It is July 2003. Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division converge on a house in Mosul, Iraq. Inside are Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay, second only to their father on America's list of most-wanted targets. The two are dug in, supported by the remnants of their bodyguard and other Saddam loyalists. During the next five hours, the "Screaming Eagles" and other units will successfully storm the hideout--if, that is, you press the right buttons on your keyboard.
With record speed, the war in Iraq has gone from current affairs to popular entertainment. Kuma\War, an online computer game produced by Kuma Reality Games in New York, turns the occupation of Iraq into a series of playable missions, complete with "video news shows ... and insight from a decorated team of military veterans". Other missions offer the chance to storm an al-Qaeda redoubt in Afghanistan or safeguard currency distribution in Samara. Subscribers (who pay $9.99 a month) are promised more in the future--perhaps recreating the bloody suppression of the Fallujah insurrection from the comfort of their own homes.
Kuma's attitude to the war is supportive--even adulatory. In the spirit of patriotism, $1 from every subscription will be donated to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, while free subscriptions are offered to those with .mil e-mail addresses.
Historical wrongs can also be righted--the latest mission on offer is a fantasy reconstruction of the abortive attempt by the US to liberate 53 hostages from its Tehran embassy in 1980.
Kuma\War is an extreme example, but increasingly gamers are offered the chance to blow away towel-headed terrorists rather than more conventional foes such as Nazis, aliens or anthropomorphic vegetables. Frustrated that Osama Bin Laden hasn't yet been caught? Replay the action from the Tora Bora caves in Shrapnel Games's recently announced War in Afghanistan, a strategy simulator covering everything from British colonial conflicts to the campaign against the Taliban. For close-in action, you can command squads in the original Gulf war in the British-produced Conflict: Desert Storm.
Games publishers normally get around questions of decency by making the action safely generic. In Battlefield: modern conflict and Command and Conquer: generals, you can play as the "Global Liberation Army", a fictitious Arab terrorist group, or you can play as America, China or "a Middle Eastern coalition". And it seems the success of games does not depend entirely on players wanting to take their own country's side. So far, 150,000 Japanese have bought Medal of Honour: rising sun, set in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War, and have shown little objection to gunning down their grandparents.
Nor are ethical considerations entirely absent. America's Army, an online game distributed free of charge by the Pentagon as a propaganda tool, allows you to play co-operatively against balaclava-clad terrorists, but deducts "honour points" for unethical actions such as shooting comrades or civilians. The ultimate result can be suspension from the action and a return to boot camp. But a Syrian game called Under Ash--in which the player progresses from throwing rocks at Israelis to destroying their military positions--probably beats all the western blockbusters for moral concern. It stops automatically in the event of civilian deaths.