Tuesday, August 24, 2010

More Taliban in games might be good for us

Following up on Friday's post, Britain's defense secretary Liam Fox has called on a ban of the upcoming Medal of Honor because the video game lets players control Taliban fighters.

"At the hands of the Taliban, children have lost fathers and wives have lost husbands. It's shocking that someone would think it acceptable to recreate the acts of the Taliban against British soldiers," Fox said in a statement. "It's hard to believe any citizen of our country would wish to buy such a thoroughly un-British game. I would urge retailers to show their support for our armed forces and ban this tasteless product."

On Friday, I talked about how the media has typically come at this issue, but I neglected to get at the core issue: do the criticisms from folks such as Fox have any merits?

As an avid gamer, and a realist, the answer to me is an emphatic "no." Firstly, unless Fox and the woman who raised a similar ruckus about Medal of Honor in the U.S. last week have some special preview privileges, it's pretty safe to say they don't know what they're talking about as they have yet to actually see or play the game. Their worries are most likely way overblown, and it looks like they're in dire need of having someone explain to them exactly how video games work.

I'm a hard-core addict of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, the game that Medal of Honor - by all appearances - is trying very hard to emulate. I've also been thoroughly addicted to every previous Call of Duty game that's come out, so I think I can speak with some greater authority about what the role of the Taliban likely will be in Medal of Honor.

For people who don't know much about them, such first-person shooters generally have two game modes: a single-player campaign that sees players follow along through a predetermined storyline, and a multiplayer mode that lets them play a variety of unscripted timed matches online with friends and/or strangers.

Modern Warfare II took a lot of heat last year for putting players in control of a character who takes part in the massacre of civilians during the single-player storyline. The character, in order to infiltrate a terrorist organization, had to participate in the carnage to gain their trust.

What the game didn't get a lot of attention for was its multiplayer mode, which cast players in a variety of factions, such as U.S. Army Rangers or Russian Spetsnaz, but also something called OpFor, which was essentially a group of Arab terrorists. (What's that? Children being asked to play as terrorists? Hold the phone! Somebody better get the media on the horn!)

But this particular aspect of the game didn't get much attention because a) OpFor is fictional, and more importantly, b) it's completely incidental and irrelevant to the game. In Modern Warfare II multiplayer, players get the same weapons and gadgets regardless of which team they happen to end up on (the game's servers assign the factions automatically and randomly). The team assignment, whether it's Army Rangers or OpFor, is purely cosmetic - the on-screen characters wear different clothing and shout different battle cries, but that's about the extent of their differences.

For all intents and purposes, it looks like Medal of Honor is going down the same path - it doesn't appear that players will be put in control of Taliban fighters during the more meaty single-player story-line, but rather they will only have the largely meaningless appellation assigned to them in multiplayer.

In its defense of Medal of Honor last week, Electronic Arts suggested that this was just a case of cops-and-robbers - in a game that involves multiple players, somebody has to play the good guy and somebody has to play the bad guy. Such is the case with a game set in modern-day Afghanistan: unless you want to forbid games from emulating reality, you simply can't expect this not to happen.

If the game's single-player campaign were to put players in the shoes of the Taliban, where they have to kill American or British soldiers, there might be something worth complaining about. I suspect that's not the case, however, and that this whole outcry is over a silly cosmetic fact.

The deeper issue here goes down to the increasing realism being portrayed in games. There wouldn't be a peep over Medal of Honor if the game had American troops killing British troops, and vice versa, because that's just too silly to be realistic (not so a few centuries ago). The problem is that it's really happening, right now, and that it's not just voyeuristic entertainment - it's actually interactive. After all, as the fears go, putting gamers (which to critics inevitably and erroneously equates to children) in the shoes of the Taliban means they'll develop sympathies to their causes.

Part of that is actually true, but that's a good thing. Video games do contain a certain subversive ability to shine insight where the rest of entertainment fears to go. The Hurt Locker won best picture earlier this year for its portrayal of the trials and tribulations of American troops in Iraq, but where is the other side of the story?

I'll tell you where: it's in video games. Perhaps the best piece of writing I've ever read about video games was from Clive Thompson in Wired a few years ago about his experience in trying to play Halo 3 online. To summarize: Clive jumped into the crazy world that is multiplayer gaming with Halo 3, only to get his ass whupped by the 10-year-olds and shut-ins that typically spend all their time mastering the game. After countless defeats, desperation set in and he began "suicide-bombing" these highly advanced players, just to spite them and screw up their points. The exercise, he said, gave him unprecedented insight into how the mind of a suicide bomber must work:

The fact remains that something quite interesting happened to me because of Halo. Even though I've read scores of articles, white papers and books on the psychology of terrorists in recent years, and even though I have (I think) a strong intellectual grasp of the roots of suicide terrorism, something about playing the game gave me an "aha" moment that I'd never had before: an ability to feel, in whatever tiny fashion, the strategic logic and emotional calculus behind the act.

The criticisms of Medal of Honor, as baseless as they likely are, may actually be backwards as well. Perhaps video games should put players in more control of opposing forces. Done well, such games - because of their interactive and emotional-engaging capabilities - could provide insights that we just aren't getting from other forms of entertainment. And how can better understanding of our enemies ever be a bad thing?


Post a Comment