Games that try to highlight current conflicts through games should be appreciated as legetimate attempts at artistic vision, but unfortunately such attempts have rarely been met with joy and open arms, more often the opposite, i.e. exasperated criticism and closed minds. This is unfortunate – games have a unique capacity to depict contemporary conflicts through interactivity, potentially evoking a greater response from players than if they were to read news articles on the same topic. For example, this survey suggests that half of all gamers consider moral and ethical questions during gaming. In the following, I’ll go through three examples of recent games that all received quite similar criticism for their settings at the time of their announcement, and then attempt to unveil the reasons for why games seem to be banned from portraying the current state of the world.
The first game on the line is the Medal of Honor reboot from 2010. Medal of Honor takes place in the mountains of Afghanistan during the 2001 invasion and Operation Anaconda in March 2002, and as in any Medal of Honor or Call of Duty game, the player observes this conflict through several soldiers’ eyes. The sheer audacity of setting a game during a war that was still being fought was apt to elicit criticism; however, that wasn’t the sole reason for the criticism MoH received. Instead, the game was criticized for having a multiplayer section in which the player could choose to play as a Taliban fighter. From British Defense Secretary Liam Foxto Eurogamer’s Dan Whitehead the decision was met with anger and cautious disgust respectively. The end result was that EA, the game’s publisher, decided to remove the word “Taliban” from the multiplayer section, and instead call them the “Opposing Force”.While it didn’t cause the US Army, who had said that they would not be selling the game at army bases, to pull back their criticism of the game, it did seem to end the discussion, although instead it angered some gamers who did not support EA’s sudden decision.
Before the Medal of Honor incident, there had been a somewhat similar case regarding a game named Six Days in Fallujah. It was under development by Atomic Games, slated to be published by Konami, and was about the second battle of Fallujah in 2004, where US soldiers encountered some of the toughest fighting in the Iraq War, sustaining nearly 500 killed and wounded. While Atomic Games were working on different projects, they were approached by some veterans of the battle, who wished that their experiences there should be conveyed through a video game, rather than more conventional mediums, and the developers described the game as being more about “survival-horror” than pure action as seen in other first-person shooters. Like Medal of Honor, Six Days in Fallujah was harshly criticized straight after its announcement, by veterans and their relatives, stating that it was too early to portray the war, and one even called for a worldwide ban on the game. Subsequently, Konami pulled out of their position as publisher leaving the game hanging in limbo, and Atomic Games have evidently abandoned it releasing the mediocre Breach in the meantime.
Lastly, and most recently, there’s Call of Juarez: The Cartel, the latest iteration in the Call of Juarez series, by Polish developer Techland, set in contemporary Mexico. More specifically, as the title implies, in Ciudad Juarez, a city plagued by sky-high murder rates, as over 2000 people were murdered in 2009, making the city the unofficial “murder capital of the world”. The staggering amount of murders is caused by internal strife between rivaling drug cartels. Call of Juarez: The Cartel, slated to be released on July 18, centers on this conflict, putting the player in the shoes of some seemingly unconventional law enforcement agents. As in the other cases, The Cartel was almost instantly criticized for its setting, with former mayor Reyes-Ferriz stating that the situation is “…not something to be made light of” and that “It’s something that demeans our city”, and again there were people calling for a ban. In addition, in both Mexico and the US the game was purported to have negative ramifications on children and young people, claiming that they might cause them to want to join gangs in response to what they see on screen.
Now it is evident that several similarities in the criticisms. Firstly, and most importantly, video games are seen as pure entertainment, rather than having the possibility of achieving the brand of “art”, or at least just to be placed side by side with other forms of expression, even if it is on Michael Bay-level. Secondly, several of the people speaking out state that they wish to ban the game, effectively wishing to perform censorship. Thirdly, they state that it’s too soon to deal with these conflicts in a video game format. But why can films easily get away with some, at times, not exactly respectful depictions of contemporary conflicts?
If we move into the world of films, there have been created some notable movies about these conflicts in recent years. For example Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which features drug lords and political assassinations, or The Men Who Stare at Goats, which takes place during the Iraq War, where the main characters even drive on an IED, a method of warfare that has killed countless soldiers. The serious topics may be peripheral in the stories, but they are still actively used and made fun of. They’re satirical. And from what I’ve seen of The Cartel so far, it seems to go more in a satirical direction, rather than having an entirely high-brow viewpoint on the conflict. Then why does it and not the similar films get criticized for dealing too lightly with the subject? As Blazej Krakowiak of Techland said at a preview showing, “We’re not crossing any lines that aren’t crossed by other media. It’s not like we’re jumping onto controversy here.”
Games represent a vast leap from passive mediums, like films and books, as the player is in control of the actions. You, the player, consciously takes the decision to blast Pedro or Abdullah’s brains out, or, perhaps more relevant, Bob’s. For when the player is put in the shoes of one of the bad guys, it can easily appear to a non-gamer that this is purely for laughs, especially so when the game tries to attain a more serious tone. In the cinema, the audience can despise the actions of a character on screen, but that changes when you are in control of said character. This is also supported by Atomic Games President Peter Tamte, who claims that “…when you make the decision yourself, then you get a much deeper level of understanding”. Does interactivity suddenly mean that anyone who plays as the insurgents in Fallujah is suddenly a sympathizer with their motives? Of course not, rather it shows a wish for greater maturity in games,as conflicts in most other mediums may be shown from both sides, just like Tamte stated Six Days in Fallujah aimed to do.
The trouble with terminology
As the noun for our medium implies, games are clearly associated with playing. Even though games have come a long way from Pong to Six Days in Fallujah, a lot of the critics of the medium seem to be stuck in the past, however glorious it may have been, where the ultimate goal may have been little else than getting the highest score, and all the pretty colors and shapes merely existed to draw you in. At the dawn of gaming, games were more competitive and results-based, whereas the games of the present, to a greater degree, are experience-based. With story-driven games, the scoreboards dropped out of existence (this, of course, has been an evolution), and they mostly remain in arcade-like games. But the misunderstanding that the aforementioned games are purely for play and entertainment still prevails. They are said to be “trivializing” the conflict, reducing it to a hunt for points.
Not for children
Another reason is that these games are claimed by critics of the industry to be intended and designed for children, and that bans may be necessary. What the critics fail to see is that whether or not children are exposed to the violence in the games is solely a parental problem, and if they are not capable of caring properly for their children, a state problem. The “think of the children” argument against video games is used extensively by critics, and there must be a limit to how much it can prevent adults from experiencing possible new narrative forms, and see that the industry might be mature enough to handle contemporary conflicts. Including violence in such games appears necessary, as war in its nature is quite violent. The “think of the children” argument was used in particular about The Cartel, as people feared that children and youths would begin to join gangs after being exposed to the game. The critics seem to negate the player controls a law enforcement agent, not a member of a cartel, meaning that game could just easily sway the gamer away from joining a gang. After all, the message “If you join a gang, you will be filled with lead” could be fairly resounding. Naturally, until the game is actually released, we can only speculate where the deeper aspects of the story might lead us.
Maybe a shooter isn’t the way to go
There’s no doubt that the up-front violence and aforementioned interactivity has an adverse effect on any uninvolved spectators. As such, first-person shooters may not be the way to go if we wish to portray modern conflicts. Medal of Honor might on the surface be claimed to be a tribute to the soldiers, but underneath it’s little else than a “simple” shooter. None of the games mentioned in this article have given or will likely give us an entirely accurate portrayal of the conflict, because ultimately they are “mere” entertainment This isn’t documentarism after all, so perhaps we need to explore other genres to portray these conflicts. The same feelings Atomic Games were trying to evoke in the player could also be evoked if the player, instead of holding a gun in his hands, held, for instance, a camera, and in his role as a photojournalist put his life at risk trying to depict the conflict. A bit like the Global Conflicts games, but more fluid and hectic. Having the player controlling a gun seems like a cookie-cutter way of doing it, when in actuality there are limitless ways of portraying modern conflicts. The entire first-person perspective is dominated by FPSs (at least in mainstream gaming), and that is deeply unfortunate as the first-person perspective seems ideal to explore issues such as contemporary conflicts.
In the end, you might wonder: “Why? Why should the games bother trying to depict modern conflicts?” Well, for the same reasons as any other artistic form of expression should. That is, for instance, to show the emotional effect of the brutality of war on all sides in warfare, a concept that undeniably has shaped our species. That games wish to delve into these territories, without having to feel shamed into using pseudonyms or devise fictional conflicts, is a sign of a wish for maturity that must be nourished.