Ex-dictator sues video game over bad publicity
The imprisoned Panamanian tyrant Manuel Noriega is suing Call of Duty II: Special Ops for misrepresenting him. Do video games have a duty to be historically accurate?
Manuel Noriega, the former military dictator of Panama, is not a man who takes kindly to criticism. When one doctor spoke up against his rule in the 1980s, his decapitated body was later found in the jungle stuffed in a mail sack.
After Noriega rigged elections in 1989, the US decided to take action and ousted him from power. The 80-year-old is currently serving time in a Panama prison, after his conviction on various charges of drug trafficking, money laundering, corruption and murder.
Yet the imprisoned general has a new target for his wrath: a ‘shoot ‘em up’ video game called Call of Duty II: Special Ops. In the game, the player must lead a CIA team to overthrow Noriega's regime and it portrays him as a ‘kidnapper, murderer and enemy of the state’.
Special Ops made $1bn in the first two weeks after its release and has now sold 24m copies worldwide. Noriega is suing its creators for using his image without his consent and is also demanding a cut of its huge profits.
Lawyer say it is unlikely Noriega’s case will be successful. Yet historians note his depiction nevertheless raises important questions about historical accuracy in video games. The US invasion of Panama was highly controversial and unpopular around the world, yet Special Opstakes takes a very one-sided view of it and portrays the Americans as heroes.
Similarly, an earlier game in the Call of Duty series seemed to justify the 2003 Iraq War by having the player discover nuclear weapons hidden in the country. Yet in reality no such weapons were found.
Another popular game called Assassin’s Creed II courted controversy over its inaccurate version of the American Revolution. It had Native American Mohawks fighting with the revolutionaries against the British when in fact the opposite is true.
A 2011 study found 91% of US teenagers play video games, with figures thought to be similar across the West. Historians worry that such games will give teenagers a distorted view of history. Given their influence, games, they argue, have a duty to be historically accurate.
History written by the gamers
Some people say that games are a powerful and potentially dangerous source of media.They may be the only exposure some gamers will have to history — and they will grow up not understanding they have oversimplified views if game makers do not make an effort to ensure accuracy.
Yet others say that gamers recognise they are engaging with fiction, not fact. Games are for fun and should not be taken so seriously. Films and plays (Shakespeare especially) have always taken liberties with history, and games are no different. If anything, they are more likely to inspire people to read real history for themselves.
- Should video games be more accurate in how they show real people and events?
- ‘Fiction shapes the way we see the world more powerfully than fact.’ Do you agree?
- In pairs, imagine you are designers and you have to come up with a new, historically accurate video game. What kind of game would it be and which historical moment would you choose? Compare with the class.
- Using the links in ‘Become an expert’, research some of the historically inaccurate games that have concerned historians. Make a bullet point list of what they are and how they are different from reality.
Some People Say...
“Video games are a total waste of time.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I don’t play video games!
- Even if you do not play them yourself, many people in the class undoubtedly do. The concern is that their view of history could be shaped by what they play. While the games seek only to be entertaining, experts worry they could become a form of propaganda. Many are already worried shooting games glorify war and are a great if misleading recruitment tool.
- What other video games have been sued?
- The hugely popular Grand Theft Auto 5 is currently being sued by actress Lindsay Lohan because it allegedly features a parody version of her called Lacey Jonas. In May, a group of US football and basketball players won a $40m settlement from a computer game maker who used their likenesses without permission.
- Noriega seized control of the country in 1983 and, although initially an ally of the US and supported by them, he worked with Colombian drug traffickers. When he rigged an election in 1989, the US invaded the country and overthrew him.
- Noriega had helped the CIA since the 1950s and when he came to power he allowed them to establish spy bases across the country. The relationship soured, however, and the US turned against him.
- The US invasion was heavily condemned by the UN and it badly damaged relationships with Central and South American countries. However, the US claims its invasion had the overwhelming support of Panama’s population.
- Iraq War
- In 2003 the US and Britain invaded Iraq after its dictator, Suddam Hussein, refused to let UN inspectors check whether he was developing nuclear weapons. However, no weapons have ever been found.
- The Mohawks were based in what is now upstate New York and during the Revolutionary Wars from 1775-1783, they sided with the British. After the war, the US drove many of them from their territories.