The latest installment in the Medal of Honor video game series, scheduled to be released by Electronic Arts next month, is set in Afghanistan and allows players to fight for the Taliban in the online version. That feature has attracted criticism from politicians such as British Defense Minister Liam Fox, who called the game "thoroughly un-British," and at least one mother of an American soldier killed in Afghanistan, who said it is "disrespectful" to base a game on an ongoing war. New York Times video game columnist Seth Schiesel has a pretty cogent response:
The outrage is surely genuine…and the discomfort understandable. But those reactions are based on a misunderstanding of what video games are.
First, it is important to understand the critical difference between a game's single-player and multiplayer modes. In a single-player campaign you are the protagonist of a particular story with its own narrative progression. In Medal of Honor's main single-player campaign, for example, the player takes the role of various United States soldiers, looking to kill Islamic bad guys and accomplish various tactical objectives along the way. If such a game's stories end in inevitable failure, no one is going to want to play them. And that is why almost every single-player game, Medal of Honor included, sets the player as the "good guy," in this case as a heroic American soldier.
If Medal of Honor let you play as the Taliban throughout an entire single-player campaign, then we would have a real controversy on our hands. Imagine the reaction to a game that included a mission where you were cooperating with Al Qaeda during the siege of Tora Bora and had to protect Osama bin Laden while spiriting him to safety.
That is not what is going on here. Medal of Honor allows you to play as the Taliban only during multiplayer matches. In such matches there is no story—and no presumption of success. And there is no sense of character development. The job is to match wits with the other humans on the other end of the Internet and defeat them through coordination, tactics and execution under pressure. The actual identities of the combatants are no more meaningful than the choice of black and white in a chess game. (The seminal multiplayer online game Counter-Strike, one of the most popular team-based combat simulators, sets its two sides as terrorists and counterterrorists, without any explicit political identification.)
So I see no reason or rationale to criticize Electronic Arts for remaining faithful to the actual conditions and reality of its game's setting.
Jeff Brown, the top spokesman for Electronic Arts, had it right when he told me this week: "Multiplayer is built on the same dynamic that ruled the cops-and-robbers game we played in our parents' backyard. Someone is the good guy. Someone is the bad guy. When the robbers won, it didn't mean those kids wanted to kill the police."