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Homefront and the Imagined Enemy

BUSAN, South Korea – As a part of my regular effort to avoid work yet nonetheless self-justify slacking as ‘work-related,’ I played Homefront this summer at home. Unfortunately, it has been banned in SK (where it would make millions, I have no doubt). I wrote about it earlier when it was released and there was controversial buzz around it.

Homefront is a first-person shooting game in which you play an American resistance guerrilla fighting against a North Korean occupation force in the US. Through a (rather ludicrous) series of geopolitical twists, NK manages to reunify with SK under Northern leadership, then pull Japan and Southeast Asia into a ‘Greater Korean Republic,’ and then sail across the Pacific (!) in order to invade the US which has been crippled by a massive oil shock resulting from a Saudi-Iranian war.

If you are genuinely interested in the details of this future ‘counterfactual,’ the wiki write-up is good. For the idiot fan-boy, ‘this could really happen, dude!’ version, try here. As a website about Korean security, I thought this would be off-beat to discuss.

As for a review of the game itself, it got 70% from Metacritic. That sounds about right to me. The gameplay is like most other shooters, and I found the long distance between checkpoints had me re-playing too many sequences again and again. The real hook is the apocalyptic, over-the-top environment. In play, it is basically a nastier, crueler version of the already fairly cruel Modern Warfare series.

A little sightseeing while taking over America? Why not?

As I said in my commentary on Transformers 3, I believe one reason contemporary geopolitical games and films show increasing levels of gleeful brutality and unnecessary cruelty is US disillusionment with the global war on terror (GWoT). After a decade of torture, wounded veterans, and exhaustion with the ‘recalcitrance’ of the Middle East to its ‘liberation,’ the Americans who ‘hoo-rahed’ at bin Laden’s death are ready for geopolitical viciousness as entertainment.

So forget Halo’s goofy aliens or having tea with Afghan village elders – let’s get down to kicking the shit out of the axis of evil.

The influences on the game will be immediately apparent to anyone into international relations who lived through the 1980s and will provide regular camp laughs of nostalgic recognition. The story is ridiculously cheesy, because it is basically a re-tread of the Red Dawn scenario which feels wildly out of place today.

Made during the height of the second cold war, that 1984 film, featuring a Soviet ground invasion of North America in the mid-80s, was already pushing reality enough, but here the story just goes off the rails, because NK is so preposterous in the USSR role. Can anyone really imagine NK helicopters flying air patrol over the ‘American zone’ of occupied Denver? I’m not even sure what that means… It’s just too improbable to pull you in. Indeed one wonders why the invader wasn’t the far-more-obvious China, but I guess you can’t annoy the world’s biggest emerging market.

In the wake of 9/11 and given NK’s well-know weakness, the scenario is ludicrous. The ‘Norks’ (a suitably racist replacement for today’s ‘haji’) are shown doing stuff that modern gamers won’t even recognize as Cold War-tropes and motifs (re-education camps, house-to-house round-ups, a Stalinist cult of personality). Modern Warfare and 24 have your standard issue, post-9/11 terrorists to give them immediacy and edge (and racism), but how many people will identify with a NK-cum-Soviet invasion of America in 2011? Playing it made me feel like a tween again, worried about whether we needed bomb shelter in our backyard.

A bonus bizarro addition is the game’s sponsorship by Hooters…wait, what?. Its restaurants show up in the game, generating even more surrealistically dissonant dialogue like ‘take out the sniper in the Hooters’ lobby.’ Hah!

Knowing your demographic: Hooters and White Castle both sponsor the game.

The writer of Red Dawn was John Milius, and he wrote this game as well. He even wrote a book for the game, in case you need more killing in the name of freedom. Homefront has all the traits of campy, right-wing cold war paranoia that Milius is known for and that IR types old enough to remember the 80s will recognize immediately. There are heroic resistance fighters in a masked nod to the mujahideen, contras, and other ‘freedom fighters’ against communism whom the US sponsored back in the day.

Pol Pot-style death camps are included (!). The survivalist, NRA (National Rifle Association) gun-culture machismo that informed Red Dawn is back; lots of cut scenes show an ‘armed citizenry’ guarding their homes and lounging with their weapons. The enemy of America is once again communists, and somehow those communists manage to launch a transoceanic invasion of the US homeland. There are commie agit-prop signs up throughout the game, like ‘Praise to the Dear Leader’ and ‘Rejoice at the Korean-American Reeducation Facility.’ These are in proper Korean and provoke great laughs of 80s recognition mixed with sheer campiness for rendering NK agitprop into a surreal US occupation setting.

The antagonists even speak in a NK accent. But it all feels like such a weird Stalinist throwback in the current age of terror and al Qaeda, that it’s more like watching ‘I Love the 80s’ than a edgy contemporary video game. Someone might want to remind Milius that Brezhnev died over three decades ago.

To compensate for that gauzy 80s nostalgia, the game throws copious, unnecessary brutality at you to tell you its ‘serious.’ This creates a high moral awkwardness in that NK is an extreme human rights abuser in the real world, but is here used for sadistic entertainment.

‘Highpoints’ include: the opening sequence shows occupation soldiers executing American parents in front of their screaming child. Later your character hides from the NK People’s Army (KPA) by climbing into mass grave, after watching a mass execution, and hiding under the bodies. 

Stoking the flame. My god they've taken over the Walmart!

Survivalist gun-nuts are presented who torture and execute captured North Koreans, with the implication that they may eat them too. At another point you are encouraged to not waste your ammunition killing KPA soldiers who are on fire after an air-strike.

If all this doesn’t make the gamer complicit enough in pro-American bloodlust, you get regular ‘kill ‘em all’ exhortation in your militia from a one-dimensional, ‘tough-as-nails’ alpha-male stereotype (Milius wrote Conan the Barbarian too) berating his whining female sidekick for her lack of vengeful determination to butcher on behalf of America.

As the game website tells us, “Because Rianna is not former military, and not a battle hardened combat vet, cracks in her exterior resolve will show at times. She is a humanitarian, she does have feelings that she needs to deal with and control in the line of duty. She’ll never feel good about everything the Resistance has done and will continue to do, but she’ll also never let those emotional struggles to destroy her and the other’s ruthless resolve to win at all costs. There is no other option.” Yes, the NRA, military-loving, survivalist patriot will triumph over her inner Amnesty International sissie.

So we are back to the tiresome, right-wing GWoT trope that if you really love America, you must be willing to go over to the Cheney’s ‘dark side’ and beat the shit of out people.

I hate this motif, because it says the rules of engagement are for liberals and wusses. All of America’s opponents are unremitting, unrelenting, thoroughly evil, and so cunning, that there is no choice but to blow them away with extreme prejudice at all times. You namby-pamby liberals, with your Geneva Conventions and squeamishness to use a gun, just get in the way, or worse, give aid and comfort to the enemy by according them due-process. Real men just kick a—. As with Michael Bay villains, the ‘evil’ of the Homefront Koreans is so ridiculous and exaggerated, that it is obviously just a narrative fig-leaf to mask the real point of movies and games like this – vengeful, extreme carnage, including torture, executions, and mass killings, as pro-American, nationalistic entertainment.

I want games and films to be edgy too, but I am increasingly disturbed by the Cheney-esque reveling in gratuitous torture and brutality by the good guys in post-9/11 geopolitical action entertainment. There is a willingness to wear it openly, almost proudly, as if it were a badge of honor of one’s seriousness and commitment to defend America that one won’t hesitate to violently break the law.

Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy is filled with executions as entertainment; Modern Warfare 2 included torture and an infamous scene where the gamer actually machine-guns dozens of innocent civilians as part of the plot; 24 is notorious for torture and similar brutality; and Homefront includes a ghastly ‘killing fields’ sequence which is completely necessary to the narrative, but thrown-in just to raise the extremity level yet higher (shooting parents in front of their kids wasn’t enough I suppose).

This doesn’t mean games and films should be neutered, and I concur that mature games that include adult themes enrich it as a medium. But there are games that include moral choices that actually inform the violence and give it some meaning – even if you choose to be harsh. And even the Halo series, arguably the best shooting game out there, and filled with violence unsuitable for minors, doesn’t present gratuitous brutality just for its own sake.

The NK invasion environment is interesting, creative, and somewhat engrossing, especially if you know anything Korea. The wacko blend of gun-fetishism, surreal NK agitprop, 80s USSR references, and Hooters and White Castle (another sponsor) generates unintentional and bizarre camp laughter throughout.

But Homefront eventually capitulates to the Tea Party/NRA version of US force –armed militia vigilantes rescue America with extreme brutality and righteous vengeance. Terrifying; it’s ‘Michigan Militia – The Game.’ In fact, I got so emotionally jaded after the killing fields sequence, I was surprised that the later, implied, cannibalism wasn’t actually shown. I can only imagine how uber-bloodthirsty the next Modern Warfare will be this fall.

Dr.Robert E. Kelly is an assistant professor at PNU's Department of Political Science & Diplomacy. You can read his highly informative Asian Security Blog here or you can email him here.











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