A version of this essay was delivered at the military sociology miniconference at the annual meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society, 2011.

War is fundamentally a cultural phenomenon. It is profoundly entangled with shared meanings and understandings, stories both old and new, and the evolution of the same. These stories and meanings concern how war is defined, what it means to be at war, how enemies are to be identified and treated, how war itself is waged, and how one can know when war is finished – if it ever is. The shared meanings and narratives through which the culture of war is constructed are diverse: oral stories told and retold, myths and legends, historical accounts, and modern journalistic reports – and it’s important to note how the nature of those last has changed as our understanding of what qualifies as “journalism” has changed as well.

Video games are worth considering in this context, not only because of their pervasiveness but because of their narrative power.  They share much in common with film: interaction with them is mediated by a monitor, and they almost always feature a narrative of some kind that drives the action on the screen. However, video games are also different from other forms of media in that they are simulations – they go beyond audio-visual narrative and into at least an attempt to approximate a particular kind of experience. Further, unlike movies and TV, a feature of the experience they offer is active participation. This isn’t to say that movies and TV are passive; they’ve been too often dismissed as such, when viewing those forms of media in fact often involves complex patterns of interpretation and meaning-making. However, the difference is still worth some attention.

I want to argue that this difference has particular implications for how we as a largely civilian population understand war and reproduce the meanings we attach to it. Further, I think that how our games tell stories about war reveals some powerful things about how storytelling in war has changed over time – along with war itself – and how we can understand our own collective psychological reactions to those changes. Finally, I argue that our relationship to war in the context of games highlights some of the ways in which war is digitally augmented – not only on the battlefield and among military population but here among civilians.

Given that we’re talking about games in the larger context of media and warfare, I’ll begin by outlining some of the ways in which media narratives – especially film – have historically contributed to the cultural construction of meanings of war.

As I said above, meaning-making and the construction of understandings of war are traditionally narrative in nature, or at least narratives of various kinds make up a great deal of what there is. Myths and legends are some of the oldest forms of this, and help to construct and maintain cultural ideas regarding what war is like, how it is to be fought and how a warrior should conduct themselves, and what is at stake in war (territory, property, beliefs, etc.). In addition to myths and legends—and sometimes inseparable from them—are historical accounts of war, which relate details about the wars that a nation or a people have been involved in over the course of the past and are therefore pivotal in a people’s understanding of how they arrived at their present condition, who their enemies were and are, who they themselves are in opposition to others, and what they hold valuable and worth fighting for—as well as what they might fight for in the future, and who they might fight for it.

This is an important thing to make an additional note of: images and stories of war tell not only about the wars that have been fought, but about what wars might be fought in the future; they contain information regarding what is both possible and appropriate in terms of war-making. But I want to focus this more narrowly in the recent past, so I rather than the older forms of war narrative, I’ll focus on propaganda, journalism, and film/television.

Wartime propaganda reached a new level of pervasiveness and complexity in the twentieth century, due in large part to emerging media which provided new venues for its spread to the public. Poster were naturally widely used, but film provided the most powerful new medium in which for propagandists to work, and movie theaters were increasingly sites for the proliferation of government sponsored information regarding how wars were being fought, what they were being fought for, and the nature of the enemy. Some of the government sponsorship was direct; some less so—It’s important to note that at this point, the lines between news, entertainment, and overt propaganda were often indistinct at best. World War II was framed as a struggle of good against evil, with the Axis powers presented as fundamentally alien and Other in comparison to virtuous Allies. These narratives were engaged in both constructing and reproducing an understanding of the war as a struggle against a barbaric enemy that could not be reasoned with and which bore no resemblance to the “good” side.

One example of this kind of meaning-making can be found in the Why We Fight film series, commissioned by the US Army shortly after the beginning of World War II and directed by the famed Frank Capra. These films, which were required viewing for American soldiers, presented the Axis as a vicious and barbarous marauding power, entirely bent on subjugating the world. Particularly important in the creation of the films were heavily cut and edited sections of captured Axis propaganda – Capra engaged in the kind of reframing via remixing that we see more commonly today in reference to a wide range of media and cultural sources.

It’s worth noting at this point that dehumanization of the enemy only implies what is at stake but suggests how the enemy is to be treated.  An inhuman enemy that is fundamentally evil in the way that the propaganda on both sides depicted can only be eliminated. Killing is constructed as the only possible or reasonable action to take.

War film has a long history, especially in the United States, and different wars are dealt with differently in film, depending on both the war and the era in which the film is made. As the realities of how war is understood change, its depictions undergo a corresponding change in media intended for mass consumption. We can understand this as a response to cultural changes that precede the depictions—but the depictions also help to construct and reproduce the meanings emerging from the changes.

Many of the films depicting World War II were “romantic” in nature, featuring heroic sacrifice in which American determination and courage led to victory. The films both emphasize the conception of the Allied – and specifically American – forces as good people engaged in a righteous cause, and make powerful suggestions about the way in which war can be won. The emphasis on the sacrifice of the body and the meaning of injury is significant: death in war is not only not entirely a negative, but one can have confidence that the sacrifice is undertaken on behalf of ethical leaders and a good cause, and injury and death of a nationalized body take on a justifying function within conflict.

During the Cold War era, we see everything change, specially in the period immediately following the Vietnam War. Many of these films break with the tradition of honorable and necessary sacrifice by presenting Chinese and American soldiers as pawns without agency led by people who don’t value suffering or sacrifice. Films that deal directly with the conflict in Vietnam follow a similar formula, presenting death in war as fundamentally devoid of  ideological significance, and criticizing the leaders whose decisions put men in the position to die in battle. Sacrifice is even presented as possessing no deeper significance at all, and the soldiers in war as little more than animals being slaughtered in a conflict of which they have no real understanding. War films made during this period therefore present a trend characterized by deep ambivalence to the meaning of war, to how it is fought and against whom, and to the trustworthiness of the political and military leaders of the nation.

We see this again more recently regarding both the first and the second Gulf Wars, with films depicting of war as surreally pointless. However, some (like 2008’s The Hurt Locker) take a more analytical, documentarian bent. I think the latter especially is a significant development, and can be explained at least in part by the increased prevalence of documentary journalistic accounts in the exposure to current and recent conflicts on the part of the general public. But documentation doesn’t equal a lack of mediation; it’s a form of meaning-making in and of itself, and it makes certain kinds of interpretation possible while precluding others.

The first Gulf War occurred at the dawn of the era of satellite TV and 24-hour news networks. It was arguably the beginning of war-as-spectacle: packaged for mass consumption, more immediate and more real—and yet more removed and more surreal. Despite the amount of news coverage, the image of war with which the American people were presented was bizarrely constructed, with, as Elaine Scarry noted, a marked lack of injured and dead bodies in the discourse around the war. There was no need to present sacrifice as honorable or righteous, since there was no sacrifice. With no concrete depiction of enemy casualties, the enemy remained an undefined, nebulous idea. Jean Baudrillard famously claimed that as a war, it “did not take place” at all, that the media event that was packaged and sold to the American public was a simulation of war that was too bodiless and too asymmetrical to be called a war at all.

Most recently, war film is increasingly technology-focused—and increasingly uncertain and paranoid in its depictions of the experience of war. As in the first Gulf War, the enemy is not clearly defined but is instead heavily abstract, though represented in conflict with Othered individuals: Terror is the enemy, not any specific persons or group of people. Additionally, following the phenomenon of ambient documentation on both an individual and institutional level, the military is shown filming itself, from high-altitude surveillance to video taken by soldiers on the ground and photos captured on cell phones. There is an essential lack of any heroic narrative in most films about the second Gulf War, and though much of the film footage is ostensibly meant to be realistic, it is in turn reflecting an unreal reality that’s simulated in nature, atemporal, and presented in a confusing multiplicity of narrative forms.

Finally, it’s worth noting that with the proliferation of image-altering apps like Instagram, images of war can be used in an attempt to recapture a kind of authenticity that’s both comforting and simplifying (a return to the manichean worldview of WWII) – that “faux-vintage” images of war are a reaction to war that’s becoming increasingly “unknowable” and removed from the perception of many, if not most.

Next week I’ll be focusing on the place of institutionally sponsored simulation in war and what that does to actual experiences of warfare, as a way to introduce a further discussion of how we experience and understand wars that exist entirely within games and how that affects our storytelling about war in general.