In a recent episode of the politics/comedy podcast Chapo Trap House, a listener asked “What can socialism do for gamers’ rights?”. The question was obviously a joke, but the hosts produced a humorous and somewhat thoughtful answer.
Thankfully, there is no such a thing as “gamers’ rights” in the sense of something distinct from consumer rights. The joke was likely a reference to the sense of entitlement and tribal identification that fueled the gamergate campaign. But the question of what gaming would look like in a socialist world has haunted me for days. Not only because I’m a leftist and I care about games, but because of how it relates to many crucial issues of 21st century radicalism…
In a recent episode of the politics/comedy podcast Chapo Trap House, a listener asked “What can socialism do for gamers’ rights?”. The question was obviously a joke, but the hosts produced a humorous and somewhat thoughtful answer.
I took Tristan Tzara’s DADA manifesto from 1921 and replaced every instance of DADA with BIG DATA.
Big Data Manifesto
This is the transcript of a minitalk I gave at Lost Levels 2014, an “unconference” happening during the Game Developers Conference (maybe a bit too square and academic for that casual environment). It’s a topic I’ve addressed in every single talk in the last 10 years or so, but I thought it could benefit from a bit of framing and some nice pictures.
This is a talk I gave at Indiecade East 2014 (remotely due to snow-related flight cancellation). It’s based on an text I wrote for the catalog of Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life, an exhibition at FACT gallery in Liverpool. It’s also meant to be a companion piece for the game To Build a Better Mousetrap.
You can read the original text below which, being targeted to a different crowd, explains games a little bit more and the problem with capitalism a little bit less.
This is my second post on Empyre, a longstanding discussion list for artists, programmers, and curators of new media art. The theme of the month is “Videogames and Art: Incite/Insight”. You can check the March archive here.
Here I talk about Molleindustria in relation to the context in which it started (almost 10 years ago) and the current trend of gamification. This is meant to be a conversation starter, not an essay.
Molleindustria is a project about games and ideology, it’s a bit of art, media activism, research, and agitp[r]op.
The idea is to apply the culture jamming/tactical media (remember tactical media?) treatment to videogames: speading radical memes and, in the process, challenging the language of power, the infrastructures, the modes, genres and tropes of the dominant discourse which was omnipresent in videogame culture.
The half joke is that I came up with Molleindustria because I failed at starting my own television. In the early zerozero – mid Berlusconian age – we had pirate TV stations popping up in all the major Italian cities in what came to be known as the Telestreet movement. It wasn’t just television with radical content, but a radically different way of making television.
There was a nice medium-is-the-message / form-follows-content thing going on, resonating with software, net.art and hacker culture as well.
There was this idea that the political sphere was boundless: something we do, and we are subject to, every day and every moment. The half-naked show girls on prime time television, the charming millionaires of the soap opera Dallas, the software, the protocols, the fantasies coming from the booming-and-busting Silicon Valley were no less political than the occasional vote or the sanctioned spaces for political debate.
And, of course, the demonstrations in the streets, the boycotts, the occupations, the strikes…
I am very familiar with Gonzalo Frasca’s work which was previously mentioned on this list and from which I borrow the title of this post. I launched the project in 2003, the same year September 12th came out and he started to write about videogames with an agenda with Ian Bogost.
One thing I share with both of them is the idea that videogames are representational media. They are always about things. There is, of course, a gradient of abstraction in that a game like SimCity is unquestionably about cities (or gardening) while a game like Tetris is about more general themes such as order vs disorder, control & optimization, or the tragicomical limits of human cognition.
The less abstract are the games, the more they tend to be problematic and fall under scrutiny. There is a lot of literature discussing the urbanist ideas advanced by SimCity or the portrayal of contemporary and historical conflicts in first person shooters or strategy games.
To interpret a game and to make games that mean something, people use a variety of approaches.
Some aspects can be tackled with traditional storytelling and narratology. For example, later this week, pop-feminist Anita Sarkeesian will launch the first installment of “Tropes vs women in games”, an online video series dissecting the representation of women in videogames (edit: now released).
However, there are aspects of games that can’t be fully understood by simply breaking down characters and plots. Games, simulations and interactive media are systems of rules, and these rules produce meaning as well: they define the relationships between the purely representational bits (images, sounds, text…) and the agency of the players within the system.
To be honest, we are still trying to figure out how this procedural rhetoric actually works and how people interpret these “texts” with so many moving parts. But that’s the fascinating part.
I’m interested in promoting this kind of procedural literacy through my games. I believe games can get people used to “think in systems” and that a holistic, ecological, non-reductionist way of thinking is desperately needed in our [cliche' alert] increasingly interconnected world ravaged by global crisis.
Part of this literacy consists in understanding that digital and non digital models are informed by ideologies and systems of values (when it comes to scientific simulations the story is a bit more complicated). They are artful depictions of reality, and as such, we should describe them not in terms of how “realistic” they are, but in terms of the arguments they deploy and the narratives they support within the larger context. This is, by the way, the reason I often use satire, cartoonish styles, and a rather overt authorial “presence”: to defuse the temptation of interpreting these games as objective.
I feel like I have to mention the issue of representation because there is another trend, another way to conceive and use games that has more to do with behavioral change. The marketing power fantasy referred as “gamification” is part of this trend, but also slightly more legitimized endeavors like the many exercise games pretending to fight obesity.
This approach is less concerned about the semiotics and the aesthetics of games, and more focused on games as systems of incentives to produce actual, quantifiable change in the way players behave outside of the game (if there is an outside). If you are not familiar with gamification and the like, imagine attributing arbitrary points and rewards to certain behaviors, pushing people to voluntary monitor these behaviors, and then creating the conditions for competition/self-evaluation based on the score system.
Commentators like Ian Bogost have called bullshit on gamification and I largely agree. But having worked in marketing in the past, I’m quite familiar with the structural hype cycles of the field. You have people overselling techniques meant to oversell services and products. Everybody is lying to everybody else on multiple levels, intra- and extra-corporate. But as a whole the advertising system works because it succeeds at pervading every corner of the mindscape with the discourse of consumption.
To me it is not too crucial to find out whether or not you can control people through game-like systems. What’s more important is that this fantasy is out there, strong and loud. Governments and corporations are investing lots of money in this idea.
Feasible or not, this is the object of desire of contemporary capitalism and as such it’s worth investigating.
Is the fantasy of gamification a testament to the decline of money as the general, all-encompassing incentive to regulate human relations?
Could it be a premonition of the next power paradigm? We went from a disciplinary society (the stick) to a society of control (mass surveillance). Is the society of the incentive (the customized carrot) next?
Is gamification a tension toward the measurement of the unmeasurable (lifestyle, affects, activism, reputation, self esteem…), being measurement the precondition of commodification?
For the first week of March I’ve been invited to be a guest of Empyre, a longstanding mailing list for artists, programmers, and curators of new media art. The theme of the month is “Videogames and Art: Incite/Insight”. I’m re-posting some of my discussion starters here, for the rest of the world. You can read the whole March archive here
If your filter bubbles include gaming circles you have witnessed the many collective cheers, hoots, and metaphorical stadium waves raising upon every glorious step of the videogame medium toward high-culture acceptance.
The repeated “video games can never be art” claims made by Roger Ebert from 2005 onward forced a multitude of North American game developers, critics and players to confront the mysterious Art Thing, possibly for the first time in their lives. Their honor, their reputation and, most importantly, their favorite pastime was being attacked by a prominent tastemaker.
In the following years, a fierce movement of DIY art criticism emerged within the game industry. Programmers started to google terms like “aesthetics”; game journalists filled their indignant counter-articles with pictures of Duchamp’s Fountain. Every strange, intimate, weird looking game was measured for its potential to defuse Ebert’s argument.
Even hardcore gamers started to cry while playing (and wrote extensively about it) demonstrating they also had feelings. Those little sprites and polygons really mattered to them.
As the narrative goes, from that cycle of shame and pride emerged a new sensibility. While the gaming community matured and developed higher cultural ambitions, the blinded masses of non-gamers and the mainstream press became more and more sympathetic to the popular form.
The recent move by the NEA to include games as possible recipients for grants has been interpreted as a federal seal of approval (although, in the past, the agency funded videogame projects through individual artist grants). The exhibition “The Art of Videogames” at the Smithsonian, shortly followed by the acquisition of 14 game titles by the MoMA, has been saluted as the ultimate institutional validation of the “games are art” truism.
In the midst of the celebrations it wasn’t appropriate to wonder whether or not the Smithsonian show was a populist publicity stunt “generously” supported by Entertainment Software Association. The curatorial process involved an online poll asking netizens to vote for their favorite games – it didn’t make a big difference since only 5 among the 80 chosen titles were actually playable.
And I haven’t heard many commentators reflecting on the fact that the aforementioned MoMA acquisitions were part of the Architecture and Design collection. What does it mean to put Pac-Man right next to swanky furniture? Is the hip and yuppie field of interaction design imperialistically claiming videogames? Are games furniture? Can architecture make you cry (like videogames, of course)?
For those who don’t hang out in certain niche art circles, it doesn’t really matter that artists have been appropriating, hacking, and creating videogames (and videogame culture) for about 20 years now. It doesn’t matter that a myriad of game-themed art exhibitions swept across the digital art world, arguably becoming its most popular sub-genre.
Last night Stephen Colbert cracked a joke about the exotic idea of arcades at the MoMA but we rarely see games presented in relation with computational, interactive, combinatory and digital art, or even with relational aesthetics or performance. All these forms are way more related to games than the kind of art that collects dust inside museums.
These issues did not matter because that exciting, pedantic, fractal, never-ending dispute we call “art” was never the point of this debate. The point was to “elevate” the cultural status of videogames as a whole: as a medium and as an industry.
For gamers it was a retroactive validation of the countless hours they spent moving pixels and polygons around: “We knew we weren’t wasting out time!”
For the industry was a way to snort some of that magic art dust without accepting the responsibilities that come along with a privileged space for cultural experimentation: “We don’t want just weird artsy games in galleries and museums. We want Pac-Man!”
The game industry and the culture surrounding it can be best understood as a traumatized child or an abused pet. Throughout the years videogames have been repeatedly treated as cultural punching bags and convenient scapegoats. The folks personally involved in this field reacted to the long stigmatization by developing a certain brand of groupthink, a perennial persecution complex, and a compulsion to stick together no matter what.
In the past I’ve been accused of damaging the reputation of the industry by making games about controversial issues. Works defying players’ expectations or rejecting clearly defined goals were dismissed as “not games”.
Now games for social change are often mentioned as symptoms of the “maturation” of the form via New Age gurus like Jane McGonigal. Independent/artsy titles are presented next to idiotic shooters to support the launch of the new PlayStation. Imagine the toilet industry using Duchamp to achieve cultural validation (and possibly get art grants and tax breaks in the process).
What did not change between now and then is the tendency to conceptualize the gaming field as an homogeneous space devoid of conflict.
I would love to see a conversation *not* informed by the catch-all attitude of the “Videogames and Art” blah blah of these recent years. If we are talking about games we must learn to qualify the objects in question. Because there are major differences between a commercial product like Pac-Man and a personal and profound game like Cart Life. The lack of critical discourse within the game industry should not influence the way we treat games outside of it.
And while we push arcade cabinets in and out of museums we could also try to complicate the terms of the debate.
Instead of asking ourselves if and how games can be art, maybe we can start to think how art can be more like games: popular, participatory, accessible and yet complex; able to engage people deeply and for more than a fleeting moment; capable of providing richer experiences the more you get intimate with them.
Somewhere in UK, a dialog box pops up on the screen of a Mac computer.
The user contacts me asking for an explanation I can’t quite provide. The same file (a downloadable version of Phone Story) works perfectly on my machine, also a Mac. It turns out the “file damaged” message is produced by Gatekeeper, an anti-malware feature of the new OSX Mountain Lion, which I haven’t bothered to install yet. Gatekeeper, by default, blocks every application that is not coming from the official Mac App store or from certified Apple developers.
I read a few articles about Gatekeeper, all of which are praising Apple for this long-sighted move to prevent the malware epidemic that plagues Windows users. More informal reactions from independent developers are along these lines:
“Yeah, it happened to me too. It’s a stupid message”
“No big deal, just go to the preferences panel and change the security settings”
“I agree with the goals of Gatekeeper, but that dialog box feels wrong. It’s very un-Apple-like.”
I certainly don’t expect the tech press to say anything against Apple, but I’m surprised by the lack of debate (outrage?) within Mac users and developers.
I’d like to make the case that this kind of trick is indeed very Apple-like, and that Gatekeeper is a reason for concern.
The Total Apple Consumer
It’s not too hard to understand why Apple’s innovations and branding strategy conquered millions of users in the last decade. But in order to turn groundbreaking products such as the iPod or the iPhone into monopolistic leverages, Apple had to go beyond mere product design and marketing to devise a smooth, seamless user experience among its platforms and devices. To become a vertically-integrated computing company and control hardware, software, content (iTunes / App Store), and personal data (iCloud) at the same time, Apple had to create a new kind of user, an ideal user which I’ll simply call: Total Apple Consumer.
The Total Apple Consumer is awesomely rewarded for its loyalty, while the impure one is punished. Using an iPod or an iPhone without adopting iTunes as mp3 player for your computer is a major annoyance. To be precise, it’s a carefully designed annoyance. Transferring files to an external device via USB doesn’t technically require a cumbersome online shopping application like iTunes. It’s the digital equivalent of those airport terminals that force you to walk though a labyrinth of duty-free shops in order to reach your flight.
Of course, things are way more functional and easy to manage when there are no junctions and no conflicts. It’s getting increasingly more appealing to adopt Apple’s monoculture, leaving behind an ecosystem of manufacturers, developers and services – often in competition between each other – like a PC+Windows set up. The risks of relying on one all-encompassing system (such as having your account hijacked) are negligible in comparison to a perfectly efficient, streamlined digital life.
A newspeak for the post-PC era
In the process of reshaping our relation with computing machines, Apple also had to exert control on computing language. For example: the concept of “synching devices” replaced the more intuitive and technically precise expression “copying files”. This brilliant semiotic move inscribes the notion of artificial scarcity into our daily interactions.
Synching obscures the very fact that you are copying files around. The idea that digital information can be freely duplicated and shared is dangerous – a gateway to piracy. What you are supposed to think instead, is that you acquired the right to consume a song, a video, or a piece of software, via a certain number of sanctioned devices and/or for a certain amount of time. And you shouldn’t really bother about how this affects your file system. In fact, your file system may not even exists.
Like the newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984, Applespeak is subtle and gradual.
Referring to applications as “apps” is not just a branding technique but a necessary linguistic reduction to conceptualize a lesser type of application. A little piece of software that sits in its little sandbox and doesn’t try to compete with the overarching platform.
For decades, digital artists and videogame developers have fought to elevate the status of software to that of any other cultural artifact. Apple overtly reject this idea.
The second paragraph of the guidelines for app developers reads:
We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app.
An app is primarily a commodity and a functional tool. After all, freedom of speech doesn’t apply to screwdrivers or compasses.
Still, they’re not excluding the possibility of some kind of meaning emerging from an app, they just reserve the right to censor what doesn’t comply with their inscrutable moral standards:
We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.
The term “gatekeeper” in Information Technology is generally used as a negative term to refer to entities in a position of control over crucial services. In Applespeak, Gatekeeper becomes the friendly bouncer that knows when somebody “crosses the line”.
Designating all the applications that are not Apple-approved as “damaged files” to be trashed is an even bolder linguistic intervention. Users who want to decide what software runs on their machines have to change the default setting and go through another intimidating message.
Beware: the Internet outside Apple’s digital stores is a scary, scary place…
Boiling the frog
In terms of security, Gatekeeper is a remarkably lazy approach. Instead of making a “black list” of bad software like anti-virus programs generally do, Gatekeeper starts from a presumption of guilt and performs a “white list” check. If you sell through the Mac App store, paying a yearly fee and 30% of the revenues for this privilege, you are on the list. Unless, of course, your products violate their arbitrary guidelines.
You’d have to be the most clueless Apple believer to buy into this narrative. If developers’ certification was really the key to security, a third-party validation by companies in the business of detecting malware would be more appropriate.
A complementary approach could involve educating users to recognize suspicious files – which unfortunately it’s at odds with Apple’s tendency to strategically obfuscate the internal structure of their systems.
As depressing as it can be, it’s more logical to think of Gatekeeper as a step toward the exclusive control of content in that shiny post-PC era envisioned by Steve Jobs. The monopolistic App Store for iPhone and iPad turned out to be so profitable, it would be foolish for them to not extend the system beyond mobile devices.
Needless to say, Apple already has the capacity to block all non-approved software running on “their” machines.
Some Total Apple Consumers may welcome this as a another time-saving, stress-reducing service, but such a swift, uncompromising move is likely to cause an insurrection among power-users and software developers. That’s why they can only attempt a gradual shift. For now it’s just a security setting you can change but who knows what will happen with the next update. The message to developers is clear: if you make software for Mac you’d better look into this whole Mac Store thing, or you may suddenly be cut off.
Personal Computer = Personal Liberation
Techy people may find these remarks obvious. Apple’s 360º expansion strategy is rather transparent if you bother to observe it in perspective. But many computer users can’t even tell the difference between a browser and a search engine. They certainly aren’t going to mess with their System Preferences to make their computers “less safe”.
Why should we care about them? Shouldn’t we welcome more constrained systems for those who are so dumb as to not recognize malware and online scams? Isn’t the iPad the most appropriate device for the 21st century couch potatoes who only need to check their email, watch some cat videos, and post pictures on Facebook?
If we care about being surrounded by active, informed and empowered citizens, we should be concerned about Apple’s post-PC vision, and fight for the right to control the software that runs on our devices. Apple is on the front line of what writer and commentator Cory Doctorow calls The Coming War on General-Purpose Computing.
This isn’t an entirely new struggle. The first book about personal computers was written by Ted Nelson in 1974. Its title was Computer Lib/Dream Machines, a fist on the cover, with the emphatic call: “You can and must understand computers NOW”.
For pioneers like Nelson, the creative and political potential of computing machines and informational networks was immediately evident. The challenge was to make these machines available to everybody and promote a new kind of literacy.
The tyrants to overthrow were the centralized systems, namely: television and mainframe computers. It’s worth remembering that before PCs, people worked with “terminals” which functioned as input/output devices for central entities called mainframes. Systems administrators defined the policies and controlled the software.
These radical ideas of computing freedom were so influential that they became selling points for the emerging IT sector. The famous TV ad launching the first Macintosh computer in 1984 dramatized this antagonism, referencing Orwell’s dystopia:
Obviously, disruptive companies can’t stay disruptive forever. Investors demand increasing returns and impose an endless march of expansion and consolidation. Ultimately, every IT corporation strives to become Big Brother.
The Total Apple Consumers (which, again, are the ideal consumers that Apple tries to create) are the subjects of a mainframe model applied to the consumer-side. They store all their personal data in remote iClouds; purchase music, eBooks and newspapers from iTunes; find directions, stores and local services though Apple Maps; they dabble with apps made by Apple’s indentured developers; when tired of tapping and swiping touchscreens, they can enjoy a moment of relaxation, watching TV and movies through Apple TV.
Their post-PC devices could perhaps help them figure out what TV shows they should watch and which ones they should “move to the trash”; which websites are trustworthy and which ones are “damaged” and so on…
Once you control all points of entry to the digital realm, the possibilities are endless.
They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
- Benjamin Franklin
A couple of months ago, Stephen Totilo from Kotaku read some angry tweets of mine regarding the teaser campaign for Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Stephen asked me if I was interested in expanding my 140 character long rants into a 400-600 hundred word article. I gave him 1600 words. I republish the entire article here:
The future is black, announces the trailer for Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.
The next iteration of the popular first person shooter hardly needs any marketing campaign: immediately after the official announcement, the gaming press diligently started to operate as an extension of Activision’s PR department. Small and big media scrambled to produce the most comprehensive list of features, talking polygons and frame rates, revealing plot fragments, speculating on new gameplay additions that may or may not rejuvenate the trite shooting genre.
Given the predicable hype, it is surprising to see among the promotional material a serious, high production value “documentary” about 21st century warfare, touching upon cyberterrorism, robotics and counter-insurgency.
The 6-part video – available here in “interactive” form or here in sequential form – prominently features military commentator P.W. Singer and Oliver North, the key figure of the Iran-Contra scandal that nearly brought down the Reagan administration in the mid 80s.
Allow me a digression. The Iran-Contra affair is one of those rare cases in Cold War history where it’s absolutely clear who the bad guys are. Oliver North, at the time working for the National Security Council, was involved in the clandestine sale of weapons to Iran (a rather common practice during the Cold War’s proxy conflicts). The proceeds from the sales were then illegally diverted to finance the Contras, a network of CIA-trained guerrilla groups, who opposed the democratically elected government of Nicaragua. Contras were notorious for their human right abuses such as murder, torture, rape and executions of civilians. They also funded themselves through drug trafficking and it’s been alleged that the CIA was supporting, or at least, tolerating these activities. These last allegations were disproved after an investigation led by, well… the CIA.
The story of how Oliver North went from being a convicted felon for these activities, to Republican candidate for the Senate, best selling author, news commentator for Fox News and eventually testimonial/media-stuntman for Activision, is a kind of twisted version of the American Dream that I’m not going to tell.
Back to the trailer: it’s quite unusual to see a major game developer contextualizing a title in relation to current, hotly debated issues; that is, avoiding the notorious “it’s just a game” stance and acknowledging that military-themed games are part of a larger discourse around war. It’s also somewhat gutsy to take a clear political position by hiring a figure like North. I personally would love to see more game companies taking their roles as cultural producers this seriously.
As it turns out, it’s hard to sell a shooter about black operations without glorifying the real black operations. The “documentary” feels like a polished piece of propaganda that may have come straight out of the Department of Defense.
I’m talking about a rather new kind of propaganda here. The post-9/11 triumphalist rhetoric of America’s Army, Kuma War or Full Spectrum Warrior (just to mention other games set in contemporary or near-future scenarios) can only sound awkward after the epic failures of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Hence, the militaristic fable has to assume a different tone – in this case, a dark, apocalyptic – and envision scenarios of unconceivable horror to strike an audience desensitized by a decade of continuous war. As Oliver North puts it in the trailer: “I don’t think the average American grasps how violent war is about to become”.
The bulk of the narrative is provided by P.W. Singer, a prominent military expert and fortunate choice for this type of contextualization. His book Wired for War is an outstanding account of robotic warfare (and, by the way, the main source and inspiration for my latest game Unmanned). The treatise describes the state of the art of unmanned systems and examines the political, ethical and legal issues emerging from this ongoing technological revolution. It inevitably raises difficult questions: How our perception of the frontline changes when we can remotely control a UAV from home? How important is the risk of losing human lives when waging a war? Will robots make us more inclined to use violence in resolution of conflicts? Who is responsible when an autonomous machine kills a human? The personnel who deployed it? The commander of the operation? The engineer? The programmer who made the software?
Of course, all these questions are not even hinted at in the Black Ops 2 “documentary”. Singer is simply used to tell us that “the future is here” and that robots may have dangerous bugs, while North spins his Fox News-style terror scenario.
Oliver North’s nightmare seems to coincide with the premise of the game: in a imminent future, a supervillain (possibly affiliated with Anonymous) is able to hijack an army of unmanned war machines and attack Los Angeles.
In the game, or in North’s vision (at this point it’s hard to tell) the future of warfare is with black ops. Clandestine Special Forces can be deployed anywhere, in no time, with the most sophisticated weaponry to confront a diffused, unfathomable enemy.
Don’t understand the connection between cyberterrorism and covert operations? Don’t worry, that’s nothing but a non sequitur that serves the purpose of introducing the main themes of Black Ops 2. Nevertheless, this kind of nonsense, especially if repeated ad nauseam in news media and pop culture, contributes to the way we think about conflicts and future threats.
I believe there is a twofold process transforming the way we perceive war. On one hand we have a normalization of images of war: in media, in electronic entertainment, even in viral videos showing robotic Big Dogs or other DARPA-funded marvels. On the other hand, we have a massive deployment of “strategies of separation” such as unmanned aerial vehicles or undercover operations that work together to make the material reality of war as distant as possible from our daily lives.
Black Ops 2 will probably end up contributing to both sides of this equation by trivializing war and celebrating the culture of secrecy at the same time.
You may ask: what’s wrong with celebrating black operations anyway?
In the Ramboesque universe of Call of Duty, black ops are presented as an elite force type of operations, carried out in secrecy by modern ninjas. But in reality, what makes certain operations “black” is not that they go undetected by enemy forces – after all, most of military engagements are meant to surprise or deceive the opponent. The peculiarity of black operations is of being untraceable and deniable by the very institutions which finance and conduct them. This secrecy is desirable whenever the operations, if done overtly, would cause popular uproar, diplomatic crisis or legal troubles. It allows the perpetrators to bypass public scrutiny, democratic oversight and the Laws of War, a complex system of liability under which the “proper” military must operate.
Real-world black operations are often indistinguishable from terrorism. The 1985 Beirut car bombing, in which American and British intelligences failed in their attempt to assassinate an Islamic cleric, resulted in the deaths of about 60 civilians, including children leaving school. Take note Activision and Treyarch: it sounds like a fun mission.
Examples of contemporary black operations include the murder of several Iranian nuclear scientists, the virus Stuxnet, the undeclared drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and the Extraordinary Rendition Program that involves the kidnapping of suspected terrorists and their illegal detention and torture in a network of secret prisons operated by the CIA.
The most paradoxical aspect of black operations is that they are mostly invisible to the public opinion here in the West, but not in the countries where these operations take place. Venezuelan people know and remember vividly that the 2002 coup against their democratically elected government was funded by Washington. For the families and friends of the thousands of victims of drone strikes in Pakistan, those operations are not that secret anymore. The news that U.S. drones are deliberately targeting rescuers and funerals may be of secondary importance here, but abroad, it fuels an ever growing anti-Western sentiment.
In the West, we live with constant cognitive dissonance because these practices clearly conflict with our supposed moral high ground and the official mission of “exporting democracy”. We deal with it by quickly forgetting troubling events, by buying into sanitized stories such as the ones presented by videogames, or by crafting elaborate echo chambers where the only news stories we are exposed to are ones that relate with our hobbies and interests.
It’s entirely possible that Black Ops 2 may end up telling a fascinating story, the story of a country that achieved such a complete military supremacy that the only thing it fears is its own arsenal. It could also attempt new forms of gameplay to describe the complexities of asymmetrical warfare and the vaporous world of cyberterrorism, but I suspect we’ll end up with a refinement of the same shooter, this time with robotic enemies as targets.
This coming November, you may be one of the millions who will purchase Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Before you start fantasizing about a Los Angeles under drone attack and the undercover soldiers who will save us all, you may want to think about the horrifying history of undercover operations and the actuality of drone wars today.
The future may indeed be black, but the present isn’t bright either.
P.S. If you want to see a real documentary about the robotics revolution in warfare I recommend Remote Control War produced by the CBC.
There are many good films about United States’ foreign policy in Latin America. A recent one is John Pilger’s The War on Democracy, available on Netflix. This topic is also central to the seminal educational/strategy game Hidden Agenda by Jim Gasperini.