Unmanned – A talk with Molleindustria about the politics of war games
The day I watched Collateral Murder was the day I stopped playing Battlefield. Collateral Murder is a video depicting the bloodshed of over a dozen people in an Iraq after camera equipment held by Reuters photojournalists was ‘mistaken’ for AK47s by Apache pilots. It has been over a year, give or take, since then–since I found myself operating an Apache, since I piloted a UAV drone in a game. But thanks to Molleindustria’s Unmanned, a stark, dark game that puts you in the shoes of a drone pilot, I braved modern warfare once more.
The game struck me so much, I ended up chatting with Molleindustria founder, Paolo Pedercini about games, war, and politics, ultimately resulting in many interesting remarks in the medium as a whole.
If we were to describe Molleindustria’s games in a single word, that word would definitely be ‘political.’ Aside from Unmanned, they’ve developed games about the dark underbelly of smartphone manufacturing, Wikileaks, oil, religion, fast food, and a game about being queer, just to name a few. I asked Paolo if he considered himself a political person, whether he had a past with politics or activism. Unsurprisingly, he did.
“I used to be involved in more traditional forms of activism. I made satirical cartoons for a metal workers union and I was involved on the communication department of a political party – making fliers, websites and fanzines. I formed a short-lived and very politicized punk band around 2000. It was a period of social unrest, the WTO counter-summit in 1999 was a wake up call for a new generation of activists, other events, on a more national scale, such as the tragic 2001 G8 summit in Italy followed up. Into some extent that’s not too dissimilar to what is happening right now with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Ten years ago the focus was more on the global inequalities, but it turns out that Capitalism works like a fractal, reproducing the same kind of exploitation and concentration of power on a national scale as well.
“Anyway, Molleindustria was in part a personal reaction to the inadequacy of the modes of communication that prevailed in those circles: the tendency to preach to the choir, the use of language and keywords that were unintelligible to most of the people, the reluctance to engage with popular culture.”
This declaration rang true to my own experience, too, as a student in academic circles that claim to be interested in progressive efforts, but feel so far removed from the reality they theorize about.
A Semblance of Realism
The first time I watched Collateral Murder, I was awed by how similar the interface was to some of the recent games I was playing at the time. I asked Paolo about the video, and he told me that it’s likely that the video influenced Unmanned in some ways.
“The leaked video was an important document, the ultimate demonstration that a culture of transparency is desperately needed regardless of the flaws of Wikileaks as organization. It probably influenced Unmanned in some way although I didn’t want to perpetuate the cliche’ of the reckless pilot that enjoys squishing targets. That type is probably an exception rather than the rule in the military and the player in Unmanned can decide the emotional state and ethical stance of the main character. What we know for sure, however, is that questionable identification processes and the targeting of civilian rescuers happen all the time.”
Thinking about that similarities in interfaces, I recalled an interview with Greg Goodrich, an executive producer behind Medal of Honor, where he talked about how closely his development studio had worked with ‘pretty much every branch’ of the military to construct their games.
This is not an isolated occurrence; not only does the military counsel and sometimes fund modern shooters (and we can’t forget the advent of the computer, the predecessor to videogames, is the direct result of World War II technoscience efforts), games and war have always had an intertwined history. Some of the oldest games we’ve discovered are speculated to have been metaphors for war; this is readily evident in popular classic games like Chess and Go. Those games are mostly abstract, though. We’re finally at a point in history when games are becoming less abstract, and more representational of war in a couple of ways–visually, with our continual strive toward realistic graphics and aurally, thanks to the efforts of developers like DICE.
Further, while watching Collateral Murder I realized that I knew the names of dozens and dozens of weapons, real weapons, and the various intricacies of how they work–much like your son in Unmanned. I know what an M95 looks like, for instance. I know what it means, even. It’s such a small detail, and yet I couldn’t help but pause later while playing Borderlands when I realized that the gun I found would pack some serious firepower by proxy of its design alone. It looked like an M95. It shot like an M95. Two years ago, before playing games depicting modern warfare games, I didn’t know what an M95 looked like, heck, I didn’t know what most guns were called. Now I can look at a gun and tell you what it is modeled after and how it works, what it sounds like, even, and I’ve learned all of this…from games. More than that, I can name some of the locations of war–the war going on right now–and yet, I can’t tell you just what the hell is happening overseas.
I asked Paolo what he thought about that–that a good deal of us might be able to name the tools of war and the locations of war thanks to the entertainment industry, but might not be able to say much about the politics or intricacies of war and the attacks we launch on/in foreign countries. Further, I asked him if he felt that games had any responsibility to educate or inform people in these issues given the ubiquity of modern warfare games.
“Well, that’s the twisted idea of “realism” that games always pursue. A realism that has nothing to do with the system and processes that govern conflicts (that by the way could be great subjects for games) and only applies to the visual and sonic surface of these games.
“It’s interesting that you are posing the question of responsibility to the whole medium/industry, I never though about it that way. Indeed game developers are a compact community and they are often advocating for a cultural recognition of the medium as a whole. And they get all wet when games are accepted as art and exhibited in museums, like that bullshit exhibition at the Smithsonian or the non-news about NEA funding games. But then, within the game communities, videogames are always considered as mere commodities. The value and relevance of a title is measured in units sold and the discourse around commerce and monetization outweighs whatever cultural concern you can think of. Nobody really cares about the corporate censorship on closed distribution channels like the App Store, as if the freedom of expression didn’t apply to games. And very few developers would seriously consider the issue of moral responsibility you are talking about.”
Looking back at Goodrich’s decision to leave politics outside of Medal of Honor despite such heavy military influence–as most mainstream developers do with their games–it’s difficult to disagree with Paolo. Nonetheless, developers will gladly use modern warfare as a selling point for their games, often to a vapid, inconsequential effect. Yet we fervently defend games as an obvious artform. Can we really have it both ways–be “art” while also being primarily a commodity driven medium that tiptoes around saying something worthwhile? I’m inclined to agree with Paolo, however harsh the declarations about our metrics, sales driven industry are. He continues,
“A movie that only proposes a shallow, stylized, propagandistic portrayal of war, may be commercially successful but it would be relegated to a B-movie status. In gaming we still have to create a critical culture within and without the field that can counter balance the industrial mentality.”
Perhaps the reality is that games cannot hope to be particularly political when what they depict is so far off from how modern war is actually waged. I asked Paolo what he thought about this, whether or not it was possible that this reality created a sense of detachment in players much like what the protagonist in Unmanned experiences.
“I believe we are witnessing a two-fold process that consists, on one hand, in the separation of civilians and soldiers from the reality and the consequences of the war through technology and secrecy such as the myriad of undercover drone operations around the world. And, on the other hand, in the pervasion of stylized, sanitized or redacted depictions of war in news and entertainment. I’m sure older gamers are aware that the real war doesn’t look like Modern Warfare, but I fear that the proliferation of these cool, sexy representations has a overall soothing effect. This reinforces the doctrine of the endless global war, it turns what is supposed to be an exception, the last resort in conflict resolution, into something normal, a little thought in the back of our minds, a low intensity buzz that accompanies our everyday life.”
As a country we’ve been involved in a decade-long war, and are moving forward in a dizzying number of countries. War has changed–it’s out of sight, out of mind for the public, those actually involved in war may be sitting thousands of miles away from the conflict thanks to drones, and our entertainment industries sell us depictions completely removed from what is actually happening. Meanwhile, our government claims that we’re not killing anybody with drone strikes.
The influence and importance of drones in this changing landscape cannot be understated. To quote NPR, “An amazing revolution is taking place on the battlefield, starting to change not just how wars are fought, but also the politics, economics, laws, and ethics that surround war itself. This upheaval is already afoot — remote-controlled drones take out terrorists in Afghanistan, while the number of unmanned systems on the ground in Iraq has gone from zero to 12,000 over the last five years.”
The military acknowledges not only that this technology might make human fighters obsolete at some point, we are also training more drone pilots than fighters and bomber pilots combined. Interestingly, the military remarks that they have trouble cementing the idea that they are dealing with actual planes when training personnel.
If the military has a tendency to feel disconnect from war when drones are involved, let’s not even speak of the kill-streak seeking, headshot popping FPS player.
It’s clear, though, that responsibility and accountability of our war-mongering would fall on more than just games. Still, when games are so widespread and are even used to train the military, I don’t think its unfair to expect some degree of responsibility.
I remarked that I felt that most games didn’t carry messages or try to be subversive, radical or political to Paolo, perhaps due to the fact that they were frequently made by big, corporate companies, but that we’re starting to see a shift. We’re starting to see ‘outlier’ games, sometimes made by marginalized groups; progressive games made by a wider diversity of developers for a wider audience. I asked him if he thought that the mainstream market could be receptive to these games, whether or not it was possible we could see a hypothetical game like Critique on The War On Terror see itself alongside other high profile, high selling games like Grand Theft Auto.
“On the contrary: most games carry messages. If you don’t notice them, it’s only because they conforms to the dominant ideology and system of values: violence is the most effective way to resolve conflicts between people and nations; profit motive and private property are the basis of an economy; accumulation and growth are moral imperatives; nature is just a collection of resources functional to human expansion; boys are all into aggression and girls about personal relationship”
“The notion of a ‘wider public’ that craves for big budget games is a construct by the companies who make these products. And it’s falling apart as we speak, challenged on multiple fronts: eroded by Farmvillains, knocked down piece by piece by Angry Birds, nibbled by Minecrafters.
“The real ‘wider public’ never actually played AAA-games because they are mostly idiotic and designed to appeal to teenagers or adults stuck in a perpetual teenagerhood.“
Strong words, but it’s not as if Paolo doesn’t know how to enjoy “normal” games like the rest of us. I asked him what his favorite “mainstream” and “radical” war themed games were.
“There are many great war-themed games in the mainstream. Go is really good. Chess isn’t bad either but not as realistic as Go. Defcon by Introversion is my favorite although you may argue it is not really mainstream. I’m currently into Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes. Regarding more contemporary conflicts, nothing worth playing comes to my mind…
“War on Terror: the board game is among my favorite “radical” games. On the digital side I’d probably go with Hidden Agenda by Jim Gasperini and the Antiwargame by Josh On and Futurefarmers.”
Towards the end of Unmanned, I found myself following a person of interest. I zone out; tailing him is dull. My in-game partner thinks she sees our target fiddling with a weapon; she gets concerned. Command gives us the okay to engage in combat. She asks me if I’m sure that’s our guy. I panic. I’m not sure.
I shoot anyway.
The number of drones in foreign countries is rising, as are the casualties. Some statistics:
Total reported killed: 2,412 – 3,063
Civilians reported killed: 467 – 815
Children reported killed: 178
Total reported injured: 1,158 -1,263
Total strikes: 316
Obama strikes: 264
The current clamor is fear that we will start to further rely on these drones through strictly CIA-based ops that require no congressional approval, and do not have to be reported to the public unlike the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, drones are championed and supported by the American public.
Unmanned can be played here.