By Taylor Marvin
Before diving into the question I’d like to stress that I am not a gamer, and my knowledge of the medium comes from cultural osmosis as much as anything else. So, feel free to correct me.
The writers behind contemporary military first-person shooters, one of the most popular video game genres, face an interesting challenge: finding an enemy. Islamic terrorists are a natural choice. However, this route has its problems. As the 2010 controversy over Medal of Honor — which originally would have let gamers play as the Taliban — illustrated, games pitting players against Islamic militants may stray uncomfortably close to reality. But more importantly, terrorist antagonists can’t credible provide the sense of scale many game writers desire. Games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and the Battlefield series require balanced combat between equally-capable military forces rather than simply small-scale firefights, and many of their single-player campaigns feature invasions of the United States. Even given gaming’s suspension of disbelief there’s simply no way that Islamic terrorism can believably provide conflict on this scale.
This need for grand scale is problematic, because writers in both the games and film industries have trouble selecting antagonists capable of plausibly challenging the United States’ global military hegemony. Many writers simply skip the problem by calling in alien antagonists, implicitly arguing that an extraterrestrial invasion is more likely in the foreseeable future than a major, non-nuclear war between human combatants. Aliens also have the advantage of being entirely inoffensive. Casting human enemies, on the other hand, carries a substantial risk of bad publicity. While China is perhaps the most logical future US competitor, the prospect of alienating Chinese consumers and government censorship makes Chinese antagonists a rare choice (thought the upcoming Battlefield 4 appears to feature combat between US and PLA forces). Russian audiences, however, seem not to mind being cast as enemies in Western games — indeed, there’s something almost flattering about the implication that Russia’s one bad day away from invading, well, everywhere. Russia invades the continental United States and Europe throughout the Modern Warfare franchise, though Modern Warfare’s Russians are notably manipulated into war, and Alaska and Canada in Battlefield: Bad Company 2.
Another option is North Korea. The 2011 game Homefront and the 2012 remake of Reagan-era action film Red Dawn chronicle completely-implausible North Korean military occupations of the United States (though it is important to note that Red Dawn was originally written with Chinese antagonists whose nationality was hurriedly switched in post-production to avoid losing access to the increasingly important Chinese market; for its part the Japanese edition of Homefront removed references to North Korea). The near-future setting of the 2007 game Crysis postulated that a decade of economic development and military modernization would allow North Korea to mount amphibious operations into the South China Sea, though later entries in the series abandoned the People’s Liberation Army for alien and evil mega-corporation antagonists.
The recently-released trailer for the upcoming mega-hit Call of Duty: Ghosts appears to depict an invasion of the US by Spanish-speakers “from south of the Equator,” implying an invasion force of Peruvians or Argentines (or possibly Venezuelans depending on how geographically-challenged Ghosts’ writers are). Finally, many games like the above-mentioned Crysis series simply avoid the prospect of controversy altogether by calling in the classic anonymous-but-evil private militaries.
However, there’s one notable omission from the list of games’ nation-state antagonists: I can’t think of a single major contemporary military shooter with Indian enemies. With soon-to-be the world’s largest population, increasing military spending, and the expectation that it will grow into a global power this century, India is certainly a more plausible future military competitor for the United States than Latin America or especially North Korea. So why do no games pit Indian bad guys against Americans?
The most obvious answer to this puzzle is that India is a democracy and an increasingly close US ally. However, in my mind it’s unclear if this is a substantial barrier to military shooter writers looking for a new adversary — after all, despite the frosty US-Russian diplomatic relationship, no one thinks a war between the two is remotely likely. Another possibility is that, like with China, developers are afraid of losing access to the Indian market. But while the Indian government has a record of political censorship, it is unclear if the small Indian video game market is important enough to make this a pressing concern.
I think that a plausible explanation for the lack of Indian antagonists in contemporary military shooters is American culture’s racial narratives. In this narrative Middle Easterners are constructed as terrorists, but not competent enough to truly threaten the United States. (In reality Islamic nations are just as capable of invading the US as Russia; that is, not at all.) Games that feature the Russian military obviously benefit from a half-century of American culture that held the USSR as the ultimate threat, and from the Cold War nostalgia so evident in the Red Dawn remake. East Asian antagonists exist within the “yellow peril” narrative that depicts Asian men as alternatively martially threatening or asexual and submissive. But in my understand the popular Western conception of India leaves little room for threatening narratives — though it is important to note that American racists frequently fail to distinguish between India and southern and western Asia overall (whose inhabitants are constructed as terrorists), as the distressing reaction to the first Indian-America Miss America illustrates. Instead, in this racial narrative Indian men are viewed as uncivilized, impotent — outside of the Kama Sutra — and subservient, a narrative likely derived from deceptions of the British colonial period. Within this narrative it is difficult to construct to Indians as a threat, in video games or otherwise. Of course, this is enormously racist.
Again, this isn’t to say that I think a future war between the US and India is at all likely, or that deceptions of foreigners as FPS cannon fodder is particularly constructive. But it is an interesting question. Thoughts?