Video games as propaganda

kitchener propaganda poster

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary propaganda is: the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person. Which is a pretty broad net to cast and covers quite a lot of what I think of as marketing! However we tend to think of propaganda more as when media is used to promote a political viewpoint which we disagree with. Such as Lord Haw Haw in World War 2, who annoyed us so much that we over  reacted and executed him when we won. A fate that Hanoi Hannah avoided.

The traditional, non interactive, media are massively used for propaganda. In World War 2, and subsequent wars, both sides frequently used their bomber aircraft to drop propaganda leaflets. Which in some circumstances may have been more effective than using them to drop bombs. Many of the world’s newspapers are set up to promote a particular viewpoint. And huge swathes of the world’s media are government owned and used to promote the cause of the ruling administrations.

Yet in this world of people trying to persuade other people of the rights or wrongs of a particular cause, video games have largely been left alone, which, when you think about it, is very strange indeed. Video games are played by hundreds of millions of people of all ages, with a concentration of 20+ year olds. Yet the actual content has been dictated more by the needs to entertain or educate than the desire to promote a certain agenda. So far.

The reason we have been left alone is quite obvious. Games are just another media, albeit a technically superior media. But the people with all the power, the politicians and journalists, don’t realise this because mostly they just don’t understand video games at all. We see this in the way they blame video games for violence in society when the opposite is true. And now that ignorance is protecting video game players from propaganda.

However we haven’t avoided politics in games completely. Here are a few that sneaked through:

  • The Global Islamic Media Front released a first person shooter called Quest for Bush, something that perhaps a lot of Americans would have been very pleased to play!
  • On the other side there were Quest for Al Quaeda: The Hunt for Bin Laden Quest and Quest for Saddam.
  • Rendition: Guantanamo is a game that has been cancelled because of pressure from journalists.
  • Left Behind: Eternal Forces is a nutty extremist christian propaganda piece, that is probably the most distasteful of the lot. Far worse than any game that politicians and journalists complain about.
  • Kuma\War is a first person shooter. Where it is different is that its frequent new episodes are drawn from current events, but from an American perspective.
  • Hezbollah produced the game Special Force and its catchily titled sequel Special Force 2. In both you get to kill lots of Israelis.
  • America’s Army is the big one. A series of games designed to foster the American Army view of the world on an unsuspecting public and also to work as a recruitment tool. This has been a remarkable success at promoting gung ho American militarism.
  • Special Operation 85: Hostage Rescue from the Association of Islamic Unions of Students unsurprisingly reflects a world view opposite to that of the Americans.
  • And just now the Iran National Foundation of Computer Games revealed several new games at Gamescom in Cologne. Which will reflect opinions and views refreshingly different from the usual American propaganda that the conventional media force down our throats. According to the BBC one is “an adventure game where you play the role of a girl called Sara; a young student caught up in events during the early stages of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.” Exciting stuff.
  • Finally we have a pathetic British attempt which, as far as I am aware, nobody played. This involved taxpayers money being spent on a number ten Downing Street game. This now seems to have died off and of all the propaganda games I have found it is the only complete failure. Which is just so typical of anything Gordon Brown does.

As you can see, with the exception of the pathetic Gordon Brown effort, all these propaganda attempts have been a success. They have been incredibly cost effective at getting the attention of the world’s press and of game players. So it is inevitable that we will see a massive increase in video games designed to promote or rubbish different political, military and religious agendas. Up till now games have been largely living in an age of innocence. This has been a false dawn.

11 comments ↓

#1 Ian Osborne on 08.24.09 at 8:44 am

I think one of the main reasons videogames are left alone by propagandists is that they’re still perceived as being for kids. Even the games industry struggles to understand the ageing demographic of its customer base, so it’s unsurprising those outside the industry think like that.

#2 Graham on 08.24.09 at 7:20 pm

Just out of curiosity, have you played America’s Army? There really is no propaganda to it. It’s a pretty on the level game. It doesn’t make Soldiers look like super heroes. It doesn’t use fear mongering as a recruitment tactic. And there is no right-leaning slant to the game that the military is typically associated with. Just because it is an effective recruitment tool doesn’t mean it’s propaganda. If you’re looking for a propaganda game try Call of Duty 4.

#3 aion kinah on 08.25.09 at 3:54 am

@Ian
I totally affirm you thoughts about this but if you’ll thoroughly think about it, video games are actually an excellent medium for propaganda primarily because statistics shows that an average game players now are on legal age. Probably, the problem is the execution.

#4 Edward on 08.25.09 at 4:01 am

It’s notable that America’s Army is, play-wise, actually more realistic than Call of Duty 4. No constantly regenerating health to make one feel de facto invincible, for one.

#5 Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen on 08.26.09 at 7:09 pm

Interesting – the area peaked a couple of years back. We have been accused of developing propaganda game by some with our Global Conflicts-series (especially the first one on Global Conflicts: Palestine – from both sides on the same week :-).

We are curious with the new one on Child Soldiers that will probably also raise an eyebrow.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_6YC6gFSgfE

#6 Adrienne E-D on 08.28.09 at 3:17 am

Hmm. I would think that the status of games as being “for kids” wouldn’t immunize them from being used as propaganda tools. In fact, I’d think it would encourage it. If you want to indoctrinate people to your way of thinking, it’s better to get them when they’re young and impressionable, right?

I’m surprised you didn’t mention a notorious and extremely racist game called Ethnic Cleansing. Yes, it’s about as vile and stupid as you can guess from the name, and yes, it most certainly is a propaganda game. It’s not remotely subtle and it’s fairly technically inept, but it tries so hard to push the idea that non-whites are scum to be murdered and the Jews are plotting world domination. Actually, propaganda is that game’s only purpose.

#7 Daniel Hemmer Kristiansen on 08.29.09 at 8:10 am

Call of Duty ain’t that much of propaganda. It’s all about business and selling a game to the masses. War have been a good seller both in music, movies and games.

As long i don’t see a “god loves us all” game for children i wont be hunting people down with pitchforks.

Where I come from, all those war games (like American army, call of duty x n so on), is just considered games. Not games with intelligent messages and sophisticated political moralistic choices and what not.

I don’t agree on games being perfect for propaganda. Most gamers want choices and a lot of gamers are also in all kinds of communities.

If a game where to be too biased I think it would fail in any aspect by itself. People don’t care about political or religious messages in games unless their playing an educational game or a puzzle.

Of cause this could be discussed for a longer period of time :) those where my 2 cents.

#8 sean glover on 10.19.09 at 5:40 am

How can we get video games to strongly influence our younger(most impressionable) audience to join the marine corps when they get older? is it possible?

The art of video game media is TOTALLY and COMPLETELY a subconcious propaganda effort.. especially shooter games made today. SHOOTER games encourage WAR. they depict it beautifully and impressively. they add to the capitolist WAR MACHINE. its addicting. its exact. its extremely profitable. it suppresses all other thoughts in our(young men) heads. What better way to influence young men’s thinking then to fully enthrall and educate them on military tactics, weapons, acronyms, colors, sayings, etc, etc etc!

I think of Ron Kovic’s experience in Vietnam. (watch ‘born on the fourth of july’, please!)If he and his friends had video games to further excite them past playing guns in the street, I imagine sign-up rates would have been astounding in 1965. Enlistments are up today way higher than they have ever been and I know it is because of video games. We have these wars on our hands in afghanistan and iraq that need more marines. hence call of duty and a handful of my COD4 playing friends signing up TOGETHER for marine infantry roles.

America’s Army is a FREE game. Its progaganda just like COD. Just like ALL war games. WAR is not a game. but the lines are so blurred with the addition of modern technology media that people will never EVER understand that.

Video games are the ULTIMATE form of propoganda and when coupled with government psychological operations on domestic populations- they are UNSTOPABLE. hooray for video games!!

How about using video games for positive, productive persuasion?

#9 michael on 11.10.09 at 2:48 am

I would agree with Mr Glover. What better way to indoctrinate kids into a militaristic mindset than videogames. Kill the bad guys, whoever we tell you are the bad guys.

#10 Mark B on 02.27.10 at 3:20 am

As far as I can see with my 30 years of gaming experience, in more recent years a large proportion of games have become exactly that, propaganda, though possibly not overtly political unlike some of the more obvious ones you’ve stated. As games have become more sophisticated and developed a more filmlike approach to interactive storytelling, what you are seeing is cultural propaganda, similar to that churned out by Hollywood studios and the mainstream media. Propaganda by stealth and subtle cultural imperialism is prevalent in many titles. And to me, that is more worrying than any obvious ‘Call Of Full Spectrum Warrior American Army Elite Righteous Freedom Fighter Duty’, ‘Get Saddam!’ or ‘Kill All The Israeli Infidels!’ approach.

An example of a game somewhere in the middle of this spectrum is Crysis, which many might dismiss as just a sci-fi romp with alien invaders and giant machines with icy deathrays and therefore not something to worry about. But the main protagonists are American, British & Australian ‘have-a-laugh-heroes’ with superior technology, superior firepower and superior attitudes, and the main antagonists are hordes of faceless, characterless North Koreans with pop guns who seem to deserve all they get because they are North Koreans and are therefore the bad guys up to no good. If this is not propaganda, then what is?

Whether the above is just an example of the Eastern European developers cashing in on their potential Western market by appealing to its simplistic militaristic sensibilities, or something more covert (and I’m not going to get paranoid about this stuff because that way conspiracy nutjobbery lies), it is still propaganda, wrapped up in an ocasionally fun sci-fi romp.

Perhaps it says a lot about me that though I thought it was mostly a technically very tight and solid FPS with some fairly creative elements, I only really really enjoyed the bit when you are floating through the awe-inspiring mothership buried in the mountain, probably one of the most amazing things I’ve experienced in a video game. The rest was just dubious gunplay with arguably racist undertones, and to say that it is just a scenario and a setting is missing the point.

I would say that a game like STALKER achieves so much more – it gives you that same FPS buzz in a semi-real world setting, but manages to be more creative, intelligent and interesting without pandering to any kind of gungho militarism, racial stereotype or culturally superior attitude. Mind you, plenty of people thought it was tasteless setting a game in the site of a real-world nuclear accident, but I let the developers off seeing as they are from the Ukraine and did such a damn good job of it.

#11 Ali on 04.23.10 at 12:16 pm

Hey nice article. However, it is missing a very imperative perspective. Is it not true that the games listed in this article are by themselves a reply to an existing broad based propoganda in gaming?

Also, why let the big sharks off. Microsoft gaming corporation and the electronic arts are as much into the propoganda business as any other. The difference being, that the small time producers listed above maybe promoting a rigid propoganda, while the bigger sharks carry out their propoganda by either maintaining the status quo of a wrong misconception,or by staying silent on somthing which needs to be corrected. Big game companies are so much trusted for their content that their silence could mean a ‘fact’ for the players. For example, there is a whole lot of anti islamic propoganda in the age of empires. The kind of propoganda which follows the line of misconceptions about muslims from the post crusade period. Then lets not forget that regimes like hezzobollah and iran are making games only for a specific propoganda and then bringing it to and end there. While the bigger companies include propoganda in their games and stay for a very long time. Then its sad thing that russians have always been potrayed in a bad light in the world of gaming. As if they dont a normal life at all. I respect gaming a lot, and I think it should be considered a serious medium of expression, with some required basic ethics at hand……. Nice Topic :)

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