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Tyler Wertsch. Remembering the Future: Imagination, Memory, and the Possibilities of Games as Memory

Abstract: The author responds to Serguey Ehrlich’s essay, “Memory, Identity, and Imagination: The Structure of Behaviour from the Perspective of Memory Studies,” and explores how imagination is an integral but often overlooked facet of memory studies. The author is particularly interested in how imagination is invoked to restructure collective memory of the past into predictions for the future that are rooted in remembering, and how this process is carried out in popular video games. The author closes with some reflections on Ehrlich’s assertions on the challenge nation-states pose to self-sacrifice and collective action int eh face of unprecedented global concerns such as climate change.


Keywords: Memory Collective Memory, Imagination, Future Thinking, Video Games, Nationalism, Synthetic Memory, American Memory, Cold War, War on Terror, Call of Duty


Author Biography: Tyler Wertsch is a PhD candidate in the American Culture Studies program at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, USA. After living and working in Japan, Korea, Mongolia, and Azerbaijan, he pursued his MA and PhD in order to explore the complex relationships between nationalism, identity, memory, and media.


Serguey Ehrlich’s “Memory, Identity, and Imagination: The Structure of Behaviour from the Perspective of Memory Studies” is a creative, expansive application of memory theory that grapples with the challenge of national memory as a primary lens of remembering and explores why we must break free from this pattern. Drawing upon structuralist and Russian formalist patterns of analysis in the vein of Claude Levi-Strauss and Vladimir Propp, Ehrlich identifies patterns of narrativization (“self-sacrifice,” “other-sacrifice,” and “booty”). His meditations on the limits of nation-based remembering are timely and important, as humanity faces a number of unprecedented existential threats that are somewhat novel, climate change being chief among them. The capacity for us to remember as a species rather than as tribes or nations is a skill we must develop quickly, and while Ehrlich’s vision is utopian on this point, he no less correct for stating it.

            

The true power of memory is, paradoxically, located in the present and future rather than the past. The nature of human existence is, by definition, perpetually located in the liminal space between the past and the future, and it is by reshaping our pasts with advanced technologies of memory (narratives in general fulfill this function, but more specifically the “schematic narrative templates” Ehrlich mentions) that we may craft useable, workable present and future realities. Yet, how does on “remember” the future? Ehrlich cites several scholars like Reinhart Koselleck, Emily Keightly, and Michael Pickering who engage with this very question in theoretical mnemonic spaces, though other disciplines may provide excellent insight as well. Media and communication scholars like Richard Grusin and Jay Bolter have explored how these concepts function in consumable narrative formats, while memory scholars like Astrid Erll have deftly adapted literary theory from giants such as Paul Ricoeur to better work within discussions of memory and narrative, citing how “prefigure,” “configure,” and “refigure” narratives in the context of cultural memory (Erll, 2011). These thinkers explore the more literal application of the imaginary when it comes to using memory to craft identity. Ehrlich’s argument that mythic narratives are at work in these processes is extremely well crafted, as patterns of remembering are often as powerful or more powerful than narratives involving specific characters or actors. I would add that the social theory often cited in cultural studies can add to this approach, particularly the arguments of Gramsci regarding hegemony and the Frankfurt School’s Horkheimer and Adorno’s concept of the culture industry.


Ehrlich’s vision of futures enabled by narratives of self-sacrifice that extend beyond the tyrannical limits of the nation-state is beautiful and desperately needed, though the current technologies of memory seem to be stuck in more regressive patterns of memory. One of the most popular (but under-studied) formats of this memory is blockbuster video games. The Call of Duty series, for example, is deeply rooted in nationalist and right-wing patterns of remembering. Call of Duty games alone have accounted for $21 billion in sales over the last 20 years, roughly equal to all the Marvel films combined, and more than twice the box office of all Star Wars films combined (Radic, 2020). It stands to reason that these games can have no less impact than the aforementioned film franchises, and if anything the games more directly access and redirect memory to stay firmly within the limits of nation-state identities. Furthermore, the Call of Duty games are sites of what I call “synthetic memory,” or rhetorically weaving together memories of entirely separate events in a fictional space in order to generate high affect in the target consumer base. Synthetic memory is especially active in invoking WWII, the Cold War, and 9/11 with more recent memory in texts designed to be consumed by American and western audiences.


Earlier titles in the Call of Duty franchise set in defined past conflicts, mostly WWII, are examples of a process Grusin and Bolter call remediation[1], or attempts to access, explore, recast, and reconcile the past through reinscribing it in new and adapted media texts. This process is somewhat similar to Erll’s concept of inter-mediality, or the process of adapting cultural memories of the past into new textual forms that are created in dialogue with previous iterations of the memory in question. Remediation is an important process that analyzes the ways in which artists and mnemonic communities actively shape usable pasts, though how might one redirect this process to “remember” a usable future? Grusin addresses this phenomenon with the concept of premediation, or channeling and reapplying the past to predict futures.

         

The concept of premediation is a useful theoretical tool when considering the games of the Modern Warfare series, which takes Call of Duty’s action from the second world war to theaters and times more closely reflective of modern American existential and sociopolitical concerns. Grusin’s work focuses on 9/11, the attendant anxieties of which also somewhat define military shooters in near future scenarios, though his theory of premediation extends to the cultural conditions that both cause and are caused by this process. He goes on to explain the utility of premediation as an extension of media markets and collective anxiety, stating it “is not about getting the future right, but about proliferating multiple remediations of the future both to maintain a low level of fear in the present and to prevent a recurrence of the kind of tremendous media shock that the United States and much of the networked world experienced on 9/11” (Grusin, 2004, p.1).


It is crucial to note that the quality and type of remediation being performed here is both powerful and political. Military shooters only allow a narrow range of actions to the player, mostly limited to movement, gunplay, and the use of various tools (these are typically in the form of grenades, mines, flares, or other items used in combat). While these types of games often have an all-purpose” interact” command used to perform tasks like opening doors or entering vehicles, there are typically no options given to the player to ask for and accept the surrender of opponents, direct tactical decisions to encourage enemy forces to retreat, or have access to any policy decisions that could result in diplomacy and detente. In other words, military shooters are laden with gamic designs and decisions that only allow interaction and progression through violence, a phenomenon that Ian Bogost calls “procedural rhetoric” in his book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. By crafting strict procedural boundaries for gamic interaction that center on violence and pairing these designs with narratives that remediate American anxieties in a premediated setting, these texts become potent sites of signification and memory while still allowing the player to feel some agency over the situation through simulated use of force and participation in an ideologically directed war machine. Functionally, these games work as a way to access anxieties and collective traumas in ways that often do not directly replicate the event in question, thus eliding the task of reproducing authenticity and detail.


Rather, these games create fictional spaces of synthetic memory in which multiple traumas can be accessed, thus allowing for the affective power of memory without the burden of historicity. The affective dimensions of these games are well documented, as seen in Matthew Thomas Payne’s book Playing War: Military Video Games after 9/11. Payne argues that games that premediate future conflicts in the context of America’s so-called “War on Terror” do so in a specific cultural and rhetorical contexts, stating “Military shooters reinscribe 9/11’s cultural memory into their ludic wars not for the sake of predictive accuracy, but to give players hope that these reimagined 9/11s can have different outcomes than their horrific ur-text. This explains why so many shooters possess fearful narratives that take place immediately before or directly after attacks on the United States,” (Payne, 2016, loc. 640). As Payne goes on to explain, these texts are designed to give some small measure of agency to the player and enable a revenge of sorts. Importantly, however, these games do not go so far as to create worlds in which a 9/11-like tragedy is wholly prevented and lives are saved. After all, a situation in which situations are averted or erased neither serves hegemonic military-industrial-entertainment interests of perpetual remediation and consumption nor does it align with living memory. Instead, the game worlds are steeped in the violence and death of a deeply disturbing event that allows and demands synthetic memory and gives players the ability to interact with this world in a very narrow band of highly mediated action. This is especially clear in the Call of Duty franchise’s Modern Warfare games, which take place in a near-future setting in which US and UK military forces battle against Russian Federation and/or Arab enemies that are mounting anti-democracy coups or engaging in a military invasion of the United States or western Europe.


In the terms of Erll’s treatment of Ricoeur, the Modern Warfare games are prefigured by past, albeit powerful, anxieties that still bear tremendous cultural meaning. As the games are configured, these past anxieties are strategically accessed and incorporated in matrices narrative that compress time and construct connections and causality, resulting in texts that tap into the maximum amount of mnemonic salience while producing the maximum amount of mnemonic capital. In the quest to make these games the most consumable version of shared usable pasts, the narratives are configured in ways that make use of narrative filters as explored in work by Holger Pötzsch as well as the political and historical conventions identified by game scholars Kevin Schut and Peter Mantello. Even as these narratives are configured with practiced cultural and storytelling tools common to games, the signs that construct them function within the semiosphere, carrying second order signification and topoi laden with attached meanings across temporal spaces and into new contexts, accessing both mnemonic anxiety and becoming sites of synthetic memory.


Figure SEQ Figure \* ARABIC 1 Frost looks at Manhattan from a helicopter after capturing a Russian submarine and using it to attack other Russian forces. Taken from iampanax YouTube channel, screenshot by author.The dominant narrative thread of the Modern Warfare trilogy is centered on British and American interventions, covert violence, and invasions in foreign territories in an attempt to defend against Russian incursions. These sites of premediated violence cover a number of physical locations and simulate a truly global World War conflict, though some of the most powerful moments of the game narratives center on warfare as a spectacle in high recognizable and mnemonically powerful places, including Russian invasions of Washington D.C. and New York. While there is no historical precedent for Russia or the Soviet Union invading the United States, the premediation seen in Modern Warfare 2 and 3 does build on American Cold War-era fears of Soviet aggression and remediate collective memory of real trauma. Of particular note is the “Black Tuesday” and “Hunter Killer” levels towards the beginning Modern Warfare 3 in which the player, acting as the American soldier Frost, works as part of a Delta Force team to drive Russians out of Manhattan in tense, street to street combat taking the player from the floor of the stock exchange to a Russian nuclear submarine in the bay. Manhattan is particularly powerful site of memory, both in its assigned role as a center of cultural production in the United States and for being the site of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. By positioning the player in a situation where





Figure 1. Frost looks at Manhattan from a helicopter after capturing a Russian submarine and using it to attack other Russian forces. Taken from iampanax YouTube channel, screenshot by author.



they witness a foreign enemy wreak destruction on New York civilians and buildings, the game manages to perform three important functions of remembering. First, this gameplay indirectly accesses the collective trauma of 9/11, and allows the memory (and all its attendant complexity) to lend itself to the mediated text. Second, Modern Warfare 3 presents the situation as a site of synthetic memory by combining the memory of 9/11 with the historically and socially distinct generative memories and anxieties of Cold War. The game thus creates a scenario in which Russians commit an attack uncannily similar to 9/11 while also acting within the context of Russophobic patterns of memory. Third, the narrative of the game, and the cultivated positionality of the player, allow for retributive violence against the Russian aggressors, meeting both the needs of a defensive narrative structure as well as symbolically avenging both 9/11 and the generative threat of Russian rapaciousness in the Cold War.


Interestingly, the Modern Warfare trilogy presents still other synthetic memory sites premediated in 9/11, albeit with additional layers of highly salient remembering. In the Modern Warfare 3 level “Iron Lady,” WWIII is fully engaged, and Russian forces expand their invasion through western Europe to Paris. NATO forces fight the Russian advance back, eventually reclaiming Paris for the allied nations, though in the process the Eiffel Tower is struck by various artillery and aircraft rounds, resulting in its dramatic collapse at the end of the level. In the American semiosphere, this moment functionally accesses multiple, layered signifiers. The sight of a tall, collapsing monument, though distinctly European, is still evocative of 9/11 and the disintegrating of the World trade Center towers. This moment is certainly primed for the player since it occurs only about an hour or so of gameplay after the “Black Tuesday” and “Hunter Killer” discussed above. There is another, deeper layer of synthetic memory present in this scene, however. The sight of Paris being overrun by an enemy force is also highly evocative of the Nazi occupation of the city in WWII. In fact, the Liberation of Paris is a playable historical moment in two earlier Call of Duty games: 2006’s Call of Duty 3 and 2017’s Call of Duty: WWII. The Call of Duty series has featured a long history of American (and later, NATO-allied) forces driving invaders out of France, thus meta-textually prefiguring players of Modern Warfare 3 to draw connections between the premediated WWIII seen in the Modern Warfare trilogy and remediations of America’s military engagements in Europe. These narratives mutually reinforce one another and foreground a common theme of just intervention, thus allowing the Modern Warfare trilogy to access the mnemonic capital of “Greatest Generation” narratives.





Figure 2. Frost observes the Eiffel Tower collapse after NATO forces drive out Russian troops from a position on a bridge. Taken from iampanax YouTube channel, screenshot by author


            


Throughout these episodes in the Modern Warfare trilogy, powerful signs are recast within the semiosphere, effectively accessing mnemonic anxiety by dredging up traumas beyond the generational horizon for most players. These generative memories are given new meaning in a new cultural context of premediation, thus allowing use to engage with a configured worldspace that is evocative of both past and present trauma and the attendant collective memory. In resurrecting mnemonic anxiety and presenting events with potential, if very unlikely, applicability to modern geopolitics and histories, the games effectively induce anxiety in the player. However, as the game narratives and design allow the players, as per Payne’s observations, to cathartically solve the problem through violence, a feedback loop is formed. The games become both the source of and answer to mnemonic anxiety. By strategically framing near-future conflict in settings that evoke modern concerns of terrorism, Cold War fears of invasion (particularly with calculated application of topoi), and even WWII memory, a master narrative emerges that reifies Orientalist and nationalist ideologies. This central narrative pattern occurs in spite of the mildly complicating characters and choices that are coded to show war as a complex event that should be thought of in shades of gray. The end result is a narrative that, despite its moderate complexity, still adheres to conservative American cultural values of militarism and triumphalism.

          

Certainly these games revel in the “other-sacrifice” narratives Ehrlich outlines in his paper, and we see national memory on full, guileless display in conflicts clearly designed to access and mimic latent American anxieties dating back to the Cold War. As Viet Thanh Nguyen argues in Nothing Ever Dies, Vietnam and the Memory of War, “Memories are not only collected or collective, they are also corporate and capitalist. Memories are signs and products of power, and in turn, they service power” (loc. 240). In order to outsmart a military-industrial-entertainment complex that has quite literally made an art form of commodifying memory, we must interrogate the use (and abuse) of narrative and imagination in the powerful processes of cultural memory. For all the possible dangers to memory and identity present in these games, they are simply too popular—and too fun[2]—to dismiss. It would be easy to discount these gamic texts as puerile and unimportant, but they are fully engaging, exciting, and technically masterful experiences with complex rhetorical strategies that help to make them very fun. There are few films or novels that can match the level of stimulation found in Modern Warfare games. However, it is here that we may also find hope. If we can redirect memory to lean past national memory and into species-wide memory, we may have a technology of memory that can counter the factional, tribal impulses to which we are currently beholden. Unfortunately I do not have a plan to take us from the feedback loop of games that elicit memory-based anxieties only to assuage them with aesthetically nationalist violence, but the strategic, intentional use of memory Ehrlich explores in his essay is a future we should (and can) active work to realize.

            

Citations:


Bogost, I. (2010). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. MIT Press.


Erll, A. (2011). Memory in Culture. (S. B. Young, Trans.). Palgrave Macmillan.


Grusin, R. (2004). Premediation. Criticism, 46(1). https://doi.org/www.jstor.org/stable/23127337 Accessed 23 Jan. 2021


Grusin, R., & Bolter, J. (1999). Remediation: Understanding New Media. MIT Press.


Mantello, P. (2012). Playing Discreet War in the US: Negotiating Subjecthood and Sovereignty through Special Forces Video Games. Media, War & Conflict, 5(3), 269–283.


Payne, M. T. (2016). Playing War: Military Video Games after 9/11. New york University press.


Pötzsch, H. (2017). Selective Realism: Filtering Experiences of War and Violence in First- and Third-Person Shooters. Games and Culture, 12(2), 156–178. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412015587802


Radic, V. (2020, December 4). The Highest-Selling Call Of Duty Games, Ranked (& How Much They Sold). Game rant. Retrieved September 10, 2022, from gamerant.com/highest-selling-call-of-duty-games-ranked-by-amount-sold-world-at-war-modern-warfare-black-ops/


Schut, K. (2007). Strategic Simulations and Our Past: The Bias of Computer Games in the Presentation of History. Games and Culture, 2(3), 213–235.


YouTube. (2015). Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 Game Movie. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-i8bRS17F7Y&pbjreload=101&ab_channel=iampanax


[1] Bolter and Grusin’s original use of this term is in the context of media studies and exploring the presence of the medium itself int eh content provided. The use of the term in this project is closer to the memory studies usage, as seen in Astrid Erll’s work. The primary difference is that in memory studies, the focus in on how mnemonic content appears across multiple sites, tracking the changes in the content over time, whereas in media and communications, remediation is a means by which to explore how mediums are both designed to simultaneously feel invisible as well as extremely present—what Bolter and Grusin call the “double logic” of “immediacy” and “hypermediacy.”


[2] It is important to note that I, as a cultural studies scholar highly critical of nationalism in all its forms, deeply enjoy these games. They hit on so many critical markers of engagement and identity for me (and many others) that we can and should acknowledge the visceral pleasure of simulated, sanitized violence, even in a highly ethnonationalistic narrative setting.

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