ED HALTER

INTERACTIVE PROPAGANDA

ON THE TRANSFORMATION OF WAR INTO PLAYABLE ENTERTAINMENT

DISCUSSED: Ringer Tees, American Flags, Flight Simulator 2000, “Shock and Awe,” “Paint It Black,” G.I. Joe, Bombed-Out Dollhouses, Buck Rogers–Style Spacemen, Deadly Laser Cannons, Raspberries, Raiders of the Lost Ark, “This Scud’s for You” Lung Biscuits

The MPEG-4 download is a news clip, crafted like a low-budget rendition of Fox News, complete with rat-a-tat-tat theme music and swooshing swipe edits. In front of a glowing-green world map, an anchorman details how American soldiers of the elite 101st Airborne Division killed Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay during a siege of their compound in Mosul, Iraq. Footage from July 2003 shows the two corpses on gurneys, their eyes closed, loins covered by thin blue hospital sheets, torsos riddled with gunshot wounds. The brothers have hard, shiny skin, like gruesome mannequins. In a subsequent clip, a wedge of Iraqi men on the street cheer to the camera; the newscaster says they are celebrating this brutal and direct evidence, joyous that their dictator has been undoubtedly removed from power.

The anchor introduces retired Major General Thomas L. Wilkerson, a former Marine commander, who offers commentary on how the raid transpired. He’s followed by a second, very different commentator: Jax, a twentysomething hipster woman in a ringer tee, who, the anchor says, will provide a “walk-through.” As the anchor describes the events of that day, the illustrating images shift from actual news footage to computer-generated simulations of actions inside the compound—pictures taken from a first-person shooter game created to re-enact the raid. Wilkerson expounds tactical reasons why powerful anti-tank artillery was brought to bear on the brothers’ villa. Jax, the “Game Analyst,” subsequently explains “your mission”: to sweep the area of enemy combatants who might interfere with the missile-support troops before they take out the compound. “While we’ve modeled the real-world terrain and chronology closely,” Jax says, “we’ve revved up the opposition considerably.” She smirks slightly to the camera. “Enemies are everywhere, and you should consider anybody with an AK to be hostile.”

“Well, there you have it,” the anchor concludes as the music swells. “A key turning point in Operation Iraqi Freedom and a milestone in the War on Terror. It’s a difficult and critical mission. From all of us here at Kuma, best of luck.”

Consumers once had to wait years for a conflict to become a video game: now one company transforms war into playable entertainment in a matter of days. Launched in 2004 by Kuma Reality Games, Kuma\War melds news reporting and online gaming: it’s a series of military games based on recent news events from conflicts worldwide. Kuma\War descends from the traditions of historical war gaming, but shrinks the temporal gap between event and simulation to match the pace and design of the internet and 24-hour cable news networks. Rather than provide a single sprawling scenario like most PC and console games, Kuma offers a constantly updated selection of mini-games on a subscription model. For a little under ten dollars a month, players can download new first-person “missions” based on the latest military operations.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Ed Halter’s essay was adapted from his book From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games, recently published by Thunder’s Mouth Press. A writer for the Village Voice, his work has appeared in Kunstforum, Computer Gaming World, Vice, Millennium Film Journal, and many fine publications. He is cocurator of the Parker Tyler Memorial Library in New York City.

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