On September 11th 2001 the United States suffered the deadliest terrorist attack in world history. In one fell swoop Western media’s conception of Islam and the direction of George W Bush’s presidency were altered at a fundamental level. Two months later a game in which a proxy for the US military fights to wrest control of a weapon of galactic destruction from a group of corrupt religious zealots became the fastest-selling videogame of its time.
Clearly a videogame with Halo’s blockbuster credentials took more than two months to develop but off the back of a decade of intermittent Al-Qaeda attacks, the rise of corrupt tyrant Saddam Hussein, and the terrifying risk of weapons of mass destruction growing in the American public’s imagination, the new Other in the American psyche was already taking shape. Composed of disparate nations and cultures united by a shared ideology, unyielding to diplomacy, destructive in their delusions: Islamic fundamentalism in reality, Halo’s Covenant and The Flood in fiction. The Covenant, with their archaic prophetic hierarchy, caste system, and opulent iconography embody the fearsome destructive power of corrupted religious institutions. The Flood, composed from the grotesque and twisted reanimated corpses of the dead – part-zombie, part-fungus long before The Last of Us – appear as a physical metaphor for the lethal, reality-distorting, all-encompassing threat of the spread of such depraved ideologies. Like so many videogames, the thing we most often do with these metaphors is shoot them in the face.
“Like so many videogames, the thing we most often do with these metaphors is shoot them in the face.”
By the time 2003’s surprise invasion of Iraq by the US and allies arrived Halo had sold three million copies worldwide and would go on to sell another million by January of the following year. In November 2004 Halo 2 was released – breaking sales records yet again – but now the mood had begun to change. Halo 2’s campaign offers a secondary viewpoint on events – from an exiled Covenant alien – and forces co-operation. Now that the simple, brutal catharsis of the original Halo had passed reality set in: lasting peace will only be achieved by working with internal moderates, allies who (it is feared) may betray you at any time. That uncertainty of alliance carries through to the trilogy’s end as the player works towards eradicating The Flood and freeing the conglomerate species of The Covenant. In Iraq, American and coalition forces attempted to “help the Iraqi people create conditions for a transition to a representative self-government;” Hussein’s regime forces – dressed in civilian clothes – shot them in the back.
The original Halo trilogy ends in all but perfect cadence, with every narrative thread resolved, heroic sacrifices willingly and effectively made, and just a dash of uncertainty to justify yet more sequels and spin-offs. I don’t know if you’ve seen the news recently, but the Middle East didn’t exactly get the luxury of resolution – though that’s not a story the West has any particular interest in selling to itself.
Across the Obama administration core releases in the Halo series – while for the most part well-received critically – saw gradually declining sales. Speculative and not-so-speculative modern wars now dominate the narratives of first-person shooters. As the West withdraws flesh-and-blood ground troops from the Middle Eastern theatres of war, and the cold distance of drone warfare becomes the new norm, the thirst for ‘realism’ has skyrocketed. The all-American heroes that star in this new bloodthirsty escapism are of unquestionable character and honor, almost to a man. No mistakes were made.
Since the tail end of the Bush administration Call Of Duty games have frequently been set in contemporary or near-future settings: Modern Warfare & Black Ops being the standout branches of the Call of Duty tree. These games have been amongst the top 5 best-selling games of the year, outperforming Halo series releases, every single year of Obama’s presidency. The appetite for worlds where modern military operations result in a clear-cut triumph of good over evil has grown exponentially, despite real-world examples being few and far between. Furthermore, as temporal distance grows from the horrors of Afghanistan and Iraq, we’ve less need for a side order of metaphor with our catharsis. It seems we are more than happy to gun down hyper-realist cartoons of today’s media demons – ranging from ISIS to Mexican drug cartels – now that these conflicts appear distant, dream-like.
“The appetite for worlds where modern military operations result in a clear-cut triumph of good over evil has grown exponentially.”
The only games that on occasion outsold the modern war genre in this period were Deus Ex and GTA V. The latter comforts us with uninspiring satire and a fully-realised sandbox world to destroy. The former – exploring the now-familiar scenarios of a cyberpunk world ruled by a corporate elite – could have been the canary in the coalmine. It may have pulled the wool over our eyes with its poorly conceived parable of racism, but at its heart Deus Ex is about disrupting corporate control, exposing government conspiracies and corruption. Control was something that, in the EU referendum here in the UK, we were constantly invited to ‘take back’. Perhaps Adam Jensen’s fight against a global, plutocratic elite was emblematic of a real world that has tired of neoliberalism. Or at least emblematic of the kinds of issues that will be raked over again and again by global media outlets, because these are the kinds of reasons people feel comfortable giving in television interviews. These are the kinds of reasons people are happy to put their name behind, the kind of reasons they will accept as a caption to their face.
Last week Donald Trump became the President-elect. A man of frankly questionable qualifications. A man of frankly questionable calibre. We can only speculate as to what horrors lie in store for America, what multi-faceted embarrassments will be writ large on the international stage. We can only speculate as to what multi-million-dollar entertainment product will satiate our self-soothing desires.
Who is the Other in the American psyche now? Certainly not an outsider any more. Judging by the media, it seems half of Americans gawp in terror at the spread of the reality-distorting fascist virus. The other half have struck out in fear at a hierarchy perceived as rotten to the core. The new American Other is surely the American people themselves – illuminated in a harsh, uncanny light. I can only compare it to the post-Brexit feeling here in the UK: I wandered city streets in my echo chamber examining passers-by and wondering, “Was it you? Did you do this? On purpose?”
“Who is the Other in the American psyche now?”
Paranoia will no doubt infect America’s cultural fixations. I imagine the multiplayer survival genre will see a boon. The more vicious and bitter the back-stabbing the better. Boring-but-brutal free-market capitalism simulator EVE Online might yet make another unexpected comeback. [Eerily, this has already begun since this piece was written. Edmund is clearly a prophet and we should all fear his dark powers. – Ed.] Perhaps we’ll conduct witch hunts in VR, or try to stop them. Perhaps there will be games where we can communicate with people who hold viewpoints obverse to our own. Will the American psyche find its new escapism in eviscerating the perceived evil of its fellow citizens, or is that already too heart-crushingly close to reality? Will it immerse itself in virtual utopias? Will the West embrace insular nationalism as a fresh, tragedy-baiting frontier, or spend its nights playing No Man’s Sky, trying to get a galaxy’s distance between itself and reality?
Perhaps insularity and egoism are just in the water now. We may hope that games like Dishonored 2, with its female co-protagonist and broad-minded narrative team, might signify a new era of progressive politics in big-budget games, but just look at the marketing: ‘Take Back What’s Yours’. Could there be a Trumpier slogan? ‘Make Dunwall Great Again’.
I’ve no great knack for premonition, but I suspect the tower defense genre is going to have a good first term.