© Written by Rob Ager July 2014




A great many movies and video games are centred about the concept of identity based conflict. The hero of the piece holds loyalty to a particular group (be it a small street gang, an entire nation or an intergalactic race) and, equally important, there will usually be a set of ideological beliefs associated with both the hero and the group he/she fights on behalf of. There will be an overall presentation of the hero and his grouping as being inertly good natured and their opponents being evil natured. The good vs evil paradigm sets up a frame of moral justification for the hero’s actions within the story (especially their violent actions) and the nobility of their intended outcome of defeating, and usually destroying, the evil enemy.

The movie / game usually assumes the audience agrees with the group loyalties and ideologies of the story, but equally often will attempt to impose such agreement by showing the audience character behaviours that consistently reinforce the black and white, good vs evil paradigm. There are many clichéd ways in which this is done. The bad guys are seen raping and pillaging, killing women and children, torturing people, sneering with evil grins, verbally announcing their hateful ideology (which is rare in real life), they’re usually physically ugly or robotically smooth like a James Bond villain, and they’re very often addicted to drugs, money, hookers, murder and especially power.

I’ve noticed there tends to be a sort of sliding scale of how sadistic the activities of the evil characters in different  stories are, and it is determined largely by the behaviour of the hero in attempting to defeat them. For example the movie Taken, starring Liam Neeson, involves the supposed good guy committing extremely violent and sadistic acts against other men, but his position as essentially good is maintained purely be the film’s presentation of even more sadistic behaviours being committed by his enemies. A group of Albanian men kidnap his daughter at the beginning of the film with the intention of trafficking her as a sex slave. Being that the Albanian’s actions tap into what is probably the most intensely felt topic of extreme disapproval for most people in the audience – sexual abuse of women and children, the film utilizes the audience hatred of the evil bad guys to present evil behaviours committed by the hero as essentially justified. And so, one scene involves the hero torturing a man with repeated electric shock to acquire information. Not only does he electrocute him, he sends the voltage through metal rods that have been stabbed into his legs.The evil captive unrealistically refuses to give information in spite of torture so as to prolong the amount of sadism the audience are encouraged to enjoy. But here’s the much more disturbing part. After acquiring the information he needs, the hero switches on the electric shock device and leaves the room. The bad guy is left to slowly and painfully die as he is continuously being zapped with electricity. We’re not shown whether his death takes minutes or hours. Our hero's action in doing this is no more noble than that of a serial killer. This action by the hero was entirely unnecessary and, in the absence of the bad guys having been presented as evil sex traffickers, would have lost audience empathy with the hero character.

And the sad reality is that some people fall for this kind of sadism-justifying logic. The Australian serial killer, along with a rag tag group of idiot accomplices, tortured and murdered about a dozen people starting from an initial premise that their victims were paedophiles. The case became the subject of a much more daring and socially responsible film called Snowtown.


The Taken format of violent and sadistic fantasies being carried out against enemies with a thinly veiled justification that the enemies happen to be sexual predators who deserve it is common among action movies. It was present in the Arnold  Schwarzennegger movie Commando and the Denzel Washington movie Man On Fire. Both films involve the violent murder of many people in order to rescue just one young girl. And it’s now more and more common in video games. Farcry 3 has an evil bad guy who burns a man alive to make a point to his new recruits and includes a plot point of the hero’s friends being potentially sold into sex slavery if he doesn’t rescue them. On that basis the player character is justified in murdering thousand of the enemies minions in all kinds of violent ways, but mostly involving gunfire and knife attacks. The bad guy minions are also conveniently dressed in red which plays down the blood splatter element of their injuries when they’re killed.

At the low level end of the sadism scale take a simple video game such as Sonic The Hedgehog.  The hero basically jumps around various levels crushing bad guy minions by bouncing on them while he spins in the air. Basically he uses his spines to burst his enemies like bubbles. That’s as violent as he gets, so the levels of sadism required from the bad guys to justify Sonic’s actions fall far below what was required in the movie Taken. So we have a lead bad guy known by various names in the series, such as Dr Eggman and Dr Robotnik. His plan in the original sonic Game was to turn all of the cutesy fury animals of the land into robot minions. So when Sonic bursts those robot minions with his spines he isn’t even killing anything. All he’s doing is breaking the fury animals free of their robot shells. Kill an enemy and a fluffy animal is seen bouncing away. Being that the actions of the hero are so tame we have a game in which the evil enemy doesn’t even kill anything. All he does is inconveniently trap some fury animals in robot suits until Sonic breaks them free.


These examples of the game Sonic and the movie Taken are at the opposite ends of the moral justification scale of violence, but they both share the common feature that the behaviours of the bad guys must be seen as more evil and more sadistic than the good guys, so as to maintain the sense of moral justification for the hero’s actions.

Many stories attempt to spice up this boring old good vs evil story structure by injecting a certain amount of subterfuge in which bad guys posing as good guys must be unmasked and defeated or perhaps a lower echelon bad guy is persuaded to turn to good, but the basic good vs evil paradigm is virtually always maintained. Very few movies or games really break the mould. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a straight forward good vs evil action movie with all the usual clichés, only for the supposed hero to find out at the very end that he was fighting for the wrong team and that all the heroic actions he’s taken actually served evil ends and can't be undone? But no, the closest we usually get to that is some mid-echelon commander turning out to be corrupt or connected to terrorism, but is acting entirely against the wishes of their superiors who happen to still have halos floating over their heads. This isolated corruption from slightly above cliché generally facilitates a fantasy element to such war games and movies that is almost never allowed in reality. It allows the military hero to ignore direct orders and do their own thing until they expose the bad apple. After they’ve done so the higher echelon good guys see what a good boy they’ve been a heap praise upon them – there’s no court martial and no imprisonment as there would be in real life.

The good vs evil clichés get even more over-bearing in war simulation video games that are set within recognizable real world political contexts. Game series like Call of Duty, Medal of Honour, Battlefield and so on nearly always feature the player fighting on behalf of an inherently good United States or one of its close political allies. Usually you’ll be fighting in some war torn country against a terrorist regime who are so cartoonishly and one-dimensionally evil they may as well be depicted as vampires or werewolves. It all fits in perfectly well with the stupid War On Terror excuse for US imperialism and, while it’s easy to write it all off as straight propaganda, being that many such games are developed by the US military, the technical thrust forward in the industry still comes largely from commercial companies trying to make a few bucks. So why do they coat their games in so much pro-US imperialism. Well, first of all the games companies would find their reputations under attack by pro-US imperialism elements in the media if they didn’t. But another reason, and this is easy to overlook, is that when a very successful shooter game comes out that pushes technical boundaries, the military are there in waiting – ready to invest in the company or hire its services to transfer the technological leaps forward to the military’s own training and recruitment game products. So there is a financial incentive for games companies to voluntarily produce pro-US imperialism propagangda games.

However if you take a look at video games produced in other countries that are in opposition to US global domination the good vs evil paradigms of the games are reversed. There are games played in China and Iran in which the evil enemy has been noted by media outlets as being very American-like.


But are these political propaganda loyalties what people really want in movies and video games? Well, on the whole I think it works slightly differently for each medium. With video games players don’t really seem to care less which side they’re fighting for. There are lots of games around in which players are given the choice to play on either side of a conflict, such as Aliens Vs Predator, which allows three pathways through the game based upon being human, alien or predator. And in some role playing games the player is able to join a thief guild or occult faction or even become a vampire and take on a series of not so morally wholesome quests. With the straight forward rock n roll shooter games where you help the US conquer countries it’s easy to play them through and enjoy them if the game play is sufficiently interesting in itself because there isn’t much of a sense of realism. It never really feels like you’re actually killing anyone so what does it matter?

But with movies it’s somewhat different. A movie in which enemies of US imperialism are portrayed positively is not looked well upon by pro-establishment media simply because of the greater power over public opinion that movies exert in comparison to games. So you won’t find many movies in the Dr Strangelove mould, but public taste isn’t generally in line with the loyalties that war movies attempt to impose.

In the 1980’s the war movie Red Dawn portrayed the Soviet Union as a far bigger and scarier military threat than it actually was. American school kids find their home town and much of their country occupied by Soviet forces who have invaded along with all the other countries the US imperialists generally hate. The kids then become freedom fighters, similar to Afghan rebels, but these days the term "freedom fighter" has been largely dropped by US authorities in favour of the word "terrorist". How times change. We were on the tail end of the cold war back then so Red Dawn was sort of acceptable, but a 2012 remake was intended to replace the Soviet enemy of the original with Chinese invaders, but Chinese news sites criticized the obvious propaganda of the production and so the enemy was changed to North Korean invaders with the excuse given that the change was to secure a certain amount of box office profit in China.

However, m uch more subtly successful as pro-US propaganda was the rehashing of WW2 victories as presented in the movie Saving Private Ryan and the TV series Band of Brothers, both of which presented modern audiences with a very positive view of US military foreign policy, but the justifications that existed in the WW2 context certainly aren’t present today. The supposed terrorist networks and rogue states the US goes on the hunt for are nowhere near the great threat that the Nazis were to Europe. Nevertheless such war propaganda rehashing of old victories in out-of-date justifiable scenarios fools less politically observant viewers into seeing US military actions today as being equally justified.