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  • Towards An Interactive Goebbels: Can Propaganda Videogames Be Made More Effective And Is Resistance Futile?

    [08.31.10]
    - Gamasutra
  •  "Obviously, there's plenty of room for abuse here, and the relative opacity of the designer's assumptions and biases (compared with print) could make computer games a greater source of mischief than enlightenment. Goebbels was so frightening because he had a pretty good grip on how to use modern media for propaganda purposes. Right now, we're all too dumb to figure it out. Someday we'll have our interactive Goebbels."

    Chris Crawford (Peabody, 1997)

    "The German Jews were reasonably well tolerated in 1920 but within a few years they came to be not merely abused by the Nazi regime, but despised by much of the German population" (Sutherland, 2009:52). It is probable that this came about due to some of the psychological characteristics of groups. "In the terms of the psychologist's trade, any group to which a person belongs is an in-group, those to which he does not belong are out-groups" (Sutherland, 2009:44). There is a recognised "tendency for attitudes within a group to go to extremes and [for] the development of prejudice towards out-groups. Such prejudice has probably caused more misery throughout human history than any other factor. It was partly responsible for the last world war: at the very least Hitler's in-group slogan 'Herrenvolk' helped to get the German people behind him and to support the Anschluss" (Sutherland, 2009:54). The notion of the superiority of the in-group defined as the Germanic people and the implicit inferiority of other groups such as Jews was a vital part of the consolidation of power under the Nazis. How were the German people led to consider themselves as part of this in group and lead to believe that the prevailing opinion was in favour of Nazism and all the evils it led to? The answer to this question and to that of Hitler's baffling rise to office is that they were led by the power of propaganda. In Nazi Germany, no man wielded propaganda more effectively than Dr Paul Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda.

    This essay will only cover propaganda videogames, not propaganda efforts in other mediums. A brief overview of propaganda is given in Appendix 1. It may seem that propaganda videogames are a trifling thing, an academic curio with no potential to affect thought in "a skeptical, propaganda-weary world" (White, 1952:539). Those that would dismiss the potential impact of propaganda would do well to remember that, although the world has changed since the dark days of the Second World War, we are still in many respects the same people as our ancestors were. Sutherland speculates that "because of a lack of evolutionary pressure to increase rationality, the sophistication of our technology has far outrun the evolution of our brains" (Sutherland, 2009:231). It is self-evident that information communication technology currently evolves much more quickly than human minds and cultures do. It is precisely the fact "that people are very much less rational than is commonly thought" (Sutherland, 2009:231) that allows propaganda to work. Given that Goebbels work created the conditions which lead to the death of tens of millions, Crawford's prophecy is not to be taken lightly. The intentions of this essay are as follows:

    • To give an overview of propaganda and current propaganda videogames
    • To provide a heuristic that can be used to detect propaganda videogames
    • To consider what could be done to make propaganda videogames more effective
    • To discuss whether resistance is possible and whether any such resistance is futile

    In discussing these matters, it seems sensible to start with a brief overview of what propaganda is and the role it has played throughout history.

    Propaganda has been defined variously as "the art of persuasion" (Loar, 1990:53), "a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group" (Bernays, 1928:52), "an expression of opinion or action by individuals or groups, deliberately designed to influence opinions or actions of other individuals or groups with reference to pre-determined ends" (Miller, 1939:13). There are certainly commonalities between all three of these definitions. For the purpose of this essay, the definition used will be based on that given by Baruch Hazan in his 1982 work, Olympic Sports and Propaganda Games: "Propaganda is the carefully planned, systematically conducted, centrally coordinated and synchronized process of manipulating symbols, aimed at alerting human response and engendering uniform behaviour of large social groups, behavior expected to produce immediate and effective results, compatible with the specific political interests and goals of the propaganda source" (Hazan, 1982:8). However, there are a few necessary alterations that must be made to reflect the current state of propaganda.

    Since the publication of Olympic Sports and Propaganda Games in 1982, the world has changed. The price of electronic goods has fallen dramatically, meaning that almost anyone with enough spare time can create professional quality media products. The number of Internet users has increased exponentially, meaning that a large global audience can be reached with minimal effort and outlay of capital via the World Wide Web. The rise of Al-Qa'ida has shown that organisations with decentralised leadership models are viable political forces. In light of these factors, propaganda efforts in favour of a cause need no longer be centrally coordinated or synchronised. That the behaviour expected as a result of propaganda occurs immediately is not necessarily true either. In fact Hazan directly contradicts this point when he states that "sometimes results are expected to be of a long-term nature. This is the realm of impregnational propaganda" (Hazan, 1982:11). Finally, while it is probably correct that effective propaganda is carefully planned and systematically conducted, it is not necessarily true that all propaganda is. Even if "the bulk of propaganda activity is carefully planned and preconceived" (Hazan, 1982:9) this does not mean that all of it must be. The resulting definition is as follows: "Propaganda is the ... process of manipulating symbols, aimed at alerting human response and engendering uniform behaviour of large social groups, behavior expected to produce ... effective results, compatible with the specific political interests and goals of the propaganda source" (Hazan, 1982:8).

    It has been said that propaganda has existed since prehistoric times, "perhaps as far back as cave paintings, with their spiritual intent in relation to the hunt" (Loar, 1990:53). Almost any object, event or statement can be used for propaganda purposes provided that the propagandist is successfully able to present it so that an audience perceives it in the desired way. Every extant field of human endeavours has been used for propaganda purposes, with science, art and industry all taking centre stage in propaganda efforts at one time or another. "Drawing up a list of propaganda instruments seems an impossible task, simply because everything and anything can be used as an instrument of propaganda" (Hazan, 1982:10).

    It is possible to categorise propaganda in any number of ways, for example via the political goal, the choice of medium or the audience targeted. Each of these approaches has advantages and disadvantages. I believe that when the study of propaganda is the goal, the best method of categorisation is comprised of the function the propaganda is intended to fulfil and the accreditation of the propaganda. Broadly speaking, propaganda can either reinforce the status quo, disrupt the status quo or counter other pieces of propaganda that disrupt the status quo. The terms, white-, grey- and black-propaganda are used to denote whether the source of the piece is identified, absent or falsely purported to be one other than it is (Herz, 1949:483). The advantage of this approach over others is that it allows equal comparison of output aimed to further any socio-political notion, across any media, towards any audience and produced in any period, while remaining relatively impartial. This base form can easily be displayed visually as a graph, given as it consists of only two components, and can easily be expanded by the inclusion of a Z axis, for example the time scale the propaganda is designed to act within. It should be noted that while the status quo alters depending on the time and place of exposure to the propaganda in question the accreditation of the source generally does not. If we take the example of modern day Britain, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion would be considered to be a piece of disruptive black propaganda. In the case of Nazi Germany, where it was made a mandatory piece of reading for students, it would be considered to be reinforcing black propaganda.

    While it may seem absurd, propaganda does work. It draws much of its power from irrationality and attempts to "appeal to our emotions rather than to our reason" (Miller, 1939:27). The modern forms of propaganda are particularly successful and were pioneered by George Creel. In 1916, prior to the entry of the United States of America into the First World War, Creel worked as an electoral agent for the incumbent candidate, president Woodrow Wilson. Wilson achieved a narrow victory, running under the campaign slogan "He kept us out of the war". When the USA entered the war in April 1916 Creel persuaded Wilson of the necessity of founding a propaganda bureau, The Committee on Public Information. By the close of the war, two and a half years later, American support for the war was resolute and widespread. (Axelrod, 2009:ix - x) Following the war, many CPI members oversaw the birth of the modern advertising and public relations industries. "Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels used the CPI as a model for guiding his propaganda efforts before and during [the Second World War]" (Axelrod, 2009:218). In more recent times, the 2003 Invasion of Iraq was justified by propaganda statements, "I have made it clear that the purpose of any action should be the disarmament of Iraq. ... Regime change in Iraq would be a wonderful thing. That is not the purpose of our action; our purpose is to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction" (Blair, 2002). Even in the 21st century, propaganda retains immense power to shape opinion and reality

    Propaganda holds sinister connotations in the public mind and is commonly associated with authoritarian dictatorships, warfare and deception. While it is true that "propaganda is associated with conflict" (Miller 1939:15), this can just as easily be a conflict of ideas as a physical conflict. Propaganda is in itself a neutral tool of communication, although as it relies on mass dissemination it could be considered to favour the powerful and the populist. Some commentators put forward the notion that "propaganda, the organized dissemination of information and ideas for the purpose of influencing attitudes and behavior, is vital to the proper functioning of democracy" (Carlebach, 1988:11) and others go as far as to say that in a democracy it is inherently positive as some "[pieces of propaganda] represent new thought. Out of new thought come better ways of living and working together" (Miller, 1939:22). That propaganda is vital to a healthy democracy is debatable. On the one hand, if a democracy is a state governed by the consent of the people then it is necessary to guide actions via persuasion, not coercion, this being the role of propaganda. On the other hand, is government by consent really possible when voters can not access information which is not mediated by powerful vested interests? As Axelrod puts it, our choice of leaders is "strongly influenced by what can only be called propaganda, and we are therefore left to contemplate whether self-government is only an illusion and democracy, in any real sense, actually impossible" (Axelrod, 2009:225).

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