Pop Culture and International Relations Theory


Just about everyone plays video games now, and a sizable chunk model international relations in one way or another. Over the years, I have noticed that students have picked up ‘information’ from games – just as they do from film – which filters into the classroom. For example, I had a student once who insisted on basing his cyberterrorism paper on the scenario of Die Hard 4. Film, and increasingly now video games, are a shared language and pool of narratives among our undergraduates. They provide common stories and references, just as the transmission of Homer did among the Greeks. But the big films of the last 40 years are the stories they know now: my students are far more likely to know the Star Wars mythology than classical myth. Yoda has replaced Zeus, and Halo replaced the Iliad as a depiction of combat.

This raises all sorts of interesting pedagogical questions, and it places a burden on us as teachers to at least be mildly informed of what they watch and play. (If you don’t,  students think you are a hopelessly out of touch dork they can’t relate to, and hence, you are less likely to reach them.) The study of IR film is mature, but I have yet to see any serious treatment of video games as either depiction of international relations or as teaching tools. Duck of Minerva has touched on this a little bit. But this topic needs to be really worked on by someone in IR with an interest in communications. It doesn’t strike me as a well-organized enough topic for a dissertation, but definitely an MA. If Lord of the Rings can be discussed as an IR teaching tool, then so should gaming. Most of our students now game. Military games are hugely popular – including a bestseller released by the US Army itself originally designed as an in-house simulation and now used as a recruiting tool. Such games regularly include depictions of war, the normative concern behind IR’s very existence. At the very least we should think about how this impacts what they bring to class.

Sound ridiculous? Actually, in my experience in the classroom, it’s not at all. Whenever a big war or history movie shows up in theaters, we inevitably discuss it in class, because students ask questions about it or it otherwise creates such a stir in the larger society. So frequently did I notice this when I first started teaching, that I actually bought a few movies that I was asked about most, because I thought it was a good idea to know them well – including Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, JFK, and the Hurt Locker. This has been a constant experience in teaching undergrads. It may depress more mature readers and IR observers, but it is nonetheless a reliable element of teaching undergrads. In fact, so prevalent are references to Black Hawk Down especially, that I even read the book, because I fielded so many questions on it.

I don’t have the training in media studies for this, but two video games which I have played leap out to me as relevant in IR – the Civilization series and the Modern Warfare series. Civilization is essentially a state-building simulation, complete with interaction with other states, including warfare. But Modern Warfare is far more important given how much the games have sold and how directly they model the current GWoT. The sequel is basically  ‘Iraq War- the video game,’ which is pretty shocking the first time you see it. Sequences are ripped straight out of the documentary Generation Kill. The battle-realism of the violence is far beyond anything you have seen in a game before. The gunfire, killing, and destruction are extreme and amazingly graphic. There are no aliens that are morally easy to dispatch by the battalion (Halo, Quake, etc). Instead your character knifes people, shoots dogs (yes, that’s right), and fairly easily racks up ‘collateral damage.’ At one point, your character even participates in a terrorist massacre at an airport (video above), which generated a big controversy apparently. Quite honestly, it is a shocking sequence in the game – you are expected to participate in machine gunning hundreds of civilians! The sequence creeped my wife out so much she made me turn the game off. This is calling out for a serious treatment.


7 thoughts on “Pop Culture and International Relations Theory

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