Medal Of Honor, the forthcoming series restart from EA, was revealed in June by Eurogamer to allow players to play as the Taliban in multiplayer gaming. A tabloid sensation with young people being encouraged to join terrorist organisations? Perfectly normal online gaming that doesn't represent real life? Or simply awkward taste?
"It's a game."
In Dan Whitehead's strikingly heartfelt reaction to the multiplayer, he pointed out that this is a current conflict, with current victims.
"Watching virtual Coalition troops gunned down by insurgents in the ruins of Kabul, I felt more than a little weird, especially since a friend lost his brother in Afghanistan only a few weeks ago. This is a real war that is happening right now, real blood is being shed, and simulating that for fragfest fun while being rewarded for kill streaks... Well, there's just something a bit icky about that. In single-player, there can be a story that adds context and meaning to the carnage. In multiplayer, it's all just for fun."
I had the same thought today when watching the Call Of Duty: Black Ops trailer. The word "KILLSTREAK" on screen struck me - a predominantly single-player gamer - as something I'd be horrified to see during a game's SP campaign. Were I fighting angry aliens or rabid dinosaurs, then sure. But while I'm picking my way through insurgent teenagers, well, maybe I'm sentimental. So why isn't it horrifying in multiplayer?
But it is multiplayer, and the rules definitely are different there. You're not engaged in a narrative, and they're unlikely to be attempting any notion of recreating the horrors of war. You're in a respawning frag-fest of noise and homophobic slurs, where the colours of the uniform, and the colours of the skin, may as well be blue and red. Is it distasteful?
"I think it is a fair point."
began producer Patrick Liu, not responding to Eurogamer, but rather to PSM3 magazine (reported by ConnectedConsoles), when they put the question to them.
"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."
It's a tough response to interpret. Like Eurogamer, I've pulled the words "It's a game" from the sentence to paste at the top not out of context, but perhaps out of nuance. But it's odd to claim they cannot get away from the setting. They obviously can. There's no reason why the multiplayer couldn't feature coalition forces fighting genetically enhanced mutant vegetables. It would clearly be a rubbish alternative setting, but they could do it. It's odder still to claim they're not trying to push or provoke.
It's important to note that DICE are only responsible for the multiplayer, the SP campaign handled by EALA. But it's still a difficult claim to put in context, defending themselves by stating that it's only a game, a game not trying to push or provoke, when the publicity for the game has been embellished with boasts of real-world accuracy via being "developed in collaboration with U.S. Special Operations soldiers." In fact, if we look back to December 2009, the game's announcement underlined the significance of the setting. Executive producer Greg Goodrich said,
"When we first set out to reinvent Medal of Honor, we wanted to stay true to its roots of authenticity and respect for the soldier but bring it into today's war. The Tier 1 Operator is the most disciplined, deliberate and prepared warrior on the battlefield. He is a living, breathing, precision instrument of war. We are honored to have the rare opportunity to work closely with these men to create a game that shares their experience."
The VP and General Manager of EALA, Sean Decker, continued in the same vein.
"EA has always been an advocate for telling the soldiers' story. The new Medal of Honor follows that tradition. We felt it was important to tell the story of today's war and today's elite soldiers via today's most relevant medium – videogames."
Later Goodrich was quoted in a press release saying,
"Medal of Honor is an authentic look into today's war. Inspired by real people and real events, the game puts players in the boots of today's warrior - from the infantry ground pounder to the Tier 1 Operator. We are proud of this piece because it offers a glimpse into the game we're creating, while also showing the mindset of these warriors."
Which makes for an interesting debate, certainly. I don't know what I think. I know that when I play a game I rarely consider the private lives and backgrounds of the targets at which I'm shooting. Often times they may as well be those mutant vegetables. When a game pushes me to care (the most striking example I can think of is the original Call Of Duty) then that can change, and the experience becomes painted by that. However, get into multiplayer and I'm shooting at XK1LL3R-73, not the Germans, or the Taleban. I can't think of an MP game (although it's not necessarily my widest pool of experience) where the significance of the opposing side's avatar's ethnicity has had any impact upon me. Would it be different in this case? It certainly was for Eurogamer's Dan. I don't know what I'd feel.
So how about you? Are you comfortable with playing as the Taleban, fighting coalition soldiers? Or perhaps you think this provides an opportunity to take a non-partisan perspective of the conflict? Or does it offend you? Let us know below.