The Pacifist’s Play-through: can we transform video game conflict?

This week, the University of Bath’s Benjamin Bowman reflects on violent games and violent reality following the release of the newest Assassin’s Creed video game. 

Part 1: The Game is Real

Last month, publisher Ubisoft announced the latest instalment of their action-adventure game series Assassin’s Creed will include a new combat-free educational mode of their video game called Discovery Tour. It’s a bold idea. The gameplay of the Assassin’s Creed video games is historical fiction. The new one – Assassin’s Creed Origins – is set in ancient Egypt, after the deposition of Cleopatra. Discovery Tour disables the combat, replaces the adventure video game with guided tours, and the player can use the mode to explore sites like the Pyramids, receive expert tours from historians and so on.

Discovery Mode got me thinking the relationship between violent video games and real world conflict, and about the relationship between what Atkinson and Rodgers called the murder box – the game culture of creating miniature fantasy worlds of extreme violence, sadism and masculinities of conquest and destruction – and the way we perceive conflict in our everyday lives. As children, how we play in the playground. As young adults, how we think about the military, especially at recruiting tables. And so on.

Violent games and violent realities coincide, collide and share resources. As Greg Bagwell, former RAF air marshal, put it, the question is “whether we can take a young 18 or 19-year-old right out of their PlayStation bedroom and put them in a Reaper cabin and say, ‘right, you have never flown an aircraft before, that does not matter, you can operate this”. Staff Sgt. Nicolette Sebastian, Predator sensor operator on flying operations with the USAF: “Oh, it’s a gamer’s delight”. You can take the violence out of the game, but in a world where playing a games console trains you perfectly for ground attack aircraft, I would argue you can never take the game away from its violent context.

We could do with more research on how this works out. We so often think about how games engage young people – how games change (in a one way relationship) the way young people think, or what values they promote, and so on. But we neglect to think about how people experience the crossover between violent games and violent reality and especially, how we can work that crossover in a way that helps us transform violent conflict in the real world to build productive, more peaceful relationships between people. We need to think more about gamers as people who are experiencing real world conflict, recruitment and militarization, and the encroachment of violence on their everyday lives, as well as on their screens.

Part 2: Transforming Conflict

I love to teach with simulations. Last year, I taught International Relations by building and running a Model NATO simulation with my students. It went great, but the students were desperate to start a war. It wasn’t that they were violent people. It just came naturally to them, the idea that a bunch of countries would fight. I wracked my brains over this. What mistake did I make, that I turned a classroom of 170 undergraduates into warmongers?

Here’s what I did wrong. I immersed my players in the game. I never made them stop to consider anything. Indeed, the most warlike session in my Model NATO was my crisis session, when I put the players under time pressure. They loved it, but they were immersed in it, and because they didn’t stop to think, they never thought critically. They just went with what they felt, and they felt like countries would fight. It’s what countries do, right?

Taking the violence out of a video game like Assassin’s Creed sure does sanitize it, but it doesn’t do the exciting – and I think necessary – job of interrupting the immersion of the player in the murder box. People are pretty excited about the idea of Assassin’s Creed as a souped-up museum exhibit for your games console. Some are fired up by the extension of the franchise, like Leif Johnson of Motherboard: “I’d simply grown bored with the repetitive combat and the casual slaughter… but seeing first-hand how mummification was performed?” That’s the good stuff, he says. Others are up for the potential of video games for education. Ubisoft creative director Jean Geusdon told Wired: “I think games have the fascinating power to attract young minds. When you see kids and students, they were born into an interactive life. Now it’s really hard to just sit in a classroom and listen to a teacher lecture them”.

I think this excitement could be put to work on games as an experimental medium. That interactive life, that first-hand interactive experience is an opportunity to build tools for critical thinking. To my mind, this begins with breaking the spell of immersion. Whether we do it in the classroom, at the research site or in our own lives, I think there is a lot to gain from subverting violent simulations.

Dr Benjamin Bowman joined the Partnership as Research Assistant in October 2017. He has a professional background in digital engagement with young people, and he also worked as a Teaching Fellow for Comparative Politics at The University of Bath. His ESRC-funded PhD thesis was on how young people in the UK develop their own concepts of the political as they become adults. Ben has an interest in creative approaches to democracy, especially local democracy, and innovative ways for doing qualitative research, especially through co-creative and participatory methods. He has also worked on research projects on Brexit, the politics of protest and civil unrest, and migration.