Are Warzones Acceptable in Videogames?
It's been happening for a long time: strategy games have recreated warzones from practically every conflict throughout history. However, easily the biggest controversies have come from shooters recreating wars that are still in living memory. The Medal of Honor and Call of Duty games have had plenty of entries set in WWII, and Call of Duty has made its first couple of entries in the modern arena, though the locations and enemies have been fictional. Now it's Medal of Honor's turn to make a stake in the modern warfare setting, and the aim of the game is authenticity. As such, you'll be fighting in Afghanistan, and you'll be fighting against the Taliban.
But is it acceptable for a game to recreate an ongoing warzone? The question hasn't really been raised before the Medal of Honor controversy, but has gained a significant amount of discussion within the last couple of weeks with the bombshell that players can play as the Taliban in MoH. Many consider it in poor taste that players can take on the role of the Taliban and kill American soldiers. Plenty of voices have spoken; you know it's a full-on controversy when Fox News get involved to deliver their opinions on the matter.
The issues are many and understandable: soliders stationed in Afghanistan are witnessing horrors everyday in combat with insurgents, and many have lost their lives. It is completely understandable that some find recreating the setting for players to relive in the name of entertainment is in poor taste, especially those who have lost loved ones in the conflict. A popular counter-argument has been that it's not real, that “it's just a game,” which helps no-one, as gamers have been clamouring for games be considered art and “not just games” for a while now. It is the business of art to deal with controversial, current issues. However, what will Medal of Honor be bringing to the debate? War is hell? It's an important message, sure, but it's one that's been delivered a thousand times. No, Medal of Honor exists as entertainment, as evidenced by the amount of effort pouring into the multiplayer suite. Entertainment should stick to what's entertaining – something that the war in Afghanistan certainly isn't.
One issue I find worse than any is this: how, in all this talk of how it's unacceptable for players to be “killing” American soldiers, has no-one suggested it's unacceptable for players to kill Taliban troops? Because the Taliban are the enemy, do they suddenly stop being human beings? This is a minefield of an issue, as the Taliban, as a group, have done horrendous things, and I don't want to be drawn into the “one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter” debate. However, Taliban troops are, whether they've been mislead or genuinely believe their cause is right, human beings. The men and women of the Taliban are as real as the men and women fighting on our side, be they British, American or any of the myriad other nationalities involved. Obviously, Medal of Honor is nothing more than pixels, textures and sounds. So what's the big deal? Well, if EA didn't want the controversy, then they wouldn't have labelled the combatants “Americans” and “Taliban,” and they wouldn't have made them look like their real life counterparts, either. Does that mean EA wanted the controversy? Controversy is, after all, free advertising. If that's the case, then I'm sure it's war-profiteering.
As this debate has started, inevitably the WWII setting of many shooters has been dragged back into the fray. The general consensus is that enough time has passed since WWII that it makes a perfectly acceptable backdrop for a game. I've only played two WWII based games at length: Call of Duty 3 and Company of Heroes. I found CoD 3 to be an uncomfortable experience, in particular the introduction of the melee minigame, where an enemy soldier would tackle you and attempt to kill you, while you have to mash the appropriate button to fight him off. The thought that people, some of whom are probably even still alive, had to go through this experience for real, staring into the eyes of someone trying to kill them, and having to fight back and kill them first, was incredibly overpowering. Maybe I'm just sensitive, but reducing such a horrific act of violent survival into a minigame for entertainment is surely grossly inappropriate.
But then again, Company of Heroes is one of my favourite games of all time. So why do I feel differently about the two? Since CoH is a strategy game, there is no effort to “immerse” the player in the action, the experience is more cerebral than visceral. Therefore, CoH seems to be recreating the overall setting, along with the appropriate units and strategies, whereas CoD 3 is exploiting the experiences of individual soldiers, attempting to recreate those horrors for the entertainment of gamers.
It's been said that time heals all wounds. I think that if an experience is horrific enough, it'll stay with someone their entire lives – I'm sure it would if it was me. There's no difference if a conflict ended 65 years ago, 65 days ago or if it's still ongoing – if it was real, the horrors were real and individuals experienced those horrors, why reduce them to entertainment? There's a worrying obsession with recreating war in video games. There's a literally infinite number of conflicts existing inside the imaginations of developers, see Halo, Gears of War, Resistance or Killzone for examples. A similar phenomenon exists in cinema: films like Pearl Harbor exploit these horrendous events for entertainment, whereas films like Saving Private Ryan offer a gutwrenching look at exactly why we're lucky we weren't there. If a game is going to tackle a real conflict, then it should have a message, or a reason for existing. Then again, perhaps they do: they highlight our uncomfortable obsession with warfare, even if they don't mean to.