Genocidal War As A Game

On April 19, 2013, photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale was interviewed for the Open Society Foundation and Magnum Foundation’s Photography/Expanded 2013 conference. He spoke about his recent venture, Zero Hour: Congo–an immersive video game based on the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Marcus Bleasdale, a member of the world-famous VII photo agency, had received widespread international recognition, several publishing awards and various foundation grants for his documentary photography and advocacy work about the conflict in the DRC.

He had dedicated the better part of his career to capturing the violence in the DRC and had, at that time, collaborated with human rights organizations, international publications and even transnational bodies such as the United Nations to distribute and disseminate his works. The Photography/Expanded 2013 annual conference was held to “…inspire photographers to experiment with digital tools to mobilize audiences around pressing social issues.”

It was because of Bleasdale’s long-term commitment to the situation in the DRC that he was invited to participate in the Photography/Expanded 2013 conference, which aimed “…to explore how to use technology and new media to expand the reach of [a photojournalist’s] images to maximize their impact and help effect social change.” Anna Overstrom–Coleman, then senior program coordinator with the Open Society Documentary Photography Project, spoke to Bleasdale about his work, asking him questions about his advocacy objectives, his ambitions and why he decided to collaborate with a corporate video game design, development and production company and what he hoped to achieve through this collaboration.

Overstrom-Coleman stuck very close to the intentions of the Photography/Expanded 2013 program, inviting Bleasdale to elaborate on his thinking behind the design and development of the video game, his goals as an activist photojournalist, his history working with various international organizations, and his commitment to social change through his photography. [See online here: (last access November 2023)].

There was nothing particularly interesting or controversial about the interview or about Bleasdale’s discussion about the DRC as he spoke about the design of the video game, his understanding of the causes and consequences of the conflict in the DRC, and his ideas for intervening and ending the conflict. The DRC has long been depicted as the “dark heart of Africa,” and the war there is seen as particularly intractable, brutal and mysterious, where rape has been used as a weapon, and child–soldiers have been recruited to commit mass atrocities led by violent militias. For the most part, Bleasdale stuck close to a predictable explanatory script.

But, there was something particularly intriguing about the interview. That morning, when I came across it, I found myself paying attention to not what was being said but what was being left unsaid. What struck me was how, in his representation of the situation in the DRC, his understanding of the actions needed to mitigate it, and even his knowledge of who should take these actions, he constantly placed the Western/European (individual and institutional) at the centre.

That is, the Westerner was the only one with the potential to act as saviour, agent of change, maker of history, interventionist, and the exclusive possessor of meaningful political consciousness. When the interviewer asked him about the causes of the conflict in the DRC, he responded by identifying “[Western] grassroots users of electronic products (smartphones, tablets, laptops, cameras, and game consoles) [who] are largely unaware that they are involved [in the DRC conflict].”

When asked about the characters offered in the game, he explained that it would include “doctors, nurses, aid workers, journalists, photographers, child soldiers.” When questioned about his advocacy goals, he identified the international NGOs he works with and how “…[they] would be involved in the game’s design so that the user is educated as well as entertained.”

He added that these international NGOs “could also benefit from revenues generated by the [game] players, which could aid real-world projects in specific places.” When Overstrom-Coleman asks him what he intends to achieve by having a photojournalist as a critical character in the game, Bleasdale unequivocally responds that the (Western) photojournalist “will be the eyes for the game ‘world,’” taking us “behind rebel lines to see the use of child soldiers and to report on the violence, displacement, and desperate health situation.” The photojournalist, according to Bleasdale, was the bridge “between the aid/NGO world and the people who are impacted by the conflict.”

It was hard not to notice how the Congolese and the political history of the Congo itself were entirely missing in the discussion. It was difficult not to wonder how one could believe that a slick video game could be an essential humanitarian and political intervention in a long-standing political and economic conflict tens of thousands of physical and psychological miles away from the world of gamer kids. It was difficult not to wonder how “activism” was being reduced to product sales, consumerism and popularity. It was equally disturbing to realize that a technology product aimed at Western teenagers–a product that required for its production the very “conflict minerals” that Bleasdale was suggesting had to be avoided–was somehow considered a valid and appropriate form of activism and intervention.

It was equally curious to wonder why and how a Western photographer usurped for himself the right to orchestrate an intervention in another people’s long-standing national, (post)colonial and political struggles. But perhaps most egregiously, it was hard not to notice how the DRC was merely there for “us” to act upon because, if left to its own devices, there was nothing that would change. In this simple interview, there was a concise insight that so many in the Western media continue to see, understand and represent the non-European world through profoundly Eurocentric eyes.

Of course, journalists are not alone in using these eyes, as we see their frequent use by international aid organizations, charities, human rights groups, and perhaps most importantly, in countless Hollywood blockbusters featuring White interlocutors saving helpless Black bodies. In the popular Western/European social imaginary, Africa and the Arab/Muslim world remain the ultimate examples of geographies of senseless violence, barbarism, backwardness, under-development, dependency, tribal politics and absent history. And I have to admit, that for at least the first five years of my career as a photojournalist working for American and European publications, I too wore the same Eurocentric eyes and carried forward many of the same Eurocentric constructions.

In Bleasdale’s words, we hear the easy and unquestioned reliance on such Eurocentric constructions. In his representation, the European/Western actor in the field (whether an NGO, aid organization or individual) is the most meaningful, if not the only, practical and compelling actor. In contrast, the local Congolese activists, organizations, and other actors are marginalized, if not entirely erased. The principal goal of advocacy campaigns is the “attention” and “awareness” of the European/Western consumer–she is the only relevant agent of change. His appeals for intervention, for the agency, for acts that transform the lives of people thousands of miles away are entirely aimed at the Western consumer, citizen and conscience. All agency, influence, political power, and imaginaries of change, intervention and transformation reside with the Western actor–consumer, aid worker, and photographer.

We also see that the photojournalist is said to be “neutral,” a voice without politics, unaffected by the bias of class and national privilege, personal and cultural history, political understanding, professional interests or the demands of the media industry he works in. And finally, the world is “looked down” from the heights of a civilized European cultural and political space, where the assumption of the right to intervene and act on the lives of ‘the Other’ is taken for granted. We realize that Bleasdale’s position in this narrative about the Congo is as an activist, witness, and saviour. He positions himself as a “force” that can influence and determine the future of the Congo and its people.

The only Congolese we see or hear about are child soldiers, the violent militia and gunmen, and the unmentioned victims of the violence; silent, helpless, broken, waiting–as the entire length and breadth of the Congo are erased of histories, political actors, community agents, domestic power and economic interests and social complexities. The disappearance of the local cleared the way for the insertion of Western actors–aid workers, international agencies, journalists and photojournalists, development experts, do-gooders–who are then seen as the only source of intervention, security, and responsibility.

There is no reflection or questioning of the interests and politics of NGOs, the geo-political priorities of international actors such as the UN, or the political interests of American lobbyists Bleasdale collaborated with. There is no examination of how the presence of NGOs and human rights organizations further the conflict or how neighbouring nations, local class and ethnic divisions, or even political calculations influence the ebb and flow of the violence. There is no reflection on possessing the right and the power to reduce the complex socio-political reality of the people and history of DRC into a simplistic video game and never be challenged.

Bleasdale’s interview about the DRC offered little that was new, and it can hardly be provided as a general example. But, in its unthinkingly confident and self–assured responses, it revealed many of the habits and practices of representation of Western media. It offered a concise summary of the Eurocentric design and construction of narratives about the rest of the world and the subtle and insidious ways they continued to inform Western media’s engagement and understanding of things non-European. It revealed the necessary silences–about histories, capitalism, ongoing (post)colonial temporalities, continuing inequalities of power–needed to construct the world as made up of independent, unrelated, bounded national entities.

And it revealed the unchallenged belief in the Western actor’s right to intervene, judge and condemn. His words carried within them the power, privilege and prerogative that only a Western journalist could assume and that none would dare question. It is a prerogative that comes from winning numerous industry awards and being widely published in the most influential and sought-after Western media and civil society institutions and forums. He carries with him the power and credibility of some of the most powerful, widely read, and well-known news publications that publish from the political geographies of some of the world’s most powerful and influential countries.

These news publications have an opinion-making, truth-defining and agenda-setting power that isn’t merely regional but global, and they remain the dominant determinant of news narratives worldwide. They are the vehicles that manufacture for their citizens and the world’s citizens, what it means to be modern, liberated, and developed. However, buried under these Western narratives of modernity, liberation, and development reside colonial intellectual, philosophical, political, economic and military continuities of thought, and these repeatedly appear in print and visual journalism as stories are produced with the conviction of Western cultural universality, moral authority, historical inevitability and interventionist privilege.

Quijano explained this relationship between the construction of “modernity” and colonialism best when he argued that “…as European colonial domination was consolidating itself, the cultural complex known as European modernity/rationality was being constituted…[and]…the coloniality of power had decisive implications in the constitution of the paradigm [of modernity/rationality], associated with the emergence of urban and capitalist social relations.” [Aníbal Quijano, “Coloniality And Modernity/Rationality,” Cultural Studies, Vol. 21, Nos. 23, March/May 2007, Page 168–178].