nder normal circumstances, the recent release of Medal of Honor might have gone unnoticed. The game might have passed by as yet another Rah-Rah pro-America shooting gallery masquerading as a military simulation. Something enjoyable – perhaps – but uneventful. Then controversy struck, and once again gamers, journalists, and other assorted opiners were offered a moment to reflect on the dialogue of video game violence. Once again, we asked ourselves what is and is not appropriate to portray in a work of interactive entertainment.
Censorship (or decency, if you like) won the battle in the end. The playable Taliban faction was removed from the game’s multiplayer mode, instead being renamed the inoffensive, if Orwellian, “Opposing Force.” (We have always been at war with the Opposing Force.) Never mind that the rest of the game takes place in a very real and ongoing conflict, and that the single-player campaign specifically names the Taliban anyway. In fact, never mind the whole issue of censorship. It’s disappointing that EA felt pressured into making that change, but it’s hardly unexpected, and it’s hardly important. What gives me pause is the notion that Medal of Honor matters at all.
Let’s pretend that you could play as the Taliban. Right now, you can log into Xbox Live and kill virtual American soldiers while assuming the virtual appearance of real people who are really doing that right now in a real place. Does this make you uncomfortable? Probably not. Does this offer you any sort of perspective? It shouldn’t. Gamers have assumed roles just as real, just as unsettling, and just as criminal – maybe moreso, depending on how you feel about the war in Afghanistan. And Medal of Honor itself does little to complicate your feelings in the single-player campaign. As Michael Abbott explains, it’s half a step removed from propaganda. “Medal of Honor is yet another formulaic war game: a typical good vs. evil FPS; a vainglorious celebration of American exceptionalism wrapped in ‘war is hell’ portentousness.”
Abbott goes on. Though this is “yet another formulaic war game,” he calls it a “shame” that the game “leaves so many possibilities unexplored.” In short, it’s a shame that a game about a real and complex military conflict doesn’t reflect the reality or the complexity. And I understand where this disappointment comes from. The game’s pre-release controversy primed us for the possibility that the game was going to do something unorthodox, something that expanded the moral and intellectual scope of the military shooter (if only a little bit). It really doesn’t matter whether there’s a playable Taliban or not – what that suggested was more significant, which was that the game might be looking at the conflict from more than one perspective.
But here I diverge from Abbot’s train of thought. He calls the game’s aborted attempt at authenticity a “laudable goal” that was ultimately “punted.” As above, he says that so many possibilities were left unexplored. “This Medal of Honor – a war game about a real ongoing war – could have been a game changer.” Indeed, video games seem to be the ideal medium for such a “game changing” title. What better way to illustrate the complexities of war, to showcase opposing viewpoints, than a medium that lets us literally get inside someone’s head? Medal of Honor is a first-person shooter, after all, and that first-person could tell us an awful lot.
The shooter, however, cannot. I would respond to Abbott with my opening paragraph above. In an alternate world, Medal of Honor would have simply passed us by. A playable Taliban force might have been a curiosity, but far from a game changer. A more sophisticated storyline would have been appreciated, I suppose, but I sincerely doubt EA would ever have allowed players to slaughter Afghan civilians. Abbott acts as if the game was a missed opportunity, but an opportunity for what? In what world would a mass-market shooter for Western audiences have portrayed the Afghanistan war as the mess it really is? As The New York Times review says, “Many actual gamers couldn’t care less what the two sides in a multiplayer match are called. As far as they are concerned, the sides could be called Red and Blue or Vanilla and Chocolate.”
I don’t want to sound too cynical about the possibilities of the medium. Games can find poignancy in the most horrific subjects without sacrificing the gameplay, the “fun,” we expect. If Michael Abbott had merely bemoaned the release of yet another jingoistic shooter, I’d be right there with him. I probably sound like I disagree with him more than I really do, because I really don’t. But it seems that we look too hard for insight in a genre that is fundamentally about pointing a gun at something and killing it; a genre defined by the immovable presence of a lethal weapon aimed at anything you happen to be looking at; a genre defined by the shooter, not the first-person.
A few weeks ago, Brian Ashcraft of Kotaku wrote a piece on Under Ash, a shooter starring a young Palestinian fighting against Israeli occupiers – a perspective that many Western players would find unusual, and perhaps uncomfortable. The game is quite realistic by conventional standards and, on paper, seems like a different and possibly insightful kind of shooter. “The game ends if Ahmad gets shot. If he shoots civilians, the game is over. The 12-hour game features no medic packs.” But as I looked at screenshots and videos, I could scarcely tell this game apart from any other. If it weren’t for the disparities in graphical quality and the color of the uniforms, Under Ash would look just like Medal of Honor. I’m sure its perspective is welcome among Middle-Easterners who may not appreciate the roaring nationalism of most Western shooters, but you’re still just a guy looking down the barrel of a gun. You didn’t start the war and you won’t end it. You’re still Vanilla fighting Chocolate. You don’t buy ice cream to solve your problems; you buy it to forget.