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The 9/11 Through Videogames; a 20-Year Journey


Roberto H. Roquer

Anyone who knows the least about history will know that there are certain episodes that, for better or for worse, define entire periods and generations. Events such as the Crack of 29, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or, of course, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. These attacks triggered a military intervention by the US in Afghanistan first and in Iraq after that. Far from being the quick military action the US top ranks thought it would be at first (partly because of the astonishing ease with which the United States achieved a landslide victory against Iraq in the Gulf War in the early 1990s) it ended, 20 years later, with a withdrawal from Afghanistan that will go down in the history books with more pain than glory. But in addition to this, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent sterile war were a shock to the American society, which for the first time in its history was attacked on its own soil, accentuating a national feeling of helplessness and vulnerability. At the same time, the first years of the 21st century saw videogames going from a digital hobby directed almost exclusively towards children or a very small niche of fans to becoming not only a form of mass entertainment at the same level of popularity as cinema or TV, but also a vehicle for the artistic expression for creators who were increasingly eager to generate a more complex and mature content oriented towards an adult audience. This is how this new art form captured, perhaps better than any other, the concerns and reflections inherent to the 9/11 episodes among the American (and by extension, Western) society.

Almost parallel to the attacks themselves (only a couple of months later), what may be the first great game of the post 9/11 era was released, Halo Combat Evolved, one of the most relevant shooters of all time. Obviously, the game itself was in development since way before the attacks, but due to a series of curious coincidences it contained numerous parallels with the situation in the United States after the terrorist attacks (the humanity being attacked in its own home, an enemy motivated by religious ideologies, a hypermilitarized society, the threat of weapons of mass destruction etc.) Even the tone of the video game itself, which left the bizarre and unreal appearance of previous titles of the genre (such as Doom or Quake) to instead adopt a much more realistic and tactical gameplay, almost wanting to emulate a real military environment, fit perfectly with the reality that was coming on the United States.

Perhaps this was one of the ingredients of the success of the Xbox title, but the point is that while the similarities between reality and fiction in the first title of the series were mere coincidences, in the sequels Halo 2 and Halo 3 they were clearly intentional. Thus, in these titles we can visit an Earth that has been militarily attacked by The Covenant, the main antagonist of the series, a set of alien species motivated by their religious fundamentalism to destroy humanity (an enemy that in a not particularly subtle way keeps enormous similarities to Al-Qaida and other Islamic terrorist groups).

Although in its early stages the war in Afghanistan and Iraq enjoyed great popularity among the American population (which was reflected in the epic and triumphant tone of the first Halo game, in which we played as the Master Chief, a soldier genetically modified to be invincible in the fight against a ruthless and fanatical enemy) as the years passed, the reality of the war began to make its way into public opinion. Initial military successes were marred by the enormous cost in lives due to the asymmetric warfare tactics of the enemy, terrorist attacks, and the inability of the United States to build Western democracies in these countries as they managed to do in other conflicts in the past.

At the same time, the ravages of the conflict on the mental health of US soldiers began to be evident in issues such as the enormous suicide rate among soldiers (the leading cause of death among US soldiers during the war, above even combat casualties). But just as one war was fought abroad, another was taking place at home. The traditionally immigrant population of the United States, open to diversity, was now faced with the choice of whether to see immigrants from Middle Eastern countries and American Muslims as full members of society or as a Trojan horse of the enemy waiting for a chance opportunity to overthrow democracy. Americans felt (in many cases aided by constant war propaganda promoted by the media and the government) that the enemy was not only in the battlefield abroad but also in the house next door. Although with a 20-year perspective it might be easy to point the finger at this way of thinking and call it xenophobic, it cannot be denied that the very morphology of Islamic terrorism, together with the shock of the 9/11 attacks, was the perfect fuel for collective paranoia.

This social anxiety was also reflected in the Xbox saga through the character of The Arbiter, a member of the Covenant who ends up joining Master Chief and humanity in their fight for survival. Without a doubt, the inclusion in Halo 2 and 3 of this character, a member of an enemy civilization who fights side by side with us adds a degree of complexity to the way in which the Halo saga builds the morality of its characters and that naturally borrows from the own ethical contradictions that American society itself is going through at the time. While the population of the country wasn´t yet sure about how to marry the fact of being at war with the Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan and, at the same time, accept people who came from the Middle East or who practiced the same religion as the enemy as members of their communities, Halo 2 offers, through the character of the Inquisitor, a reflection of this sociological reality. Although in the first title there is an antagonism based on the construction of otherness (we are human and they are aliens, therefore we are destined to face each other because of our inherent differences) in the sequels we are given a different vision, in which the friend / foe distinction is based on individual choice. The enemy is no longer our enemy because of its very own nature, but because of their choices and actions, and precisely because of his decisions, they can also stop being our enemy. If there is one message Halo 2 brings to the table through the character of The Arbiter, it´s the need for our society to understand that being different doesn´t equal being the enemy.

In the late 2000s, factors such as the Great Recession of 2008, the death of Bin Laden in 2011, or the feeling that the US military technological superiority did not translate into a victory over the enemy led to open pessimism about the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The person responsible for 9/11 was already dead, so a growing fraction of the population did not understand why the troops were still in those countries subjected to constant harassment from the enemy. On top of that, this is the period when the ravages of the war become evident as whole generation of young soldiers (sometimes enlisted through abusive recruitment tactics by the US government) returned home psychologically damaged, with serious mental and physical wounds and a deep feeling that their government was turning its back on them (the lack of government provided free or affordable healthcare for veterans has been one of the great social battles of the United States during the 20year war following 9/11.)

This new perspective is newly reflected in the Halo saga, specifically in Halo 4 in which we see a much more human Master Chief, abandoned and forgotten by his own government after his enormous sacrifice and at risk of losing the only person he has a true, emotionally open, relationship with, Cortana, the AI integrated into his suit, due to degradation of her circuitry. During the whole Halo saga, we´ve seen how Cortana is the only character Master Chief is able to show any emotional vulnerability, allowing for Master Chief to grow as a complex and more relatable character. During the game, Master Chief will try to save Cortana from disappearance while facing a new threat while, again, the human army turns his back on him and refuses to help him until he is finally forced to sacrifice Cortana to save humanity. We see here, therefore, a soldier who not only faces the external enemy, but also despotism and the incomprehension of the commanders of his own army, as well as a nearly total disdain towards his own mental and emotional wellbeing as a solder. It´s easy here to see the parallelism between the journey Master Chief has to face in his relationship with his own superiors and the growing sense of abandonment many war veterans feel towards the U.S. Government. There is, however, a difference here that was not so evident in the previous titles, a separation between the regular soldier, who continues to show himself as self-sacrificing, patriotic, and heroic, and the officers and political officials, who now show themselves as a threat in a clear reflection of the growing disaffection that both the American people and their troops feel towards their leaders during this period. This will be even more evident in Halo 5, a title in which Master Chief himself turns against his own government.

However, if there is an Xbox first party franchise that undoubtedly reflects like no other the cultural and sociological impact of 9/11 and its consequences, it is Gears of War. In this saga, the player controls Marcus Fenix, a human soldier on a planet where human civilization is attacked by the Locust, a race of underground settlers. The parallels with the situation after the fall of the Twin Towers and the war in the Middle East are perhaps more subtle but precisely for this reason more interesting.

In the first place, Marcus Fenix, our protagonist, moves away from the traditional hero model to represent an antihero with a relatively dark past and who has a deep rejection by politicians and authority, who are represented as populist, corrupt or insane, something that fits with the feelings of a large part of both the U.S. Military members and the general population at the time. Even the level design, almost always formed by destroyed cities in ochre and unsaturated tones, refer directly to the images that we can have of Iraq or Afghanistan. The relationship between this saga and the aforementioned armed conflicts becomes even more evident when, throughout the original trilogy released for Xbox 360, we discover that the Locust were created by the human government while it was extracting the Imulsion from the planet, a precious natural resource, which refers us directly to the outrage that swept across the United States in the light of the support given by the US to the Afghan mujahideen during the war against the USSR (and that they would be the breeding ground of the Taliban) as well as the government's use of the 9/11 attacks to sell a war in Iraq to the people and be able to extract oil from the country.

In this way, one can say that the Gears of War saga and its vision of war evolved and became more mature hand in hand with the American public opinion itself, which begins to be critical of the perceived bad faith of certain political leaders who, in the eyes of the public, acted irresponsibly and egoistically despite the suffering of not only the victims of terrorism but also countless soldiers (and their families) who died or got wounded in service. Thus, the Gears of War saga escapes from giving a romanticized image of the war to instead show us characters that gained depth with every new entry of the saga and in which we see the tremendous cost of the war. Soldiers losing loved ones and suffering from deep psychological trauma, a humanization of the figure of the soldier rarely seen at the time in video games.

In the world of Gears of War all the characters have lost something because of the war (be it a wife, a father, a professional career in elite sports, etc.) and therefore, far from the glorious overtones, the epicness and patriotism of other titles, in the Gears saga, war is presented as a painful event, the heart of the story being not so much the vicissitudes of the conflict against the Locust itself as the impact that such war has on characters that started as archetypes of the typical action hero to gradually become three-dimensional, charismatic and profound individuals. It can be said that the sombre tone that characterizes the Gears of War saga is a perfect reflection of the evolution among the general population of the perception of the war against terrorism.

This pessimistic view of the war culminates in a masterful way with the outcome of Gears of War 3, in which, after being abandoned by a government as corrupt as it is inoperative, Marcus Fenix and his platoon manage to end the war and save humanity on their own, albeit at the cost of a huge personal sacrifice for Fenix, who ends up emotionally broken when he loses both his best friend and his own father during the war. An ending with a bittersweet tone that captures in a surprisingly appropriate way the feeling that a large part of the American public have of the war after 9/11, that is, a victory on paper (since it was successful in eliminating of Osama Bin Laden and the terrorist threat of Al-Qaeda was mostly neutralized) but at the same time a sense of defeat both due to the enormous sacrifice made and for the apparent futility of the war effort itself.

Leaving aside these titles, the 9/11 and it´s repercussions gave rise to a whole new generation of action video games, mainly shooters, which put aside the fantastic and unreal settings to instead tell stories that sought a pronounced sense of reality and immediacy with respect to the events that took place in the world. Thus, franchises such as Call of Duty, Medal of Honour or Battlefield abandoned their traditional settings of the World War II to, instead, place their campaigns in current conflicts related to the fight against the terrorism and in scenarios such as Pakistan, Iraq, or Russia.

To these existing franchises must be added the appearance of new titles such as the Arma series, Homefront or Crysis that, to a greater or lesser extent, adopted elements of this new generation of games aimed at consumers who increasingly demanded a new kind of entertainment able to reflect the world they were living in, a world defined by global terrorist threats. That is why it is not uncommon to see action games that take place in an attacked and invaded by the enemy United States, as in the case of Homefront, or even games that directly refer to real Islamic terrorist attacks as in Medal of Honour Warfighter. Even established franchises like Half-Life or Splinter Cell were transformed to adapt to these new concerns of the public, the first through a sequel (Half-Life 2) in which the earth was occupied by an interdimensional force that threatened the survival of humanity and the second locating its plots in Middle Eastern countries and presenting antagonists and situations related to international terrorism.

In this sense, certain titles such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Battlefield 3 generated controversial and lasting discussions since they were called out for offering a deeply simplified and at the same time stigmatizing vision of both war and the culture of the countries in which their plot took place. These critical voices argued that, as in the past with cinema, video games serve as an ideological vehicle for certain ideas that can foster prejudice among players. In addition to the ideological content, these games were also criticized for their realism, in the opinion of some violently unnecessary and even in bad taste, while the counter-argument to these criticisms defended that such representation of the war responded to the freedom of the creators to express themselves artistically and that in any case it was the responsibility of consumers to respect the age guidelines of their video games and not allow minors to play titles that were not designed for them. Although this controversy did not negatively affect the sales numbers of franchises like Activision's Call of Duty, it did kill titles such as Six Days in Fallujah, a video game inspired by the digital combat simulators used by the US army that it intended to capture the first days of the invasion of Iraq with extreme realism and that received great criticism accusing the title of having a questionable ideological content despite the fact that its director assured that there was no political intentions behind it. Fortunately, after its initial cancellation in 2009 by Konami, in this case it seems that, after more than a decade of delay, the game will finally see the light of day thanks to a new developer.

However, if we have to pick a game that is defining of the post 9/11 world and that understands, better than any other, the reality of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is none other than the great 2012 cult classic Spec Ops: The Line. During the late phase of the war against terrorism, in addition to the disaffection towards the political and military commanders, a new concern arose related to the violations of human rights of prisoners by US troops. This scandal - ranging from systematic torture to secret and illegal military operations against classified targets - comes as a shock to an American population relatively unaccustomed to seeing itself as the bad guys. Thanks to the speed of information in the digital era, the public opinion got exposed to scandals linking their own soldiers to war crimes, generating a new kind of doubt among the American people never before seen or faced in previous conflicts. The doubt about whether they themselves were no morally better than their own enemy. In this context, Spec Ops: The line puts us in the shoes of Captain Walker, a US soldier stationed in the Middle East who is tasked with the rescue of an American national in a war zone. Throughout the plot, our protagonist will be exposed to numerous situations of violence and extreme tension that will have an obvious impact on his mental health, desensitizing him and causing him to suffer certain symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Throughout the campaign, the ethical line between good and evil will be blurred more and more as Captain Walker (and therefore we as players) will find himself in situations in which circumstances will progressively force him to carry out ethically questionable measures to the point of directly committing war crimes. This gradual process of evolution of the character, which little by little is falling into moral darkness, and mirrors certain films such as Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), shows us a protagonist that, on one hand, is relatively easy to empathize with but on the other, ends up performing deeply despicable acts due to the pressure of war, showing just how difficult it is to differentiate between good and evil in a context of war as the extreme circumstances of a violent conflict can lead even a morally strict person to carry out terrible actions. To what extent can the person and not the circumstances be blamed for certain acts? When we draw the line between good and evil, what nuances are we willing to accept in order to place ourselves on one side or the other? Is it futile to try to eliminate human cruelty when it is part of our nature? Spec Ops: The Line raises various questions that we, as players, have to find an answer for.

Putting aside war video games located in the Middle East, 9/11 also had a cultural impact on digital entertainment in a different way. The American population was, for the first time in history, attacked in their own territory, causing them to adopt a completely new sense of their own vulnerability, which is reflected in the increasing demand for stories that take place in post-apocalyptic realities that somehow reflect the fear for a potential terrorist attack able to put society as we know it at risk. After all, if a terrorist cell managed to carry out an attack of the magnitude of the 9/11 and paralyze the most powerful country in the world, how many other dangers would there not be waiting in the shadows for a chance to attack the American population? In this sense, post-apocalyptic stories needed to adapt to the new anxieties of the public. Gone are worlds like those seen in the post apocalyptic cinema of the 70s and 80s to, instead, offer much more plausible scenarios in which the characters have to worry about substantively more realistic issues. In other words, characters in post 9/11 post-apocalyptic worlds went from fighting monsters to worrying about finding food.

On the other hand, these post-apocalyptic worlds are now presented as the result of much more realistic and detailed cataclysmic events. The threats that bring us to the brink of extinction are no longer vague or extremely fanciful, but they rather reflect relatively possible threats in the world of international terrorism (biological attacks, nuclear conflicts, etc.). The proliferation of these post-apocalyptic worlds reflects the vulnerability acquired by the American people after 9/11 and their perception of the potential risks that threaten their survival. We are talking here about games such as The Last of Us, a Sony first party title that, in addition to telling us a story that deals with topics such as fatherhood or moral redemption, also depicts a world ravaged by an apocalyptic event that cleverly reflects the kind of social collapse that much of American society thought could take place in the event of new terrorist attacks, a world in which the American way of life and its safety was more in jeopardy than ever.

Despite being a relatively young form of artistic expression (or perhaps precisely because of that), the world of videogames has achieved a surprising capacity to understand the anxieties resulting from 9/11 and the 20 years of subsequent wars. Although it is true that the discussion around the world of videogames and in particular their relationship with violence has traditionally been surrounded by not always well meaning debates and a kind of criticism that suffers from a profound lack of understanding of medium, it is unquestionable that, as we have seen, digital entertainment has been able to offer a wide range of views of this historical period that accurately reflects the constant shifts that the public opinion went through during the two decades of war that followed the 9/11 and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Roberto is an honoured guest at the Robot Republic, usually found writing for Spanish language site

You can find more of Roberto's work (In Spanish) over at these links.

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