Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Virtual War Crimes

Wont as I am for a little computer-generated combat, I have found the recent debate about the upcoming Medal of Honor game fascinating. For those of you insufficiently steeped in nerdy lore, the Medal of Honor franchise is a highly successful series of First Person Shooter (FPS - i.e. "shooting people" games) which traditionally have been set in the Second World War period. This year sees MOH's first foray into the modern world, following in the footsteps of Call of Duty. The main difference is that while COD placed you in a series of fictitious modern theatres, where you fought non-descript Muslim terrorists (who could have come from Morocco or Xinjiang or anywhere in between) or stereotypical Russian ultra-nationalists (ULTRA!), MOH is set very much in the real world, taking place in the Afghanistan of, well, right now.

A furore has arisen over the fact that, while you fight against the Taliban in the single player game, in the online multiplayer you can take on the role of the martyrs fighting against Zionist-Crusader incursions. Needless to say, Fox have gone mad, claiming that this is the worst thing since that Mosque of solid gold that Osama Bin Laden is personally building at Ground Zero. While I am not claiming to reach Fox's level of self-righteousness, I will admit that something makes me slightly uneasy about the new MOH.

This has very little to do with the ability to kill your friends as you play at being a terrorist. Rather, it has to do with having fun by aping the dangers and fear experienced by real-life US troops in Afghanistan today. For the real young men and women out on the ground, each assault on a compound, each firefight in a rocky ravine, represents more than a simple opportunity for excitement. There are no checkpoints, where you can start again if things go wrong.

The current conflict is perhaps too close, too current, to become entertainment - and it begs the question, when can a war, a battle, real incidents of human suffering, be recreated as a game - and can it ever be done respectfully?

Don't get me wrong - I am no online hippy. Only last night, I trundled through the forests of Kharkov, commanding a T-34 in the virtual summer of 1942. But while I greatly enjoy "Steel Fury", I felt a twinge of guilt as my treads crushed a German AT gunner, and my unease grew as I machine-gunned his comrades as they fled. I couldn't help but think that real Germans were crushed, and actually shot in the back, in the real Battle of Kharkov. But I still enjoyed the game. For the glory of the rodina!

But how about this: do the moral goalposts change when I tell you that you can fight on the German side in Steel Fury, crushing Soviet soldiers and machine-gunning Bolsheviks as they run from a trench? Is it acceptable to play as the good guy (Yay Stalinism!) but not as the bad guys? I actually know of US simulator fans who will never fly with the Luftwaffe, or pilot a virtual MiG over Vietnam, because they cannot take on the role of their country's enemy. Insane levels of Yankee-doodle-dandyism, or legitimate expression of respect for US sacrifices in those wars?

Ironically, it is actually the more sombre titles, the simulations that are truly respectful of their subject content, which pose the more difficult challenges to my sensibilities. The violence of Call of Duty, which places you in Kerblapistan, taking on a horde of RPG-toting foreigners, is clearly pantomime. But the strategic, historically-accurate hunting in the uber-geeky Silent Hunter series, where you can stalk Allied Convoys as a U-Boat Commander, or Japanese ships as a US Fleet-boat skipper -  that's a different story.

After all, when you come across a pod of Japanese sampans in the Java Sea, the game lets you sink them. They may be unarmed, practically made of matchsticks, and crewed by local peasants - but that's war. And that's what real US subs had to do, subs that were crewed by decent young men who were fighting for a democratic power. You get the credit for your kills, as you leave the burning wood to slowly slip beneath the tropical seas.

It is distance that is the key, both physical and historical. No one feels guilty for nuking your enemy's capital in Civilisation IV - millions died, but I never saw them on screen. Besides, in real life, the Byzantines were never actually nuked by the Celts. But could I take command of an Apache in Combat Helo, with scenes eerily reminiscent of THAT video playing out on my screen? Could I play as an Argentine Skyhawk pilot, and sink a virtual HMS Coventry in the upcoming Jet Thunder Falklands war sim?

Yes, yes I could. I do feel guilty about it - but playing these sims is in part an expression of my interest in history and international affair, and of wanting to know more about the Falklands war, more about what is going on in Iraq. All I can hope is that video game designers always aim to get across the horror of war, and help stir within the player a sense of respect (and sadness) for those who actually see combat, for the civilians whose lives and homes are destroyed, and for those who never come home. After all, we can have anti-war films and books which have some of the most stirring, exciting and dramatic combat sequences imaginable - why can't games do the same?

P.S. Interesting take on MOH by serving US personnel here.

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