a culture of mass violence and hyper-capitalism was perhaps one of the, if not the largest contributor? To look at the event from a lens of state policy, several weeks after the Columbine shooting the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee held a series of hearings on the "marketing of violent entertainment to children." The only real critique mentioned by Republican Senator Sam Brownback was not in relation to video game nor the proliferation of guns and access to guns, but solely at some elements of pop culture he did not agree with, particularly referring to Goth culture as “cultural pollution” and furthermore bouncing transphobic jokes with Republican Senator Mike Murphy on whether or musician and performance artist Marilyn Manson was "a he or a she". (Jenkins, 2000) As seen with the dismissive attitude of these hearings and horrifically consistent culture of mass shootings, there’s something about America’s relationship with violence which needs to be interrogated. On questioning accountability; on whose ‘hands are dirty’, Mattia Bonasia’s review of Van Sant’s slow vernacular film technique makes a good point on how collective culture should hold everyone accountable: “So throughout this virtual realism, Van Sant creates a sense of restlessness within the spectator: his goal is not make him feel purified during the vision, but to make him feel guilty, because we are all guilty of a drama like the Columbine High School carnage.” (Bonasia, 2018)

It can be argued that the video game contributed to their violence, but nonetheless the ease at which the shooters acquire their weaponry and plan their attack is a testament to the cavalier approach the American society has always had with violence and guns. Harris had a journal that was later obtained by the police and in it several references were made to video games, notably first-person shooter DOOM being one, along with the following quote: “It'll be like the LA riots, the oklahoma bombing, WWII, vietnam, duke and doom all mixed together.” Furthermore, in Harris’ journal he also writes, “… I must not be sidetracked by my feelings of sympathy, mercy, or any of that, so I will force myself to believe that everyone is just another monster from Doom … I have to turn off my feelings.” (FBI, 1999) (CNN, 2001). Regarding the influence of video games on the Columbine shooting, some people were so convinced of the direct impact video games had on the intentions of the shooters that families and relatives of the victims aimed to sue a total of 25 companies in a lawsuit, seeking $5 billion in damages. The case was however discarded as “computer games are not subject to product liability laws,” according to the judge. (Ward, 2001).

Evidently there are overlaps in an encouragement of violence with the history and culture of America, along with gaming, or alternatively, a gamification of violence? It seems the violence portrayed by the US media, American teaching and especially leadership of the White House has led to a strong brand of nationalism and patriotism, and especially confidence in the United States’ foreign policies. (Brewer, 2009) This has led to a growing culture of the gaming industry making more and more military-oriented games for the world to enjoy. Just two weeks ago since writing, the video game Six Days in Fallujah was released by Bungie games, known for the hit-franchise sci-fi shooter game Halo. What makes Six Days in Fallujah different from the likes of Call of Duty or even middle-eastern set Counter-Strike, was that Six Days in Fallujahactively attempted to be as historically-accurate to the happenings of the 2004 conflict in Fallujah between US forces and Iraqi guerrillas. It should also be noted that a different game development studio, Konami, had announced in 2009 they were working on this project, but pulled out due to public criticism. (Elliot, 2009) Furthermore, the Bungie developers confident that creating this game is the right decision, are quoted saying they wanted to create a ‘playable documentary’ (IGN Games, 2021) – once again we see the fine line between gaming and reality blending itself. But how real or how accurate could this ‘playable documentary’ be? A review in Kotaku from Ethan Gach points out the clear bias: “The trailer doesn’t mention accounts of indiscriminate gunfire by the U.S. military either, or that it reportedly used white phosphorus in the attack, a chemical that literally melts through your body.” (Gach, 2021) (Wilson, 2005) (Glanz, 2004) It seems even in 2021, despite the ongoing debates of video games potentially contributing to violence, we see game studios responding to a particular demand of wanting to fulfil American desires imperialism. Or rather that certain game companies genuinely believe in the so-called ‘heroic’ acts by US forces in Fallujah, and are comfortable in furthering a biased agenda.

In my ongoing research on the military-industrial complex, I came upon a podcast episode on Spotify titled Everything’s Personal: Love, War & the Military Industrial Complex, featuring a guest named Matthew Armstrong, war journalist. The podcast provides a discussion between Armstrong and fourteen-year-old host Deven Patel. I was drawn to the podcast’s somewhat vague title, but nonetheless found the discussion fascinating. Patel, a young teenager prompts Armstrong with many questions surrounding gaming and the military. With a vernacular discussion between a war journalist and a high school student, an interesting balance is struck between the intricacies of international policies, psyche of the youth, war propaganda and popular culture. Patel mentions “I’m 14 years old I see on my laptop advertisements to join the military probably 2-3 times a day; I play Call of Duty” (Patel, 2020) and Armstrong notes how when he was doing his PhD he was taken aback by the extent and stylisation of the recruitment tactics the military deployed on campus: “I see the military come to college campuses. When I was at North Carolina A&T I would see them set up Moon Mats and what would look like a miniature carnival on our football field and you would go down there and they would have video game booths set up for people. And that was where you could basically simulate being a drone pilot killing people 7000 miles away” (Patel, 2020). Bastian et al’s paper on Cyber-dehumanization mentions how “violent video game play diminishes perceptions of our own human qualities. In addition, when other players are the targets of this violence it reduces our perceptions of their humanity” (Bastian et al, 2012: 486) which begs the question, is the military actively parading the psychological dehumanisation of the targets in these games? Considering an example like Six Days in Fallujah, where the targets are always people from Iraq and the greater Middle East, are we attempting re-enliven historic tragedies?

Much of what we digitally engage with today comes from a space of attempting to create frictionless experiences. The less humanised an enemy is perceived, the easier it is to attack. The more gamified, the easier. If anything for some it’s (horrifically) the more gamified, the more fun! Technology does make certain things easier, smoother, more convenient. Harun Farocki’s work makes effort to visualise this phenomena with his film series Eye/Machine I–III (2001-2003). What happens behind the scenes of all the convenience? What are the inner workings of some of these systems? In a series of visual compilations made predominantly with found military footage, Farocki displays the varying graphic interfaces used by technicians to read war machines’ data. Trevor Paglen for e-flux describes this as “Moving and squiggly arrows on a video screen show how a robot “sees” and navigates a landscape” and goes on to affirm Farocki’s refreshing approach to visualising computation, as “one of the first to notice that image-making machines and algorithms were poised to inaugurate a new visual regime” and furthermore that from marketing to warfare, “human eyes were becoming anachronistic”. This notion of not what technology sees, but rather how technology sees is referred to in Farocki’s practice as Operational Images. The yellow dots marking the landscape, or the red squares tracking each aircraft aren’t what these killing machines see – these images are a visual representation to the human user of how the machines interpret the data. The technology is ubiquitous and ever-growing: “From quality control systems in manufacturing to Automated License Plate Readers (ALPR) throughout cities, and from retail motion tracking systems in supermarkets and malls to automated pattern-recognition systems in military drones, images are operating upon the world” Paglen writes. When these machines interpret data and soon have a form of their own agency, we tread a fine line of fully-automated warfare: “Nowadays operational images are overwhelmingly invisible, even as they’re ubiquitous and sculpting physical reality in ever more dramatic ways. We’ve long known that images can kill. What’s new is that nowadays, they have their fingers on the trigger.” (Paglen, 2014)

But how did we get to where we are? This level of techno-super-intelligence can’t simply manifest out of nowhere. In his memoir, The Mysteries of Haditha Armstrong spends time with a team of Navy SEALs in 2008 to experience first-hand what was happening in Iraq in relation to the narratives he grew up learning to believe around the ‘war on terror.’ On the aforementioned podcast he discusses how one of the first mentions of what we now understand as the military-industrial complex came as a warning from ex-President of the United States (and notably also ex-General of the US Army), Dwight Eisenhower. In his 17 January 1961 farewell address, the ex-President mentions how the US had been “compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions” and further warns the audience that the people and the government must be wary of the “acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” (Spinney, 2011: 57) And further notes how the “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” While Eisenhower was not the first to question profiteering and commercially-benefitting from warfare as per Smedley D. Butler’s 1935 publication War is a Racket, the ex-president was the first to globally question the potential of an ongoing commercial dependence. Considering Eisenhower’s words were uttered fifty years ago, it goes without saying the United States is aware of its capitalist profiteering’s involvement in the military; not only profiteering but its now financial dependency. Franklin Spinney describes this notion in The Domestic Roots of Perpetual War as “a voracious appetite for money that is sustained by a self-serving flood of ideological propaganda, cloaked by a stifling climate of excessive secrecy.” This is further reiterated by Armstrong in mentioning ‘forever wars’ where large corporate bodies involved with production and distribution of war technologies, armaments and other military paraphernalia are dependent on a constant state of war to be taken place somewhere so as to maintain the flow of these goods and keep their market afloat. Described by Spinney as “Continuous small wars (or the threat thereof) are essential for the corporate component of the [military-industrial complex]; these companies have no alternative means to survive.” (Spinney, 2011: 58) It must also be noted as the US military spending accelerated from the 60s and on, more and more costs went into new digital technologies – not only the more traditional idea of ‘guns and steel’. (Spinney, 2011: 58) 

If we look to today’s co-opting of video game culture, as well as incorporation of video game ideologies by certain industries or cultures, the lens can (and should) be turned on to the military, and with the increases in spending on new media technologies and military digitisation, many military factions have begun implementing video game tactics as ways of facilitating training and preparation for various operations. One of the very first versions existed in the mid-90s and sadly much like the Columbine shooters, is inspired by the DOOM franchise: In 1995, Colonel Tom Harkins along with a department called the Marine Corps Modelling and Simulation Management Command produced a game using the DOOM II engine, titled Marine Doom. At the same time Colonel Harkins visited the New York World Trade Centre to “examine the methods used by commodity dealers in making quick decisions as a result of swift scans or rapidly-changing electronic data” and in turn invited the dealers to participate in some of the military’s wargames such as Marine Doom, and displaying a sharp learning the Colonel noted, “They had a technique for rapid pattern analysis that is world class.” (Hayhurst, 1996) Which draws a peculiar parallel between the gamified stock market and gamified warfare: perhaps those in power are the ones far removed, pushing buttons and looking at numbers on a screen.

One notable pioneering project of this nature is that of Virtual Iraqconceptualised by Dr. Albert Rizzo, “A clinical psychologist, research professor at the University of Southern California (USC), and Director for Medical Virtual Reality at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT)” and was working as a cognitive-rehabilitation therapist when noticing behavioural habits with young men playing Gameboys and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, turned to assessing war veterans’ engagement with virtual environments. (Grinberg, 2016) Rizzo then worked with researchers at ICT who had already been working on the first implementation of virtual reality as a means to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, Virtual Vietnam, also referred to as virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET). (Mead, 2013: 136) With this Rizzo began his project of Virtual Iraq. It started off using a game engine similar to the 2004 popular video game release of Full Spectrum Warrior, where players team up as soldiers in squads and are required to provide commands to the other squadrons on how to achieve certain objectives and capture specified territories. The main format is of course a shooter from the first-person perspective (Grinberg, 2016). With $4 million funding from the Office of Naval Research, Virtual Iraq develops into a fully-fledged virtual reality experience with responsive 360-degree headsets, interactive game controllers and vibrating seats. Soldiers are required to re-perform activities and duties typical of what would be expected of them whilst being deployed. In one VRET clinical trial, 45 percent of the participants recovered from PTSD and another 17 percent reduced their symptoms (Grinberg, 2016). The project was such a success it was continued for years after and was followed up by a similar version called Virtual Afghanistan. Evidently the use of a virtual version of reality functions sufficiently as trickery on the brain for positive results. It is ironic however to note the overlap between the cause of violence and the treatment of trauma caused by the violence: “That [similar] moving images used to help individuals forget the trauma of war [are] also used to make soldiers more effective fighting machines is, again, an ironic corollary to [Jean-Luc] Godard’s proposition that forgetting violence may be, in this case quite literally, part of the apparatus of violence.” (Brink & Oppenheimer, 2012: 5) Artist Harun Farocki thus makes use of recordings of soldiers participating in Virtual Iraq as well as incorporating a reperformances of soldiers participating in this VRET in his series Serious Games I-IV (2009-2010). Along with the recordings of Virtual Iraq, Farocki juxtaposes this footage with recordings of a military training simulator Virtual Battlespace 2: US Army – with glaringly similar imagery and interactions, reiterating this notion of the oxymoronic overlap between the two tools. (Grinberg, 2016)

The US Army has also been producing their own video games for years, both as the aforementioned training tools, but also marketing tools. Fast forward a few years to the release of another, far more popular game by the US Army – America’s Army– which had its first release in 2002 and has since released 41 version across all popular gaming platforms. Critics gave the release raving reviews with one describing it as “the most realistic portrayal of weapons and combat of any game” (Cockeram, 2002). Thinking back on the dismissive approach of the US Senate hearings on violent pop culture post-Columbine shootings, this seems hypocritical. What violence is the government choosing to condone? It is thus interesting to note Margot Susca’s argument for what she refers to as the Government-Gaming Nexus: “The issue of the video game [America’s Army] and its intended youth audience becomes even more problematic when one considers how the government combines its strength with powerful corporate interests to disseminate violent media to adolescents with military enlistment and commodification as primary goals.” It could be read in a way that this deployment of fresh recruits training in virtual reality and vulnerable teens playing popular video games, result in traumatised veterans being treated with VRET, only so they can potentially return to the violence. This seems like an ouroboros of sorts; a snake eating its own tail, slowly slipping into a cyclical virtual demise which reiterates the aforementioned cyclical nature of the financial dependency certain corporations have on the existence of these wars to maintain their market share.

Where military tech corporations are involved, money is involved. Where there’s money there’s art. There’s a dark side to the art world that perhaps many are aware of, but few want to address. Art has been known as one of simplest ways of money laundering. The buying and selling amounts are vast, the confidentiality of buyers, their collections and the uncertainty for outsiders of how the artworld works makes for an environment ripe for unlawful activity. Pair this with complex networks of black-market trading: “the globalization of financial markets and the rapid development of information technology have gradually steered the underworld [art] economy toward new possibilities for the commission of financial crimes.” (De Sanctis, 2013: 2) It’s sometimes not as simple as criminals selling art, but sometimes the public institutions we culturally hold so high also have a stake in certain systems of violence and profit. When we accept money without knowing where it comes from, how complacent are we in how that money was made? This has been an ongoing question as more and more information is made available to us on the inner-workings of large institutions and the people who run them. For example, several museums have been distancing themselves from the Sackler family. The Sackler family has been known to support countless top-tier institutions such The American Museum of National History, Guggenheim, The Smithsonian, Tate Gallery, The Louvre, as well as Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge. The family has a net-worth of $13 billion according to Forbes Magazine and has made its money from Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical known for introducing OxyContin in 1996, which along with questionable licensing and distribution, led to the opioid crisis (Martinique, 2019). Another example of museums profiting off violence would be Warren Kanders of the Whitney Museum eventually stepping down as vice chairman due to protests after it came out that he owned Safariland, manufacturer of “law enforcement and military supplies including bulletproof vests, bomb-defusing robots, gun holsters and tear gas [some of which] had been used against migrants at the United States-Mexico border and elsewhere during protests.” (Pogrebin & Harris, 2019).

Even from a personal South African context, one of the newly-established private art institutions, A4 Arts Foundation is funded by their director Wendy Fisher (who is also President of the Board of Trustees for the Guggenheim Museum), as well the Kirsh Family Foundation – Nathan Kirsh being Wendy’s father. It had recently come out that the Nathan Kirsh is the largest shareholder and ex-director of Magal Security Systems. “Magal was founded by the Israeli government in 1970 and since 2016 has been the primary supplier for electrical fences to Israeli prisons and responsible for the perimeter control systems of the Apartheid wall in the West Bank and parts of the border surrounding Gaza.” (Gamedze, 2018). Another case study involves MoMA PS1 which recently hosted an exhibition of grand scale with 250 works and over 80 artists, titled Theatre of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011, with intention of examining the “legacies of American-led military engagement in Iraq”. It was even through this exhibition’s research and documentation that I was exposed to the work of Harun Farocki. Several days before opening UK artist Phil Collins decided to withdraw his work in protest of MoMA board member Larry Fink’s investment firm, BlackRock, having large stakes in private prison companies GEO Group and CoreCivic. (Bishara, 2021) This original protest led to a knock-on effect bringing light to the fact that MoMA chairman Leon Black’s security company Apollo, which previously owned the private mercenary army Blackwater and was “legally implicated in the untold carnage and human suffering in Iraq” (Bishara, 2021) where Blackwater military contractors were directly involved in the Second Battle of Fallujah (Ricks, 2007). Within 4 months since the opening more than 150 artists were petitioning for Leon Black to step down as chairman of MoMA, citing hypocrisy from the museum and Black’s investments furthering of global terror. As of 3 April 2021, Leon Black is still chairman.

In speaking to a friend on this topic, her response to this was “all money is dirty” and this did stick with me. Money sits within an enclosed ecosystem and so eventually all money would have been used within in some ethically questionable transactions. The real question is what happens with the money when we have it? How is it used? Perhaps if ‘dirty money’ is used to provide arts education to those who wouldn’t otherwise have means to access it, is it still considered dirty? Perhaps ‘dirty money’ can be used to fund virtual reality artists to help veterans of their PTSD so they can potentially live in peace? Or is the art world simply a gateway for the military and security companies to (try) wash their hands? The art world is undoubtedly funded by violence, but much like distant remote-controlled drones, those the furthest away often have the most power. And those with the most power play the market and gamify the system to solidify their place at the top.

Perhaps in a time when fourteen-year-olds are being bombarded with recruitment campaigns based on violent gameplay, in a time when truth can be so easily obfuscated with algorithms and media channels, we should hope for something to provide a glimmer of hope or clarity. Are video games to blame? Perhaps video games do encourage violent behaviour, or perhaps they can be used to subdue this by letting it be expressed through a virtual existence. But if video games are increasing the potential for violent behaviour, would it not make sense to keep them as entertainment, and not have the military actively attempt to make the fantastically violent sci-fi demon-shredding adrenaline of DOOM into real world recreations of actual dehumanisation? Perhaps where toxic systems of money and power run the game, the gamification of war by the most expensive military is something that needs to be actively discouraged. Not only that, but also that game development companies take a moment to reconsider their position in this matrix: are they allowing for, or contributing to, the active dehumanisation and killing of populations across the globe? Does accepting money made from these killings bind you to their violence? Is money ever clean? When does the render become real? When does the game engine simulate life? The mechanising of killing is clearly becoming more seamless: Drones, remote attacks, signal war, server hacks, image recognition, motion-sensing, machine learning and artificial intelligence – all of these tools contribute to a new computationally-driven reality. Perhaps war itself will soon become a game; in its truest form. Will our unmanned drones be able to defend us from the other humanless drones? - a testament solely to power and technology. Will military base computer viruses & server attacks recognise they’re just as much a piece of code as any video game interface? If war must happen, must it involve human life? Perhaps the Operational Images of Farocki live to see an existence beyond enemies, where art can be funded without loss of life.


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