Time Enough: Atrocity, Photography, and Entertainment

arkan act of aggression disphotic

Screengrab from Act of Aggression with overlaid comparison of original image.

Guilty secret, I like playing video games. Actually that’s not really that much of a secret, nor a particularly guilty one. I even reviewed a video game here once and made a defense of the genre at the same time, arguing that they can sometimes be as intelligent and insightful as media which are more traditionally used to talk about serious, current topics. That said while games can be thought provoking, like any other genre the great majority are pretty crass, including one I happened to play this weekend called Act of Aggression.

Still, even things you don’t much like can lead to interesting thoughts and discoveries, and that was what happened with this. The briefings in this game take the form of videos that cut together actual news footage with in game video footage into fake newscasts about events happening around the world. These are then often followed by a military briefing. My next mission’s objective was to capture a mercenary leader named Dragan Vesnic from his camp in Serbia. An oddly familiar name when used in conjunction with that location I thought. Then several ‘photographs’ of the leader appeared, only for a couple of seconds each, but one of which jumped off the screen at me.

The reason it caught my eye was that it was a badly photoshopped version of Ron Haviv’s photograph of Željko Ražnatović, better known as Arkan, and his Serb Volunteer Guard (also known as Arkan’s Tigers), a paramilitary unit active during the Yugoslav wars and associated with a series of war crimes. The in game photograph had been edited to remove Arkan’s face, the tiger cub he was clutching and to more or less render the Serbian flag in the background unrecognisable. I don’t know if Haviv gave permission for the image to be used or whether it was lifted off the web, for the benefit of this discussion it dosen’t matter that much [Update: it seems from his comments on Twitter that he didn’t know about it]. Someone somewhere made the decision to use that image, and judging by the in-game Serbian connection that person knew something of the history it represented.

This brief, chance encounter with a familiar photograph in a bad video game threw up a few thoughts for me. The main one being whether there is a point where the events of the past and the imagery made of those events regress far enough from the present that it becomes acceptable to use them as vechiles for crass, unthinking entertainment. I think most people would agree that if the Yugoslav Wars were still ongoing, or had only recently ended, it would be pretty unthinkable to find this image in a video game in the same way I don’t expect many video game makers today are repurposing photographs of Bashar al Assad or Mohammed Emwazi in their new releases. Given time and distance though these figures might well appear in the video games or movies of the future, as for example Bin Laden already has, albeit mostly in rather fringe titles.

The question I’m left pondering is at what point does that change in status occur, and is it the same for all events, or does it depend on their character and magnitude? As a history undergraduate I was once told by a lecturer that ‘history’ was anything which occurred twenty years or more ago, a margin which even at the time seemed to me remarkably arbitrary. Some allegedly ‘historic’ events disappear into the collective memory very quickly, while others linger like a scar for far longer, sometimes for as long as people with direct experience of them survive, and in rare cases perhaps even beyond.

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