Propaganda in War Video Games: A Legal Minefield for Developers

Propaganda in War Video Games: A Legal Minefield for Developers

Propaganda in War Video Games: A Legal Minefield for Developers

1000 648 Amy Sanderson

Video games have long since transcended the realm of mere entertainment. With their immersive worlds, compelling narratives, and intricate mechanics, they’ve evolved into powerful platforms for communication and expression. Yet, this capability to influence also presents a unique quandary: the potential use of video games as vehicles for propaganda. In this article, we delve into the fascinating interplay between video games and propaganda and explore the legal implications that game developers and platforms could face when they permit the propagation of certain ideologies within their virtual realms.

Research has demonstrated that video games present sophisticated communication tools. Ian Bogost explained that “procedural rhetoric” can subtly influence players toward certain ideologies through their rules and mechanics. As a result, video games have been recognized as platforms capable of conveying not just entertainment, but also complex political narratives and ideologies. Other authors identified military-themed and strategy games as particularly susceptible to propagandistic uses. These genres, with their focus on conflict and power dynamics, offer fertile ground for the embedding of specific worldviews and values.

While the capacity for video games to distribute propaganda is widely accepted, the extent to which they impact player attitudes and behaviors is still debated. However, as video games become increasingly pervasive and incorporate advanced technologies, their potential role as propagandistic tools and the potential risks developers and platforms assume when incorporating propaganda into their games should not be ignored.

While video games enjoy First Amendment protections, exceptions exist for content deemed obscene or that incites violence. Propaganda, often employed to advance specific political or social agendas, can be regulated if it incites hatred or violence. Consequently, developers and platforms permitting such propaganda could be subject to litigation. Additionally, some countries like China explicitly prohibit video game propaganda that threatens national security, with penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment.

Examples of potential legal and regulatory issues include:

  • Games promoting violence against a specific demographic could be considered hate speech, leading to prohibitions in certain jurisdictions.
  • Games advancing harmful political agendas could face defamation lawsuits or violate election laws.
  • Games funded by a government or political party for propagandistic purposes could be banned in some countries.

Game companies should seek legal counsel to navigate the laws applicable to their jurisdiction. As video games continue to grow as influential media forms, comprehending their potential for propaganda and the associated legal consequences becomes increasingly crucial.

History of Propaganda in Video Games

The intersection of propaganda and video games is a complex and multifaceted domain. Over the years, various authors have conducted in-depth case studies to examine specific instances of propaganda within video games. These investigations provide valuable insights into how different entities utilize the captivating medium of video games to further their agendas.

A diverse range of entities exploit video games as a vehicle for their propaganda. State governments including the US, Russia, China, and Iran as well as non-state actors such as Hezbollah recognize and harness the persuasive power of video games to advocate their ideologies.

Technological advancements have played a significant role in shaping propaganda strategies. Early video games, with their limited graphical capabilities and simplistic narratives, offered rudimentary forms of propaganda. However, as Web3 has evolved, so has the sophistication of propaganda within these games.

Today, with advanced graphics, complex storylines, and immersive gameplay, video games offer a far more compelling platform for propaganda. They can create detailed and engaging narratives that subtly embed ideological messages. Furthermore, online multiplayer games allow for real-time interaction between players worldwide, providing an even more potent avenue for propagandistic influence. But as the potential for propaganda in video games grows, so does the need for legal and regulatory scrutiny. The legal history of propaganda in video games is still being written, with courts and lawmakers around the world grappling with the unique challenges this new medium presents. Issues such as the definition of propaganda, its potential harm, and the extent of free speech protection in the US are just some of the legal questions being examined.

How Propaganda Infiltrates Video Games

The potential for video games to serve as platforms for propaganda has been recognized and exploited by various organizations worldwide. They employ diverse strategies to propagate their messages:

  • Direct Funding – Organizations may finance game development to ensure the infusion of specific ideological content. The US Army’s creation of America’s Army provides a textbook example. Developed as a recruitment tool, the game is a simulation of military experiences, subtly endorsing the Army’s values and ideals. But the approach is not confined to the US. Iran’s burgeoning domestic game industry sees companies such as Darinoos localizing international PC games while inserting propagandist content favorable to Iranian perspectives.
  • Indirect Influence – Political entities can manipulate game content through non-direct means, often in the form of financial incentives like tax breaks or subsidies offered to developers who incorporate desired themes into their games. China, for instance, has faced accusations of infiltrating popular games like Riot Games’ Valorant and Epic Games’ Fortnite with propagandist content. Tencent, a major Chinese tech company, holds substantial stakes in both Riot and Epic Games, leading to concerns about potential ideological interference.
  • Modification of Existing Games – Another method is the modification of existing games to include propagandist content, often through ‘mods’ or custom scenarios. Russia has reportedly employed this technique in popular games like Minecraft and World of Tanks. By creating environments within these games that reflect their political narratives, Russian propagandists can reach extensive, globally dispersed audiences. While these modifications may seem harmless, they pose potential threats to the integrity of public discourse. Disseminating propaganda through popular entertainment platforms allows these organizations to subtly shape players’ perceptions and attitudes towards various political issues.

These strategies underscore the increasing intricacy of the propaganda landscape in the digital age. As video games continue to surge in popularity, their potential as platforms for ideological dissemination cannot be underestimated. However, this presents significant challenges for regulatory bodies and societies. Regulators face the daunting task of monitoring and controlling such content without infringing on freedom of speech and creative expression. Societies, conversely, must evolve into more discerning consumers of digital content, capable of recognizing and critically evaluating potential propagandist messages embedded in their entertainment.

The increasing prevalence of political propaganda within video games has raised several legal implications that developers must consider:

  • Intellectual Property Rights – Incorporating real-world entities, symbols, or events into a game for propagandist purposes might infringe upon intellectual property rights. For example, using a political party’s logo or a celebrity’s likeness without permission could result in lawsuits based on trademark or copyright infringement. Furthermore, under the right of publicity, individuals hold the legal right to control the commercial use of their identity. Therefore, unauthorized use of a person’s image within a propagandist context might invite litigation.
  • Defamation – If a game falsely presents a person or entity damagingly, it might be considered defamatory. In many jurisdictions, according to the Restatement (Second) of Torts, the aggrieved party could sue the game developer for defamation, even if the material was not explicitly intended to harm. The classic case involves Manuel Noriega’s defamation suit against Activision Blizzard for its depiction of the former Panamanian dictator Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Activision Blizzard ultimately won the lawsuit but not before incurring substantial legal costs.
  • Regulatory Compliance – Many countries have stringent regulations regarding the dissemination of political propaganda, particularly concerning hate speech or incitement to violence. Non-compliance with such laws could result in severe penalties, including fines or even criminal charges. For instance, in Germany, the use of Nazi symbolism is heavily regulated, though video games are explicitly exempt. Additionally, bodies like the Entertainment Software Rating Board can impose age restrictions or refuse to classify games containing controversial content. This can significantly affect a game’s marketability and financial success.

Integrating propaganda into video games can carry serious legal implications for developers. To mitigate these risks, developers should seek legal counsel when creating content that could be viewed as propagandist. They should also establish rigorous internal review processes to ensure compliance with all relevant laws and regulations. By taking these steps, developers can protect their interests, create engaging content, and maintain their industry credibility and reputation.

Balancing Player Protection and Freedom of Speech

On one hand, propaganda can enhance storytelling and world-building, creating immersive experiences for players and conveying complex political messages. However, it can also spread misinformation, incite violence, and promote intolerance. To mitigate legal risks and reputational damage, companies should inform players that a game contains propaganda, clearly label it as such, put it in context to help players understand its purpose and potential biases, and allow players to opt out of being exposed to it.

Striking a balance between protecting players from harmful propaganda while preserving creative expression presents a delicate conundrum requiring measured and nuanced tactics.

Game developers often maintain that their games are not intended to make political statements but rather to provide entertainment and understanding. Mark Lamia, head of Call of Duty developer Treyarch, asserts that their game is a piece of art and entertainment, not a political statement. Similarly, Peter Tamte, CEO of the company behind Six Days in Fallujah, states that the game aims to foster empathy and understanding, not to comment politically on the war.

Despite these assertions, the ideologies promoted in a well-designed game can shape players’ attitudes towards topics like war and military action, even without explicit political commentary. These games often provide a fantasy of idealized military action, cementing certain attitudes about warfare while obscuring real-world horrors and devastation.

In conclusion, while video games offer an innovative platform for expression and engagement, they also present complex legal challenges that require expert legal counsel to navigate. A Web3 attorney can protect video game developers and platforms by providing guidance on the legal implications of incorporating propaganda and other sensitive content into video games. This includes ensuring compliance with local and international laws, protecting First Amendment rights, and navigating issues related to trademarks. They can also advise on the use of interactive media and the potential for video games to influence political persuasion.

Gamma Law is a San Francisco-based Web3 firm supporting select clients in complex and cutting-edge business sectors. We provide our clients with the legal counsel and representation they need to succeed in dynamic business environments, push the boundaries of innovation, and achieve their business objectives, both in the U.S. and internationally. Contact us today to discuss your business needs.

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Amy Sanderson

All stories by: Amy Sanderson

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