Who are our virtual enemies in the world of gaming?

Our Xbox habits may have a great deal to tell us about ourselves, say Philip Habel and Brandon Valeriano

Our Xbox habits may have a great deal to tell us about ourselves, say Philip Habel and Brandon Valeriano

Social scientists can fall into traps. A typical pitfall is failing to keep pace with the social and political implications of changes in technology and culture.

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One area that has been particularly neglected is the political consequences of video game play. Digital games have superseded movies as the most profitable form of entertainment, yet scholars know comparatively little about what games bring to bear on the social and political attitudes, beliefs, and values of those who play them.

The ongoing #gamergate controversy has raised awareness about the culture of gaming, including issues related to the treatment of women in the games’ community, incivility and hostility in online forums, as well as discussions over journalism practices and ethics.

This debate also highlights the importance of considering the consequences of playing digital games more broadly. Thus far researchers have focused attention on learning, particularly for young audiences. On the one hand, much work has been devoted to the potentially negative consequences of game consumption, for example the effects of violence in games on the behaviour of adolescent and young adult audiences. On the other hand, scholars have conducted studies on the positive role that games can serve, especially in learning and development.

Our work engages the study of games by considering the representations of enemies in “First Person Shooters” (FPS). These games involve the player firing a weapon toward an enemy combatant. FPSes are a very popular genre, having generated substantial revenues worldwide, and titles such as Call of Duty and Halo are familiar even to a non-gamer audience.

Scholars, however, have not considered a rather straightforward question about FPSes: who are the enemies? Which then leads to the second follow up question, what are the effects of shooting an enemy in a gaming situation?

To address the first, we have classified the 66 most popular FPS games between 2001 and 2013, all of which have sold more than 1.5 million units. From there, we categorized the enemies represented into groups including terrorists, aliens, monsters, future humans, Russians, and others.

Our expectation was that aliens and monsters would be popular forms of enemies, but that among human enemies, terrorists would be most common choice, particularly in the wake of terrorist attacks in the 2000s.

What we found, however, is that Russians (either the Russian state, Soviets of the past, or Russian nationalists) were the enemy in 20 per cent of our games, with only aliens, 23 per cent, being more frequent. Moreover, the pattern of the use of Russian enemies changes little over the 2001 to 2013 period, meaning Russia has served as a long-standing antagonist in FPS games.

Not only is the finding that Russians were a more common enemy than terrorists or Nazis surprising, but among today’s real-world rivals or potential threats, it is also interesting to note who is absent. Enemy combatants from countries such as Iran, North Korea, China, Iraq, and Libya appear seldom, if at all.

Our finding is likely due to the fact that Russia is an ongoing rival with the West and with the US in particular, which remain the most common markets for digital games. It appears that Cold War conflicts can endure.

That Russians were the most common human enemy raises concerns about the effects of shooting enemies in a gaming format. Do the players of these games have different political attitudes and beliefs about Russians than non-gamers? Hostilities between Russia and western-aligned states have run high in recent years; does the effect of shooting Russian combatants have any implications for the present and future of international affairs? And if popular culture can indeed shape attitudes and transmit values and beliefs, can digital games also tell us something more about ourselves – who we fear, what we value, and the nature of our social and political hostilities? Our research is only beginning to dive into these larger questions.

• Philip Habel and Brandon Valeriano are lecturers in politics at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow, www.gla.ac.uk