Should we care about who we’re shooting in games?

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. 

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  • Xero

    The inclusion of Al-Queda as a playable side in MP was always going to be controversial.
    One has to understand that to the US and its largely ignorant population the name and alignment of this faction signifies one of the pivotal moments in US history, as time goes by one sees the influence of these events ever clearer.

    The question I think of SHOULD it matter is answered easily enough, but the question DOES it matter leads to a very heated debate.

    In Certain cases I think yes, it does and should matter, in others, depending on the actual events inspiring the influence it doesn't for the most part.
    It is all to easy to play a game with the Nazi's as main enemy, we love blowing them up, setting them on fire and generally being really less than neighborly towards them,but how many Germans share that sentiment?

    I think it depends as well on how sensitive a specific group is when deciding these matters, the US is well known for seeing anti US sentiment in even the most innocent comment or situation.

  • Echo

    Brilliant article. It's kinda bad when your so certain your right, you don't stop to think about the "bad people" perspective.

    But I guess it's easier for us who aren't really involved in the conflict to comment and play this without bashing an eyelid.

    Totally had to google demagogy.

  • Xero

    Echo, SA has been used as a rebellious faction in a few games, one such being Soldier of Fortune 1, in which the evil mastermind behind the entire plot is a South African

  • Niel

    I really enjoyed this read, although I normally do not enjoy Taryn's writing.


    give credit where credit is due.

  • Echo

    Yes, but Dekker in SOF was banished by FW de Klerk or someone so he was in essence an outlaw acting on his own. He wasn't working for our government.

    If someone like SWAPO were featured in a game, I would hesitate a bit more as my dad fought against them. But I don't think it would really bother me as they had their reasons for fighting. Just like Al-Queda.

  • Me

    @Xero: My dad is German and he has been killing virtual Nazi's since 1992 and loving it. "Mein leben!"

  • Alan

    Where's my free Che Guevara Tshirt?

    There is robably an intelligent, rational, and thought-provoking debate but it's not here…..

  • wheunis

    Credit where it is due:
    Nice article Tarryn.

    I can't really say whether or not I actually care who it is I am shooting at.
    Maybe I am just a sociopath that way?

    But I did notice the humor in it during many C&C titles… every bad guy always dropping a nuke on something, and America being the only country to ever really do that.
    Only bad people drop nukes, right?

  • Tarryn van der Byl

    "There is robably an intelligent, rational, and thought-provoking debate but it's not here….. "

    Robably not, no.

  • Echo

    Robably, Robably, yanga sizwe Robably!

    Yeah, I don't really have anything else to add to this discussion. Except that Che Guevara is hobo.

  • alan

    So where's the edit function ffs

    meh I don't care…..

  • Cairnius

    The idea of "largely defenseless ground infantry" is ridiculous. Do you know what small arms fire can do to a helicopter gunship? Or one man with an RPG? If you're going to use suppression of legitimate tactical threats in an FPS title as "political rhetoric," then your argument is built on shaky ground. Where the enemy comes from is irrelevant in combat. If they're shooting at you, you shoot back.

    I also, honestly, never heard anyone getting angry about the nuke drop in Modern Warfare; and comparing that sort of thing to the nuclear weapons we deployed in World War II puts you on extremely tenuous ground, to the point where I wonder if you did any research for this article. Did you know that the United States is STILL using the Purple Heart medals we ordered during WW II prior to the invasion of Japan we thought was going to happen?

    Consider that – Korea, Vietnam, both Gulf Wars – we're STILL using that batch of Purple Hearts because the United States government was expecting that many casualties from an invasion of mainland Japan.

    Instead, we dropped two nuclear weapons, and forced their unconditional surrender. Kind of hard to argue with that military logic considering they attacked first. Again, it's not a pretty world, but it's the one we live in.

  • Tarryn van der Byl

    "The idea of "largely defenseless ground infantry" is ridiculous. Do you know what small arms fire can do to a helicopter gunship? Or one man with an RPG?"

    Hell, yes. I've been replaying the game on Veteran, and I restarted Shock and Awe a good 10 times or so. Stupid infantry. ;P

    But seriously – in the game, you're part of a sizeable airborne assault. Those guys on the ground don't stand a chance.

    "If you're going to use suppression of legitimate tactical threats in an FPS title as "political rhetoric," then your argument is built on shaky ground. Where the enemy comes from is irrelevant in combat. If they're shooting at you, you shoot back."

    Perhaps I didn't make this clear enough. I'm not arguing rules of engagement, really, but rather the political motivations (and machinations) that lead to the conflict in the first place, as well as the deliberate dehumanising of enemy forces, as I mentioned already. It's also the portrayal of the American forces as paragons of righteousness, when civilian murder and rape (even within their own ranks) are very real problems in the US military.

    In the game, your reasons for invading Generistan pretty much amount to, "There's this guy. He killed the president."

    Yes, I understand it's a game. Even *just* a game. But it concerns me that we simply accept certain tropes – like RA RA TEAM AMERICA – without questioning them. People are upset because the Taliban is a playable faction, while nobody stops to consider that the Western militaries are not exactly faultless. Lots of American, British, and other Western soldiers are murderers and rapists too.

    Games are very much a part of mainstream media and entertainment, and should perhaps be subject to the same scrutiny and critical analysis where it's appropriate. I suppose what I ultimately intended with this article was to provoke thought and debate. It seems to have worked.

  • Ryinski

    Good to see an article with a sense of objectivity in it's message. It's a shame this level of critique of war never makes it onto north american tv.

  • Bashar

    Very well written article. What whoever who is making the fuss about the Medal of Honor multiplayer needs to keep in mind that there are people on the other side of the world. Who are killing their own people in video games. I'm sure the Vietnamese arent happy with having to killing themselves and be called bastards and stuff.
    I'm Arab. I killed 'my people' in Modern Warfare 2. I dont support Al-Qaeda at all and thing they are a bunch of lunatics. All I'm saying is that its all blown out of proportion. Why is ok for Arabs to kill Arabs in a game or Vietnamese to do so but if they tell you to kill an American AI its unacceptable?

  • Tarryn van der Byl

    @ Bashar:

    Vietnam is an especially contentious setting, because American forces were responsible for a number of absolutely shocking atrocities during the course of the war, for example the My Lai massacre. While these might have been isolated incidents, they were committed by regular soldiers – the sorts of guys we're now seeing as protagonists in games.

    As Bertrand Russell wrote: "Patriots always talk of dying for their country, and never of killing for their country", and "War does not determine who is right – only who is left". Wartime morality is a troubling concept.

  • boramk

    I was in full agreement with this article and was about to comment on how brilliant it was, until I read about your argument that the US are the only country in the world to have dropped nukes, and therefore, that somehow constitutes as hypocrisy in their part.

    You clearly show lack of historical knowledge, and your normal anti-US bigotry shines again (albeit, justified in the bashing of conservative Fox news etc).

    Do you even understand the circumstances leading to the dropping of the nukes? Do you understand if you were a belligerent in a war and sacrifices you HAVE to make for a greater good?

    If you don't understand, don't talk. I'm glad the US dropped the bomb, sure, innocents were killed, but imagine how many more would have died, as you know, Japan was a country that would die defending.

    And extra info, if the bomb had not been dropped, I probably wouldn't be here, my grandfather was in line to invade Japan. Thank the Americans he didn't go

  • boramk

    Other than that.. I agree, the whole brouhaha about fighting as the Taliban is absolutely nonsensical.

  • FriendlyFire

    I'm quite certain that when Tarryn referenced to America being the only country to have dropped a nuke, that she did not do it in an Anti-US sense. Tarryn was alluding to the fact that in CoD4 when the nuke was dropped, it was portrayed as the most horrific event ever, as it was American soldiers being killed. It shows the insignificance of just having killed hundreds of "the resistance", simply because its being shown from a Western perspective.

    Mentioning that America was the only country to have ever dropped a nuke was to show how reality is shifted in a game to favour the "good", or, the "heroic". (Note the subjective terms…)

  • Tarryn van der Byl

    What FriendlyFire said, really.

    The threat of nuclear war is an immensely emotive subject, and a formidable propaganda tool. In the game, it's shown as an act of desperation and cataclysmic horror. Dropping a nuke is, was, and always will be an act of desperation and cataclysmic horror, no matter how legitimate the reasons for doing it.

    @ boramk:

    While it might (arguably) have been the quickest solution to ending the Pacific war, I'm troubled that anyone would say they're "glad" America dropped the nukes. Let's not forget that over 200 000 people, many of them innocent civilians, died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nobody can say with any certainty that Japan "would die defending", because they weren't given the chance to do so.

    My point is, there's simply no clear-cut morality here at all.

  • paNic

    i was in full support of you tarryn, for the first time in my life, i enjoyed an article that you wrote… until you started defending it.
    While it might (arguably) have been the quickest solution to ending the Pacific war, I'm troubled that anyone would say they're "glad" America dropped the nukes. Let's not forget that over 200 000 people, many of them innocent civilians, died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nobody can say with any certainty that Japan "would die defending", because they weren't given the chance to do so."

    terrible reply. TERRIBLE REPLY.
    japan would have killed off their entire country if just to take down one US Bastard. This was enforced by the way they acted during the war. It was their culture, basically their religion to die for their country. And it was either 200,000 Japs or tenfold the amount of total deaths. USA would go in full blast japan will defend then russia and england will support usa and then japan will ultimately be eradicated. Im beyond the point of caring what you tihnk of this response. Learn to google tarryn.

  • @panic

    I suggest you don't take any ethics or philosophy courses at university. You might have to think for yourself, and it would probably blow your tiny mind.

  • Tarryn van der Byl

    @ paNic:

    "War doesn't determine who is right. Only who is left." – Bertrand Russell

    Also, saying "you're beyond caring" what I think of your response before we've entered into anything even remotely resembling a discussion is cowardly. It's one thing to casually dismiss stupidity, but it's quite another to do so when it's simply a matter of different opinions.

    And that I have a different – and, I daresay, perhaps more thoughtful – opinion, however, should at least demonstrate that I've some knowledge on the subject. I wouldn't presume to have an opinion on a subject I know nothing about. Integrity, etc.

    I'm a humanist. The mass extermination of civilians horrifies me. The potential for mass extermination of anyone else horrifies me too. I'm not saying the Allies had no cause to drop the bomb; I'm saying it was still a repugnant act. Is that really so hard to understand? Morality isn't all black and white.

  • boramk

    I'm not being biased because of my grandfather, but do you honestly think he was the only one in line to go up against Japan? The whole of the Philippines, nationalist Koreans, Americans, Russians, countless other countries, were ready to deploy their troops for the invasion of Japan.

    It is in Japanese culture where it is more honourable dying than it is to live in defeat. You lack this understanding, do you need more American Dramas and movies to teach you this?

    They would have died defending, what do you mean "give them a chance?" SHUT UP.

    Tell me then, what is more moral? The deaths of 200000 civilians? Or millions of soldiers? Soldiers huh? Because civilians "innocent"? SHUT UP. You honestly have the nerve to tell me morality is black and white where the deaths of one action far outnumber the deaths of another.

    Come tell my grandpa you think dropping the bomb was wrong. You tell him that it is better off that he, and hundreds of thousands of others had march into the mainland with a gun and shoot every single Japanese CIVILIAN and SOLDIER.

Should we care about who we’re shooting in games?