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Mercenaries, PMCs, and video games

Old_snake_gun_2 Stick with me. I promise this will eventually get around to video games.

CNN is reporting today that the Iraqi government has completed its investigation into the Blackwater shooting incident and has asked the U.S. State Department to "pull Blackwater out of Iraq":

Al-Maliki adviser Sami al-Askari told CNN the Iraqis have completed their investigation into the shooting at Nusoor Square in Baghdad...Al-Maliki and most Iraqi officials are "completely satisfied" with the findings of their probe and are "insisting" that Blackwater leave the country.

Blackwater is one of many private military companies (PMCs) in Iraq. Currently approximately 100,000 PMC contractors work directly for the U.S. Department of Defense in Iraq providing services ranging from operating mess halls on U.S. military bases to providing security for officials. (More info on PMCs can be found here.)

Article 4.1.4 of the Geneva Convention draws a clear distinction between contractors and mercenaries. A captured contractor is to be treated as a prisoner of war, while a mercenary is deemed an "unlawful combatant" with no right to claim prisoner of war status. A contractor is considered a mercenary when he/she engages in combat.

Now the game angle.

Video games have a long love affair with mercenaries. It's a natural attraction. The lone wolf on a dangerous undercover mission. Weapons, maps, stealth, strategy, shooting...pure gaming bliss: The original 8-bit Mercenary series; the Soldier of Fortune series; Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction and its forthcoming sequel; the Jagged Alliance series; Mech Warrior 4: Mercenaries...the list is a long one.

That love affair may be over, at least for now. Game designers, clearly influenced by current world events, have shifted their focus from mercenaries to PMCs. In particular, three upcoming games suggest that this new focus will be a critically reflective one.

HAZE (Ubisoft, U.S. release date: November 19, 2007)

Set in the year 2048 in a world where Governments have outsourced military operations to Private Military Corporations, you play a newly enlisted soldier seeking fulfillment and thrills by fighting for a good cause. As the leading PMC, Mantel Global Industries offers a high-tech arsenal of vehicles, deadly weaponry, and a performance enhancing bio-medical support known as Nectar, a nutional supplement that enables soldiers to fight harder and smarter.[1]Haze

However, as you progress through the game, you find out that there is more to Mantel and the "nectar" than meets the eye. The game takes place over three days that will "change Shane forever." Mantel battles a guerrilla group known as The Promise Hand led by a dictator called Gabriel "Skin coat" Merino; a brutal man who wears the flayed skins of his POW camp inmates. In recent trailers, it has been revealed that Shane will switch sides over the course of the game.[2]

Army of Two (EA Montreal, release date: November 13, 2007)

From a Gamasutra interview with lead designer Chris Ferriera:
What we’re trying to do as we advance though the story in the game, we start with the characters. We take them from their days in Delta Force, and their days as Navy SEALs, and their start as PMCs and how they get trained. We unveil the corruption behind the military privatization, and we explain the problems that poses to society and to America, and the world, when you have a gigantic organization that does nothing but operate for corporations and for money.Armyof2_2

We’re hoping that someone who plays the game a lot and who really follows the story, and doesn’t just skip through it and pays attention, that we can spark them to say “you know what, I’m going to look into this.” That’s all. “I’m going to gain interest in this, and find out what’s really going on here. What am I doing?” In the game you’re doing all kind of crazy stuff for this company. You’re sent on all these different missions, and then you find out what’s wrong with this deniability and what’s wrong with everything in general.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (Kojima Productions, release date Q1 2008)

From a Gamasutra interview with assistant producer Ryan Payton:
This is the first time for a Metal Gear game that the subjects have been very relevant to the time that it was being released...With MGS4, we've been doing a lot of research on what's going on recently. Recent conflicts in Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq, where real private military companies are being used to fight wars.Snakegun

And obviously there's that whole issue with Blackwater, and that controversy. This is becoming a very relevant issue. It's tough for the writers, and guys like me, who are involved with the story, because new information is coming in almost on a daily basis. We were literally days away from finalizing MGS4 story, and the text, and going to record it, and Hideo comes by our desks and says, "Did you see the news on NHK today? We've got to put that in there too. Make some kind of reference to that in the story." And we've done that. So it's very up-to-the-minute in the story, and we've been keeping watch of what's going on in the world.

In his book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, Ian Bogost argues that games have the power to mount arguments and influence players. They can "disrupt and change fundamental attitudes and beliefs about the world, leading to potentially significant long-term social change."

I agree. In a mature medium, artists convey what they see and think and feel into a vehicle of subtle expression. Maybe one of these games will transport us in such a way. My money is on Kojima.

Oh, did I just refer to video games as art? There I go again.