Over the past week or two, Electronic Arts’ upcoming shooter “Medal of Honor” has started taking flak because pundits and politicians, the majority of whom probably don’t play video games, are upset gamers can play as the Taliban.
It’s easy to be skeptical of the timing of the latest hullabaloo. The fact that you can play as the Taliban in “Medal of Honor” has been out there for months. But the issue didn’t really catch the attention of the nongaming media until about a week ago, when Fox News aired this segment, featuring Karen Meredith, a Peninsula woman whose son died fighting in Afghanistan. A week later, after the “controversy” fizzled, the Sunday Times — like Fox News, a subsidiary of News Corp. — prodded U.K. Defense Secretary Liam Fox into the following quote, which The Press Democrat and other newspapers picked up for Monday’s newspapers.
It’s shocking that someone would think it acceptable to recreate the acts of the Taliban. At the hands of the Taliban, children have lost fathers and wives have lost husbands. I am disgusted and angry. It’s hard to believe any citizen of our country would wish to buy such a thoroughly un-British game. I would urge retailers to show their support for our armed forces and ban this tasteless product.
So is the issue here that lots of people are upset about “Medal of Honor,” or that it gets News Corp. readers and viewers fired up and angry?
Most people who play video games would side with Electronic Arts, whose spokeswoman Amanda Taggart offered this rebuttal:
Most of us having been doing this since we were 7 — if someone’s the cop, someone’s gotta be the robber, someone’s gotta be the pirate and someone’s gotta be the alien.
Taggart’s quote cuts to the heart of the issue. “Medal of Honor” isn’t a game about “playing as the Taliban.” It’s a single-player and multiplayer shooter whose online component pretty much requires half of its players to play as the bad guys, in “MoH’s” case, the Taliban.
What I find interesting about the controversy is that none of the outraged parties seem to have any awareness of how reverentially the game’s single-player campaign treats the U.S. Special Forces operatives who serve as the game’s heroes. I’ve seen “MoH” at a handful of industry events now, and it’s impossible to go two minutes without hearing one of the game’s developers talk about the consultations they had with actual U.S. military personnel as they made the game. If anything, you’d expect the game to be protested by a different set of folks decrying it as propaganda, or “war porn.”
Yet somehow, all that’s been lost because some players will have beards and headscarves during the largely contextless multiplayer shootouts.
Put simply, “Medal of Honor” isn’t the “Six Days in Fallujah,” whose developers courted controversy a couple years ago by boasting that their quest for authenticity led them to consult with Iraqi insurgents while developing their game. (“Six Days” is currently on the shelf, lacking a publisher.)
As for Karen Meredith, the mother of the Bay Area soldier killed in Afghanistan, her disgust at “Medal of Honor” is palpable and justified, considering what she’s been through. But it’s hard not to watch the Fox News video of her and think that part of her outrage stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what video games are. And part of that stems from game culture’s failure to develop a vocabulary that puts games in their proper context.
When we talk about “playing” video “games,” we’re using verbs and nouns that practically demand our artistic medium of choice not be taken as seriously as other, older forms of storytelling. Children play marbles, kickball and Monopoly. Nobody plays “The Magic Mountain” or “Being John Malkovich.” They read and watch them. The very act of calling video games video games trivializes them to older, nongamers who’ve missed out on much of the maturation of the medium over the past three decades, and I think that’s what’s happened with Karen Meredith.
It’s said so often it’s almost cliche, but if “Medal of Honor” were a stage play or a movie set during the Afghan War, in which some of the actors played Taliban, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Let’s let “Medal of Honor” hit stores so we can experience it and talk about its merits or lack thereof, not kill it prematurely.