Monday, August 16, 2010

A Bridge Too Far

I recently blogged about militarism and war in video games. It's not a subject which is often far from my mind when I think about games. It's come to fore again, which EA in the news for setting their newest Medal of Honor game in Afghanistan, and allowing players to be on the side of the Taliban in multiplayer mode.

This is kind of disgusting. Ghoulish is the word that springs to my mind.

But why do I find it ghoulish? Let's be realistic here. Video games let you play the bad guy and/or do horrible things all the time. In fictional settings, I consider Warcraft III to have one of the most interesting storylines of all time, and part of that includes what is virtually genocide against the human and elvish races. The Bioware/Fallout model of RPG includes good and evil paths for your characters to follow, with the evil path usually involving the wanton slaughter of innocents. Grand Theft Auto games are famously amoral and violent. In Master of Orion II, you can destroy entire planets of your enemies, wiping out billions of people at a time. Games like Wizardry IV, Dungeon Keeper, and Overlord cast you literally into the role of the bad guy, killing heroes over and over.

Those are fictional, of course. How many games put you in the role of playing historical evils? The entire genre of wargames puts its players in roles of dubious morality constantly. I remember how shocked my sister was when she discovered that I was playing as the Confederacy in Sid Meier's Gettysburg. Broader strategy games like Civilization allow you to play as many of history's greatest monsters: Stalin, Genghis Khan, or Mao Zedong. In Rome:Total War, every conquered settlement gives you the option to enslave or exterminate the populace - and choosing one of those is often the most successful strategy.

And then there are the Nazis. World War II-era Germany is the most morally reprehensible state in human history. Other groups or nations have oppressed and killed peoples, or started bloody unjust wars. Only the Nazis made all of those things part and parcel of the functions of the state. Only the Nazis used death camps. And yet playing as the Nazis is built into the fabric of video games. The most popular wargames have consistently been set during World War II. Panzer General, which was credited with saving the genre - for a time - wasn't merely set during WWII, but as the name implied, focused on playing as the Germans. The single-player campaign was only German! First-person shooters allow it as well, of course: Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Medal of Honor to name a few.

It's not merely the present-day setting, however. For over a decade now, multiplayer first-person shooters inspired by Counterstrike have included generic "terrorists" as the opponents to the conventional army in their battles. How much of a difference is there between the apparently generic terrorist of a SOCOM and the specifically named Taliban of the new Medal of Honor? Perhaps others see more of a distinction than I do. Even if you accept that specific modern conflicts should be off-limits, what is the statute of limitations? Holocaust survivors are still alive, yet obviously you can still play as Nazis. Would the first Gulf War be okay? The Rwandan genocide?

What the new Medal of Honor does in allowing you to play as the Taliban is it takes one further veil off of the constant positive portrayals of violence and militarism in video games. It says, nakedly, that video games support war no matter who is fighting. It says that there is no veneer of morality or ethics in mainstream video games. It says that major game publishers just don't care. It's disturbing and ghoulish, but look on the bright side - it'll only seem that way until it becomes normal and shocks have to be delivered another way.