Monday, January 10, 2011

Call of Wikileaks: Black Ops

You know, I noticed that Politicians and “concerned” parents will rant and rave about a piece of media that has violence (and sometimes gore) if it goes against their values, usually voiced under the cloak of being worried about the impressions said media will give their children (or "the" children for a more humane feel). But when another piece of media comes out that captures their values, despite it promoting all kinds of things that are wrong with international thinking today, all is quiet on the homefront. Just take a look at this and humor me for a sec. Or an hour or so, this blog post is long. NOTE: This video is graphic and very real.

Not sure of what you just watched? Let me try to summarize.

Julian Assange, A 39-year-old Australian journalist, publisher and software developer, started a website named “Wikileaks” in 2006, a place where the public can have access to secret and classified documents that governments in their respective countries try to hide. Whistleblowers contact Assange through encoded channels on the internet and pass him files that may show a bit of a different side to a particular war, business practice, government affair or what-have-you that the media presents.

Here is one of those Wikileaks, published in 2010: a video that takes place in Baghdad, 2007 during the Iraq War.
It’s from the point of view of United States Army soldiers, coming from a full day of attacks with Iraqi Insurgents with small arms and grenade launchers. They’re hovering in an Apache helicopter watching another group of “Iraqi Insurgents” walking through an open area. The soldiers swear that a few members of the group are holding AK-47’s and one has a Rocket-Propelled Grenade launcher. They ask authorities over their headsets for permission to shoot and receive it, immediately firing upon the group, sending a few of them to the afterlife and the rest running and injured. One particular “Insurgent” has been shot and is trying to continue escaping, but the Apache pilots let him have another healthy barrage of 30mm rounds before he gets a chance at life again. A van appears and one of the wounded hop in, but the pilots once again request permission to fire before they can get away and they pierce the van with a hail of ammo.

Typical military activity for the safety of our nation, except for a few, miniscule notable bits:
--Almost everyone in Iraq has an AK-47, to protect themselves amongst other possible reasons. The presence of an RPG was the real alert. The problem is: besides the fact that the ground group was literally doing nothing but walking, the U.S. Army soldiers were given permission to fire on the group before the authorities were even told that they had RPG launchers.
--That guy crawling on the floor? His name is Namir Noor-Eldeen, he was a freelance photojournalist, not an insurgent.
--The RPG launcher Noor-Eldeen was holding? Was not a launcher, it was a camera.
--The van came to pick up the wounded and take them to safety. The people operating it were unarmed.
--The injured guy trying to get into the van? His name is Saeed Chmagh, a camera assistant working for Reuters news service and helping Noor-Eldeen. Also not an insurgent. The “RPG” he was killed for holding was also just a camera.
--Amongst the van’s occupants was an unarmed father of two children, who was shot and killed.
--Both of the aforementioned man’s children were also in the front seat: a 4-year-old girl who was shot, and an 8-year-old boy who suffered brain damage from shrapnel.
--The firing soldier’s response to injuring the kids? “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their children to battle.”

Now, this isn’t as bad as what followed afterwards, when these same soldiers targeted an apartment complex with three families and bombed it with Hellfire missiles, but an important point in the commentary on this video was made. The group on the ground were calmly walking somewhere and the pilots opened fire on them, in the same way you’d open “Tetris” or “Pac-Man” on your phone while waiting for your laundry to finish the dry cycle. In this video you see “these young pilots, acting like their playing video games…” Yes, but surely, playing “Donkey Kong” or “Guitar Hero 4” wouldn’t breed psychological results such as this. So which video games?

Two games immediately come to mind: “Grand Theft Auto 4”, a 3rd person urban crime story, and “Call of Duty: Black Ops”, a 1st person war narrative. Sure, there are numerous games which can come up in discussion of this topic, but I picked both of these because one received a whole bunch of controversy it didn’t actually deserve, while the other mostly made its way into millions of households and game systems without the speculation and criticism it should’ve gotten. Entertainment wise, both of them are excellent to add to the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 library. But we’re talking about the way their violence influences.

“Grand Theft Auto 4” was pure fodder for massive controversy when it came out; almost solidly criticized by the right-wing. They called it a “murder simulator” and said it promotes heartless criminal activity to the youth, although I’m willing to bet the real problem was because the game portrayed the law and the government as corrupt as ever.

The main character Niko Bellic, upon being told by his cousin Roman that riches and a luxury life await him in Liberty City (New York City), leaves a war in his unnamed Eastern European country to find that his cousin actually lives in a shabby apartment, running a cab business and in debt to numerous loan sharks. Niko goes to attend to the loan sharks and begins to get caught up an intricate web of criminal activity. The story from there on is one of someone paradoxically trying to escape crime by participating in it. The whole thing was a criticism of America’s capitalist ways, and the dream it promotes to the world that it has the ability of realizing for everyone, although America doesn’t describe the morals you have to trash in order to achieve it.

Missions never require you injure or harm innocent people, although it is fully possible for you to do so and even profit from it. People of all nationalities have evil and good traits, as well as their own personalities and interests. Finally, murdering is not even close to being the only that you do. Other missions include racing, stealing cars, driving the taxi for your cousin, escorting people to safety, amongst many other immoral and moral things. This particular portrait is the fabric of life for many people. For the game to make the kind of commentary that it does, that kind of realism is required, and to the true intellectual (and mature), that realism is much more preferred to, say, silly noble-wannabe games and shows where children never die, the good guy always prospers, authoritative figures are always wholesome and dedicated, nuclear families are the pillars of all thriving societies, and minorities can only ever be supporting characters to the big picture.

That much controversy was not made of “Call of Duty: Black Ops” when it was released, which was really the only time I was seriously moved to be against a game not getting in the hands of children.

It is the story of Alex Mason, a SOG operative who mysteriously keeps having numbers flashing in his head, being strapped to a chair and held captive in a dark room. Electronically cloaked voices from elsewhere interrogate him as to the meaning of the numbers and the game’s stages themselves are flashbacks through Mason’s military history during the 1960’s as he and his interrogators work to figure out why these numbers keep popping up.

Bear in mind, what I just described is something you just watch, or, at some moments and even worse, simply observe. But the one, single, solitary thing you ever do in that game, the only thing you ever interact with from start to finish is:
Kill the communists.
Kill the foreign communists.
Regardless of the year in the 1960’s; regardless of the city or country: Kill the foreign communists.
Your American friends and a few from other countries occasionally have faces and things to say. But ultimately you have all kinds of guns at your initial disposal, all of which project from the center of the screen as if you yourself are holding it, and you stay permanently aimed your enemies, who are facially nothing more than indistinguishable blurs that let out segments of foreign language for authenticity and appear as abundantly as ammo for your guns do.

First-person view.
Unregulated violence towards a national other.
The cloak of military cause.
Putting all this under the label “Hero”.

Which violent video game looks much more like the Wikileaks video than the other?

The conservatives will swear on every innocent life they’ve taken that Wartime is mostly the place where a Hero can thrive. Then videos like this one come out from out of the rug they’ve tried to sweep it under, and the dismal side of Heroism suddenly becomes some sort of “necessary evil”. Violence in all places is bad, regardless of where it happens or why. But the difference in the cases of these two games is that one kind of violence is a critique on a shallow American concept that is to cause its players to think, and the other kind is something the game tells you to wholeheartedly embrace if you want to be a national hero, consequently producing soldiers like the ones you hear and watch in the first video above. I was doubtful about Assange and this Wikileaks project, but now I keep it as a favorite site on my browser. You should too, if you’d really like to make informed decisions in your life…in and out of politics.


  1. ok - so there are several interlinking themes here. Firstly with games like GTA and Call of Duty - i have never played either, so can't really comment, but i think there is an argument to say that news coverage/games etc desensitise us to violence. I don't believe there's necessarily a direct link between that and people being violent (bad parenting, social changes - all of this is a factor and more) - but i wonder what proportion of people noticed the deeper shades of social commentary in the games and how many just enjoyed the shooting and the violence.

    With the footage of the shootings it is certainly unnerving and morally questionable - but then i haven't been in a foreign country for the last four/five years of my life never knowing whether the next person i see is going to be the one who kills me, so i have no way to judge the mentality of the shooters.

    For too long we've allowed ourselves the handy belief that there is a simple black/white, good/bad in a situation and to believe the myth presented by games and war films that everything done was automatically for the greater good - so i agree that anything (like wikileaks) that makes us question this must be a good thing.

  2. Excellent presentation. I don't find many things like this to read these days.


What's your beef, sports fan?