Around once every six months, I am confronted with: “You know all these videogames you play are American propaganda? Paid for by the army, it’s true.” To which I reply, teeth clenched: “No, Dad. That’s only sort of true.” Not the best retort.

Government propaganda certainly exists in video games. The American military does use videogames as recruiting tools, and this week the Russian government announced tax cuts and grants for developers of “Patriotic games”, focusing on the second world war. It would be nice to see more games focusing on Russia’s role in the war, but if it’s coming from the masterminds that brought us Action Putin, I really doubt we’re going to get anything especially thoughtful from this programme. In any case, they haven’t made anything yet, so we must return to our friends at the US army.

The two most prominent US videogame recruitment vehicles are America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior (2004). Full Spectrum Warrior is billed as an actual training tool, a claim that seems specious. Unfortunately I haven’t played FSW –  it refuses to run on my computer – but I trust Consolevania when they call it ridiculously easy and say:

In this game, all you have to do is play the training mission, and then you’re a fully trained US soldier. If this game is to be believed then the US army only have one tactic.

Quite similar, then, to propaganda of yore showing military life as nice, clean, fun. The game is easy and, look, realistic! The aim seems to be to tone down the sense of danger as a part of war; the US is benign and unstoppable, its foes weak. This echoes the wider media narrative in the early years of the War on Terror. All in all, quite simplistic.

America’s Army seems more honest. Death comes thick and fast, and the game places a lot of focus on teamwork in order to win. It’s focus is less on the enemy as incapable – it’s a multiplayer game, the enemy wins around half of the time – and more on the modern soldier as aspirational figure. It falls down on realism, which is to be expected. It is a propaganda piece, designed to appeal to game-loving teens, and actual military sims are not known for being fun so much as extremely stressful. America’s Army plays not dissimilarly to CounterStrike.

The third installment of America's Army was released in 2009.

Of course, most first person shooters are not US military-funded propaganda; so why do they appear as such to the outsider? In 1999, with the release of Medal of Honor, games depicting the American role in World War 2 became dominant, a trend that with the notable exceptions of the Halo and Half-Life series – and little else – continued up to the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. This newer style of shooter, with more cinematic set-pieces and some lip-service to realism, swiftly joined Mario and Tomb Raider in the image of videogames as seen from outside the hardcore clique.

The main influence of WW2 shooters is, almost without exception, the opening of 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. Detailing the D-Day invasion, the opening 27 minutes of the film are horrifically grim, gruesome, and relentlessly exhilarating. In videogames, the tendency is to accentuate these two latter qualities, while quietly ignoring the first. After all, where is the fun in depressing the player? Where is the business sense in creating a game which nobody wants to play? The focus becomes on the thrill of action, guns shift from tools to objects of fetishism and victims are reduced to parodic automatons, indistinguishable and unimportant.  The Omaha beach scene, repackaged for sale in an industry that requires fun above all else, is whitewashed.

There are also practical considerations, of course. Rendering a game on a consumer PC requires a downscaling of detail and scale. The experience cannot be so tightly crafted – and constant danger of death becomes frustrating – in a game setting, so Tom Hank’s very lucky Captain Miller becomes a superman, shrugging off bullets with no ill effect. It isn’t realistically possible to live up to even a film version of D-Day, let alone the real thing. However, neither is much of an effort made, and this sanitisation cannot fail to be compared to the efforts of government propaganda, even when it comes about for entirely different reasons.

Call of Duty 2 (Activision, 2005), often cited as the best WW2 shooter.

Entirely different? By 2007, games had simulated World War 2 for longer than the duration of the actual war, and the genre was tired. Enter Call of Duty 4, and the ascent of the, modern-combat themed pseudo-sim in the eyes of the public. Saving Private Ryan‘s time was all but done, and the CoD4 developer Infinity Ward needed a new film from which to take most of its inspiration. This film was Black Hawk Down, directed by Ridley Scott and released in 2001.

Depicting the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, Black Hawk Down is a tour de force of stylish violence, with a focus on military manoeuvres and little concern for the human impact of war. In other words, perfect material for the cinematic shooter, heavy on what is easy to simulate and light on what is not. It is also ludicrously biased, wasting no time giving any context for the confliction, instead showing the Somali as stereotypical savages, lashing out irrationally at the utterly benign Americans. The film’s borderline racism is only underlined as, after showing heroic deaths of US soldiers, we are presented with the message: “1000 Somalis died and 19 Americans lost their lives in the conflict”. These 1000 people – a conservative estimate of Somali deaths – are treated as nothing but cannon fodder. No justice is really done to the Americans, either. Instead of real characters, we are presented with Stoic Soldier, Nervous Soldier, Goofy Soldier… It is depressing in almost every way. It’s also hard not to see the film, praised by prominent American neoconservatives, as having a strong political purpose and a stark message. From this 2002 article by Ann Talbot:

The few seconds of film CNN screened showing the mutilated body of an American soldier being dragged through the streets shocked the US public, who could not understand why these young Americans had been sent to Mogadishu…So powerful was this image, however, which was of a very different kind to the slick Hollywood depiction of death and injury shown by Scott, that it made the use of ground troops on this scale politically impossible for almost a decade…

The filmmakers, the right wing politicians and the US military who backed it hope that for those who see Black Hawk Down the sanitised, choreographed violence of Scott’s film will become the image of the October 1993 incident they remember.

Both Call of Duty 4 and its sequel Modern Warfare 2 stick closely to the Black Hawk Down playbook: no real characterisation and a slick, stylised approach to violence. There are some attempts to show the horror of war in all three (the two boy soldiers in BHD, the nuke and No Russian in the Modern Warfare games), but in all three cases America’s only crime is to underestimate the savagery of its enemy. All three give a peculiarly one-sided view of the morality of war.

The Modern Warfare games are guiltier even than Black Hawk Down in playing down the unpleasantry of combat. They are clean – gore is kept to a minimum – and put even less effort into its Taliban-lite and cliche Russians than Scott put into his sock-puppet Somalis. Even in Modern Warfare 2‘s most contentious (and out of place) scene, No Russian (in which Russian Ultranationalists gun down civilians in an airport), the horror is played down. The victims are reduced to little more than screaming parodies of people, there are no children or old people. The player is not a heartless mercenary but a CIA agent, a patriot protecting the world from more terrible attacks. Even in the slaughter of innocents, the player has the moral high ground. Modern Warfare 2 pulls its punches. Is all this propaganda, for political gain? Perhaps not. Here is post-hype’s Chris Breault, on his experience as a writer on The Punisher videogame adaptation:

“I was told to rewrite the lines where anyone expressed a strong desire not to die. It was “sadistic” to kill people who directly asked you not to kill them. This sort of sadism is exactly the stuff that gets us a red flag from the ESRB…”

In an industry in which humanisation of enemies is prohibited, because it might cause your audience to think about their actions and be unsettled, is it any wonder that so many modern videogames resemble a conservative wet dream?

I have a new response to my father’s question, “You know all these videogames you play are American propaganda?” Well, they’re not. They just look like they are.

Not a great improvement, I’m afraid.