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Dennis C Scimeca avatar 10:56 AM on 08.10.2010  (server time)
Nazis Good, Taliban Bad?

Electronic Arts and DICE are catching flak in some corners for calling the upcoming Medal of Honor “just a game” in reference to concerns about gamers “playing as the Taliban” in the multiplayer modes.

Hold on just a second. Gamers have been playing as Nazis in multiplayer gaming since the first Medal of Honor games in 2002. With all due respect to everyone who lost friends and family in the Twin Towers attack, or who have lost soldiers in Afghanistan, compared to the Nazi Regime, the Taliban are lightweights.

You remember the Nazis, right? Murdered at least 11 million people in concentration camps, with some estimates as high as 17 million? Some of the German skins were Wermacht, the regular German army whose officers were only sometimes actual Nazis, but some of the skins in World War II first person shooter titles are straight-up SS, the guys who herded the men and women into those cattle cars to be shipped off to Auschwitz. I don’t remember anyone making this big a stink about wearing Nazi skins in World War II first person shooter titles, and considering Call of Duty: World at War came out in 2008, it’s not a stale issue.

The counter-argument I expect to hear is “Well, World War II happened a long time ago, so it’s not as relevant, but Afghanistan is happening right now!” To which I would say: Fuck you. Tell my grandmother’s best friend, who still has the tattoo on her arm from the time she spent in the concentration camps, that World War II “isn’t as relevant.” Or the American European theater veteran who one of my best friends shot a documentary of a few months ago, and who told stories of the horrors of war that were just as vivid to him today as when he experienced them in 1944. Or, you know, the millions of Jews around the world who lost family and for whom World War II will never cease to be relevant.

All wars are painful, with tremendous human costs and immeasurable amounts of tragedy, but clearly this isn’t a reason not to make first person shooter titles with multiplayer modes in which players don the skins of “the enemy” in order to allow for two opposing teams. EA and DICE are making a reasonable statement here: the multiplayer aspect specifically of Medal of Honor is just a game. It would be one thing if gamers took the role of Taliban fighters in the single player mode and had missions wherein they laid IED’s on the road to ambush American supply columns, or intentionally took cover among civilians and used them as meat shields against incoming American forces, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

We’re talking about the multiplayer. There are no civilians. There is no story. You’re dead for about three seconds and then back into the action. There is no theme, no realism, no depth – it’s about frags and K/D ratios and Capture The Flag. So who gives a shit if we’re wearing Taliban skins this time instead of Nazi skins?

Steven Spielberg is credited with creating the Medal of Honor franchise specifically as a vehicle to bring the actual Medal of Honor into greater public awareness in celebration of the valor it stands for. You know, Steve was really into the World War II movies for a while…hence why the Medal of Honor games stuck with that war for too long, which surely had a lot to do with why the franchise died.

Now that it’s back for a revamp, where is EA going to set the new game? I just read news today about a game based on the Iraq War that EA was making and canned, and of course Six Days in Fallujah ran into the same roadblock, so Iraq is out. Let’s see, where else are American soldiers fighting right now?

Afghanistan may be a more palatable war for a video game setting because, by and large, it’s a war with much higher levels of public approval in America. There’s no question as to the Taliban’s involvement in 9/11, and any nation that not only harbors but actively supports, arms, and trains Al Qaeda was a legitimate military target for the United States after the attack. It’s perfectly in keeping with the ethos behind the Medal of Honor franchise to set the game in this active theater.

Therefore, the multiplayer game is going to involve the Taliban. That doesn’t mean that gamers are playing AS the Taliban. They’re not going to be earning experience points by killing civilians, suppressing the freedom of women, or blowing up statues built by religions other than Islam. They are, literally, a necessary gameplay mechanic, just another set of skins to enable the players to swap sides at the end of a round.

That said, it’s a mechanic which may make the game unpalatable to some people, and that’s a decision I can respect because it’s personal. It’s emotional, and therefore deserves all due consideration; but some of these pundits speaking out about the use of Taliban skins denote no personal skin in this game, pun intended. They’re just mouthing off because it seems potentially popular to do so, and they’re not making a lick of sense. EA and DICE are being criticized for saying “it’s just a game” specifically because Medal of Honor is placed in a contemporary settting, as though there’s some expectation upon them to therefore go into “the deeper issues” of this war.

Are these critics looking forward to a first person shooter where they have to navigate their way through the halls of the United States Congress, pressing A or X to dodge lobbyists, and then once they get into the House of Representatives play a minigame to properly register their vote on an Appropriations bill to fund the troops? Most, not all, of the “deeper issues” around the War on Terror have to do with politics like the prioritization of foreign policy concerns over domestic issues, the monetary cost of the war, and how we're going to get out.

Or perhaps these critics would like to focus on "deeper issues" that surround any war, namely the human tragedy? I was going to make some snide gameplay suggestions about how to depict this horror but I can't. The point is that this isn't an issue suited to a first person shooter either for raw concerns of whether it would be fun or not. No, video games don't always have to be fun if we're speaking hypothetically...but first person shooters do.

Medal of Honor is meant to be celebration of the valor of American soldiers. That’s the greater depth, if there is any to be found. Otherwise, it is just a game, and no one would actually want it to be anything other than that if presented with the reality of what this "deeper game" would look like. If people are getting up in arms about wearing a Taliban skin, can you even imagine the uproar if the real issues were actually touched upon or dealt with? Right – the game wouldn’t even be released. Then these “critics” wouldn’t have anything to complain about. It’s a lose/lose proposition for them, I guess.

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