Article Analysis: “Electronic Empire: …” By William Partin

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March 27, 2012 by wcparti

Article Review:  http://gamestudies.org/0801/articles/hoeglund

When I was 19 years old, I travelled to Morocco, planning to learn the Arabic language and steep myself in the theory and practice of Islamic architecture. Perhaps I was too naive; when my trip came to a close, I hadn’t done much of either. Instead, I had spent the last four months galavanting across the country in a succession of 1980’s diesel Mercedes in search of the “real” Morocco, which mostly involved late-night happenings with hash-addled hoodlums in port cities (one of them told me he had learned his English from Metallica, and that he planned to cross over to the U.S. from Mexico, once he could muster up the courage to skirt past the lions that guarded the border). So by almost any academic standard, my summer was a pretty dismal failure. But in this whirl of taxis, tagines, and truancy, there was one shining moment that changed my life forever. A graduate student (now a dear friend and mentor) lent me a book: Edward Said’s 1978 masterpiece, Orientalism. It was searing critique of Western thought that, in a little under two hundred pages, called into question the legitimacy of everything I had ever read, seen, or heard about the Orient. The experience of reading it was borderline traumatic; realizing that I was part of the problem was even more so. But in that self realization, I found a direction to my scholarship. I felt it was my responsibility to do my part in exposing this tradition of domination through the manipulation of knowledge. I chose Art as my battlefield, while still understanding that Orientalist discourse seeped through every element of our culture. So when I was searching for an academic article to review for our class, I was not entirely surprised to see an article entitled “Electronic Empire: Orientalism Revisited in the Modern Military Shooter.” It is a fine article–well intentioned, even if it is a little naive (which can be a good thing now and then). I will present it here, and then offer a critique of my own, which will not disagree with the author’s thesis, but will simply update his methodology to the current state of postcolonial thought.

The article is, in essence, a critique of the modern military shooter using theories derived from Edward Said’s Orientalism, the foundational text for postcolonialism. His thesis reads as such: “as part of the ‘military-industrial-media-entertainment complex,’ the games under scrutiny render the Middle East as a site of perpetual war and enlist, both through their marketing strategies and through ludic semiotics, the gamer as a soldier willing to fight the virtual war and even support the ideologies that function as the games’ political rationale.” We should begin by examining the underlying notions in each of these slippery terms.
Hoeglund’s idea of the “military-industrial-media-entertainment complex” is not a new one. Its ancestor is, unsurprisingly, the “military industrial complex,” that unholy union of public and private interest so feared by President Eisenhower. Its purpose in this article is to indicate a particular political goal of the American military: to secure its place as a new Imperial power, a la nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain. As a neo-Conservative commentator notes, “American Imperialism has been the greatest force for good in the world in the last century.” The perpetrators of this goal, in this case, the United States Military, are necessarily invested in selling this ideology to as many people as possible. This is where entertainment, and thus, videogames, enter into the picture.

Before presenting his particular arguments in regard to games, it is necessary to understand the theoretical perspective from which he will critique them. This is, as aforementioned, Said’s Orientalism. I will not elucidate his entire theory, as it is as large as it is elegant, but present its concepts that are directly applied in Hoeglund’s article. Orientalism, as Said and Hoeglund see it, is a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” The means of justifying this domination are typically enacted in the various facets of Western culture: painting, literature, and academic publication, which are particular targets of Said’s discourse. Orientalism is a recursive process that builds upon itself over time. Erroneous conceptions from the heyday of colonialism are still with us today. Two elements in particular are drawn from Said’s discourse to be applied in game studies: imaginary geographies and the necessity of perpetual war. Imaginary geographies are rooted in the perceived interchangeability of Oriental cultures. There is no better example than Disney’s Aladdin, which features an Arab protagonist, a Persian carpet, an Indian-Muslim villain, Mogul architecture, parrots, tigers, monkeys and Arab mythology, all whirled into singular amalgamation of conceptions about the Orient. Perpetual war is a slightly more difficult topic, for Said frames it in the necessity of Christian discourse to place itself in contrast (and conflict) with Islam. The East (synonymous with Islam, per imaginary geography) must therefore be dominated; it is feminine and the West is masculine. The West must penetrate the East (the dual metaphor of sexual violence is critical in Orientalist painting; see Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus). This is, in its very essence, the nature of the interaction between the two cultures.

Like my presentation in class today, I will resign myself to only presenting two of the games that Hoeglund discusses (these two are, in my mind, sufficient to both my and his purposes): America’s Army and Kuma\War. The former was funded as a recruiting tool by the U.S. Army, who, suffering their lowest recruitment totals in history, chose to engage in “aggressive, innovative experiments in…[military recruiting].” Per its marketing, the game attempts to “provide civilians with an inside perspective of today’s premier landforce: the U.S. Army…an accurate portrayal.” And yet, the game takes place in the fictional country of Zekistan (Said is rolling over in his grave). The disconnect between purported realism and fictionalization is a critical element of neo-Orientalist discourse; by blurring the two, politically charged positions that hold no claim to truth may be passed of as truthful. Kuma\War is guilty of much the same strategy; it calls itself a “interactive alternative to CNN,” and features the heavy use of photography. The player fights his way through the labyrinthine Arabian Medina; but it is womanless and childless–the only Arabs to be found are terrorists, and the only way to interact with them ends in their deaths. There is only one type of action in these games: perpetual warfare, which must rid the Arabian urban landscape of its inhabitants. In this way, these games, despite their claims to realism, do not actually present people with the reality of twenty-first century warfare. Rather, they train their players to be supporters of neo-Orientalist ideologies.

I have no problem with Mr. Hoeglund’s thesis; he is correct. These games, and many others not mentioned, are absolutely part of the “military-industrial-entertainment complex” and its geopolitical (read: Imperialist) goals. Whatever presentations of realism they offer through marketing, self definition, and ludic semiotics are deliberately misleading; they seek not to train soldiers, they seek to nourish the neo-Orientalist mentality pushed by the Neo-Conservative movement. I take issue, however, with Mr. Hoeglund’s application of postcolonial discourse, for his critique of games fails to take into account the Marxist revisions to Said’s theories.

Thirty four years is a long time in postmodern years, and Said’s account has not always aged well. Said’s theories, somewhat biased from his worldview as a Palestinian Christian, are often too direct in their assumptions regarding Orientalist techniques. Marxist critics of postcolonialism reformed Said’s account into Marx’s notion of base and superstructure, the base representing human economic activity (the global market economy) and the superstructure as the culture the grows as a result of the base as foundation. In this system, the West becomes a stand-in for the bourgeois, while the East becomes the proletariat, whose exploitation is a necessary condition for the continued existence of the bourgeois class. The manipulation of the superstructure to obfuscate the exploitation built into the base’s economic relationships is the central task of the bourgeois. They are an attempt to present the bourgeois way of life as naturalized, as if there is no alternative. The exploitive relationship between bourgeois and proletariat, then, may not be acknowledged. The process of acknowledgement implies the possibility of non-existence, the opposite strategy of naturalization. Naturalization is the bourgeois’ only defense against the inevitable revolution of the exploited proletariat. In regards to games, Hoeglund presents the goals of neo-Conservative ideology to be far too present (or maybe, conscious). He fails to understand that, per the current state of postcolonial discourse, these goals are seen to be subtly encoded into the fabric of culture. His article simply needs a little updating to own up to the attempt on the U.S. Military’s part to naturalize their position of perpetual war.

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