(Bonus points if you can name the episode of South Park the title references.)
First person shooters just can’t catch a break when it comes to the issue of realism. First, the most recent Operation Flashpoint sucked, and now the newest Medal of Honor is coming under fire for being based not just in a realistic setting (The Afghan War) but also for letting players play as the Taliban in multiplayer.
Honestly, I don’t know why EA didn’t see this coming. Did they not remember the lambasting that Six Days in Fallujah received when it was nearing its release? And to my knowledge that one didn’t even give you the option of shooting up American soldiers as Medal of Honor does. EA should have known from the get go that they were courting controversy, and hey, maybe that was their intention.
The market is pretty well flooded with first person shooters right now, and those of the “modern warfare” variety are a dime in a dozen. Chances are that had the multiplayer set up competitions between “Generic Army A” and “Generic Army B” like most others it would have flown right under the radar of the gaming community. By making it an interactive bout between American soldiers and the Taliban however, the game has been drawn front and center into the consciousness of the industry. You can bet that for every person turned off by the prospect of pumping US soldiers full of lead, there’s going to be five more made curious by the possibility.
Which isn’t to say that’s right. It does strike as a bit morbid. One could literally be playing this game, pop on CNN between matches and read up on the latest death toll in the war they’re simulating. From this angle I can see where some people, especially those who have lost loved ones or still have some overseas could be made a bit uncomfortable. It might be fair to say that this is a bit tasteless on EA’s part. Especially since unlike Six Days in Fallujah which was made to convey the experience of that battle as realistically as possible, Medal of Honor seems more to be just borrowing the setting for its own purposes.
Then again, that is their right and this wouldn’t be the first shooter to ever be based realistically on a real life war. The Medal of Honor series cut its teeth on imitating World War 2. And while some might make the argument that there is a difference between making games about wars past and wars current, I imagine there are some WW2 veterans out there who would feel differently. Imagine how a survivor of D-Day might feel watching a gamer gleefully play through a recreating of the Normandy landings?
Moreover, video games are not the first medium to offer portrayals of wars as they are happening. World War 2 era film is filled to the brim with films based in the war itself. Even Donald Duck got in on the propaganda game. The Iraq War produced an Oscar winner in The Hurt Locker. Where were the Gold Star moms when that was reminding soldiers and their families of the dangers overseas?
One could argue that the difference is interactivity, and moreover that you’re given the option of playing against American soldiers, but even in the Modern Warfare subgenre this is nothing new. Did anyone have any misconceptions that you’re multiplayer opponents in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Battlefield: Bad Company were supposed to occasionally represent Americans? The only difference here is that you’re openly playing as the Taliban.
How much of a difference would it really make if the names were changed? If the visuals were switched around? An American by any other name is an American and the Taliban is still the Taliban no matter what you call them.