Normally, I think it's tawdry when people try to tie current affairs to video games for the sake of seeming relevant, but a thought struck me yesterday, so I'm going to become the thing I hate for a bit.
It's been a decade now since America and the world were shocked into silent horror by the impacts of four planes; three into national landmarks and one more into a field in Pennsylvania, presumably on its way to a similar target. Ten years of mourning. Ten years of "never forgetting." Ten years of posturing, lashing out at other nations in our grief and rage, and doing a whole lot of nothing to improve things or progress beyond that day.
Oh, sure, we killed (or caught, or found the body of, depending on whom you ask) Osama Bin Laden, and we've been liberating (or occupying, depending on whom you ask) nations under the thumb of and killing higher-ups in the various terrorist networks (or scattered, unorganized groups, depending on whom you ask). We've maintained a "war on terror" for nearly as long as we've been waiting for this wound to heal, which is a feat, of sorts. At the same time, Ground Zero in New York City remains undeveloped to any real extent, despite scads of proposals as to what to do there. Xenophobic hatred towards anything Islamic amongst the bulk of Americans has become a disturbingly prevalent attitude. A fair amount of the world is upset with us as a nation for how we've mishandled a lot of things since 9/11. Score upon score of our young men and women are sent off to eventually come home with PTSD at the least, a few bullet scars or missing extremities if they're lucky, or in a body bag if that luck ran out.
No, I'm not here just to pontificate, and no, I didn't forget to mark this NVGR. You see, in a post-9/11 world (buzzwords!) that has managed to do little more than stagnate and wallow in its own misery, I feel there's one frontier that seems more open than others to addressing of the aftermath of that fateful day, and that's the realm of video games. Be it directly, allegorically, or even just tangentially, games have been at the forefront of coming to terms with what's going in the world because of that mess, and not letting the slew of taboo topics or the court of public opinion keep them from crafting the experiences they aim to provide.
The most obvious front where this occurs, of course, are war games. 2010's Medal Of Honor reboot is the most direct address of the state of the military world today, having the stones to take the player directly into the early days of the ongoing military action in Afghanistan. While not as rooted in real-world struggles, both of the biggest players in the military FPS scene, Activision and Electronic Arts, prominently feature conflicts between the West and the Middle East in their Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare
and Battlefield 2
, respectively (though the former ends up swapping in everyone's second-favorite fallback nemesis, the Russians, after not too long). Both series are not afraid to feature direct, invasive attacks on the United States by outside forces, despite the stigma carried over from events in New York and Washington, DC in 2001. While less successful (and, arguably, less well crafted), THQ and Kaos' Homefront
ponders a similar premise, albeit with the invading force being North Korea this time around.
On a less blatant note, one can find a reasonable amount of allegory to insurgents in today's occupied nations such as Iraq and Afghanistan in Volition's Red Faction
series. Despite being set, for the most part, in a semi-distant future on colonized Mars, the Red Faction
games put the player in the shoes of several characters in league with a group that would easily be considered terrorists by today's standards. Considering the first game in the series came out four months before what would later be memorialized as Patriot Day, it's somewhat amazing further installments were green-lit, and that the series has survived to this day. Valve's Counter-Strike
iterations, despite existing as early as 1999 in its original form as a Half-Life mod, have somehow managed to weather the storm of potential criticism from keeping one of its two, in-game team choices labeled Terrorists, and will continue doing so for the upcoming revamp, CS: Global Offensive
That's not to say everything's been blowjobs and candy for the game industry when it comes to broaching such topics. Medal Of Honor, for instance, attempted a similar move to CS by setting-appropriately naming one of the two teams in online verus the Taliban, which met a slew of criticism that eventually forced its publishers to change the team name to Opposing Force. Apparently we've come far enough that it's okay to let people play as 1940s-era German National Socialists, or Japanese Imperial Forces, but actually naming the robbers in a glorified game of Cops and Robbers "Robbers," just because their real-world Robber counterparts are still fighting real-world Cops, is apparently not kosher? Another proposed game, Six Days In Fallujah
, has been MIA since 2009 (presumably KIA) after protestations from Iraq War veterans, despite the fact the United States' Third Battalion First Marines allegedly requested
Atomic Games make the game for and about them. Since the start of conflict in Iraq, volume upon volume of books profiling the goings-on there have gotten published with far less controversy surrounding them, at least not to the point that projects have been shut down, and disturbing reports on misdeeds by some units and private military corporations are full-blown headline news, but recognizing and honoring the harrowing experiences endured by those trying to make a positive difference is taboo? Meanwhile, over-the-top, ridiculous nigh-mockeries of our current engagements in the Middle East, like 50 Cent: Blood On The Sand experience smooth sailing. Am I the only one who's just a bit insulted by this state of affairs?
Public backlash against gaming's portrayals of and allusions to conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan seems rather hypocritical. The oft-repeated mantra of "too soon," is the most common excuse given for this sort of outcry, but I'd like to reiterate that we have been at this for nearly ten years
now. If nothing else, the beginnings of the wars that still linger on today should be slightly more open topics. One has to wonder if another problem many have with the idea of playing through such recent conflicts is the fact that no clear sense of victory has been established on either front. World War II has been stripmined for game content seemingly forever now, a conflict in which there were obvious winners and losers; the Allies took down the Axis, game, set, match. The Vietnam War, on the other hand, has seen less gaming success, with about as many titles or franchises as one can count on their fingers and toes, and was a much more controversial engagement that the "good guys" essentially lost. The American Civil War, if we want to jump back in the world's timeline a bit, has a similar title spread, and while the North's victory was more clearly established, the amount of American-on-American bloodshed muddles that victory in the eyes of many. More recently, the Korean War doesn't bring any related games to mind, despite the success of the M*A*S*H film and television series; the Gulf War of the early 1990s had but a smattering of games set there; and engagements such as the Bosnian War, Kosovo War, and numerous conflicts in Africa, all of which have had tenuous reolutions at best, have all but been completely overlooked.
It seems a reflection of some sort of base denial that something so clear-cut as World War II should be eaten up and reveled in by video game consumers, unscathed by critical disdain over the subject matter, while games about more complex or "sensitive" wars are subject to intense scrutiny and controversy on a fairly regular basis, requiring physical or temporal relocations of their settings and a thick enough shellac of fiction to see any sort of success. I have nothing but admiration for those developers out there who are willing to try and tackle such contested events and issues, directly or otherwise, and the publishers with the cajones to help get their games completed and into circulation. I imagine it can't be easy for all of those involved, as no doubt many in the industry have been touched by the conflicts of today or the initial tragedy that sparked the two largest of them, nevermind the veterans and other witnesses brought in as technical advisors on the games attempting to maintain some sense of accuracy.
I'd like to thank every game dev, tester, or what-have-you who's managed to push onward with projects about the wars of today despite losing friends or loved ones in the World Trade Center collapse or in military service, for your courage in trying to honor their sacrifices and tell their stories through interactive media, even in the face of public disdain and knee-jerk criticism. More media outlets could stand to learn from your example, and much of the world in general could stand to find ways of coming to terms with the War On Terror and its inspirations, rather than turning a blind eye to the last decade's legacy.