How video games can help teens (and us) make sense of bin Laden’s death


In Kuma War, players face off against Osama bin Laden in a re-enactment of the Battle of Tora Bora.

As news breaks around the world of the killing of Osama bin Laden, people of all ages must struggle to make sense of the situation. One of the world’s biggest villains has been conquered, and that has psychological repercussions for those who were aware of bin Laden’s activities and philosophies.

The video-game world is already responding. This morning, a new video game called Muhajedin came online. In it, gamers can portray a suicide bomber taking orders from the late al-Qaeda leader. The game plays out these missions with plenty of satire, providing both catharsis and levity.

Meanwhile, Kuma Games is talking about creating a new Kuma War mission in which you can play the soldiers or strike team that stormed bin Laden’s compound and ended his life. In past missions, players could virtually participate in the Dec. 2001 Battle of Tora Bora, after which bin Laden and his men allegedly fled to Pakistan. Kuma War includes a variety of missions based on current and historic events, from World War II battles to recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iran.

Such games can help us process major events like bin Laden’s death, according to one expert who talked to Kotaku:

Ian Bogost, professor of digital media at Georgia Tech and co-author of Newsgames: Journalism at Play, [called such games] … “Quickly created release valves that capitalize on this event for traffic or attention. That said, perhaps some of them may give us a sense of how the operation took place.”

Kuma, he notes, tries to do that with their attempt at accurate recreations.

Bosost says that these tabloid games also give people a way to come to terms with a surprising event. … These Bin Laden games could also give some people a “welcome sense of false closure,” Bogost added. “See, Osama is dead. The ‘war on terror’ is over. See, I killed him myself on my computer.’ Whether that’s true or not, it doesn’t matter,” Bogost said.

For many who play these games — including teens, whose instinct may be to turn to a video game while they’re processing the news — such imaginative play is an opportunity to explore current events and even what it must have been like at the scene of the raid on bin Laden’s compound. It doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone who plays such games wishes they could kill bin Laden themselves (or, in the case of Muhajedin, wishes they could be a suicide bomber). But most of us, as we integrate such history-making events, imagine it from all angles. We may even consider ourselves part of the “winning team,” and games let us participate in those heroics in a deeper way.

In a sense, it’s similar to how scholar Joseph Campbell described the hero’s journey, and our resonance with heroic myths:

We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is fully known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero-path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. And where we sought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we will have come to the center of our existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.

And, in playing such games — and emerging the hero — we can find closure and move forward with a renewed feeling of productivity. Here’s a quote from gaming cheerleader Jane McGonigal, author of the new book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World:

Games support happiness … by giving us more satisfying work or concrete tasks that we can accomplish…. Studies have shown that playing a short game — having something concrete that you can accomplish — actually gives you the motivation, energy and optimism to go back and tackle real work.

Parents who are worried that their teens might pick up such games should remember that they’re already hearing plenty of the details on radio and television news, and probably discussing it at school. They’re already imagining it in their minds. Like you, they’re wondering what it must have been like. These outlets let them safely explore and reach closure in their curiosity and need to find meaning in the complexities of these events. You may want to play along with them, and then talk together about what it was like. But forbidding such games doesn’t keep kids from thinking about these issues — it only keeps them from going through their natural process of making sense of the world.

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2 responses to “How video games can help teens (and us) make sense of bin Laden’s death

  1. Pingback: MW3 offers catharsis for bombing survivors | Backward Messages

  2. Pingback: New zombie shooter puts Palin, Bachmann, Gingrich, and other tea partiers in the crosshairs | Backward Messages

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