On October 12, Electronic Arts (EA) will release the latest Medal of Honor for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC. This decade-old videogame franchise is making a huge departure – its previous versions have all been in World War II. This time, it's Afghanistan, and that means conflict. But not quite like you expected, because this time - you can play as Taliban.
The stunningly realistic videogame has drawn fire for being, well, realistic. Turns out that war isn't one-dimensional, and it isn't one-sided. EA made the controversial decision to allow players to take on the role of Taliban fighters, which--unsurprisingly--has upset many Americans, particularly families of those killed in the battles. The Tier 1 operators the game centres around are considered to be the topmost of their various military branches. EA claims that of the two million American military personnel, there are only a few hundred Tier 1 operators. They have tremendous latitude and scope. If you see one, you're already dead? Yeah, that's these guys. (Canada's JTF-2 is the only foreign unit accepted into Tier 1 operations in Afghanistan – yay us!)
In their quest to be as accurate as possible, EA worked very closely with real Tier 1s, which was probably a little intimidating. It's not said whether they worked with the Taliban, like Konami enlisting the help of Iraqi insurgents to create Six Days in Fallujah (which was axed within days of its announcement – wouldn't want to present a fully-rounded picture now). But they've certainly stirred up a hornet's nest of opposition, with the help (of course) of Fox News. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service has banned the game from sale in its more than 3,100 facilities worldwide in more than 30 countries.
EA's perspective is expressed in no uncertain terms by Amanda Taggart, senior PR manager in an interview with AOL: "The format of the new Medal of Honor game merely reflects the fact that every conflict has two sides. We give gamers the opportunity to play both sides" she continues, "[m]ost of us having been doing this since we were seven – 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."
I like that she's right to the point and refreshingly honest, especially for a PR manager. That's unusually frank, and in today's mealy-mouthed corporate statement world, even admirable. But not accurate. In most videogames, you're playing the computer and its template of strategies. There doesn't have to be a person playing the opposition. The lack of choice makes it easier and less morally dubious. After all, you should take pains to avoid any moral dimension when creating entertainment that involves brutally murdering others. That's just wrong. Medal of Honor changes the game, literally, by giving you the option to become the enemy. (Some thoughts on where the Taliban came from in the first place.)
The key issue here, ultimately, is that the people who are portrayed and the people who are concerned, are alive right now, or killed recently enough that we still care. Just like the not-mosque at not-Ground-Zero, the rawness of the wound is what makes us hurt more. In war, it's a necessary belief that the opposition is one-dimensional and without humanity. Those angry Muslims yelling "Death to Amreeka" don't see Americans as fully fledged caring loving people – they can't reconcile that with their daily reality of the boots on their necks.
Give it a few years, and playing the Taliban in Medal of Honor will be just like playing the Nazis, the Japanese, or anybody else who used to be our enemies in other multiplayer games. We entertain ourselves with books and films on current conflict, so why not video games? The difference here is that you get to play a current enemy, think like a current enemy, and be a current enemy. We can't risk acknowledging the enemy has a perspective and humanity too.
In response to the criticism, EA is releasing a four-day open beta of Medal of Honor on October 4th, so you can check out the multiplayer Taliban option. Are you a gamer? Please check it out and let us know what you think in the comments below.
Watch the trailer below (click here if you have trouble with the embedded video)...
...now question why we entertain ourselves the way we do.