Week 8 – Returning Fire (due by 9:20 pm on Tuesday, March 6)

Bogost (2006) argues: “Commercial games may be less deliberate in their rhetoric but they are not necessarily free from ideological framing” (p. 175). What is the ideological critique in the video game “Unmanned“? Is it rhetorically persuasive? Why or why not? Are games-for-change an alternative to commercial games? Comment on Bogost’ statement please in light of the arguments presented in this game and in the documentary “Returning Fire: Interventions in Video Game Culture”(Media Education Foundation, 2011). Connect this discussion with any other readings or points covered thus far.


Bogost, Ian. (2006). “Videogames and Ideological Frames”. Popular Communication, 4(3), 165–183. (Available online at http://bogost.com/writing/videogames_and_ideological_fra/ )

*Link above updated.


Stahl, R. (2011). Returning Fire: Interventions in Video Game Culture. Media Education Foundation. Northampton, MA.


  1. Honestly, this was a really difficult read for an even more difficult post. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m so exhausted from this article—which I had to find because the link provided doesn’t work—I’m not even sure I’m close to answering this post question properly.

    There is no arguing that violence sells, and likely will continue to be a major focus in the video game industry. What I found most interesting in the documentary was Wafaa’s paintball exhibit, where “players” could go online and operate a paintball gun to shoot him with. While the direct association of violence in videogames has not yet been linked to aggression, I can appreciate Wafaa’s intention of showing that there is an explicit disassociation between violence through such mediums.

    As discourse shifts through time, and video games begin to emulate reality more and more, it is not surprise that regardless of a designers “true” intentions, they are not free from ideological framing. The example of diet realism in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas frames life in a very real way, where poor dietary choices not only affect the character’s physique and stats, but also his bank account. One would never argue that such an ideology is negative, I would imagine, but there are many other games out there where the framing is “tweaked” to fit a certain ideology.

    The best example of this was American Army, which is essentially a watered down version of the American war effort specifically designed to make warfare feel fun, rewarding, and consequence free. DeLappe’s project of creating a virtual memorial within the space by listing the numerous KIAs serves as a reminder that even though the content is proposed as a “game”, there are real world consequences associated with the actualization of warfare.

    While I perceive commercial games to have profit as foremost importance, I agree that they are not free of ideological framing; intentional or otherwise. They go where the money is, and when interest is determined by the discourses we already have established it’s almost certain that ideology will filter in in some way. However, whether or not that frame of ideology is positive or negative depends on the creators. With a growing demand for realism in video games, we openly invite ideology into our entertainment, and while some companies could use our desires to exploit our naivety towards conceptual maps we don’t yet understand, others have an opportunity to create better understandings and social concepts by associating positive ideas to our foggy conceptual maps.


  2. Unmanned is a different game than any other game I’ve ever played. The way that Unmanned plays is quite a unique experience to any “traditional” video game that you may think of. This is because of its unashamed delivery of the message they’re trying to get across to the player. The game is very ‘in your face’ when it comes to the fact that the game exists for the purpose of making a political statement. Obviously, Unmanned isn’t a game that’s made for profit, and it’s not going to be a commercial success in any way (looking past the fact that it’s free to play). The reason Unmanned, and other ‘games-for-change’ exist, is to prove a point as well as resonate with the player, thus sparking a discussion.

    This attempted spark of discussion found in Unmanned is resonated in “Returning Fire: Interventions in Video Game Culture”, where the point that the three individuals are trying to get across isn’t for people to stop playing video games, it’s to get a discussion about the political as well as ethical implications of war. So, are they rhetorically persuasive? By the definition, that is Unmanned’s purpose for existing, as well as the methods used in the documentary, and I’d say that they are in fact persuasive. Unmanned taught me quite a bit during my time playing it. I don’t know if games-for-change are a great alternative for commercial games, because I simply don’t think there’s a large market for them, and I don’t know if consumers would be willing to purchase them at the same price that a commercial game strives to achieve. Don’t get me wrong, they provide a very important look into hot topic issues, and poke people to talk about said issues, but I just don’t see them reaching the same success of commercial games. I know the question wasn’t really supposed to be answered by a marketing or commercial success perspective, but that’s where my mind went!

    Having all that been said, I can see a Johan Huizinga’s “Magic Circle” argument to be made here, the theory that states a magic circle exists that separates the in-game world and the outside world. This was shown many times throughout the documentary, specifically in the section that covered the Dead in Iraq campaign.


  3. The ideological critique of “Unmanned” is the effect of war on a family. Most media focused on military families usually look towards the extremes, either the war is tearing the family apart or they are filled with honor and are proud. “Unmanned” however in my view seemed to stay on the fence with its overall story. The protagonist seems like a normal function member of society, with a few exceptions of his day to day job and nightmares that come from it. The game does seem to lean towards an anti war story with his son glorifying war and its effects towards the protagonists mental health. But its not creating a major rhetoric like games played last week in class such as 3rd World Farmer or Spent.

    I see games-for-change as no threat to commercial games. In “Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction” they say serious games don’t have a strong foot hole in the commercial gaming industry, and they still have some time until they do. I agree with what they say, games-for-change and serious games don’t have the following or backing to make them hit a large market. The ones that do are not refined and can’t bring in a large crowd, or are to light on the message so they can bring in more clients. In coming years with technology evolving developers of games-for-change can create better content that can grow the following needed to make real change. Until then I doubt they can make big enough of a splash in gaming communities.

    Bogost’ statement has a focus on the creators of games having rhetoric and ideological framing. In “Returning Fire: Interventions in Video Game Culture” the focus is towards activists using the games to create rhetoric against the game. The games in the documentary are taking some stance to promote war especially Americas Army. These activists are trying to show that these games may be fun to play but what they depict in real life is far from the games. They may not be completely successful at relaying their message to everyone but they are trying to change the ideology of those playing.


  4. The trivialization of war is displayed in the free-to-play game Unmanned, which tells the player explicitly what the intention is. Many games I come across do not attempt as much political messaging as Unmanned, expect for Battlefield or possibly the series of Metal Gear Solid games by Hideo Kojima. Fallout also has messages about war, but it is used more to propel the narrative than it is to direct a political statement to a demographic. In Unmanned, the player is inserted into the mind of a drone operator, going about his life. He wakes up, commencing typical morning routines, but after the banal car section, ascertains the role of a law-bringer with an armed flying robot weapon at his disposal. Not until the drone sequence did the meaning of the title dig its claws into my psyche. It felt almost dirty to control the drone, directing the machine to kill glowing targets scampering about down below. There wasn’t even a warning for the poor guys, just the inexorable decent of air to ground missiles, blasting a person to bits. That thought alone is deeply disturbing, but due to the overall aesthetic of the game, did not scar me with gory visuals. Even so, I knew what it could have looked like in real life.
    I found the themes in the game punchy, and the overall “we’re being desensitised to the casualties of war,” part really hit me, causing some angry thoughts to seep into my head. I’ve always been slightly pessimistic about the military complex, but this brought those irritations to the forefront. It was refreshing to see a more critical approach to war, focusing on how we now fight battles in foreign lands with controllers, much like a retro joystick game one would see in an arcade. Returning Fire: Interventions in Video Game Culture put the pressure point on avid players of a USA army funded game America’s Army, a simulation in which destroying people in Middle Eastern taverns is heavily recommended. One activist wanted to cause a stir by posting the names of military men killed in the game chat. Of course, it worked better than he expected, and players became upset when the lists flashed across their screen. Many didn’t get the point, but some picked up on the motive, encouraging DeLappe in his social experiment.
    Games for change wouldn’t stand up to the big boys in the industry now, but they could in the future if enough people allow the messages to percolate in their heads a bit more. I’m personally not a fan of “activist” branded things nowadays, however the thought of a game that challenges pre-conceived notions of how people engage in conflict is tempting. These activist games have a clear purpose: to arouse irritation and critical looks at different injustices committed by world societies, from genocide to fraud. The games in themselves are just as valuable as a shoot em’ up, or a dungeon crawler, due to their ability to make one think.


  5. At first, Unmanned is more nuanced in its rhetoric than some other games for change samples, but once part way through, especially in the final act with the son, is extremely clear: video games and dissociation from real world events play a major role in an individuals actions when they reemerge into reality. I would deem its rhetoric convincing in that it prompted me to think about the impacts of screens on the lives of children and soldiers alike, but I have doubts about the games for change examples being a viable alternative to mainstream games.
    Games are all about having fun, within that world of fun and play, is an element of escapism, however. This, to me, is the reason that the activists in Returning Fire received so much pushback, players are looking for an escape from their routines and their anxieties, but these activists are bringing real world issues back into the players’ consciousness, without consent. Though I am all for an effort for activism and protest, to weave games with active rhetoric calls for a drastic re imagining of our concept of what “play” is and would have to uproot the conventional belief of what makes a game, though that is contested in itself. (I do believe we, intuitively, as players disassociate propaganda and ideological advocacy from a game.)
    Of course this is not to take away from Bogost’s statement, I believe he is correct in that commercial games are not so deliberate. There is cultural discourse that stems what is acceptable game content and “America shoots bad guy” has been a stable win for publishers. As games become more networked, with the internet giving us online gaming capabilities, the anti-war activism world found a new niche, and it’s exciting to see that there have been people like DeLappe taking to the keyboard and raising awareness.
    Returning Fire seems to take Bogost’s writings on game publishers and ideology, and respond with stories of players with real agency shooting for change in mindsets. Just as game designers can input ideology and belief into a game’s software, a player, especially when connected with many other players, can advocate for their own ideology in “virtual public space.” Interesting to me was the backlash the activists received from other players. It may be a game, but it’s not “just” a game. I always get a kick out of those who tell protesters and activists that they understand the cause and why they’re doing it, but suggest to do it somewhere else like a public place where they won’t be bothered. And this seems to happen every time there is a movement! Those who are bothered and frustrated are SUPPOSED to be frustrated, that’s the point. In-your-face awareness advocacy is not going to be pleasant for those not involved, but this is not only an example of protesters being asked to do it somewhere else, like Occupy being asked to go somewhere other than Wall Street, but it is the uprooting of game space into public space for public, and potentially meaningful dialogue.


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