Disclaimer: This piece was originally written for an academic audience. As such, you might notice that a few of the video game concepts explored are a bit “over-explained.” This is intentional. In addition, a few of the international relations and national security concepts may feel like they could have used more explanation. This is also intentional, and we can answer specific questions you have on these concepts in the comments. Some minor edits have been made since the original piece was written.
Video games and television shows have been covering the topic of American national security—whether it be from nuclear attacks, biological attacks, or less traditional terror groups—for several decades, writing up scenarios where suitcase nukes are smuggled into the United States, a terror cell gets a former prisoner elected to congress so that he can later kill himself in a suicide attack, and, of course, the age-old trope of a Russian nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile being fired at the United States. What’s curious, however, is that even as the dialogue surrounding American national security and foreign policy has grown more diverse and the neo-conservatism championed during the beginning of the Iraq War has grown unpopular, the vast majority of these titles, both video games and television series, continue to largely follow this school of thought; this leads to them appearing determined at best and tone-deaf at worst, failing to comment on the horrors of Guantanamo Bay’s torture programs or the national sovereignty of other states as it could create something less exciting, or worse: anti-American.
This isn’t to say, however, that there is no merit in discussing what these various pieces of entertainment have contributed to national security discourse—in fact, that will be done here—but by continuing to establish universes where the “bad guy” can never possibly be the United States (occasionally a “rogue” American committing horrible acts can be seen) these video games and television shows help to reinforce the current American approach to national security: an approach that may have saved the state from a large scale terrorist attack since 9/11, but has also destabilized an entire region in the process. One video game franchise, however, Hideo Kojima’s “Metal Gear,” has questioned the traditional approach to national security and American foreign policy since its inception in the late 1980s, taking a staunchly anti-nuclear weapons position for not just the United States, but also the rest of the world, and several of the series’ most fantastical moments can be paralleled with real events over the past several decades.
Before turning our focus to the Metal Gear series, it’s beneficial to detail the portrayal of national security and American foreign policy issues in a few other popular series, both to show their inaccuracies and to emphasize the backlash, if any, they have received as a result. The first example, the television show Homeland, is both one of the most egregious offenders and potentially one of the most damaging, as the president of the United States has listed it among his favorite shows (CBS).
To an outside observer, this might actually seem to imply that Barack Obama wanted to emphasize the show’s areas of moral ambiguity; an American drone strike in the first season kills a terrorist leader’s son, which set the stage for a large-scale plan of attack on the United States, and the quandary of using unmanned vehicles to conduct attacks has obviously received quite a bit of attention during the Obama presidency. However, what is far more troubling is the series’ supposed endorsement of numerous other ethically bankrupt and damaging actions, including extensive surveillance of American citizens by the CIA, all on American soil, an action which would be met with swift retaliation by the FBI in the real world (The Telegraph). The separation between the two agencies lies at the heart of what it means to be an American with civil liberties, and while the choice to only focus on the CIA may seem like a necessary narrative choice to keep things streamlined, it reinforces the idea that these actions are acceptable. This isn’t a hypothetical problem: former CIA operative Henry Crumpton told Salon in 2012 that there “are now more spies operating on American soil than ever operated during the Cold War,” and that Obama’s “kill list” includes several American names on it. Crumpton does assert in the same interview that the CIA is “absolutely not” spying on U.S. citizens within the borders of the United States, but given the numerous refutations surround the NSA doing that same thing prior to the Edward Snowden leaks, the validity of this comes into question, as well (Salon). In addition, since research for this piece began, the ISIS attacks in Paris prompted CIA director John Brennan to refer to violence in Europe as a “‘wake-up call’ for those misrepresenting what intelligence services do to protect innocent civilians” and that recent legal efforts to roll back these programs are putting more lives at risk (Foreign Policy).
If Homeland were to even acknowledge that while the actions depicted on the show by its “heroes” are at times morally questionable, the producers may have been able to get away with its more fantastical depictions of national security. However, this isn’t the case. Star Claire Danes has called her character Carrie Mathison a “fundamentally moral person” who “always does the right and courageous thing” (CBS), which, in just the first season, included spying on a former American marine’s entire family, who had not seen him in several years due to his extended capture, and engaging in a relationship with said marine while still believing him to a traitor and member of Al Qaeda. And while Danes may claim that Mathison always does the “right” thing, the bipolar disorder-suffering protagonist is painted as a false-positive machine, constantly predicting that a wide-scale attack is about to hit the United States, and the perpetrators just so happen to almost always be Muslim. Unsurprisingly, Ms. Mathison’s actions, as well as her disorder, would have guaranteed she would have never been trusted as an operative or with sensitive information. CIA counterterrorist Philip Giraldi expanded on this in an interview with The Telegraph, telling the newspaper that “her drug-addled and neurotic persona certainly would have raised numerous red flags in real life, and she likely would have wound up in a job in the mail room to keep her out of trouble” (The Telegraph). The CIA, or at least its social media managers, seemed to agree with this presumption as well, posting a “good riddance” message to Mathison when she eventually stopped working for the CIA on the show (Vanity Fair).
What is also dangerous, if perhaps more “sexy,” is the emphasis Homeland places on fieldwork in place of screening and other forms of intelligence analysis. Peter Quinn, a character introduced initially as an intelligence analyst, is only shown making a “significant” impact on the ongoing narrative when he either stabs a suspect during an interrogation or single-handedly murders several Iranians in a black-ops operation. Quinn is turned into the all-powerful, nearly invincible assassin—an American James Bond, perhaps—in one of the show’s most glaring (and potentially damaging) reality holes: it only has a few people hunting the world’s supposed most-wanted man. According to Foreign Affairs counterterrorism expert Richard Falkenrath, this number would be in the thousands, and the CIA, as well as other agencies, would assist in “supporting roles.” After a suspect is “credibly identified,” as former prisoner Nicholas Brody was in the first season of the show, Falkenrath emphasizes that the most important aspect of completing an operation is electronic surveillance, which the CIA completely fails to do when it lets Brody warn terrorist mastermind Abu Nazir of his planned assassination via text message (Foreign Affairs). One could probably consider this a “creative liberty” without other context, but this is the same Nicholas Brody who had been interrogated in a dark room for hours on end and stabbed through the hand in the hope of getting him to reveal information on Abu Nazir; they could have simply checked his phone: he didn’t delete the text.
Some of Homeland’s offenses are far more egregious than just misrepresenting the capabilities of the CIA and its emphasis on “boots on the ground” operations. The show has a particularly disturbing habit of painting nearly every Arab character on the show as either a terrorist or someone of whom the audience should at least be suspicious. In an episode from October 2015, the show’s producers tasked local graffiti artists with making a Syrian refugee camp look more “authentic,” suggesting they write “Mohamed is the greatest” on the walls. Instead, the artists used the space to criticize the show, calling it “racist” and “a joke.” One member of the “Arabian Street Artists” responsible for the graffiti explained that the show’s perpetuation of stereotypes is now “mainstream ‘knowledge’” repeated by the mainstream media in the United States (CNN).
What’s worrying, however, is that some with extensive knowledge of policy decisions in Washington D.C. appear to ignore the inaccuracies. Foreign Policy CEO David Rothkopf remarked in his rundown of political thrillers that “groups portrayed as bad guys or sympathetic to bad guys” had “regularly produced howls of outrage,” but that this was simply “another sign of accuracy” (Foreign Policy). This is a show that introduced an Arab journalist working in the United States, and within only a few episodes, reveals herself to be an undercover terrorist operative hoping to convince American Nicholas Brody to support her cause.
The facts are overwhelmingly against the assertion that something like this is even slightly possible. Less than 1% of Muslims living in Western Europe were found to be “at risk for becoming radicals,” according to a study conducted by Angel Rabasa at the RAND corporation (Christian Science Monitor). And while a larger number of Muslims would consider violent attacks justified in these polls, only about 2% of terrorist attacks within the European Union have been perpetrated be either “Islamic groups or individuals.” The sample size is far from limited. In 2011, there were 174 reported terrorist attacks within the EU. Not a single one was found to have any religious motivation (Metro). Many of these countries have a proportional Muslim population than the United States, yet it’s the risk of an Islamic terror attack that motivates Carrie Mathison and the CIA to continue their ill-planned operation. Carrie wants to make sure “we don’t get hit again,” according to the show’s opening credits. “By whom?” is never a question.
It’s important to note that Homeland is the work of a creative team with considerable involvement in the extremely popular “homeland security” series, 24, which was itself criticized for factual inaccuracies. Soon after Homeland’s debut in 2011, the idea quickly spread that the series was the “antidote for 24” (The New Yorker). While we’ve extensively covered that the show has its own set of problems, these are mostly distinct from the glaring problem that plagued 24 during its run: it makes torture seem not only effective, but required. During the height of 24’s popularity, the New York Times ran a piece extensively criticizing a few of the more “colorful” uses of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on the show, including shocking someone with a defibrillator and injecting unwilling participants with dangerous chemicals (New York Times). The show portrays Keifer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer as a hardened, trained operative who will do whatever is necessary to keep American safe. Unfortunately, the information Bauer so desperately needed (after all, the whole season takes place over just one day!) could have been learned through other means in almost every circumstance. A Senate Intelligence Committee report from 2014 concluded that these sorts of techniques—some real ones apparently include threatening to rape a detainee’s mother and “rectal rehydration”—were ineffective in acquiring intelligence. Former president George W. Bush claimed that the report would be “way off base” if it “diminishes [CIA agents’] contributions to our country” (Vox). Perhaps this line of reasoning links back to the “us vs. them” mentality for which neo-conservatism is so famous, but when information like the Senate report reveals the deplorable, immoral things the CIA was doing to detainees, some of which seem worse than actions the detainees allegedly participated in, and there is significant evidence that the techniques simply don’t work, why are they still being glorified on television? Homeland may have been the “anti-24,” but the latter show was still given a revival season—it’s still influential.
Some of the most popular video games have also been guilty of misrepresenting national security, and their popularity raises the question of whether or not they have become influential in actual foreign policy decisions, at least on a subconscious level. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, released in 2007, was one of the most popular games of last generation, kicking off a trend of the latest Call of Duty being the best-selling game almost every year. In the game’s most famous moment, villain Al-Asad—who has conducted a coup in the Middle East and largely taken control of the local government, detonates a nuclear bomb within his new nation, killing thousands of people and likely leaving the land inhabitable (Wikia). A short time later, his commander, a mysterious Russian revolutionary long thought dead, launches an ICBM at the United States.
As the first Call of Duty game to take place in modern times, the developers no longer had the crutch of actual events from World War II on which to base their narratives. In its place, they resorted to fear mongering. The revolutionaries, both those in Russia and the Middle East, aimed to rebuild their countries under a new set of values, and the notion that they would attack the United States or its allies with a nuclear weapon and all but guarantee their own annihilation makes little sense. However, that is precisely what many within the United States’ foreign policy and national security community are concerned with, with senator Tom Cottom of Arkansas proposing to “present a ‘credible threat of military force’” to stop Iran from enriching uranium and eventually obtaining a nuclear weapon (The Atlantic).
But does the Call of Duty series really have any influence over national security issues? If the current job of former Call of Duty director Dave Anthony is any indication, this is absolutely the case. After directing both Call of Duty: Black Ops and its sequel, Anthony left to become a fellow at The Atlantic Council. Appearing for The Atlantic Council to discuss future military strategies for the United States, Anthony even made the connection between video game marketing and the government “selling” unpopular military decisions to the government, and admitted that his former employer “essentially brainwash[es]” consumers into already liking the latest Call of Duty before it releases (Polygon). While this strategy may not work to the same degree for, say, the Obama administration selling the Iran deal to the American people, it could help to further alienate the senators who arguably committed treason when they wrote their own letter to the Iranian government.
In contrast to Homeland, 24, and nearly every military-focused video game on the market today is Hideo Kojima’s espionage series, Metal Gear. In place of “true to life” or “realistic” portrayals of national security that have been attempted, and have failed, in the aforementioned series, Metal Gear, as well as the later Metal Gear Solid titles, acts as a cautionary tale for a world where private militaries reign supreme and the notion of mutually assured destruction is compromised.
Nuclear weapons and the concept of mutually assured destruction have overwhelmingly been discussed in the realm of state-to-state interaction. No state would dare to attack another state with a nuclear missile and risk being destroyed in retaliation. However, Metal Gear aims to show, in several different ways, why this “state only” approach to nuclear war could lead to an extremely grim outcome. The titular “Metal Gear,” present in some form in almost every entry in the series, is a bipedal tank, the “REX” variant capable of launching a nuclear strike from anywhere in the world. Fictional as the technology may be, it acts as an analogy for the large-scale proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the world. The Metal Gear REX only needs to find its way into the wrong hands for a few short moments for a nuclear holocaust to occur. Were this technology limited to rational state actors, this would still fit cleanly within the confines of mutually assured destruction: powerful as the weapon may be, no state would attack another state and risk a similar fate. This is where Metal Gear paints a very different picture of national security: the largest military entities in the game’s universe are private military companies, or “PMCs,” the most famous of which known as “Outer Heaven.” With no clear borders, sovereignty, or recognition from other states, PMCs would have much more plausible deniability, and the struggle of declaring war on a particular company instead of another sovereign state could lead to the MAD theory being rendered all but useless.
Of course, this still seems well within the realm of fiction, at least to the untrained eye. Private militaries are not yet known to possess nuclear weapons, but their influence has grown tremendously. Behind only retailer Walmart, the PMC G4S is now the “second-largest private employer on earth,” with more than 600,000 employees, and currently operates in 125 different countries (Business Insider). With a force of this magnitude, it’s not a particularly large presumption that possessing a nuclear weapon, particularly one capable of striking distant targets, could bring traditional militaries to their knees, and with no clear target for retaliation, this could lead to a situation where a PMC launches a first-strike nuclear attack on an enemy of either the company or the company’s clients.
Hideo Kojima does not limit the Metal Gear series to commenting on the ability of private military companies or other rogue groups to utilize nuclear weapons, however: the series also focuses heavily on the danger of anti-missile weapons that could render any coercive power of nuclear weapons meaningless, leaving them as nothing more than a guaranteed form of global destruction. In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Metal Gear “RAY” is introduced. Unlike the original Metal Gear models, RAY is not equipped with nuclear weapons, but is instead designed to render other Metal Gear models ineffective, potentially acting as a mobile anti-missile device of sorts. The dangers of anti-ballistic missile technology are well-acknowledged by the international community, dating back to the scrapped “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative originally started under Ronald Reagan. Even the U.S. State Department highlights the concerns of this program, stating in its summary that the Soviet Union “might feel forced to attack the United States” if the system were ever actually implemented (State.gov).
It appears, however, that Hideo Kojima predicted the rise of a mobile anti-missile system through Metal Gear Solid 2 fairly accurately, even if it doesn’t take the form of a bipedal tank. As early “the mid-2000s”—just a few years after the game released—the Israeli airline El Al began equipping its planes with anti-missile systems capable of preventing attacks from heat-seeking missiles, featuring radar technology and “an infrared missile-tracking camera.” In theory, mobile missile defense systems sound like a wise idea. After all, these are being developed for civilian planes. However, it’s important not to forget that civilian planes were responsible for the terrorist attack on 9/11, hijacking in the air and diverted from their original destination. Should a plane be hijacked again, the military would have an exponentially harder time, if necessary, to shoot the plane out of the sky and prevent it from crashing into a building. This appears to be lost on Senator Mark Kirk, who says that he was “petitioning the FAA to rethink security measures” and allow U.S.-based airlines to use similar technology (ABC News).
In an interview with The Guardian, Kojima made the central theme of his series very clear. “The message is anti-nuclear weapons,” he says (The Guardian). The series has long dealt with this concept, dating back to the original Metal Gear in the first game, and focused especially strongly on the concept in Kojima’s last entry, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. To Kojima, mutually assured destruction is simply too dangerous a concept to embrace, and the villain known as “Skull Face” plans to fool nearly every nation on Earth into believing it, giving them access to nuclear devices as a form of deterrence. In actuality, he has control over all of the nuclear weapons, but should his role be compromised, it would open up a can of worms where any rogue group, especially in nations without powerful governments, would then have access to nuclear weapons themselves.
To bring some sort of tangible evidence to his theory, Hideo Kojima and his studio, Kojima Productions, implemented a nuclear weapon system into the online component of Metal Gear Solid V. Players’ bases can be attacked by others, crippling their progress and limiting their power. To deter this from happening, these players can acquire nuclear weapons, but “NGO” groups of sorts online have taken it upon themselves to disarm any nuclear weapon they come across. This appears to be exactly what Kojima had in mind with the program, as a secret ending cinematic is only accessed after every nuclear weapon in the game has been deactivated (Kotaku). It may seem impossible for such an event to occur, especially in a video game with no “real world” consequences, but the strategy seems to be working. The total number of nuclear weapons in the game has shrunk from more than 2,700 to 349 in less than a month, suggesting that we may actually see this virtual world without the threat of nuclear war (Polygon). Perhaps this will not play out as cleanly in the real world as it did in the game, but it serves as a successful experiment in nuclear disarmament, and given Kojima’s prediction of both the rise of PMCs and the development of mobile missile defense systems, perhaps his view of the world is possible.
Homeland and the Call of Duty games have made an impact on the national security framework in the United States, both with something as simple as an endorsement from a foreign affairs expert or a game director being given a position at a prominent international think tank. However, their fallacious and, at times, downright incorrect portrayal of modern national security issues creates a vicious circle where these ideas are considered “truth” and are subsequently introduced into the real national security and foreign policy discussions. Meanwhile, Metal Gear’s accurate (if perhaps exaggerated) predictions of the rise of private military corporations and the greater development of mobile anti-missile systems have been all but completely ignored in this conversation. Should the former two series continue to receive recognition and even have influence in the national security community, we are destined to face the same issues in the decades to come. Should we at least consider Hideo Kojima’s predictions on the future of national security, particularly the potential for nuclear disarmament in the future, we can see a very different and more peaceful tomorrow.