Now, I write this blog for some specific reasons, one being I want to get better at relaying my thoughts and also to learn to be a better writer. Both of which I feel I didn't do so well the other day when talking about how EA took the Taliban out of the new MEdal of Honor game.
In reading an editorial on IGN about the same thing, I feel this chap was able to express his thoughts far better than I. Mind you, he used quite a few big words, many I feel unnecessarily, but in the end we all knew where he stood. Here is the article:
Do you know who the Taliban are? The group that overthrew the Islamic State of Afghanistan appeared mysteriously in the southern part of the country in the middle of the last decade, the product of Gulf Arab support, Pakistani interest in forming a counterweight to Indian power, and a conviction to death in the severest interpretations of the Qur'an.
When adherents to this political identity controlled the government music was outlawed along with alcohol and tobacco. Women were raped and maimed in punishment for resisting arranged marriages, or for showing more than their eyes in public. The economy suffocated as the country took a closed and hostile stance to most Western investors, many of whom were already committed to harsh sanctions. They also welcomed a small network of Arab militants, a nationless band of suicidal brats called Al Qaeda. It was in Afghanistan that the plans for the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Towers, the Pentagon, and the White House were created and ordered.
If you knew all that already, you might still notice how many questions it leaves unanswered. Who were the Taliban? Who are they now? What is the difference between a Talib and a grape farmer with a strict interpretation of his religion and a strong dislike for the American army? Who do you shoot and who do you help get a farm subsidy? Whatever opinion you take on the United States' decision to invade the country in 2001, it's hard to deny the shape and character of the subsequent nine years have been defined by those still unanswerable questions.
The real offense is a suspicion that the game will be tied to the cheap thrills of a multiplayer adrenaline bonanza that has as little to do with Afghanistan as space marines have to do with cosmology.
Today EA and Danger Close announced they have relabeled the Taliban as "Opposing Force" in the multiplayer menus of Medal of Honor. "While this change should not directly affect gamers, as it does not fundamentally alter the gameplay," Greg Goodrich of Danger Close wrote in a statement, "we are making this change for the men and women serving in the military and for the families of those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice - this franchise will never willfully disrespect, intentionally or otherwise, your memory and service."
What's lacking in Goodrich's statement, and also in the attacks made against the game by people who've lost family members in Afghanistan, is an explanation of why using the word "Taliban" is not respectful. The weak spot is not in the word, nor in a game attempting to dramatically recreate one of the defining efforts of the century so far. The real offense is a suspicion that the game will be tied to the cheap thrills of a multiplayer adrenaline bonanza that has as little to do with Afghanistan as space marines have to do with cosmology.
I pressed Goodrich about this issue when I spoke to him at E3, asking how you can be respectful to the realities of an experience while making a game with a competitive multiplayer mode carved out of the bubblegum strategery of DICE's Bad Company series.
"We're making an experience for gamers," he told me. "There's a constant tension between telling a rich story, doing it with honor and respect. But again, you have to balance that with the game, and we're setting out to make a great game. If you don't make a great game, the player's going to set the controller down and walk away."
The game will still be set in Afghanistan, will still use convincing character models for Taliban, and will still allow soft-handed suburban consumers (like me) to extract some new sense of self-satisfaction at being able to experience quick and easy victories in a conflict where we well know that such an end is impossible.
It's not the tasteless part that's removed when "Taliban" is taken out of the matchmaking menu. I have not played the final game, but based on my experience with the beta, it's the multiplayer gameplay itself that most trivialized the irresolvable difficulties of the real world experience for a few laughs and some virtual ego-stroking. I don't have any major objection to that. It's tawdry and exploitative, but I don't think it's a great sin to consume tawdry and exploitive expression. We can survive exposure to a multiplicity of perspectives and still make our own personal choices.
What is less defensible is the dishonesty about what the game's conflicting intentions are. "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle," George Orwell wrote, describing the rhetorical schizophrenia of saying you believe in one thing while your actions demonstrate the opposite belief. If respecting the soldiers was paramount to Danger Close and DICE I'd think they'd have chosen to not make a multiplayer mode at all. And maybe they'd have done more with the single player experience than constantly press against the adrenal white line of killing another soldier in a long exasperated thread leading to a barely averted catastrophe.
Those design decisions were theirs, and they've made their choices, in good taste and bad. What deserves shame is that they've now lost the courage to name what they've done. It was their choice to look to Afghanistan and cull a game experience from it. And now when they are being called to the podium to defend the taste of their game and its setting, they demure under the cover of "respect." It's not respectful to take away the identity of the people whose deaths you've recreated in graphic detail. It's not respectful to encourage players to depersonalize conflict to the point of anonymity. And it's not respectful to those who've worked on the game in the attempt to take on the difficult questions about fun, theme, and whether the market will respond to a title that doesn't constantly tickle their "win" button.
EA has ducked this hard question for nothing more ignoble than preserving the reputation of their game from incoherent public attacks. They've made a concession to further obscure the connection between their game's theme, setting, and gameplay design. They've saved their own skins and said it was for the benefit of someone else. If that's respect, then words have no meaning. And the Opposing Forces in our own culture have made us afraid even to utter a name, one that remains too much a stranger.
Truth be told, I don't really know who the Taliban are besides Muslim extremists, and even that idea may be wrong. I do know that they are painted as "the bad guy". From the sounds of what this guy said, they deserve that title. While some of the things he mentions I do not agree with, such as his multiplayer comment, the heart of the idea is there for me. First off, if you were concerned about respect, why make a game about such a sensitive subject in the first place? The Taliban are still in the game, they are only removed from the multiplayer portion of the game. The game will have a true to life environment, with all the blood, guts, gore and violence supposedly prevalent in that part of the world.
It's all about money. It's a business and all they care about is making money. Can't fault them, really, it is what drives this world. But to hide behind the term "out of respect" is absolutely ridiculous. I'm glad they decided to take them out, they did take it a little far and crossed the line of respect, but doesn't this game in general do that anyway? A player will shoot a "muslim-like" character with a different name floating over his head. Hrm...
I am still glad they took the name out, as it's the start of developers possibly getting what they are doing may be offensive. We can't pussy foot around any, there will always be someone who will be offended. But there is a line that goes past the boundaries of taste, and EA with their Call of Duty series, in many people's minds, have done just that.
I don't want to sound like a censor or an old fart. There are lots of things in this world that are produced that can be considered without taste. There are people who think this very blog steps out of line from time to time. It is all about choice now. These tasteless games, movies, etc. provide a choice, and if you want to buy them, watch them, play them, or whatever, the choice is yours. I choose not to play Call of Duty, and I share my opinion on that. If you or someone else chooses to play, then that is their choice and so long as it doesn't affect someone else's life, then to me, it's ok.
The choice to put the Taliban in that game affected many people's lives. To me, that's not ok.