EA's upcoming "Medal of Honor" shooter series reboot lets gamers play as allied or oppositional forces in a contemporary war theater. The allies in this case are U.S. Army Rangers. The theater is Afghanistan. And so the opposition, not surprisingly, is the Taliban.
That's not sitting well with some. The trouble stems not from the Taliban's inclusion in the game, but EA's decision to let you play as them in online multiplayer dustups. In essence, critics imply that it's okay for one side to shoot the other on ideological or moral grounds, but say that it's "disrespectful" to allow players to play as the enemy — in this case, the Taliban —and shoot back.
The "controversy" probably would've ducked press coverage, but for Karen Meredith, the mother of a fallen soldier whose knowledge of EA's game extends to a Fox News headline ("Video Game Lets You Be the Taliban"). In a Fox News interview, Meredith decried EA's game, arguing that:
"War is not a game, period, and the fact that they've already done games about World War II, that's far removed from our current history. And people aren't dying in World War II anymore, that's far removed. The families...it's not based on real people." (Note: This is inaccurate. The critically lauded "Brothers in Arms" WW2 first-person shooter series is based on dozens of specific individuals.)
"Right now we're going into a really, really bad time in Afghanistan and we've just come off of the worst month of casualties in the whole war and this game is going to be released in October," said Meredith. "So families who are burying their children are going to be seeing this and playing this game. I just don't see that a video game based on a current war makes any sense at all. It's disrespectful."
"My son didn't get to start over when he was killed. His life is over, and I have to deal with this every day...it's just not a game."
EA's response was unequivocal. The company argues "Medal of Honor" gives gamers the opportunity to play both sides, something it says gamers have been doing since they were children.
EA PR representative Amanda Taggart told AOL News, "Most of us having been doing this since we were 7. If someone's the cop, someone's gotta be the robber, someone's gotta be the pirate and someone's gotta be the alien.
"In 'Medal of Honor' multiplayer, someone's gotta be the Taliban."
"Medal of Honor" developer DICE addressed concerns about playing as the Taliban back in July.
"I think it is a fair point," producer Patrick Liu told PSM3 magazine. "We do stir up some feelings, although it's not about the war, it's about the soldiers."
"We can't get away from what the setting is and who the factions are, but in the end, it's a game, so we're not pushing or provoking too hard."
"Medal of Honor" isn't the first game set in Afghanistan, either.
While it models conflict periods set during the 1980s, Battlefront's "Combat Mission: Afghanistan" allows players to fight as Soviet or Democratic Republic of Afghanistan Army units as well as mujahideen guerrilla forces. Players on the game's message board have already expressed interest in more contemporary Afghanistan war mods.
Another real-time tactics game, "Men of War," has already been modified to allow combat in modern Afghanistan.
For the record,I was pretty disgusted with Activision's "No Russian" level in "Modern Warfare 2." Not because of the violence, or that you were in effect playing as a terrorist, but because of Infinity Ward's brain-dead design approach, robbing you of meaningful choices and forcing you to walk through a scenario that amounted to morbid, deterministic voyeurism.
But letting gamers play as the opposition in a war-themed game (very) loosely modeled after a current conflict? Where the soldiers and specific conflict situations are wholly fabricated? Depending on how the gameplay's handled — we won't know until we see it in action, but assuming battle parameters are reasonably authentic — it's disrespectful not to see it through with both sides accessible as optional to play.
Games drawn from contemporary conflicts shouldn't be comfortable affairs, and I don't buy for a second the profoundly lame argument that history insulates us from "older conflicts." It certainly shouldn't.
It's impossible to say whether "Medal of Honor" can find the right balance — for all I know, it could turn out to be an unmitigated disaster — but when it comes to dealing honestly with this kind of conflict, anything less than dual-sided playability strikes me as jingoistic whitewashing.
And I'm infinitely more uncomfortable with that than I am the thought of a virtual Taliban player casually firing at a virtual U.S. Army Ranger.