So EA’s upcoming Medal of Honor’s been in the headlines all weekend for including the Taliban as a playable faction in the game’s multiplayer component, and it’s really only a matter of time and the brimming barometer of outraged American patriotism before Fox News runs a special edition claiming the publisher hates freedom and is secretly colluding with Al-Qaeda to dismantle democracy in the West and establish some sort of ultra-conservative, satanic tyranny that’s somehow fundamentally different to the Prop 8 lobbyist agenda.
In the meantime, however, there’s probably an intelligent, rational, and thought-provoking debate to be had by everyone else.
Games depicting the events of real-world war – or even events loosely based upon real-world wars – already have some distinguished legacy in the industry, and are inevitably somewhat politicised. Winston Churchill famously said that “History is written by the victors”, and nowhere is this truer than in prescribed textbooks – or commercial entertainment.
Movies and video games have been teaching us for years now that the forces of America and Britain are the good guys, and Russia, Germany, the Middle East in general, and pretty much anywhere else are just a bunch of unambiguously evil communist, socialist, fascist dictatorships pledged to the systematic destruction of life, liberty, and the pursuit of cheap fast food and SUVs. Of course, most people couldn’t adequately define communism, socialism, or fascism at gunpoint, but that’s apparently neither here or there.
Point is, the Western context is, well, a Western context. Consequently, most people won’t think twice when a movie or video game features protagonists as the heroic and incorruptible paragons of Western righteousness locked in a life-or-apocalypse struggle with whatever it is we’ve decided is bad this week. It’s a shameful if rather amusing irony that we decry demagogy while subscribing to it almost indiscriminately.
Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is an especially egregious example. Sure, there’s no denying it’s a superb game in terms of design mechanics and whatnot – but it also boldly espouses some seriously questionable political rhetoric. And the most damning evidence of this is that the overwhelming majority of players likely didn’t even realise it.
(The next paragraph includes some plot spoilers.)
In the mission Shock and Awe, for example, players start out in a helicopter gunship, launching barrages of 40mm grenades onto largely defenceless ground infantry. The comms chatter consistently dehumanises enemy forces, always referring to them as “resistance” of some sort of another. The mission involves rescuing a stranded US Marine recon unit in the city, and concludes with the dramatic recovery and extraction of a single pilot from a downed chopper. Just as everyone’s high fiving their awesome, altruistic, Team Freedom “No Man Left Behind” policy, the enemy drops a nuke. Score one for unambiguously evil communist, socialist, fascist aggression, those craven ****ing bastards. You know, nevermind that hundreds of conscripted enemy soldiers (people) are casually killed during the course of the mission, and the slightly inconvenient reality that America is, to date, the only country to have actually dropped a nuke on anyone. Did anyone stop to consider that?
But it’s just a game. Nobody stops to consider anything about it, right? Oh, that’s until real life collides with what’s otherwise “just a game”, anyway, and this week’s bad guys are featured as a playable faction. How can players be expected to shoot the heroic and incorruptible paragons of Western righteousness? Controversy!
It’s worth bearing in mind that the war in Afghanistan is a current and ongoing conflict, and that families in America, Britain, and elsewhere have sons and daughters deployed over there. It’s probably also worth bearing in mind that families in Afghanistan have sons and daughters (okay, sons) deployed there. Debateable ideologies notwithstanding, every war has two or more combatant sides. That’s kind of how wars work.
Should we care, though? I think that’s a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, yes, it’s entertainment, and for many players, it’s mindless entertainment. That’s not necessarily an altogether bad thing, but it’s perhaps not an altogether good thing either. As I’ve already shown, questionable political rhetoric goes all too easily unquestioned in video games, and while I’m hesitant to contrive some sort of otherwise absurd conspiracy theory, perhaps that’s the point. Is this propaganda and passive confirmation bias masquerading as “mindless entertainment”? Maybe more people should stop to critically consider what’s being presented, and how, and why.