Daniel Bos explains why violent video games are influential but not necessarily in the ways that their detractors believe
A lecturer in Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment for a year, Dr Daniel Bos’ doctoral thesis was funded by the ESRC (2011-2015) and investigated the role military-themed videogames have in shaping popular understandings of geopolitics and military violence.
When we meet over a cup of tea, he notes that he grew up playing video games – as did the vast majority of his peers. At the moment when his doctoral research was beginning in 2011, Call of Duty Modern Warfare III was released, raking in over £1 billion in its first 16 days of release for its American publisher and owner Activision. At the time, it was the fastest selling entertainment product of all time. For critics, it was troubling that it took players directly into contemporary settings of terrorist violence.
Bos was struck by the simplicity of the academic and media dialogue over the nature and meaning of such games. ‘There was a view that players were young and naïve, a sponge to soak up whatever was thrown at them, including worrying levels of violence.’
Yet here was a vastly successful international franchise, a new popular cultural reality, almost untouched by empirical research. The difficulty was to know how to tackle it.
Bos recalls that it was difficult at first. When he attempted to contact players of the game online, having decided to focus particularly on Call of Duty —colloquially referred to as CoD (Ed wry note: this used to mean ‘cash on delivery’) —they simply didn’t want to be interrupted, or didn’t trust his approach.
In the end Bos mounted a recruitment campaign leading to 35 face-to-face interviews lasting over an hour each, plus video ethnographical techniques that allowed him to record how people were playing the game, compared to solely what they said about the experience. His only regret is that his research sample spanned an 18-40 age group, because he wasn’t allowed to approach minors due to ethical constraints. All but two were men, although that is typical for this particular game, which in industry parlance is described as a ‘first-person shooter video game’.
If you don’t already know the game, or the adverts for it, which have long ranged across billboards and mainstream TV, it gives the player agency to roam around a particular military setting that might be historical, contemporary or completely fantastic, within a narrative that places the player in a unit of comrades with an objective. There are enemies and you kill them as you can.
‘The initial emphasis of CoD series was on World War II when it was first released in 2003. Later, and what was seen as controversial move at the time, the games focused on a contemporary setting with the release of the Modern Warfare series (2007) which reflected contemporary Western conflicts and military intrigues in the Middle East and Central Asia. More recent releases have focused on futuristic conflict which have seen less success, while the latest release takes players back to World War II.’
Without even realising it, the timing of our discussion coincides with the November 3 release, much anticipated for fans, of Call of Duty World War II, which returns to the roots of the franchise but with a fanatical attention to detail and graphics that are spell-bindingly realistic even if you are indifferent to computers.
Co-founder of the developer Sledgehammer Games (now a subsidiary of Activision), Michael Condrey, recently told Trusted Reviews that fans wanted World War II settings more than modern ones, and that to allay criticism that the setting would upset veterans of the conflict ‘we took painstaking care to be stewards of the material, to treat it with respect and honour the sacrifice and the loss of life that came with the deadliest conflict in human history.’
Bos says that this is one of the fruitful seams in his research, the slippery border between reality and virtual. Numerous editions of Call of Duty spanning a 14-year evolution, have all been characterised by a fanatical attention to military accuracy in details, such as weaponry and uniforms. Bos notes that military advisers have always been hired to help the creators get it right, evidence for what is often dubbed the ‘military-entertainment complex.’ Perhaps akin to a well-researched novel, the verisimilitude has indisputably worked commercially, with the franchise now accounting for over 250 million sales worth in excess of €12 billion.
The Modern Warfare series is fictional of course – but Bos’ interviewees noted repeatedly that contact with other players around or outside the gaming had become very important to them, not least because it was ‘real’. This is one of the most powerful and underestimated aspects of the games, says Bos, that they offer a multi-player option. Once you’re fighting in a unit populated by as many as thirty other players sitting behind PCs all over the world, it’s really real and no longer the stuff of pixelated fantasy alone, except of course in the sense that no one gets hurt. Bos says that players had discussed their world views with each other, ‘in relation to the games’ geopolitical narrative.’
So does Bos think that the games corrupt young minds and potentially lead to real-world violence? Sensibly, he insists that only qualifications allow a response to such a question, adding that ‘the people I interviewed were much more critical of the game, and its portrayals, than I had expected.’ On the other hand he notes the degree to which the broader settings of the game tended to reinforce stereotyping of regions and peoples. When the game went off to the Middle East it became a pastiche of Afghanistan and Iraq; while in other scenarios it has blended an invented, futuristic setting with current weaponry.
The future lies in virtual reality headsets and other hardware that will likely develop what is already a deeply immersive experience. Already, says Bos, when you fire a weapon there is a vibration transmitted through the ‘trigger’ used on the console, so called haptic feedback. The purpose of this is to make the experience as real as possible.
As a sub-sector of human geography, Bos’ research agenda falls under visual culture and geopolitics. While some of the games might serve to intensify assumptions about, say, the Middle East, they also break down what he calls ‘hegemonic geo-political sensibilities.’ Meanwhile, as the games get more and more ‘real’ so they introduce subtleties around ethical behaviour that are not irrelevant to the business of growing up, if you are a young adult. They do shape popular knowledge so it matters what they do and how they portray it.
But whether the games are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is something he’s happy to leave to the tabloids, insisting that his research is incomplete and that his desire to properly engage the developers of the games has so far been thwarted by their insistence on commercial secrecy.
As for the future of the gaming culture that he grew up with, he’s pretty certain that it will continue but also that it will change rapidly as technology changes, no doubt to the dismay of parents as the sophistication and price of the hardware and software goes ever upwards.
One great unexpected twist is the return to World War Two and the setting of the 1944 D-Day landing and the push across Normandy to liberate Europe. One reviewer notes, ‘this affecting story offers brief glimpses of how the Nazi occupation ravaged Europe and its people, including German civilians’. The graphics are so realistic that the game places you in an immersive historical setting. On the other hand, the game rewards non-stop killing and bundled with the software is a different game themed around Nazi zombies, that is pure invention. The whole thing will trouble historians even while it might provoke in players a wider interest in history. Bos rests the matter on a question that such games pose, ‘how such games shape our understandings of past conflicts and military violence more generally.’
Portrait by University of Oxford/ Richard Lofthouse, Game graphics by Activison.
Daniel Bos joined the School in October 2016 as a Departmental Lecturer in Human Geography. Prior to his appointment he was a Teaching Associate in Historical and Cultural Geography at the University of Nottingham (2015-2016).