When I began working on The Idols of ISIS: From Assyria to the Internet, I used research funds to buy myself a PlayStation gaming console and a copy of Call of Duty. It was already being widely reported that Islamic State (IS) had a fondness for the first-person shooter video game and I wanted to experience the appeal firsthand. I didn’t get far. Lacking the skill to progress beyond the first campaign, I ultimately gave up and instead asked one of my students known for his skill at such games to identify moments that corresponded to scenes in Islamic State videos and record his play for me. I got the research I needed and he got paid for playing.
Since my book focuses on Islamic State’s destruction of antiquities, I was particularly excited when my student showed me a scene from Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Set in the 1980s, the game’s protagonist, US Special Forces operative Alex Mason, travels to Afghanistan where he must blow up part of a structure in order to block a Soviet advance. The building resembles the twelfth-century madrassa complex Gumbad-i Chisht-e Sharif. (The campaign opens with Mason looking up as his partner rappels down the Bamiyan Buddhas—famed, by the time of the game’s release in 2012, for their destruction by the Taliban more than a decade earlier.) My student also identified parallel depictions of aerial bombardment, drive-by shootings (à la Grand Theft Auto), and an elaborate interrogation scene.
Many of these images originate not in the imagination of American video game programmers but in media coverage of American wars. Anyone who came of age watching news coverage of the 1990–1991 Persian Gulf War, as I did, can’t fail to associate aerial bombardment with the new vision of warfare offered by camera-equipped “smart bombs.” Similarly, the prisoner’s orange jumpsuit in the interrogation scene pulls directly from images of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay following the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
In reproducing such images in its videos, Islamic State intentionally mirrors images of American imperialism. In other words, IS videos imitate video games that are themselves imitations of the real world. This does not mean that one somehow returns through them to the real world itself. The play element of the video game is preserved in the world IS imagines — albeit with serious consequences.
In June 2012, IS began to release a series of videos on the internet called Saleel al-Sawarim (Clanging of the Swords). The first instalments were rather wooden compilations of polemical speeches and combat footage. But the fourth, released in May 2014, displays greater rhetorical sophistication. Stylistically mimicking sequences from combat video games, the hour-long video opens with a computer-generated satellite image of the Middle East that zooms into drone-shot aerial footage of Fallujah. A dizzying spin immerses the viewer in street-to-street fighting at the very heart of Islamic State’s world. By imitating the first-person shooter perspective, subsequent scenes reiterate the video-game quality of life in the Caliphate. The final sequence shows a man walking across a peaceful field, carrying a large IS flag fluttering gloriously in the wind. As in a video game’s metastory, Saleel al-Sawarim 4 closes with an image of justice triumphant.
Videos like Saleel al-Sawarim 4 provide a glimpse of the kind of world IS offers its adherents — a world already familiar to those who have grown up on video games and have sometimes been recruited through online gaming networks. One IS fighter even told a BBC journalist that his new life in the Caliphate was “better than that game Call of Duty.” The Islamic State’s recourse to a video-game idiom has consequently been interpreted as a recruitment technique.
Though true as far as it goes, this interpretation seems too simple. Why would someone wish permanently to inhabit a video game? The gaming aspect must be significant: first-person shooter video games offer a very particular form of play.
In Homo Ludens (1938), a classic treatise on play, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga defines play as “a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and consciousness that it is different from ordinary life.” First-person shooter video games exhibit these characteristics. The gaming console, which can be turned on or off at will, both provides a place for play and circumscribes play within a finite time. One is free not to play, but once playing one must accept the game’s rules.
Play, Huizinga writes, brings a “temporary, limited perfection” into an imperfect world. It creates an order in which political action is neither needed nor possible. That temporary escape from politics becomes permanent in the world Islamic State videos imagine. Instead of “standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life,” Islamic State’s play-space is coextensive with ordinary life — to the degree such a life can still be called ordinary. Yet we lose an essential part of ourselves when we cannot stop playing. Huizinga recognized the horrors that accompany unending play. Writing on the eve of World War II, he saw no redemption in “the spectacle of a society rapidly goose-stepping into helotry.” (British propaganda filmmaker Charles A. Ridley responded more playfully by re-editing footage taken from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.)
IS videos, like fascist pageants, draw us into a world with no exit from play. They promise viewers a transformation like the one undergone by the protagonist of the dystopian online series My Life as a Video Game, an incessant gamer who finds himself pulled into the world of the games he plays.
Games like Call of Duty give players explicit, unambiguous tasks. In Black Ops 2, for instance, Alex Mason is tasked with gathering intel on the Menendez cartel. Toward this end, he must investigate Raul Menendez’s connection with the Soviets, defend a mujahideen base, retake a weapons cache, and interrogate a Russian prisoner. All of these actions are embedded within the game’s metastory: the need to bring Menendez to justice for his anti-American activities. Players choose the steps to take to accomplish each task. Head right or left? Use the AK-47 assault rifle or a Makarov pistol? But they never consider whether the tasks are worth pursuing in the first place. To live within such a video game would be to forego the prerequisite for political life: evaluating what constitutes the good for a group of people living together. One must simply obey the programmer’s all-encompassing law. Hacking is akin to miracles, not politics.
Some gamers, it should be noted, aren’t satisfied with a life of obedience. “Griefers” are players who deliberately irritate and harass other players, using aspects of the game in unintended ways. They seek freedom in a world of necessity. In refusing to adhere to the game’s intended form of play, griefers challenge assumptions like the primacy of the win and the value of teamwork. Such transgressive play parodies standard modes and disrupts or shifts the game’s end goal. Operating entirely within the game’s mechanical parameters, griefing exposes the laws of the video game world to questioning. Griefers are the gadflies of the game-world. Not surprisingly, conventional players have developed methods to police their transgressive behaviour.
Play can be an important form of experimentation. In his recent book, Experimental Games: Critique, Play, and Design in the Age of Gamification, Patrick Jagoda argues that video games provide opportunities for staging, processing, and testing experience. They allow us to try out alternative worlds, which makes us more adept at making judgments within this one. Video games, Jagoda shows, can be a valuable tool for cultivating our political selves. But this requires always maintaining the distinction between our world and the game world. Playing games isn’t the same as inhabiting one.
In fact, life inside a game-world makes playing impossible. Media theorist Alexander Galloway helpfully distinguishes between “diegetic” and “nondiegetic” video-game actions. Diegetic actions involve characters and events that are presumed to exist within the game’s narrative world; nondiegetic actions are external to the pretend world of character and story but still part of the game. For example, nobody within the game-world presses Pause, but pressing Pause is as much part of a first-person shooter game as firing a weapon. Nondiegetic actions occur at the border between the narrative world of the game and the world we inhabit in everyday life. That is where actual gameplay occurs. Within the diegetic realm, one isn’t so much playing as being played.
IS videos only appear to offer a world of play. They appeal, rather, to a deeply-rooted desire to obey. In the Caliphate, one can never press Pause.