The Chinook lands in a whirlwind of dust. A team of bearded, Ray-Banned Special Forces warriors sprint into a ramshackle town, weapons at the ready. We're in Afghanistan in the thick of the Taliban insurgency, and as we wave our H&K MP7s, we're wary of insurgents driving wildly in pickup trucks, trying to kill us before we kill them.
This is the hyper-violent, dust-mote-detailed world of Medal of Honor, a new video game set slap bang in the middle of the war on terror and due for release in October. It has a multiplayer function that allows you to join as the tattooed heroes of the Tier 1 Special Forces unit, or to don a virtual keffiyah and kick NATO butt as a member of the Taliban.
The game, in particular the I'm-A-Talib function, has sparked a Silicon Valley controversy, with big implications for Canadians jittery at the links between a faraway war and the new, homegrown terrorist threat bubbling in our nation's capital.
I find it wrong to have anyone, children in particular, playing the role of the Taliban. I'm sure most Canadians are uncomfortable and angry about this. Defence Minister Peter MacKay
Since Pong first dropped, we've been warned that video games will deep-fry our brains and rot our morals. ( Grand Theft Auto has, after all, alerted us to the fine art of beating on hookers.) But games and war have forever been linked. And Medal of Honor, like so many current battlefield video games, may provide insights into the Afghan conflict that we'd otherwise be blind to.
The controversy erupted this week, when publisher and developer Electronic Arts, a U.S.-based company with offices in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Montreal, came under fire from Fox News for its heavily hyped title.
The station interviewed the grieving mother of a dead soldier, who very reasonably insisted that the war in Afghanistan is not a game, a fact her son's death irrevocably proves.
Her sentiment is shared by defence ministers the world over, including our own Peter MacKay, who blasted the game this week.
"The men and women of the Canadian Forces, our allies, aid workers and innocent Afghans are being shot at, and sometimes killed, by the Taliban. This is reality," Mr. MacKay's statement said. "I find it wrong to have anyone, children in particular, playing the role of the Taliban. I'm sure most Canadians are uncomfortable and angry about this."
But, as everyone engaged in this debate knows, Medal of Honor detractors are butting up against freedom of speech laws. What's more, the argument against Medal depends on the assumption that those playing as Taliban will identify with the insurgents' point of view, thus legitimizing it.
Unsurprisingly, that's not a position Electronic Arts agrees with. "Most of us have been doing this since we were seven," says the company's PR manager, Amanda Taggart. "Someone's gotta be the cop, and someone's gotta be the robber."
Speaking from the position of a frequent playground ersatz robber, I can confirm that role-playing doesn't necessarily imply empathy and attachment. There is, after all, no appreciable evidence suggesting that children who play Indians are likely to grow up as advocates for Indians' rights.
During World War II, British kids played at Jerries in blitzed-out London neighbourhoods, processing fears that otherwise would have gone unarticulated. I've gamed with teenagers in Old Sana'a, Yemen, and Ramallah, in the West Bank, who see nothing wrong with playing the American hero in Counter-Strike, despite their rabidly anti-American views. As the academic and video game nut Ed Halter puts it, "Gametime and wartime have never been far removed. As long as humans have waged war, they've played at it."
The venerable Medal of Honor franchise is part of a long line of war-themed video games. The first iteration, released in 1999, had a Second World War theme and took cinematic cues from Saving Private Ryan and HBO's Band of Brothers, with artful lighting and an emphasis on veracity and research, all married to the wartime tribulations of square-jawed heroes.
The game's selling point, though, was its obsessive detail. The DreamWorks Interactive developers pored over maps and documents, and consulted with veterans, trying to render D-Day with blood-soaked verisimilitude. It felt, at the time (the graphics have since staled), as if the dust had been blown off the history books, and the Second World War was once again thrust into living rooms to be debated, lived.
The same OCD-like focus has been employed in the making of the Medal reboot. Real Tier 1 soldiers were brought in as contributors, and in the promotional material, they insist that the experience is as good as being there, minus the inconvenience of having your brains blown out.
"It's the human side that they're bringing to the soldier," says one Auto-Tuned Tier 1 warrior on the game's website, his voice and face disguised. "[They're]bringing back respect."
Perhaps. But some of us may find this close interaction with U.S. military operatives troubling, especially after viewing the Linkin Park music video/trailer, in which bearded, tattooed Tier 1 soldiers, along with members of the band, shoot their way through Anytown, Afghanistan. It hews uncomfortably close to a recruitment video. Indeed, despite all the supposed veracity, Medal of Honor is a stunningly rendered, awesomely bloody, gorgeously choreographed extended action sequence.
As disquieting as this may be, it's nothing new: Game developers and the military have long been bedfellows. There is the Kuma War series, whose tagline, "Stop watching the news and get in the game," suggests the pointlessness of sanitized mainstream news when Kuma takes you onto painstakingly re-created, gore-soaked battlefields.
For their part, the U.S. Marines have an 18-year history of creating games for recruitment and battlefield training purposes; their America's Army: Special Forces was so well-regarded that Hezbollah countered by developing its own version, called Special Force, heavily promoted in the ubiquitous gaming shops in south Beirut.
Military games, in one of those information-age ironies, have even been used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers back from battle.
When it comes to pop culture, however, one never knows where the line will be drawn. With military games, it was the recent Six Days in Fallujah. The game depicts, in detail, the 2004 campaign that claimed over 6,000 lives and transformed a once-flourishing city into a bloody parking lot. What outraged veterans' advocacy groups, such as the Gold Star Mothers Club, was not only the speed with which Fallujah became rock-'em sock-'em entertainment, but the fact that developers Atomic Games, in their quest for accuracy, used Iraqi insurgents as consultants on the project.
"We question how anyone can trivialize a war that continues to kill and maim members of the military and Iraqi civilians to this day," the Gold Star Mothers Club said in a statement. The game still hasn't made it to the shelves.
The question becomes one of ethics. Do enemy combatants deserve a say in the development of video games in which they play a starring role? Should they help make game developers rich?
But beyond these considerations, playing games is how we deal with war, how we conquer our subconscious terror of battle. Conversely, it is how we become better warriors. It doesn't help relatives of soldiers and civilians who have died at the hands of the Taliban. And it doesn't provide succour for Canadians who must once again consider the links between Afghanistan and the homegrown terror threat on their doorstep.
Richard Poplak is the author of The Sheikh's Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop Culture in the Muslim World.Report Typo/Error
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