by C.T. Hutt
"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961
Through a combination of masochism and insomnia I finished the last chapter of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots over the weekend. From a social standpoint, this game has a lot to say about the nature of war and the human capacity for violence and terror. It also offers an alternative look at history. Artistically, MGS4 boasts incredible graphics and a nuanced (though confusing) storyline. While I take issue with some of Hideo Kojima’s choices with regard to his female characters (i.e. no matter what military rank they achieve or how badass they appear, every girl secretly dreams about being a bride), there is no question that he has given each and every one of his characters a great deal of care and attention. With such a multifaceted gaming experience fresh in my mind, surely any number of these aspects of MGS4 could be the source of an interesting discussion, but I believe the most fascinating thing to consider about this title is how it addresses a topic which many people find hopelessly dull: economics.
[Minor spoilers follow.] In MGS4, the world is controlled by several massive computer networks that perpetuate a state of eternal war between nation states and non-state actors, both of whom employ elite private military companies (PMCs) to do their fighting for them. These naughty artificial intelligences operate like the Records Department of Oceania, creating and destroying military equipment so that the supply they create never meets the demand their political actions generate. This endless cycle is created because it seems like the best way to keep a world full of educated and interconnected proles from fundamentally altering the status quo. Thus, the status of humanity is perpetually miserable, but also refreshingly constant. Things are bad in the world, but not getting any worse; that’s just how these machines like it. Your mission is to pull the plug and give the world back its ability to make its own stupid choices. The system of control put in place by the machines is aptly called “the war economy.”
The whole game has a distinct sci-fi feel to it, but it is often subtle enough that players can suspend their disbelief. Walking tanks all have serial numbers printed on the sides. The PMCs in MGS4 have names like “Pieuvre Armement” and “Raven Sword” which are evocative of real life private militaries like “Blackwater” and “ArmorGroup - G4S.” Most of the protagonist’s weapons in the game are either currently used or in development by the U.S. Military. That’s just accounting for a few surface observations from the title. Of course there are some aspects of the game that are fantastical: psychics, energy guns, and the like, but where this title really hits home is in its dark parody of the current geo-political situation.
Nearly all of the actual fighting taking place in the world today is state vs. non-state actors or non-state actors vs. non-state actors. Drug cartels, militia groups, terrorist organizations, religious extremists, and fringe political factions exist on every continent (except Antarctica… I think). In some cases they are well organized and well funded, with access to most of the same equipment and training received by modern militaries (sometimes they are even trained by national militaries, like at the School of the Americas). Real PMCs do more than a hundred billion dollars of business every year worldwide and are only growing larger and better equipped. On the civilian side of things, the Federal Government employs more contractors at the Department of Homeland Security than sworn civil servants. Finally, the military industrial complex dominates our foreign and domestic policy making process to such a degree that dozens of unrelated bills and key political appointments get hung up every year due to filibusters from both parties over military contract allocations. The implications of these facts are far reaching but there is nothing fantastic about them; they are part of the reality of our modern world.
Suffice to say, I think Hideo Kojima really pinned the tail on the Solid Snake with this title. It’s a very short cognitive jump between his fiction and our reality. The current military state of play is a very real game of which all of us are a part, whether we want to be or not. The true kicker is that there is no button to press, virus to upload, or final boss to defeat that is going to make the unpleasant facts just go away.