When War Games Hit Too Close to Home

By  |  Monday, August 16, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Over the weekend, Fox News kicked off a controversy by asking whether the upcoming Medal of Honor goes too far in letting players fight as the Taliban.

The debate on Fox News and the angry comments from Karen Meredith, a Gold Star Mom, don’t surprise me in the slightest or interest me all that much. Anyone who’s kept an eye on the first-person shooter since it was announced last December could’ve seen the outrage coming from a mile away.

What interests me is that even some game critics, who as a group usually rally to defend the morality of violent video games, realize that Electronic Arts might’ve crossed a line with Medal of Honor.

“This is a real war that is happening right now, real blood is being shed, and simulating that for fragfest fun while being rewarded for kill streaks … Well, there’s just something a bit icky about that,” Dan Whitehead wrote in his multiplayer preview for Eurogamer.

Even in single-player, Dan Howdle at NowGamer was unsettled. “Whether Tier one special forces or the almighty grunt-hammer, players are forced to play through the eyes of Americans in a conflict that is currently happening in the real world and taking with it hundreds of lives every week,” he wrote. “And excuse us just a little if that doesn’t leave a bit of a bad taste in our mouths.”

After writing a story about the Fox News report, Gamasutra News Director Leigh Alexander remarked on Twitter, “will i be beheaded as an enemy of all video games by a ruthless screaming mob if i say i kinda agree with this?”

Note how carefully all three writers phrase their unease — “a bit icky,” “a bit of a bad taste,” “i kinda agree” — as if they’re just as uncomfortable opposing Medal of Honor’s premise as they are with the premise itself. The games industry’s natural defense against controversy is to downplay it, because in most cases the controversy is undeserved. Not this time.



10 Comments For This Post

  1. Seumas Says:

    If playing the game would make you uncomfortable for one reason or another, don't buy it and play it. Those SAW movies gross me out, so you know what I do to deal with it? I don't buy and watch them. Isn't that just the craziest thing?

  2. JaredNewman Says:

    Hey Seumas,

    It's worth pointing out that Saw is fiction.

    Make no mistake, I have no problem being uncomfortable with video games. I don't even mind the idea of a video game that realistically portrays war and terrorism (I've said as much in previous articles here). The issue here is that in online multiplayer, the war in Afghanistan is reduced to a game of tag.

  3. Seumas Says:

    There's no difference to it being fictional or not. They are both pieces of entertainment that you can participate in or avoid at your own discretion.

    The insinuation, of course, is that a videogame is inherently making light of a situation (which, again, means you can buy it or not and should have nothing to do with striking it from existence). Are politicians, mostly using it as a tool for political manipulation, any better? How bout the radio and television talk show hosts who have made a living for themselves and their networks off of the military actions since 2001? How about the countless authors who have benefitted by writing endless books about it? How about the television shows (such as Over There, The Unit, etc)? How about the movies? How about the news networks and print publications? How about the former military-persons-turned-commentator/strategist making a buck out of blowing hot air in every media outlet?

    Are any of the above mentioned treating it with any more seriousness or respect than a multiplayer videogame? And how is it that the game is just fine if it is against unnamed generic middle eastern guys in a brown dust-filled map, but as soon as you name them "Taliban", it becomes abhorrent?

    There is no point to these discussions. We are a country that enjoys freedom of speech and a free market. You know, all of those things that we're told (however this works) that we're fighting for . . . way over *there*. So if these people care at all about the values that their family members were foisted into battle for, then we all agree that this material has every right to exist and be sold and purchased and played. We also agree that if most people have the reactionary attitude that self-serving blow-hards-with-a-cause-on-television have, the game will fail and it won't be financially reasonable to pursue that the of a game again.

    I'm sorry some people have family and friends that volunteered to go overseas and get killed, but their feeling sad has no bearing on whether or not publishers, developers, consumers, or anyone else gets to continue to enjoy exercising their right to free speech.

  4. JaredNewman Says:

    Just to be clear, this isn't a free speech issue for me. I don't think games should be banned or censored for any reason. Quite the contrary; it's better that the game exists so we can talk about how video games portray war and whether there's a better way than twitchy first-person shooters.

    Also, I never said a game is just fine if it makes less of an attempt at realism. This isn't a black-and-white issue, and where games cross the line of good taste is always going to be subjective.

  5. Bouke Timbermont Says:

    The truth is this: EA KNEW this was gonna happen, and in fact, they really wanted it: MOH has been getting weaker as a franchise, with every new version getting lower scores.

    They NEED this attention to make the sale. Doing so by willfully shocking, and in some cases hurting people is something I oppose.

    But what does it say about the Americans if they are fine with playing games about fictional wars or wars they have won (WW2), but NOT ok with a game about a war that isn't going all that well? I think the biggest problem Americans have with this game is being confronted with the situation the war in Afghanistan really is: it's still a full-scale war and people are dying. Playing this game reminds them of that, while many already told themselves it's not a war but a 'conflict', there are actual civilians dying and the American Army is not some unstoppable force of good that will always prevail.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Don't tell them Counter-Strike has been letting you play as "the terrorists" since 1999…

  7. JaredNewman Says:

    Sure, but those characters, and the scenarios in which they play, are completely fictional. There are no such terrorist groups as "Arctic Avengers" or "Elite Crew" in real life.

    Isn't it telling that the Counter-Terrorists, on the other hand, are real?

  8. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    The idea that this game corresponds to real life in any way is extremely offensive. It is 150% fantasy warfare. You take the whole thing as fantasy, you don't get to pick and choose parts of it to be uncomfortable about.

    The real problem is that most American's conceptions of the actual real wars is just as much of a fantasy as this game. So they are more comfortable talking about the game.

  9. davezatz Says:

    After playing the MoH multiplayer beta for a couple weeks, I have no reason to partake regardless of storyline or roles. It tries to be CoD and fails – the control and and interaction just aren't there. So I'll be getting that $5 pre-order, beta access fee back from Gamestop.

  10. RKrael Says:

    So how is this different then BF2 and others? In these games were fighting against "fictional" enemies, which very often happen to live in areas that are middle-east in origin, fighting a "fictional" war against enemies that look a lot like our real enemies in the middle-east and Afghanistan. Excuse me if I find it hard to see the thin line that separates one from the other.

    Isn't it a bit icky that we trivialize war in general, play games that involve shooting enemies that are intentionally made to look like arab/middle-eastern in origin? Isn't playing a WWII game with each one's version of D-Day in some way icky when you consider the men who lost their lives fighting on those beaches? What about movies?

    The fact is if your playing anything historically based, it's a little bit icky in some lights. The fact you can view it as icky, a tribute to those who have fought these battles…but it is a game.