DeathDigital Media & VideogamesPoliticsPsychologyWar, Violence & Terrorism

The Red Circle

Take a look, and think about it:

There are sev­eral hor­rible ques­tions that arise from this foot­age, some with obvi­ous answers; to name a few: why was this foot­age not made pub­lic imme­di­ately? At least the US gov­ern­ment would have pre­ven­ted look­ing like they wanted to cover it up. Why does the killing that occurs here hap­pen almost cas­u­ally? Why didn’t the heli­copter fight­ers check more thor­oughly before ‘enga­ging’ their tar­gets? Why didn’t they let the late arrivals take away the dead and wounded?

The answer to the first ques­tion is prob­ably easi­est: they thought they could get away with it bet­ter this way. It’s a gamble you take. Some one might leak the foot­age from the archive and show it to the world, or someone might not. You win some you lose some.

As for what actu­ally hap­pens, I believe a lot of it has to do with the phys­ical and con­cep­tual dis­tance between the dif­fer­ent par­ti­cipants (and col­lat­er­als) in a war. The offi­cial con­text of this attack seems to be that there were Iraqi insur­gents act­ive in this city, using rocket launch­ers to assault the heli­copters, which is prob­ably the only feas­ible way for ground troops to even stand a chance against such an air­borne oppon­ent. In that light, the chop­per crews in this video were look­ing for such war­ri­ors, and this was now an act­ive war zone by their stand­ards. Cue a group of men, some bran­dish­ing objects with longish attach­ments, which, with a bit of war­time ima­gin­a­tion, might look like guns (the ubi­quit­ous AK-47s) or RPG launch­ers.

There’s the key: ima­gin­a­tion. As a sol­dier, in order to be able to actu­ally kill an oppon­ent, you have to make them into an abstract in some way. When you peer through your tar­get­ing sys­tem, you bet­ter make sure you believe the people between your crosshairs are bad guys, or even anim­als, oth­er­wise you won’t be able to pull the trig­ger.

In many viol­ent video games, this abstrac­tion is delivered to you on a sil­ver plat­ter. When you swing that sniper rifle across a cer­tain target’s head, the crosshairs turn red to indic­ate that you’ve got an enemy in your sights; pow, and they’re gone. In the Baldur’s Gate series, and sim­ilar games, if it’s an enemy, there’s a red circle about it, invit­ing you to click it with the attack com­mand, and unleash your very own bar­rage. To be fair, any creature that’s hos­tile to you, and not neces­sar­ily bad or evil, will have a red circle in Baldur’s Gate. How­ever, unless you did some­thing to anger ‘the red circle’, you can be sure it’s a bad­die, and it can be killed without con­sequences to your game and game world.

Only rarely are these dis­tinc­tions presen­ted in a more nuanced way in games. Whom you kill usu­ally has little effect on the way a game pro­gresses, or on anyone’s emo­tions, includ­ing your own. It would be a chal­lenge to game design­ers to make games that incor­por­ate more of the real­it­ies of sol­dier­ing and viol­ence in this respect. How can you ever be sure if the people you’re fight­ing are really ‘the bad guys’, and is there any coun­try or gov­ern­ment that inher­ently ‘evil’ as a whole? A game that plays with such uncer­tain­ties would be a big chal­lenge to a player’s moral com­pass as well. To suc­cess­fully imple­ment such ele­ments, you would have to design a game where con­flicts thrown up can be solved from many dif­fer­ent angels, each with its own pros and cons, without for­cing a single ‘good’ solu­tion onto the player. To make things even more chal­len­ging, why don’t we drop the red circle com­pletely? Let the player make her or his own assess­ment about the level of threat, hos­til­ity, and oppos­i­tion of the ‘tar­get’.

Per­haps our cul­ture as a whole would be bet­ter off giv­ing a little more thought to the mat­ter of the red circle. It is only bene­fi­cial to one party: the com­mand­ing officers and offi­cials who want their war­time orders (for whatever pur­pose) car­ried out without ques­tion and without too much moral indig­na­tion by their sol­diers. For the rest of us, the civil­ian vic­tims, the sol­diers who don’t really know who they’re killing, nor for what reason, we’re bet­ter off without it, with our fin­gers just that bit fur­ther off the trig­ger.