Tuesday, August 24, 2010

EA's Medal of Honor Courts Controversy

As I've said in the past, I have serious problems with the nihilistic, excessively violent, and anti-American elements in Modern Warfare 2. From both a gameplay and content perspective, I prefer the Battlefield series made by DICE and released by EA.

I was glad to see that EA was resurrecting the Medal of Honor series and turning it over to the DICE team. I suspected that they might try to top the excesses of Modern Warfare, but I haven't seen enough of it to know either way.

Neither has Britain’s Defence Secretary Liam Fox, but that hasn't kept him from voicing an opinion based on minimal evidence. He told the Telegraph that he was "disgusted" that such an "un-British" game was being released, and called for retailers to refuse to sell it, adding "It's shocking that someone would think it acceptable to recreate the acts of the Taliban."

Secretary Fox is referring to unsubstantiated reports that the game, set in contemporary Afghanistan against the backdrop of the War on Terror, would allow people to play as the Taliban and kill British soldiers. Obviously, with soldiers still fighting and dying in that theater of war, this was going to be a sensitive subject. Although I haven't seen the finished game, the "play-the-Taliban" idea seems in poor taste.

EA says that "British troops do not feature in the game." They are not denying that you can play as the Taliban, however, pointing out that someone has to be the bad guy.

It's always a mistake to offer an opinion about something that does not, technically, exist yet. The game may be as awful as Secretary Fox says it is, and he will have been well with in his rights to urge customers and retailers to shun the game.

Nota bene, he did not (as of this writing) talk about using the force of law to ban the game, which is an important distinction often lost in these debates. He urged retailers to "ban" the game by not selling it. We call that "free speech," and even British Defence Secreataries are entitled to it, even when they say things you don't like. Especially then.

Even the military mother quoted in a widely circulated story said she didn't want the game banned, just perhaps shelved for a couple of years until our boys come home. That won't happen, but it's not an unreasonable request.

Some gamers have a habit of screaming "censorship" anytime someone expresses disapproval of their chosen form of entertainment. DEAR GAMERS: NO ONE HAS TO LIKE WHAT YOU DO. They don't even have to approve of it. When you have this kind of content, you need to expect criticism.

People may get on TV and say it's awful and it shouldn't be sold. They may organize boycotts to keep it out of local stores. Bill O'Reilly may even write a sharply worded Talking Points Memo.

Good. That's what they should be doing. Free and open debate is the sign of a healthy society. Unless the State is kicking in your door and heaping copies of Medal of Honor on a bonfire, you aren't being censored. America, at least, is not in danger of tipping over into Fahrenheit 451 anytime soon.

Obviously, I'm going to reserve judgment until I see it. I'm hoping that DICE (a team for whom I have immense respect) will handle this kind of challenging material with good taste. I have serious doubts that this is even possible.

Some inside EA are pointing to the horrible "No Russian" level of Activision's Modern Warfare 2 as some kind of precedent, which is entirely the wrong point to make. That level was rotten gaming, not to mention artistically juvenile and offensive merely for the sake of being offensive.  Supporters of the game are also pointing to war movies like Hurt Locker to justify what they're doing.

This comparison to games as an art form like movies has to end. It's not only stupid, but it fatally underestimates the power of the medium. I remember being offended that Black Hawk Down was made into a game. People said, "Well what's the difference between that and the movie?"

I always find it funny when gamers complain about how ignorant non-gamers are about their hobby, because the movie-game comparison is flat-out stupid, and gamers say it all the time.

How can a gamer not understand the difference between the objective, passive experience of a movie and the subjective, active experience of a game. It's the reason they play games! In a movie, you may see atrocities committed, and even be made to identify with the people committing them, but you are not actively committing those atrocities yourself in simulation.

In other words: games are too powerful a medium to work by the same creative rules as movies. There are things that I may watch in a movie that I would never want to simulate in a game environment. Something like "No Russian" crosses the line for me: it's no longer fun. My fantasies don't involve being a cold-blooded terrorist. That's not a feeling or a role that I need to experience.

I sympathize with DICE and EA. They are trying to use a young medium to create a new form of entertainment, and feel that it should be as responsive to contemporary issues and realities as a book or movie. (And they want to make a pile of money while doing it.) The medium of gaming simply isn't there yet. It may never be, because of the subjective/objective split described above.

Developers need to use some discretion, have some empathy for people that are touched by what they create, and most of all, understand the raw power of their chosen medium. Just because you can do something doesn't meant you should.

NOTE: Whenever I post something like this, I get a load of commentators who send me emails or post comments saying that I'm some kind of drooling Jack Thompson-like censor. I do not believe in the power of the State to use force or the threat of force to control the freedom of expression. I do believe in citizens doing everything they can to make their voices and opinions heard. Game makers have every right to make what they like, but they have no implicit right to access to the marketplace. Citizens have every right to raise the roof and try to persuade people to deny the game makers access to the public marketplace. In other words, you may have a right to make something, but that doesn't mean Walmart has to sell it.


Drake Sigar said...

Since Jack Thompson is a raving loon and you put your argument across with fair rational points, no logical human could possibly make a comparison. Since one compromise tends to lead to another, many gamers are reluctant to give any ground at all. Personally I think it's crass and unprofessional to release games based on wars currently in progress.

Thomas L. McDonald said...

Thanks for compliment, and I think "crass and unprofessional" says in three words what I took a few hundred to say.

As for the Jack Thompson comparisons, I think I get them (in email, here, and at places like Maximum PC) because people read the begin, skim through middle, and miss the point I'm trying to make. Plus, modern media has encouraged this kind of binary good/bad for/against thinking.

Drake Sigar said...

Tell me about it, nowadays it seems like if you take the middle ground on practically any subject, both sides assume you're against them.

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