Profile & Conquer
By Emily Murphy
March 10, 2003
Shaun Yunt sits on the couch, mumbling codes into a headset and staring
at the TV screen. His hands grip the controller and his mind doesn't
stray from the mission at hand: He is a U.S. Navy Seal, and he is to kill
the enemy. In this mission, the enemy just happens to be dark-skinned and
wearing a turban.
Hours later, he's still there. The rust-orange couch has molded to his
body and he's hungry. But he won't get up - he'll eat later. He hasn't
completed his mission.
"I don't think it changes my perception, but sometimes I wonder if it
does subconsciously," says the curly-haired supply chain management
senior. "But I'm not going to base any opinions about a culture on a
Even though Yunt may not be affected by the characteristics of his enemy,
"I think anything like this can affect someone's views," says Zachary
Waggoner, a graduate student studying rhetoric and composition revolving
around electronic gaming. "Any imagery has the power to transform
people's views. Is it most likely [that] someone somewhere could have
alternate views? Certainly. But we can't generalize this to every one."
The debate over violence in the media has existed for more than a
century, and with time, the medium responsible for violence, in reality,
When movies first appeared, they were portrayed as the root of all
delinquency in children and promiscuity in women. Rock music of the '60s
was the work of the devil. When the tragedy at Columbine occurred,
Marilyn Manson was the first to be called out.
Now, with war looming on America's horizon, random acts of violence in
video games are being replaced by vengeful acts toward terrorists found
in desert terrain.
"Command and Conquer Generals," which was released last month by
Electronic Arts, has three possible teams: The Americans, The Chinese,
and the Global Liberation Army, which is made up of Middle-Eastern male
terrorists. The first mission as an American is to invade Baghdad.
"Conflict: Desert Storm," which plays off the Gulf War, will be released
on May 16, and states that, "Your skill will be your survival," as you
march through the desert with the intention of assassinating Saddam
The U.S. Army has even produced its own depiction of realistic war
through a free video game, "America's Army," released on the Internet
last May 22. "America's Army" is adding new missions to the "Soldiers"
portion of the game later this year in order to [according to its Web
site] "interlace with Operations [another part of the game] to yield an
interactive game experience in which progress in either Soldiers or
Operations will open new capabilities and opportunities in the other game
for players to explore Army career opportunities and adventures."
Yunt is playing "SOCOM," which pits the gamer in a contest of cat and
mouse with U.S. Navy Seals and Middle Easterners fighting on behalf of
"There are many games out there that try to portray realistic war,"
Waggoner says. "The interesting thing about 'America's Army' is that it
is a totally free game with a $7 million budget. This is certainly a
landmark in electronic gaming: It's the first blatant use of gaming as a
recruiting tool. Any product like this, the goal is typically to make
money and make the gamer happy. Obviously, the Army is hoping to reap
benefits from this investment down the line."
A SMALLER SCALE
Big businesses aren't the only ones using the current political climate
as the theme to their games. Simple games like "Extreme World Trade
Center Jumper," a Flash game that gives the player points for doing
airborne tricks while falling to their death from the top of the World
Trade Center, and "Kaboom!" which features a suicide bomber who roams the
streets, getting points for killing civilians, [more points for women and
children] are found online and increase in numbers on a daily basis.
The maker of "Extreme World Trade Center Jumper," Iiro Holopainen, 20,
introduces his game on newgrounds.com with the disclaimer, "Yeah ... I
know it's evil to make this kind of game but, geez.. Like the maker of
"Kaboom!" said, 'Grow a sense of humor.'"
Reviews for the "Extreme WTC Jumper" had mixed feelings on the topic, but
the majority found it to be "fucked-up fun."
"They're just targeting a certain kind of audience," Yunt says. "I'm not
going to play a game because it targets Saddam or a certain culture. I'm
going to play a game because it has good graphics, a good format, etc. I
probably wouldn't play these games because they're low quality and only
out there to get a rise out of people."
War themes have also found their way into ASU computer science classes.
This semester, in a CSE 470: Introduction to Computer Graphics course, a
group of students is working to build the game, "Death to Saddam Skies."
"Saddam seems to be the hot topic right now," says James Watson, computer
science senior and co-creator of "Death to Saddam Skies." "I think that
anything that's going on currently in the world is going to affect
everything in our lives. In my case, it's not like we were thinking about
how we were going to put some negative press toward Iraq or anything. The
name just came out and I thought it was kind of funny."
Kyle Tinker, a computer science junior and participant in the project,
says that the smaller the game, the less effort is usually required and
more likely to be affected by current affairs. "I do see these games
change a lot," he says. "Whether or not the increase in these types of
games can change a person's perspective, I would say it does, but no more
than a political cartoon in a newspaper would. I think they probably have
an effect because you get inundated with so much of it that you start
thinking that it's OK - but not any more than advertisers do with shaping
our opinion on beauty or fashion."
Watson agrees that video games do not affect a person's perception any
more than any other advertisement would. "I think it definitely could
shape a person's perspective, but I also think that if you're playing
games like these, you most likely already have that mindset that the game
portrays; you're already programmed to think that way," he says.
REALITY OF WAR
The games that do have the budget to produce a quality product all boast
the same thing: how real the game seems and how war-like it is. You are a
soldier. You kill the enemy. Sometimes you go through boot camp and other
training. This is what war really is.
"There are a lot of people who play video games, and with the war coming
up, it is being conceptualized as it is a video game. And it's not. It's
war," says Gray Cavender, a justice studies professor who served in the
Army. "In war, you kill a lot of people. That's the point of war. You
blow them up, you kill them, and you maim them. But we didn't see that
[in media coverage of past wars]; we saw a video game. So that becomes
what people believe to be real."
Even though it may not be possible for video games to capture the real
tragedy of war, it does not mean they aren't trying - or growing in
popularity. "Our social and political climate, even before 9/11, the
awareness and surroundings of everyday war, are factors of its
popularity," Waggoner says. "And with increasing technology in electronic
games, there is the ability for games to be more life-like. We can now do
realistic war in electronic gaming, and we're pushing toward being more
realistic. The technology will continue to push the envelope."
"Command and Conquer Generals," distributed by Electronic Arts, was
invented to "be more relevant and fun for gamers [by having] a chance to
play with some of the real world toys that today's armies bring to the
battlefield," says Harvard Bonin, the game's producer. "We believe that
allowing players to drop fuel air bombs, fly Raptors and drive tanks
really gives them the rush other games can't."
"America's Army" is one of the few new games that are not only using
graphics and point-of-view to make the game realistic, but also in
content. "I think the Army created it to get computer gamers interested
in joining the Army and show them sort of what it's like," Tinker says
about "America's Army." "Out of all the computer games out there, it is
the most realistic in terms of the overall results on a battlefield. If
you just walk out into the middle of a field and start shooting, you are
going to die. Just like if I got out in front of people on a battlefield
and started shooting, I would probably get killed. So it models that
"It's very, very realistic."
The reality is just what the designers of such games are aiming for. By
including current events and "real-war" situations in the games, the
gamer becomes immersed into the game, which is what makes the games so
addictive, Waggoner says.
"With any type of identification, there's usually some kind of
transformation that goes on with the gamer's emotions," he says. "One of
the main types of imagery they try to use is the imagery of life and
death, being born, killing, dying. It's used a lot to try to get us to
identify in a lot of ways with the characters."
One way this $6-billion-a-year industry builds in identity with the gamer
is through its first-person perspective. New technology allows the gamer
to see through a character's eyes instead of simply controlling a person
on a screen. Although the first-person point of view has gotten a lot of
criticism, Watson says this is just a phase.
"It reminds me of when 'Dungeons and Dragons' first came out," he says.
"People thought this game was going to destroy the world, but it didn't.
I don't think this is something we should be worried about."
ETHICS VS. ENTERTAINMENT
Should companies be allowed to portray this "real" war by including
enemies of a certain culture? Should teams be separated by race?
"I think that that is just how it goes - that is what we do to
de-humanize our enemy," says Hassan Alrefae, president of ASU's Muslim
Student Association. "But you go through certain periods and there is
always the other side." Alrefae says that although most games target one
culture or another, one game in particular affected him because of its
"There is a game where they put some verses from the Koran in it along
with the music and it was very insulting to many Muslims," adds Alrefae,
a computer systems engineering senior. "It's hard to see sometimes, the
way media portrays Muslims. There will be a guy, and he's praying, but
with him he has a gun. But there are games that do the opposite, too,
that show a different enemy in a negative light."
When asked if Muslim-produced games would affect Americans if the
Americans were portrayed in a similarly negative light, he says there are
such games, but that they aren't very popular because of their low
quality. "They don't sell well," he says.
Cavender says the game producer's top objective - despite any racial
inclinations behind the game - is to make a profit.
"This is capitalism. People are going to do whatever sells," Cavender
says. "If you had been watching a movie 10 years ago, the bad guys would
have been drug dealers. Nowadays, they'll probably be terrorists. In 10
years, it'll be somebody else. That's just human nature to make the enemy
someone that has a sort of resonance in pop culture.
"On the other hand, of course it's racist, jingoistic and ridiculous that
you make people the enemy who are dark-skinned and wear turbans. And
normally you would say people aren't going to go running around killing
people with dark skin who wear turbans, but as we know, after 9/11, some
people did do that."
"Command and Conquer Generals," the fifth in a series, has been the No. 1
video game played worldwide since its release, Bonin says. The game
typically pits the player against some of America's most notorious
enemies. In the series' first installment, "Red Alert," released in 1996,
American troops have their scopes fixed on communists draped in red.
"We are very, very pleased with the response it's received worldwide,"
Bonin says. He adds that people enjoy games that are influenced by what
is going on in the world and that EA is only in the business of
entertainment, sending the message: "Go have fun!"
Tinker, who, outside of being involved in Campus Crusade for Christ [an
ASU student Christian organization], SERVE [Students Educating about Rape
and Violence Everywhere], RHA [Residence Hall Association], and
Crossroads Youth Outreach [a Christian organization that does outreach to
homeless youth in Phoenix] plays on average an hour of video games per
day, agrees that video games in general are much like movies and
available to entertain their viewers.
"I will say that video games are a good source of entertainment; they're
very fun, and they have a whole lot of advantages that outweigh the
Yunt also finds the games to be engrossing. "Do I enjoy 'killing' video
games? Yes. I think it's a way for you to get out aggression," he says.
"But I don't derive any more satisfaction out of killing one type of
person or another."
Although most agree that video games are made to entertain their players,
rather than carry some sort of hidden agenda, many found the target
audience - teens [specifically those 13 to 17 years old] - to be
inappropriate, especially for "America's Army," which has recruiting
links attached to its game.
"That's an impressionable age range," Waggoner says. "And when you're
pushing the violence imagery on these teens, then we do have to look at
it and think, 'Is this ethical?'"
Yunt agrees, saying that trying to recruit people for the Army through
the use of a video game is questionable to begin with, and even moreso
when targeting ages that aren't old enough to enlist.
"They're using it to glorify violence on an impressionable age group," he
says. "They're brainwashing them into think enlisting is a good idea. The
thing is, it's illegal for cigarette and alcohol companies to target
underage kids, so why isn't it the same for war and violence?"
Alrefae agrees, saying that people need to be aware of what children are
taking in from the media and how it can affect their views. "When
children who grow up playing games where the enemy is always Muslim, a
generation that is prejudice and racist is created," he says. "The
message may not be intentional, [game producers] may not have an agenda,
but it's there."
Watson, the father of a 10-year-old boy, says that he completely supports
the Army's intentions of recruiting teens.
"If the military, which protects our country, needs a new recruiting tool
... I don't object to that. And as far as targeting teens goes, I think
it's a perfect age range, because then they'll be - not to be ironic -
gun-ho by the time they're 18 to get involved and sign up."
Watson, however, says that he doesn't think these types of video games
would have a significant effect on teens' perceptions of the military,
culture or war, and that teens know the difference between reality and
"It's amazing what kids see as reality and how easily they can draw the
line," he says. "My kid runs around in the game he plays right now and he
beats up people with a giant key. I don't think he's going to make a big
giant key and beat people with it."
Yunt shifts his weight on the couch and glances over. "The bottom line,
per Albert Einstein, is that we can't be working toward peace and
preparing for war ... it's counter-productive.
"It won't get us anywhere to be recruiting teens to kill Middle
Reach the reporter at emily.murphyasu.edu.