Johan Höglund

Johan Höglund is professor of English at Linnaeus University and Director of the Linnaeus University Centre for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies. He has published extensively on American popular culture, New Media and their relationship to formations of US Empire. He is the author of The American Imperial Gothic: Popular Culture, Empire, Violence (2014) and the co-author, with Maria Holmgren Troy, Yvonne Leffler and Sophia Wijkmark, of Nordic Gothic (2020). He has edited special issues of Scandinavian Studies and The Journal of Popular Culture and is the co-editor, with Justin Edwards, of B-Movie Gothic: International Perspectives (Edinburgh UP, 2018), with Katarina Gregersdotter and Nicklas Hållén of Animal Horror Cinema: Genre, History and Criticism (2015), and, with Tabish Khair, of Transnational and Postcolonial Vampires (2012).

Contact information:
johan.hoglund at

Electronic Empire: Orientalism Revisited in the Military Shooter

by Johan Höglund


Through use of Said's concept of Orientalism, this article examines how a set of military computer games set in the Middle East construct this location within its game space. Initially, the article addresses the problem of the realistic and the real in these games. The discussion then centers on the relationship between these games, the War on Terror and the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In connection to this, the article pays particular attention to what has been styled the Military Entertainment Complex (Lenoir, 2003) or, alternatively, the military-industrial-media-entertainment network (Der Derian, 2001). The article concludes that, as a part of the Military 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 game semiotics, the gamer as a soldier willing to fight the virtual war and even support the ideology that functions as the games' political rationale.

Keywords: American empire, computer games, first-person shooter, game studies, military shooter, Orientalism, perpetual war, US imperialism, war-on-terror


One does not need to be a student of computer games to notice that one of the most successful game genres at the moment is the military shooter. The Medal of Honor, Call of Duty and Battlefield series span virtually all systems and consoles, assuring that the military shooter keeps attracting new gamers and generating increased revenue for the game producers. Furthermore, since the arrival of the first first-person shooters (FPS), this genre has attracted the attention of actual military organizations. One of the most interesting conversions of the seminal FPS Doom was Marine Doom.[1] Primitive as the first military shooters were, the computer generated game space allowed for a new type of simulation where the practicing soldier was able to interact with other soldiers and with computer generated enemies on screen. Marine Doom was soon released to the public letting not only soldiers but anyone in possession of the original computer game to play the modified, military training scenario of the modification.

Marine Doom takes place in a non-descript game space where the objective is the destruction of an enemy bunker. Since Marine Doom lacks fire-breathing demons and the imaginative environment of the original Doom game, it can undoubtedly be considered as more realistic than the original. However, Marine Doom still lacks the sophisticated graphics and physics needed to create a believable game world. Since then, the military shooter has evolved and game producers, commercial as well as military, are now able to set the action of the game or simulation within realistic environments that render spaces reminiscent of Normandy during the 1940s, Vietnam in the sixties or, most importantly for the present study, the Middle East during the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The Middle East has arguably been the focus of American economic and military interests since the end of the cold war, and the purpose of this study is to examine how a set of military computer games construct the East within its virtual game space. This discussion first deals partly with the problem of realism and reality in computer games. I will then move on to discuss the relationship between these games, the War on Terror and the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In connection to this, I will pay particular attention to what has been styled the Military Entertainment Complex (see Lenoir, 2003) or, alternatively, the military-industrial-media-entertainment network (see Der Derian, 2001). In relation to this, I will introduce and discuss the concept of neo-Orientalism. This concept can perhaps best be described as a discourse that in military electronic entertainment is characterized most importantly by the construction of the Middle East as a frontier zone where a perpetual war between US interests and Islamic terrorism is enacted.

Neo-Orientalism in American culture has been studied and discussed within disciplines such as Post-colonial studies and Cultural Studies. Unfortunately, these disciplines address digital entertainment without any regularity and seldom venture into computer gaming.[2] Game Studies, by contrast, tend to focus on the semiotics and technology of computer and video games, often ignoring the political dimensions of the complex narrative and virtual environment that make up the gaming experience.[3] From this perspective, the present study is an attempt to discuss the military shooter as precisely a computer game (rather than just any for of popular culture), but with the aid of a set of theoretical tools normally associated with Cultural Studies. The point of this is not to suggest that the methodological arsenal of Cultural Studies is better or more relevant when studying computer games than that traditionally employed by Game Studies, but rather that the two fields may benefit from such a methodological transgression and perhaps even that it may be unnecessary to insist on differentiating between Cultural Studies and Game Studies; both disciplines, to the extent that they are two disciplines, ultimately serve to interrogate the remarkably diverse landscape that is contemporary culture.

Orientalism Revisited

To understand the relationship between Orientalism and the military shooter, it is necessary to first examine where the concept comes from and how it may inform the study of contemporary computer games. In Edward Said's seminal text Orientalism, Orientalism is most pertinently described as a "Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient" (Said, 1978, p.3). Orientalism is thus a "distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts" (Said, 1978, p.12). In other words, Said defines Orientalism as a discourse-with reference to Michel Foucault-a discourse that through journalism, literature, academia and politics, encouraged, legitimized and even enabled or produced the British domination of great portions of the East.

Today, America holds a position strikingly similar to that held by the British Empire of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Claims have been made both by the critical left and by the approving, neoconservative right that America, in fact, constitutes an empire.[4] The British historian Niall Fergusson, for example, argues fiercely that the "United States is an empire" (Fergusson, 2004, p.10) in Colossus: The Price of America's Empire, while neoconservative historian and political writer Max Boot confidently declares that "U.S. imperialism has been the greatest force for good in the world during the past century" (Boot, 2003, p.1).

These assertions furthermore suggest that US imperial practice is surrounded by the same kind of political, historical and cultural discursive framework as surrounded the British Empire. In other words, it is possible that the bid for a New Global American Century is accompanied by an American-style Orientalism, an Orientalism that legitimizes US foreign policy in the Middle East in the same way that British Orientalism made British colonial policy both possible and agreeable to the British and European public.

There are ongoing efforts to investigate this possibility. One of the most thorough studies on American Orientalism within popular culture is Epic Encounters by Melani McAlister (2001). McAlister, writing before the ascendancy of George W. Bush and before 9/11, argues that American culture is characterized by "a new version of Orientalism, one that revitalizes, in a more subtle form, the insistence that fixed cultural differences must structure the organization of political power" (McAlister, 2001, p.12). In the wake of the War on Terror and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, there may be reason to suspect that the American version of Orientalism has grown more insistent and permeated American cultural and political life even further. As I will argue in this paper, the military shooter is one form of popular culture that appears to precisely insist that fixed cultural differences must structure not only political power but military as well.

That computer games help disseminating a new form of Orientalism was furthermore recently suggested by Vít Sisler in the article "Digital Arabs: Representation in Video Games", a wide-ranging study of more than 100 computer and consol games. Under a chapter heading named "Orientalism in the digital age", Sisler describes how most western game designers produce games that either "construct a 'fantastical' Middle East, using quasi-historical elements in order to give the player an oriental impression" or, in military action games, routinely represent the Arab as a terrorist and Islamic extremist who laugh mockingly after they have succeeding in killing an American soldier (Sisler, 2008, pp.207-8). Sisler's conclusion is that while western game producers insist on stereotyping and Othering the Arab, the digital game as a medium has the potential to transcend this stereotyping just like any other cultural form. While eminently useful and thorough, Sisler's examination of military action games suffers somewhat from the tremendous scope of his study as he is only able to devote a few pages to this genre.

The Military Shooter

Any serious student of electronic entertainment is well aware of the fact that digital entertainment travels further and is accessed by more people than most other forms of culture, more than academic writing, more, perhaps, even than broadcast and printed news media. Even more poignantly, popular culture in general and computer games in particular, to a greater extent than academic writing and news media, can be bought and doctored to suit a particular political agenda. Because of these qualities, electronic popular culture is singularly well-posed to construct and produce the world we live in. In fact, David Leonard, as one of those who emphasize the political content of electronic games, has argued that computer games constitute the most influential conveyor of discourse and ideology in contemporary American society: "video games-more so than schools, religion, or other forms of popular culture-are teaching Americans about race, gender, sexuality, class, and national identity" (Leonard, 2004). Because of this, and because of their popularity, electronic games are, again in the words of Leonard, "sophisticated vehicles inhabiting and disseminating ideologies of hegemonies" (Leonard, 2004).

In other words, it would appear necessary to study computer games as vehicles that disseminate the ideologies of hegemonies. Anyone interested in how race, ethnicity, gender and national identity are constructed in the West, and how these constructions also enter non-Western discourse, needs to pay attention to all forms of electronic entertainment and perhaps to computer and console games in particular. The study of the military shooter, its content, narrative and spatial strategies as well as its economic and political relations, shows this need clearly. The games that I will pay particular attention to are: Americas Army (U.S. Army, 2002), Kuma\War (Kuma Reality Games, 2004), Close Combat: First to Fight (Destineer, 2005), and Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers (Pandemic Studios, 2006).

Figure 1. The un-uniformed terrorist enemy rears his head to invite the gamer's sniper fire in Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers.

These four games all belong to the genres Military Tactical Shooter or military shooter. What they all have in common is that they render a game space before the gamer that is reminiscent of an actual, modern battlefield. To be precise, Close Combat, America's Army: Special Forces, Kuma\War and Full Spectrum Warrior all take place, partly or completely, in the Middle East. Thus, the game spaces rendered by these games reveal the architecture and the iconography of a (usually generic) Islamic nation and the people the gamer, playing as an American soldier, encounter are dressed as the stereotypical Arab. Sometimes this Middle Eastern setting is presented as Iraq or Afghanistan; sometimes the games takes place in an imaginary locale such as "Zekistan" as is the case in Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers.

Figure 2. The Middle Eastern terrorist of Close Combat: First to Fight as seen in the game trailer. Note the defiant expression, the stereotypical beard and the red turban.

Regardless of whether these games take place in a fictional nation or in a supposedly authentic state, they all purport to be both realistic-meaning essentially that the game environment and its physics appear authentic before the gamer's eyes-and real-meaning that the narrative that the gamer becomes part of is historically and ideologically accurate.[5] To separate these terms is crucial when discussing the way the military shooter represents the Middle East. To claim that a game is realistic means essentially that the game space the gamer enters looks, sounds and feels authentic. A realistic Middle East in the military shooter is a world that appears to obey the same natural laws as the universe our physical bodies inhabit; people cannot fly or walk through walls, when shot a person falls down, bleeds and is either injured or dead.

The notion of a real Middle East is much more problematic, partly from a technological perspective, but most importantly from a political and theoretical point of view. To argue that a game is real is to suggest that the game space they render corresponds to what we would find in the Middle East should we go there. More importantly, it is also to suggest that the action of the game, the game's narrative (to use a somewhat controversial term within Game Studies) and its ideological and political rationale correspond to a material, ideological and political reality that can be located in the real world. In other words, for a game producer to suggest that a particular game it is realistic is not necessarily problematic. It merely means that the game appears life-like. To propose that the game is real is problematic as this means that what happens in the game may also happen, or has happened, in reality and that the ideological and political rationale of the game is similar to the world we inhabit with our physical bodies.

Figure 3. Photography is intermingled with computer graphics in the game Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers. Note the mazelike appearance of the Arabian battleground behind the two American soldiers.

From this perspective it is interesting that the four games of this study focus on the creation of a game space that is at the same time very realistic and real. Indeed, most of the games are certainly realistic: when shot in the left shoulder, a body will fall back, pivoting to the left, the weapons used by soldiers and terrorists look like and perform very much like their real-life counterparts, vehicles will also look and drive like real military vehicles and objects can be moved around, stood on, used for shelter or shot to pieces. What is interesting, however, is that the games are also marketed as being real in the sense that they tell stories-or allow the gamer to take part in actions that are, or could be, true. This claim is made partly because all four games have been developed in close cooperation with military personnel, and partly because they deal precisely with military violence in the Middle East-something the American, as well as the global, citizen encounters routinely through CNN and other American broadcast news providers.

Figure 4. The action in Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten hammers is framed and explained by the narrative of news-reporter Jared Stevens who accompanies the group on missions and explains the constant carnage the gamer participates in.

Thus, the makers of America's Army claim to immerse the gamer in the everyday reality of the US army, arguing that the "game provides civilians with an inside perspective and a virtual role in today's premier land force: the US Army. The game is designed to provide an accurate portrayal of Soldier experiences across a number of occupations" (America's Army webpage). Furthermore, Close Combat: First to Fight is advertised as: "an authentic, team-based first-person shooter created under the direction of active-duty United States Marines fresh from the front lines of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Set in a modern mid-eastern urban battleground, players lead a four-man Marine fireteam through the perils of modern urban combat" (Close Combat webpage).

Close Combat is thus a game that boasts the involvement of actual Marine veterans fresh out of the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq in its production. The game as such is technologically advanced, allowing the player to enter a meticulously modeled Middle Eastern setting. As a member of a small team of elite soldiers, the role of the player is to flush out and neutralize local forces. The player moves his or her team carefully through the streets of a bombed out, anonymous Middle Eastern city, scanning windows and doors, on the lookout for the red turbans that some of the swarthy enemy soldiers inanely sport on the top of their heads. When the enemy has been engaged, the carnage is fast, furious and remarkably realistic.

Figure 5. The Middle Eastern play/battle ground of Close Combat: First to Fight as seen in the game trailer. The gamer is invited into a labyrinthine game space where the only interaction possible is relentless military violence.

In a similar way, Kuma\War also portrays itself as a game that is not only realistic, but which also re-enacts real and actual battlefield events. Through playing the game, you get to participate in presumably historically accurate events that were recently on the news. Thus, as a player of Kuma\War you get to re-enact the capture of Saddam Hussein, or invade his residential palace and assassinate his sons. In this way, Kuma\War does not propose to situate the player in a fantasy world, but in a historically accurate, and therefore real, environment and the game is, not surprisingly, marketed with the slogan "Real war news. Real war games" (Kuma\War webpage).

To further enhance the feeling of accuracy and realism, these games are marketed with the help of elaborate home pages and television advertisements which stress their relationship to the ongoing military conflicts the US is involved with. In addition to this, most games also use a number of ploys to make the gameplay experience seem more real. For example, the mission assignments of Kuma\War, downloaded from the Kuma\War website, are accompanied by actual news photography of US soldiers in Iraq. The missions are also explained with the help of fake news reports which clarify the event the player is about to be confronted with, while also outlining the moral stakes of this event. In addition to this, Kuma has enlisted the retired major general Thomas Wilkerson who explains the action and the tactical problems facing both US forces on the ground and the gamer who is about to engage in this allegedly real mission. When it comes to graphics and detail, Kuma\War is not state of the art. Therefore, the thrill is finally not in how realistically the environment is rendered, but in its presumably close approximation to news stories carefully picked from American news media.

The interplay between the realistic game space, the news flashes reminiscent of CNN and Fox News and White House press briefings, allows the makers of Kuma\War to think about their product as something other than a game. An article in Wired explains that Kuma's chief executive Keith Halpern "sees his company not as a hyperrealistic competitor of Nintendo, but a highly interactive alternative to CNN" (Werde, 2004). That Kuma indeed perceives a direct link between their game space and reality is further explained in an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle where Halper argues that "We don't really see ourselves strictly as making games …We use game technology, but in a news-like way, and telling the stories of US soldiers and others through that. ... For many of our customers, gaming is the main way they pick up on the news anyway" (Halper quoted by Freeman, 2005). In other words, Halper is arguing that Kuma\War is news. Halper's both striking and provocative notion positions the gaming experience not primarily as entertainment but as an actual confrontation with history and the real world. In other words, as far as Halper is concerned, Kuma\War recreates a historically and ideologically actual space, allowing the gamer/newshound to access and partake in this reality.

The claim that it is possible to re-create or accurately describe reality is problematic under any circumstances. For the manufacturer of a military computer game based on the US news media's description of the occupation in Iraq to make this claim borders, perhaps, on the absurd. From the perspective of the gaming community though, the relationship between these games and reality is not necessarily perceived as a problematic one. Thus, it may well be argued that Halpern is saying essentially what Leonard argues in an already quoted passage, that "video games-more so than schools, religion, or other forms of popular culture-are teaching American's about race, gender, sexuality, class, and national identity". However, to Halpern this is not a problem, but rather a natural consequence of the digital revolution.

From this perspective, it is important to keep in mind that when these games claim to be real, this claim has more to do with the historical and ideological content than with the games' capacity to render a life-like version of the Middle East. The question that needs to be addressed is therefore what kind of game space these games actually produce and what kind of narratives they construct.

Perpetual War and Neo-Orientalism

When discussing the games from this perspective, it is necessary to stress two aspects of Orientalism as Said describes it. The first is the fact that Orientalism essentially conjures an imaginary space, a space that finally produces the East in the minds of a Western audience. The second thing that needs stressing is that Orientalism both then and now is intimately connected with economic and military practice. In many ways, British Orientalism enabled the colonization of the East. Similarly, American neo-Orientalism appears to justify and even encourage and produce American military and economic practices in the Middle East.

To return to the games in question, and to look closely at the Middle East they render, it should be clear that this space is very one-dimensional in a metaphorical sense, despite being created by sophisticated 3D-engines. This one-dimensionality is not a feature peculiar to the military shooter. As Human Geographer Stephen Graham has remarked in "Cities and the 'War on Terror'", "Arab cities … have long been represented by Western powers as dark, exotic, labyrinthine and structureless places that need to be 'unveiled' for the production of 'order' through the ostensibly superior scientific, planning and military technologies of the occupying West" (Graham, 2006, pp.256-257).[6] A crucial aspect of this representation is that as long as the Arab city remains essentially Arabic, it will continue to attract the military technologies of the West, thus turning the site into a locale of perpetual war. The only way for the Arab city to cease drawing perpetual military attention is to cease being Arabic and transform itself into an ordered, western-style capitalist democracy.

Figure 6. American soldiers prepare to head out into a bombed-out, labyrinthine urban landscape. The game map that follows is often confusing and forces the gamer to lead his or her group of soldiers through cramped alleys and into dark houses.

Perfectly in line with the tradition of representation described by Graham, the games discussed in this article render or construct the Middle East as a perpetual military frontier where the conflict between American democracy and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is acted out indefinitely. The notion of perpetual war, first outlined by George Orwell in his classic 1984 (1948), suggests that it is in the interest of government that certain wars do not stop. Not only does a perpetual war fuel a nation's (war) industry indefinitely, it also allows the beleaguered nation to believe that the hostile (but never finally defined) Other is being perpetually contained. Lately, the concept of perpetual war as such has been examined by Tony Cliff (1957), and in relation to American hostilities in the Middle East by critics like Noam Chomsky (Chomsky, 2003). With this concept in mind, the gamer involved in a military shooter set in the Middle East is forever performing this strategic containment of the Other.

Furthermore, if there is a difference between the representation of the Arab city in the military shooter and that found in other forms of (popular) culture, it is that in these games the labyrinthine and perilous city is the only geography the gamer encounters. From the perspective of the gaming experience, the Middle East remains forever a space where Americans can participate in an everlasting War on Terror. Through reducing the Middle East to a perpetual frontier within this game space, war is effectively transformed from an extreme and unusual measure to a state of normality. In other words, in the military shooter, warfare as performed by American soldiers in the Middle East ceases to be a politically problematic and expensive confusion of resources and instead appears to be a part of the natural order. In the end, this effectively conveys to the gamer that continuous warfare lends safety and cohesion to society rather than destabilizing the world.[7]

In a similar way, the populations of the Middle East are relegated to terrorists in most of these games. While friendly units sometimes show up and participate in fighting the terrorists, for the most part the only interaction possible between the soldier of the gamer and the computer generated people of the Middle East is that of military violence. The gamer has the option of either shooting the approaching enemy or ceasing to play. For this necessary conflict to be realized within the game, and in order to avoid the moral issues tied to urban warfare, the Middle Eastern city must be transformed from a teeming habitat into a childless and (often) womanless territory occupied primarily by terrorist guerrillas. Having thus skirted one of the crucial questions of modern warfare-collateral damage-the gamer need not hold his fire, but can engage in never-ending warfare. It should be pointed out here that the construction of the Middle East as a site of perpetual war is a result of the gameplay itself. While the narrative of the games encourages an understanding of the Middle East as a site for everlasting military carnage, it is the game experience as such which cements it.

When discussing the notion of American neo-Orientalism, this representation of the Middle East is crucial. By rendering a virtual Middle East as a frontier inhabited primarily by male terrorists where the American military (and by invitation of the gaming industry, all subjects with a reasonably modern computer) can engage in a cleansing and perpetual war, the world finally begins to resemble the one outlined by George W. Bush shortly after 9/11, a world where the only way to "defeat terrorism as a threat to [the American] way of life is to stop it, eliminate it, and destroy it where it grows" (Bush, 2001). In this way, it can be argued that these games do not dramatize the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan, but rather the War on Terror as defined by Bush after 9/11. This is not surprising, partly considering the impact that Bush's interpretation of 9/11 has had on American society, but more pertinently in view of the fact that some of these games were not only developed with the help of the military, they were also partly funded by this institution.

The Military Entertainment Complex and the Military Shooter

While war is perhaps best considered the very opposite of entertainment, as most who have experienced it up close would probably agree, war has proven to be a supremely marketable commodity within the entertainment sector. Partly as a result of this, and partly as a development of what Eisenhower styled the Military Industrial Complex, the Military Entertainment Complex or the military-industrial-media-entertainment network has made its appearance in the form of Hollywood war films, war toys, books, television shows and, of course, military shooters.

Eisenhower worried that the merger of the federal military agencies with private industrial enterprise might pose a threat to continued peace and felt that the potential influence of this alliance must somehow be curbed. The Military Entertainment Complex is perhaps best seen as evidence that the United States has failed in controlling this influence. The Military Entertainment Complex, then, is essentially the merger between the Military Industrial Complex and the entertainment industry, a merger that has spawned Hollywood films, television series and most recently the computer games I address in this paper.

Kuma\War and Close Combat were both developed with the aid of the US military, but the most interesting games from this perspective are America's Army and Full Spectrum Warrior since these two were wholly or partly funded by the US Military. The creation of the Middle East as a site of perpetual war in these games can be related to how and why these games were produced in the first place. The origin of these games thus exemplifies one of the most direct connections between American neo-Orientalist discourse, American economic/military practice and the entertainment industry.

In 1999, the US Army saw the fewest recruits in thirty years (Cabell, 1999). This led Congress to endorse new "aggressive, innovative experiments" in military recruiting (Hodes and Ruby-Sachs, 2002). These experiments included the construction of a military tactical shooter, developed by the MOVES institute of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. After two years of development and some seven million dollars, America's Army was finally released on the fourth of July 2002. Those in charge of the project have never denied that the game is essentially a recruitment and propaganda tool which allows the Army to reach out to and market themselves to the computer savvy-and therefore arguably intelligent-youngsters of contemporary American society (America's Army, website). As a recruitment tool rather than as an entertainment commodity, the game was distributed to the public for free.

Full Spectrum Warrior by Pandemic Studios was also developed through substantial military funding. Like Kuma/War, many episodes of America's Army and First to Fight, Full Spectrum Warrior takes place in a Middle Eastern setting where a team of American soldiers must fulfill a series of military missions which involves gunning down a great number of Islamic insurgents in the fictional Middle Eastern state of Zekistan. Full Spectrum Warrior is an effort that began with the establishment of the Institute for Creative Technologies in 1999, located at the University of Southern California and funded by the US Army. According to the ICT home page, part of the mission of the ICT "is to build a partnership among the entertainment industry, Army, and academia with the goal of creating synthetic experiences so compelling that participants react as if they are real." The ICT is precisely this: an alliance between university-based computer science, the Silicon Valley/Hollywood entertainment industry and the US Army. Full Spectrum Warrior is one of the most recent commercial products to be released as a result of this particular alliance. Rather than being conceived as a game, then, Full Spectrum Warrior began as a military training tool. This simulation game was called Full Spectrum Command, and Full Spectrum Warrior is the commercial spin-off released to the public. The purpose of the original game was in this case not to recruit soldiers but to train them for the tactical challenges of urban combat. Of course, the commercial version of the game does not train actual soldiers in the art of urban combat, but, I would argue, subjects in the ideology of American neo-Orientalism.

In other words, these games market war as entertainment in the interest of recruiting or training soldiers ultimately willing to practice military violence. From one perspective then, the Military Entertainment Complex can be described as an alliance that feeds and feeds off both an entertainment paradigm-in this case the computer game-and a certain discourse-that of neo-Orientalism-ultimately creating the conditions for its own continued economic and ideological survival.

Thus, it is hardly surprising that the games funded and created within the Military Entertainment Complex render a virtual and ideological space that really has very little to do with reality in the Middle East, but which makes perfect sense within the wider discursive formation of the War on Terror launched by Bush after 9/11. These games actually recruit and train real soldiers. In doing so, they fulfill an important function for the American state which is in need of soldiers willing to fight an actual war. However, their most important purpose is undoubtedly that they seek to produce a subject comfortable with the prosecution of a perpetual war. Ultimately, then, the Military Entertainment Complex functions to commodify the notion of perpetual war. From this perspective, the Military Entertainment Complex allows both the American and the global citizen to consume and, through this consumption, purchase a military identity while at the same time presenting a sanitized, bi-polar and fundamentally Orientalist image of military violence conducted in the Middle East.

Through the fusion of three of the most influential power structures of the United States today - the entertainment industry, the academy and the military - this process is accomplished almost with elegance. Consent for continued and perpetual military conflict is manufactured effortlessly, a crucial but ever-important by-product as the Military seeks to simulate war or recruit soldiers, as the academy looks for funding for its research, as the leisure industry hunts for entertainment consumers and as Western consumers seek both to be entertained and for a convenient way to understand a world that seems strangely hostile to American interests and principles.

Orientalism Revisited

These games were essentially produced with an American audience in mind. However, the actual audience is much more heterogeneous. In the wake of globalization, the audience consuming digital entertainment in various forms has become remarkably diverse. While early military shooters such as Wolfenstein were distributed on floppy disks or CDs and sold over the counter, virtually anyone with an internet connection and a credit card can buy, download and play Close Combat or any of the other games discussed in this paper.[8] Game manufacturers sometimes seem to take this into consideration and adapt the games to a more international audience. For example, Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers, the sequel to Full Spectrum Warrior, allows the gamer to sometimes play as a British soldier. At the same time, the reason why some of these games include a somewhat multinational fighting force may well be as a homage to the notion that war in the Middle East is fought by a "coalition of the willing".

Obviously, the fact that the community consuming these games is heterogeneous does not mean that they allow non-American game characters much individuality. Rather, this fact suggests that the discourse rehearsed by these games is efficiently spread beyond American and even Western borders. Like Hollywood films, then, these games traverse the borders of nation states, posing as entertainment while at the same time manufacturing world-wide consent through the dispersion of what I want to argue is best labeled American neo-Orientalism.

As I have suggested, American neo-Orientalism has been investigated before by writers such as Melanie McAlister. In her book from 2001, she studies a very broad field comprising political speeches, news media, Hollywood film, academic texts and more. My focus is much narrower, being limited to that of the military first person shooter, and it is not strange that the image of the Middle East that is constructed within the game space of this particular genre is much less subtle and much more reductive. This game genre also differentiates itself from a lot of other popular culture through the claim that it has a mimetic relationship to reality. However, the study of the military shooter suggests essentially the same thing as McAlister's project: that the discourse that saturates American popular culture and political life ultimately aims to organize our understanding of the Middle East as a site that requires the economic, political and military attention of the United States.

As I have furthermore argued, the military shooter is especially concerned with dramatizing the necessity of continuous military violence in the Middle East by describing this space as a site for perpetual war. The enthusiasm with which the military entertainment network sponsors this genre has also earned some academic attention. Der Derian, director of The Information Technology, War and Peace Project, commenting on the relationship between the military-industrial-media-entertainment network and American cultural and political life, paints a bleak picture of things to come: "for the near future, I believe virtuous war as played out by the military-industrial-media-entertainment network will be our daily bread and nightly circus. Some would see us staying there, suspended perpetually, in between wars of terror and counterterror" (Der Derian, 2001).

One reason why Der Derian voices this concern is because the popular critics of digital culture seem reluctant to engage with the political dimension of computer games. Unlike critics of other forms of popular culture such as movies, books, television shows and music, game reviewers tend to de-politicize computer games. As sometimes the case within the field of Game Studies, the focus in game reviews is often on storytelling, game experience and technological advances. The generation that grows up reading the mainstream magazines and visiting the most popular game sites and looking for them to explain the game experience, will be very poorly equipped indeed to deal with the political dimension of what they are playing.[9]

In fact, I would argue that it may not be necessary for the students of Game Studies to apply terminology from Cultural/Critical theory in the way I have done here to perceive the political content of these games. Even when disregarding the game's origin and reason for production, marketing strategies and cut-scenes, to instead focus on the internal semiotics of games such as Full Spectrum Warrior, it should become clear that the game-play only allows for one type of action: the perpetual slaughter by an American soldier avatar of Middle Eastern subjects in a never ending attempt to rid the Arabian urban landscape of its inhabitants as if they were anomalous to this setting. Game reviewers as well as Game Studies scholars often celebrate the supposed open-endedness and freedom provided by modern digital games. This freedom does exist also in the military shooter and allows the gamer to solve missions in different ways. However, underneath this apparent freedom the political rationale for the missions the gamer is involved in remains constant. Thus, the playing of the game implies at least a tacit acceptance of this rationale which is reflected in the games' unceasing rendering of the Arabian urban maze and of the terrorists that always and forever lurk within it.


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[1] Marine Doom was a modification of the first Doom game released in 1993. During work on the modification, Doom II was released and the modification was modified to work with Doom II rather than with the first Doom game (Jordan, 1999).

[2] Interestingly, the European Journal of Cultural Studies recently devoted an entire volume to computer games. This issue may well mark a turning point in the relationship between Game Studies and Cultural Studies.

[3] See, for instance Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan's anthology First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game (2006) or Jesper Juul's Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds (2005). While these texts certainly contribute to the understanding of new media and of computer/video games they tend to avoid discussing the role New Media plays in the dissemination of ideology and the manufacturing of consent. There are, of course, exceptions to this. Game Studies scholars who have studied the social and political dimension of digital games include Gonzalo Frasca in “Videogames of the Oppressed: Critical Thinking, Education, Tolerance, and Other Trivial Issues” (2004), Ian Bogost in Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism (2006) and David Nieborg in “We Want the Whole World to Know How Great the U.S. Army Is” (2006).

[4] See Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival (2003) and Chalmers Johnson's The Sorrows or Empire (2004) for a radical critique of the American imperial project. See Max Boot's Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (2002) and Niall Fergusson's Colossus: Colossus: The Price of America's Empire (2004) for a much more optimistic account of American empire.

[5] The problem of “realistic-ness” vs. “realism” has been explored in Alexander Galloway's interesting article “Social Realism in Gaming” (2004). In this article, Galloway divides computer games into two different “piles” those who strive towards “mimetic reconstruction of real life” and those who prefer to construct fantasy worlds. Galloway also points out the very important fact that it is necessary to separate “realistic narrative” or “realism” from “realistic representation” or “realistic-ness”.

[6] Computer games are arguably perfect for representing any type of world as labyrinthine and dark. Partly because of the technical limitations of the early First Person Shooters, such as Doom, Wolfenstein and Duke Nukem, the action of these games often takes place in dark mazes. Now that improved graphics capability in computers allow wide open spaces the action in the military shooter is still often confined to narrow, labyrinthine alleys and buildings.

[7] Of course, all war games, whether they describe the Battle of Hastings in 1066 or D-Day, tend to depict war as perpetual as there is rarely a conclusion to the hostilities within the game itself. However, unlike historical war games, the military shooter involves the gamer in an on-going conflict that the gamer can choose to politically and economically endorse, or not endorse.

[8] Of course, through illegal use of different file sharing protocols, a credit card may not be necessary to play these games.

[9] It may, in fact, be argued that viewing a Somali being shot in the movie version Black Hawk Down, which dramatizes the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, is viewed as more of a political act than actually shooting them down in the game version.

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