When Virtual Wars Become Too Real
I’ve been a fan of military shooters for a long time. It might have something to do with my six years of service in the U.S. Army. Any decent shooter in that genre will catch my eye. Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six, Call of Duty, and Battlefield Bad Company quickly come to mind but there are others as well. There was a time I looked forward to playing Atomic Games’ Six Days in Fallujah. For those who are not familiar with this game, it died soon after reports of its controversial content surfaced on the Web. It seems that a game about the Iraq War was not possible while the war still raged. Outrage against the game quickly muffled all news about the potentially positive aspects of the game and that was that. (I really like the way Daniel Floyd covers this controversy as part of his youtube series on games.)
A year later I began reading about EA’s revival of its franchise Medal of Honor. EA put the series on a path to the modern era. They would leave World War II behind and join Call of Duty and Battlefield Bad Company in the modern age. However Medal of Honor‘s setting is the current US war in Afghanistan.
Here we go again, I thought.
Imagine my surprise when I read nothing about an uproar over EA’s shooter. Spring turned to summer and still nothing. I thought MoH might actually make it to release with little controversy. Guess I should have known better. It seems the controversy is finally here.
However if you study the history of video games, you will see that writers and developers often look to outside media for influence and ideas. Current events are a rich source of game content. That’s why there are so many military shooters on the market. While it is true that the enemies in those games are generic terrorists or dictators in fictional countries, the inspiration is today’s war on terror. And that is the problem. While World War II and Vietnam make for great war games, using a current conflict is out-of-bounds. The pain is too fresh and the scars too raw. In ten years, perhaps, Afghanistan will be fertile ground for gaming, but in 2010 any attempt to use this setting must create controversy.
I believe the root of this issue goes back to what Floyd says in his video: games are judged by the name of the medium. When you say “game” you might as well say “enjoyment” and “fun” too. To many non-gamers, the very act of picking up a controller means you will be having fun and picking up your virtual rifle and heading off to “Afghanistan” should not be fun. They might not understand that there are times a gaming session is not all that much fun. When I play NCAA Football 11 I enjoy it unless I lose by a lot of points. I might say it was no fun at all. But I still played a game. Last night while playing Dragon Age Origins I had to decide whether or not I should kill a person (I did finally). That really wasn’t fun either. However there are times I have so much fun I can’t help but shout and laugh and proclaim to the world how I am the greatest player who ever lived.
So I have to agree with Floyd when he says that video games, like comic books before them, suffer from the stigma attached to the name. He reminds us how comics evolved into graphic novels and he muses that games might also find respect with a name change. I don’t know about that, but what I do know is this: when I game I look for experiences and not just fun. The first time I saw Platoon I left the theater in awe. What a profound experience. Would I call it fun? No. If I use those same measurements, the single player campaign of Medal of Honor could very well be about sharing the horror and intensity of simulated combat. Probably not too much fun.
On the other hand, the multiplayer portion should be fun and that brings us right back to the problem. If you have played multi-player matches in EA’s Battlefield Bad Company 2 then you know how intense and overwhelming the experience can be. It is fun? Sometimes. Most times it was a challenge and took all my concentration simply to achieve the goals of the match. I didn’t see the enemies as Russian or American, they were simply targets to remove or merely players on the other side of the Internet to compete against. In that simulated world, thousands of “Americans” died. Where was the outcry? In Modern Warfare 2 thousands of “US Rangers” fall everyday. They are just as “real” as the American Tier One soldiers in Medal of Honor. But because the enemy is the Taliban, the game becomes more “real” than those other titles. Is MoH bad because you can take the role of a real US enemy? Or is it bad because you can “kill” American soldiers?
This is certainly a topic worth exploring, but in order to have a meaningful dialogue, we have to move past the narrow point-of-view of FOX News and others and investigate the full range of views on this topic. We must address what it means to explore war this way as opposed to methods other media such as film, television, and books use. Games bring their own perspective to the experience and that experience should be acknowledged for what it is: a different way to share the human condition.