Recently, we published an opinion piece from Daniel Epstein about
How the Israeli-Gaza Conflict is Ruining Online Gaming. This article from Ma’idah Lashani offers an alternative viewpoint.
“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are both the founding principles of the United States and the primary slogans that run its industries. But what does it really mean for a citizen to live freely, in pursuit of personal happiness, and what does such a quality of life cost to keep? Even the most basic aspects of everyday modern American existence tend to betray our lack of commitment to these ideals, and nowhere is that more apparent than in contemporary first person shooter games.
When I was seven I was plucked from the safety of the private, Muslim school that I’d been raised in and unceremoniously deposited in a place that was truly foreign to me – American public school. One of my first and most vivid memories of that transition involved my mother, a young law student, insisting that the faculty not force me to pledge allegiance to the flag. She thought that the repetitive chanting smacked of brainwashing. At the time I was mortified by the attention that her decision called to me, as the apostrophe in my name had already marked me clearly as the outsider in the room. Now, I can appreciate a little more that she only wanted me to be free, instead of pledging myself in exchange for the mere promise it.
This independence continued to alienate me from my peers, as if being of visibly foreign heritage in the American South wasn’t enough. I predictably turned to digital media as a social outlet, and role-playing games like Sierra’s The Realm and Square Enix’s Final Fantasy quickly captured my attention, presenting me with an opportunity to escape to other lives. I began frequenting a nearby digital café, Gamefrog. Shooter games, most obviously designed for multiplayer, seemed the best way to capitalize on the public setting, so I decided to try my hand at a popular fps, Counter-Strike. Knowing I was half-Persian, my friends of course assigned me the role of “terrorist.” Though I wasn’t yet entirely sure what the word meant, I was keenly aware that the designation did not bode well for me. Dusty desert scenes and linen-wrapped, tan skin flashed across my screen, reminding me much more of my ancestral home than of a monster’s lair. This experience left a bad taste in my mouth, developing into an aversion of fps games that would last for years to come.
Counter-Strike and Call of Duty, by many accounts gold standard fps franchises, have a few primary reoccurring themes: Shooting is good. Nazis and Terrorists are bad. The problem isn’t that these themes make violent games, or that the ideals of these enemies aren’t worth opposing. Much to the contrary, righteous anger may be wielded justly as a tool in the right circumstances, and those who would take the lives of innocents deserve to suffer retribution. Senseless violence, however, is always wrong, which is the tragic irony of fps Nazi games. The true lesson of the Holocaust was that human life is precious, and that its preservation should never be compromised in the name of progress. Unfortunately, games that simulate the act of vengeance without necessitating the exploration of its justifying cause serve only to reinforce the notion that violence is good in itself, and therefore actually further the purported agendas of the would-be villains they feature, rather than the life, liberty, and happiness Thomas Jefferson spoke of.
More specifically, the constant exposure to World War II messaging in Nazi games instills a subliminal sympathy in Americans for victims of the Holocaust, and by extension Jewish people as a whole. Further, the prevalence of shooter games set in Middle Eastern war zones can be said to have the opposite effect on American opinion towards the people of that region. As a result of these kinds of first person shooter games, today’s youth in the United States are desensitized to the current plight of Palestinians on multiple fronts. First, they are desensitized to the concept of warfare in general, since killing is the primary act that these games reward. Second, they are less inclined to sympathize with Middle Eastern people’s perspectives, as these cultures are often associated with villains in fps games. Finally, they are more inclined to sympathize with Jewish agendas, especially when considered relevant to WWII, as these are the inferred victims of many fps games.
Individually, these indoctrinating mechanisms may be harmless. Taken as a whole, however, these inclinations probably cause fps players to be far less objective about contemporary Middle Eastern politics than they might believe, especially where Israel is concerned.
In the past month more than 10,000 Palestinian civilians have been killed or injured by the Israeli military, including hundreds of women and children. These indiscriminately delivered deaths were, for some, likely a reprieve from a lifetime of suffering, as residents of Gaza City live in some of the least hospitable living conditions imaginable. Gaza, already one of the most densely populated places on earth, has been reduced physically by 40 percent through concentrated use of artillery and tanks. Last Tuesday, the Israeli military bombed the only working power plant, dooming much of the population to an effective return to the dark ages. The way the Palestinian people have been packed into walls like sardines has always eerily reminded me of Holocaust ghettos, and this recent bout of large-scale, systematic killing has only increased my suspicion of that similarity. It brings to mind the words of Ellie Wiesel, in his timeless novel Night, saying “I did not believe that they could burn people in our age, that humanity would never tolerate it…” Tonight, kids in Gaza will burn. And yet, when I turn on national news, or talk to my friends, all I seem to hear about is the “terrorists.”
I’m not saying first person shooter games are bad, or that it necessarily makes you a bad person if you play them. But I am saying that we need to think more as a society about the lessons that we’re learning from the games that we play, and the effect that they can have on our perception of the real world. Ultimately, it’s a free country, and, at least theoretically, people can think what they want. My fear is simply that they won’t choose to.
Ma’idah Lashani is a rising second year law student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a staff member on its Journal of Law and Technology. She is also currently a summer legal associate at Epic Games, Inc. Prior to attending law school, she spent nearly three years working as Escapist Magazine’s Community Manager.