Thursday, June 29, 2006

Quantum Effect

Yesterday's story in the Los Angeles Times, "Fear and Posing in Baghdad," says that Iraqi culture has been totally transformed by years of occupation, insurgency, and the resulting sectarian violence. Normal customs around hospitality and gossip are gone. Iraqis even assume false identities, complete with identity cards, to shed markers of their religious and tribal affiliations. For example many are adopting culturally ambiguous last names like "Bayati," "Saadi," and "Obeidi," which are common among both Shiites and Sunnis.

If the military-funded videogame Tactical Iraqi assumes that it will be familiarizing soldiers with cultural norms as they acquire language skills, will the script for game play be changed to reflect the new more guarded customs? For example, the article describes the pre-war society that the game emulates.

When they talk about the loss of intimacy, many Iraqis are mournful. Like members of most Middle Eastern societies, Iraqis have traditionally prized warmth and valued social interchange over what Westerners might regard as personal privacy. In the old Iraq, it was better to err on the side of nosiness than to appear cold or distant. It was perfectly normal to grill strangers on their marital status and the price of their possessions.

In order to build "trust" in the game, the quantifiable measure of health or wealth that allows players to monitor how they are doing in social interactions with other characters, players must reveal personal information about themselves and collect such data about the other people's identity as well. The player's avatar, Sgt. John Smith, comes equipped with no backstory; thus he functions as a cipher in play. And yet to win trust in realistic linguistic interactions in the indigenous culture, the Mission Skill Builder teaches the learner that to preface business discussions appropriately, it is necessary to disclose public aspects of personal life with interlocutors. Units on "Describing Yourself" and "Building Rapport" make the obligation for personal revelation and open discourse from a clearly defined identity position manifest. The learner is helped with descriptions of these positions of self by units on "“Learning about Your Host" and "Kinship and Occupations."”

Yet the LA Times article claims that many of these longstanding civic and neighborly exchanges are suddenly gone:

Etiquette used to require men to ask one another about their jobs; it was a way of showing concern for a friend's livelihood and to demonstrate willingness to help a man if he had fallen on hard times.

These days, though, to ask about jobs is impolite, perhaps even dangerous. Instead, men find themselves throwing out other questions: How are you? What are you doing here?

If, as I contend, the game also functions as a form of state-sponsored public diplomacy, which announces to the world our military planners' intent to improve cultural relations under the the occupation through an easily viewable spectacle of interaction, what does this transformation mean for those efforts?



Post a Comment

<< Home