The Medal Of Honor controversy: a call for some common sense

The new Medal Of Honor game lets you play as the Taliban. It must, therefore, be banned, we’re told. Simon wonders how we’ve ended up here all over again…

If you’re getting a sense of déjà vu, then you’re not alone. It’s been nearly a year now since the furore erupted over the game Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, specifically a level where you accompanied terrorists through an airport, potentially mowing down innocent civilians.

This, if you remember, caused a media outcry. Primarily, it should be noted, from people who either hadn’t played the game, or had just watched a clip on YouTube. But nonetheless, out came the rent-a-quote politicians, the inevitable calls for a boycott followed, and the game went on to sell massive numbers.

What was lost in the midst of all of this, sadly, was any sense of an intelligent debate. Because I maintain that there was something that could have used being talked about there. But only by grown-ups.

The level in question required you to take action. You couldn’t go through it and not interact with it in some way. I remember playing it, and feeling horribly uneasy doing so. But then, I’d also suggest that that’s part of the argument. That I was supposed to feel uncomfortable, in a game that had been clearly labelled with adults-only ratings.

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The media, be it games, films, books or TV shows, has a skill at confronting us with things that we don’t like. And the argument that was lost a year ago was how far gaming could and should go with it.

After all, by the very nature that you interact with the material, and are involved in decisions that affect what happens on screen, a game has the ability to make you react in a way that another medium would struggle to match.

You know where all of this is going. Later this year, EA is rebooting the Medal Of Honor series, with an overhaul of the franchise that’s firmly positioning it next to Modern Warfare 2. So, the World War II setting of old, that nobody seemed too bothered about (that you’re allowed to realistically shoot people from a previous conflict is probably closer to the nub of the argument than many would admit), is being left behind, and instead Medal Of Honor is going to be set in Afghanistan. Specifically, there’s a segment of the game where you play as the Taliban. And this has already caused a degree of uproar.

Before we get to that, let’s try and dig into exactly what the appropriate segment of the game has you doing. The opportunity to play as Taliban forces arises in the multiplayer part of the game, and said troops can gun down coalition soldiers. This isn’t part of the main game narrative, as the multiplayer mode is in this case, I understand, one side versus another. I should be clear: I’ve not played the game, and thus can’t comment on how it all works in context.

That does mean I’ve something in common with some of the game’s critics, however.

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The one generating the headlines in the UK is Dr Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, who called for retailers to ban the game. He told the Sunday Times that “It’s shocking that someone would think it acceptable to recreate the acts of the Taliban. At the hands of the Taliban, children have lost fathers and wives have lost husbands. I am disgusted and angry. It’s hard to believe any citizen of our country would wish to buy such a thoroughly un-British game. I would urge retailers to show their support for our armed forces and ban this tasteless product.”

Since his words were published, it’s been made clear that there are no British troops in the game, and also that Dr Fox was not speaking on behalf of the government, and instead was offering his personal opinion.

EA, meanwhile, has defended Medal Of Honor, arguing that “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. Nobody who plays video games is going to be shocked or surprised by this. Most of us have been doing this since we were seven: someone plays the cop, someone must be robber.”

All that considered, can I just say it? This might not be a popular view, but the idea of playing as the Taliban in the new Medal Of Honor game does, in principle, make me feel a little uneasy. I can’t pretend otherwise.

I won’t know for sure how that pans out in reality until I play the game, but I do think there is a debate worth having here. I’d also argue that, for all of the unrest aimed at Modern Warfare 2 last year, there was a narrative reason for the level concerned, whether you agree with it or not. The Taliban segment of Medal Of Honor doesn’t appear to have that.

That said, the predictable knee-jerk response is as depressing as it is expected. Dr Fox wants us to support our armed forces by refusing to buy a game? That doesn’t strike me as a tangible way to support them. Buying a poppy, maybe, that would make sense, or simply saying thank you to a soldier if seen walking down the street. But boycotting a videogame? Can we not get real about all of this?

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The notion that the game should be banned is also quite ridiculous. Medal Of Honor is not sitting next to Tetris on the shelves, or with the Shrek games. It’s an 18-rated game, aimed at grown-ups. Will it slip into the hands of people younger than 18? Absolutely. But that, in itself, isn’t an issue for the people who make it, rather the supply chain that gets the game to disc tray of a youngster’s console.

That’s not the key point here, though. Instead, we’re back to wielding the ban hammer because the content of something makes us feel uncomfortable. What next? Outrage whenever Rambo III is screened on the telly? Calling for the banning of a book that tries to contextualise another side of a conflict? Haranguing Clint Eastwood for making Letters From Iwo Jima? Calling for a ban when anyone makes any kind of entertainment product out of something where a human being has been killed?

I’m not suggesting that Medal Of Honor is an exact parallel with all of those examples, but it sets a worrying precedent when a ban is called for by people who haven’t actually even bothered to check the game out. That’s crucial, surely, to a healthy argument.

Also, I come back to a point I thought was salient last year, and feel it more strongly now. And it’s this: I do believe that games should be very realistic. I do believe that it’s right that people are given comprehension of what damage a bullet can do. I think that’s a far more realistic way to go about life than having magic bullets that pretty much bounce off people’s torsos. It continues to strike me as bizarre that, as a society, we appear far more scared of confronting realism than we are of criticising the cartoon, bloodless violence that many media forms have championed.

Which, in the long run, is really the scariest?

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Back to Medal Of Honor, then. It’s a game that’s generating discussion, and that can’t be a bad thing. It’s leading some to intelligently question if modern day, ongoing conflicts should be the context for a piece of entertainment (although few seem to mind a strong film such as The Hurt Locker, given that it approaches its story in a more socially acceptable direction).

And it’s, sadly, leading to the usual knee-jerks on both sides of the debate. For every MP or high-ranking official who spouts out ill-informed, reactive comment, there are message boards full of people berating them and hurling abuse in their direction, when there might actually have been the guts of an argument in what they had to say. Nobody really comes out of it well.

Personally, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what EA has managed to do with Medal Of Honor this time around, and hoping that it’s put the franchise back on the right footing. Furthermore, I’m curious as to how the Taliban sequences work, and whether there are questions to be answered.

I’d just like to find out for myself and base my thoughts on actually playing the game, rather than going down the usual flowchart of outrage and derision. Given that no retailer is ceding to Dr Fox’s call for a ban, it seems I’ll actually have a chance to do that.