This Means Procedural War

In Ian Bogost’s book Persuasive Games he has this really perceptive passage on America’s Army, the game developed by the US military quite openly as a recruitment tool. Bogost being Bogost, he’s interested in the ‘procedural rhetoric’ of the game – how the actual ‘procedures’ or mechanics of the game serve a rhetorical/persuasive purpose.

Bogost seizes on a particularly interesting feature of AA: despite there being two sides in each conflict, both played by actual networked players, it’s arranged that both teams perceive themselves as being the US Army. That is, whichever ‘team’ you play on, you will see your teammates as US Army soldiers, and the other team as insurgents of some kind. It’s a pretty cool and tricksy way of staying ‘on message’ by having the players always fight for the US army, but to still generate a genuine “enemy” for them to fight.

In commenting on this, Bogost suggests it’s “a telling view into the ideology of early twenty-first-century U.S. military aggression.” The problem, he says, is that such a set-up, where both sides of the conflict are “equivalent”, implies there is a single, global explanation for the conflict – that there’s is a single “truth” involved which both sides see and understand. This, Bogost argues, is used to sweep away the genuine complexities of military conflict.

Frankly, it’s some pretty great reasoning on Bogost’s part. He’s a smart dude. On the other hand, I do feel like he gets a bit carried away with his own rhetoric in this passage. At best, for instance, I’d say his take on the game is just one interpretation of the procedural rhetoric of the game, one that might suit Bogost’s need to make a juicy point in his book. When I first heard about this weird symmetry in America’s Army it made me think in terms of a rhetoric of equality and a reduction of the “otherness” of the enemy in a conflict. That is, knowing that the other team also believes itself to be “America’s Army” and all the manifest destiny and righteousness that goes along with it, a player might pause to question the actual legitimacy of such attitudes or, alternatively, to have a dawning realisation that both sides of a conflict tend to think they’re doing the “right” thing.

So, I reckon there might be two sides to every story… or maybe heaps of sides… just sayin’.

29 June 2010
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