War Games

For better or for worse, video game technology is on the march

| June 8, 2006

Video games have come a long way since Pong. They're more sophisticated and more realistic than ever, and that's been cause for concern among many lawmakers and parents navigating the worlds of sex and violence portrayed in popular games like Grand Theft Auto. On the other hand, a new wave of specialized video games are plugging into the technology to help people. Video games are an interactive medium that highly depends on the intentions of the developers; some use it for violent, sexual entertainment, others use it for peace. 'This is the price of free speech,' says Aaron Delwiche of the San Antonio Current. 'There is no surefire way of preventing people from voicing (or coding) objectionable ideas, nor should there be.'

Examples of the technology's dual nature abound. When Muslims got frustrated with the wave of anti-terrorism (read anti-Islamic) video games, a few Muslim video game developers set out to create a more sympathetic game. The result, according to Rhonda Roumani of the Christian Science Monitor, was the game 'Al-Quraysh' depicting the early years of the Muslim religion. Just like history, the game contains violence, but according to Roumani the idea behind it is 'to correct the image of Islam, alleviate tensions with the West, and stoke pride among young Muslims.'

The flip side of that coin is Special Forces, a video game that's been circulating around the Middle East for a few years. According to Toby Harnden of the Telegraph, the game, developed by the Hizbollah Internet Bureau, is a first person-shooter that encourages the gamer to assassinate prominent Israeli figures like former prime minister Ariel Sharon and other members of 'the Zionist enemy.'

If such video game renditions sound far-fetched and far-flung, consider a homegrown variety: Left Behind: Eternal Forces. Michael Standaert of the Guerrilla News Networkreports that the game, from a creator of the Left Behind series of apocalyptic fiction, bears a striking resemblance to the ultra-violent Grand Theft Auto. The difference is, according to Standaert, '[i]nstead of bashing hookers' heads in and blowing away cops, in Eternal Forces you're killing evildoers for the Lord.'

According to Scott Duke Harris of The San Francisco Chronicle, the problems and the benefits lie in the interactive format of video games in general. Video games are a 'lean-forward' technology because they encourage user participation, as opposed to TV, which allows users to lean back. When the interactive format is put to good use, the results can be positive. Harris reports that video game technology has been used to help victims of terrorism by allowing them to explore safe, interactive environments that resemble the place of the attack. He also reports on the game PeaceMaker, which encourages gamers to find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (The game recently took home first place in the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy's Games and Public Diplomacy Contest.)

For the San Antonio Current's Delwiche, the problem comes down to media literacy. As technology advances and different groups appropriate video game technology, the results are ranging from helpful to disturbing. But regulation should be based on a solid foundation of knowledge, rather than knee jerk reactions to violent outcomes, Delwiche argues: '[M]any Americans -- even intelligent politicians? -- lack the fundamental digital media literacy skills required to make informed policy decisions about games.' In other words: Leave the decisions to the experts.

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