Earlier in the week I wrote a piece regarding the usage of the Taliban in the upcoming Medal of Honor title. I expressed how I felt, and how I think others are feeling, about playing as the Taliban during a conflict which is still ongoing.
But I wanted to take it a step further. So Features Editor Stephen Kelley and I contacted some members of the U.S. Armed Forces and asked them some questions. We received a good number of responses, and because of the nature of the issue we thought it best to give everyone we asked the chance to speak their mind about the topic.
All information about the interviewees was provided by the interviewees themselves and has not been changed in any way. Some have opted to not reveal their last names or ranks. All answers are intact save for edits to style and spelling. All answers to the questions will be marked with an identifier so you know who said what.
- Justin Polaski, SPC, Army
- Zachary Roberts, SPC (Ret.), Army National Guard
- Nicholas Rice, SPC, Army
- Heather Thompson, PV2, Army Reserves
- James —, Army
- Jason —, Navy
- Caitlin Stier, E-2, Army Reserves
- Jason Clark, MN2, Navy
- Becky Brown, PV1, Army
Question 1: In the upcoming Medal of Honor you can play as the Taliban in the multiplayer modes. As a soldier and veteran of a recent conflict, what are your thoughts on this?
(Polaski, Army) People freaking out about the inclusion of the Taliban as playable characters in the multiplayer mode of the new game is ridiculous. In every FPS-type game, there is a bad guy. Considering the intense popularity of the current conflicts (which is interestingly ironic; many claim to hate the conflicts, yet purchase games like MW2, watch shows like The Unit and movies like Marine and Hurt Locker, etc. and pay money to the people profiting off of these conflicts) it's only natural that game designers would focus on something that the younger generation could relate to; everyone knows someone who has been involved in these conflicts. It gives the players a sense of relation to the conflicts by playing these games; fighting brown-skinned people in a desert, using an M4A1 rifle and calling down fire from an AC-130 gunship all give a sense of relative experience to the player. More importantly, the creation of games like these is war profiteering; the same profiteering that Blackwater, civilian contractors, and companies that produce ACU backpacks for school children participate in. War profiteering of any form is unjust and constitutes a true insult to those who have served overseas.
(Roberts, Army) It does not bother me. I think it is even a good idea, because impressionable children play these games despite the often M rating. These children need to see that war is not a game, and putting a name to the enemies and places that are otherwise generic in other FPS titles presents the real brutality of war, not just the mindless simulated killing in MW. I believe that children may eventually think that war and video games are one in the same, and indeed that would be tragic.
(Rice, Army) I don't think playing the Taliban is any different than playing any other "bad guys" in any other game.
(Thompson, Army) It may seem a little harsh, but I think that's mostly because it's so fresh right now.
(James —, Army) Having read the article, I have to say that it does kind of throw one for a loop. Granted they do not seem to display the poorer judgment of Konami (whom I am otherwise an avid fan) basing the whole campaign on the Taliban, it still pushes the issue of 'too soon'. WWI, WWII, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam all took place ages ago. I am willing to say that none of the readers were even a thought, much less conceived during the time of those conflicts. At the same time, video games were not even conceived as well, but Milton Bradley wasn't releasing the home version of 'Your Own Nazi Concentration Camp - Special Edition' with real, fogging bath house. Heck, Nazi Barbie didn't even appear until the 1960's (in the U.S.; the actual European release is undetermined).
(Jason —, Navy) Anyone remember the fuss that Mortal Kombat made when it first came out? If your kids played it, they were going to grow up to be devil-worshiping psycho-killers.
I can honestly state as a gamer and a military man that games have less of an impact that people might think. When I'm playing a game, I don't sit there and consciously tell myself: "OH YEAH! I'ma Gonna kill me some 'Merican Citizens for Allah!"
I just push the buttons and kinda giggle at the rag-doll physics engine.
(Stier, Army) Honestly, I don't really see what the whole fuss is about. It's a game, and just like in Call of Duty, you don't really care about what side you're taking, just as long as you win. I don't think anyone cares if you're part of the Rangers or Spetznaz, as long as you win.
(Clark, Navy) I thoroughly enjoy these games but in respect to my fallen brothers I find it very hard and disturbing to play as the actual group whom I have seen kill so many of my friends and brothers in arms.
(Brown, Army) I'm split on this. I enjoy playing games, and for those who can't distinguish between reality and a game, then they shouldn't play. However, this is still a current situation affecting a lot of people, and especially for soldiers who have experienced a hard time overseas this probably feels like getting a giant middle finger.
Question 2: Tell me about your opinions on how these war games seem to stick to either WW2 or Iraq/Afghanistan. How are they influencing modern culture?
(Polaski, Army) America is obsessed with our military and its accomplishments. We obsess over WWII because it is the only war the world doesn't hate us for joining. We claimed victory over an agreeably evil force that was also a uniformed enemy. It was war in all senses of the word. This pattern continues in our culture through our video games, a form of art and media that gains more and more attention and thought now than it did ten years ago. Playing now in Iraq and Afghanistan continues this tradition.
(Roberts, Army) I think Vietnam is too touchy for a large studio to risk making a game about it. WWI seems sacred; due to the pointless slaughter I have never heard of a WWI game ever produced depicting the Western Front besides the Xbox Live Arcade game Toy Soldiers, but the soldiers are toys, so it is not intended to be overly violent. However this seemingly cute title somehow portrays the real brutality of war, through quotes in loading screens and there is something savage and ghastly about wiping out a platoon of Germans helplessly tangled up in barbed wire with a Vickers Machine Gun. There seems to be an ironic connection, that the soldiers are toys, and because of that expendable, just like their real life counterparts were to their governments during the Great War. However I am not sure if this was the intended message of the game.
WWII and modern weapons' destructive power sell games, because they are all so destructive, people love to break things. I think that games like MW attempt to glorify war, and children playing these will believe that war is a game, a good time, and fun. When these kids are adults, think of how readily they will join the military, or support pointless wars, by wanting to send soldiers to "have fun".
(Rice, Army) The fact that most games are set in the WW2 and Iraq/Afghanistan shows how we focus in on the idea of winning. The desire to for the person who is playing to feel like a hero.
(Thompson, Army) I think if anything it may be helping to get people interested in that time in history. I know for me, I was very uninterested in history, but through some of these war based games, I find myself drawn into the story and history behind it.
(James —, Army) The article mentions the one encounter of MW2 in which a Soviet terrorist cell attacks an airport. To this I have to mention how poorly written MW2 was to its predecessor. While the said mission was vital to the story, having nothing leading that side character up to the event other than an info blurb as the game is loading, left many (myself included) to feel that the mission was in very poor taste and the conflict created was rushed rather than actualized.
(Jason —, Navy) And "too soon"? We have games modeled after every major conflict in the world, up to and including Desert Storm. Vietnam was barely ten years past when Nintendo was churning out Platoon, Rambo, Contra and various other jungle-themed war games.
(Stier, Army) Games stick to these sorts of topics mainly for the fact that people are interested by them, and they sell. If games about frolicking through Candy Land killing unicorns sold millions of copies every time an expansion came out, you'd see just as many of those types of games, guaranteed.
As far as influence? Having grown up playing pretty violent video games, and (I think) turning out okay in the long run, there shouldn't be much to worry about. Personally I tend to think it serves as a reminder as to "Hey, this happened." ("Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" type of deal. It has a way of keeping it fresh.)
(Clark, Navy) Well I don't care which war they depict, but it has made our youth too casual about the whole idea of war and hearing the way these kids talk online while playing really disturbs me as a vet. They think they know all about it but in truth they know nothing on the matter.
(Brown, Army) With games that stick to World War 2, I think it's a good way to capture the attention of today's youth and help get them interested in something that affected our culture and was a big part of our country's history. With games that focus on Iraq and Afghanistan...it doesn't seem fair. Hearing kids talking about how they shot up the Taliban, and wasn't it awesome they got the high score, it desensitizes them to the real deal, which I think is very bad.
Question 3: In your opinion, does playing as the Taliban represent disrespect to the military?
(Polaski, Army) Not at all. You are playing an FPS, and if you cannot always play as the Americans and your game is centered around the conflicts of the now in Iraq and Afghanistan, who else could the enemy be - the Russians or Chinese? Killing soldiers mindlessly in a grinding multiplayer mode hardy constitutes an insult to American soldiers.
(Roberts, Army) No, today enemy, is tomorrow's friend. If it is not the Taliban then it would be someone else.
(Rice, Army) I don't think playing as the Taliban is disrespectful to the military. I don't see how its any different than playing as the Nazis or as gangsters in other games.
(Thompson, Army) I don't think it should be disrespectful. I think many people will find it hard or harsh because these events are so fresh in our minds. People can easily put an face and name to the soldier that the Taliban may be killing in the game. In the same light, who's to say that we shouldn't be offended by war games that allow us to play as Nazis or other terrorists? I think so long as people can remember to separate the game from real life they should be fine.
(James —, Army) As for disrespecting the military, I would have to say, as far as being like unto Counterstrike, no. Now has this the potential to embolden our enemies (and angry pubescent teenagers taking out their parental frustrations on computer generated facsimiles of real life)...Definitely. Yes, they will spend the $450 to have the Medal of Honor: Taliban Edition Xbox360 at the Cordoba Mosque.
I say that half sarcastically. Though while a silly concept, it is within the lengths those forces go to maintain their fragile morale. At the same time, hearing live reports while in theater of a cordon search of a mosque turning up a whole ambush team hiding out with their imam, all testing positive for carbon discharge on their hands, gives evidence of how twisted ideologies can become.
(Jason —, Navy) And again, the "OMG" fuss issue.
You want a game that is creepy or borderline wrong? There are thousands of various hentai (read: Japanese Animated Porn) games where the whole point of the "game" is to fondle, attack and otherwise rape assorted females ranging from 12 to 45.
There are also more than numerous ways for the wayward type to find these online.
But no one raises a fuss because it's not a hot-button issue right now. So all things considered, nuts to this "survey", nuts to the naysayers and its "Medal Of Honor" people! Ya know- The same company types that have given us more years of WWII combat than actual years of the factual war!
When the time comes that a game as vile as Rape Lay Supreme (or whatever the official Japanese translation is), becomes mainstream? Or when some kid gets so brainwashed that he is driven to read a Koran, purchase AK-47s by the bundle and commit glorious Jihad simply because he played a game?
Then I might be worried. Ah, but wait.... All I have to do is compare what normally and routinely shows up on TV and cable nowadays compared to the "SHOCKING" era I grew up in when "RoboCop" was considered the most horridly violent movie of all time.
Seriously folks... RoboCop.
(Stier, Army) Not any more than playing on the red team represents support for Communism. Come on folks, seriously?
(Clark, Navy) To me it is a disrespect if I do it due to my knowledge on the matter and such but others its just a game and I know they play the game in complete ignorance of the issues, so I don't fault them, this is life.
(Brown, Army) I don't know. It's their choice, and people should know their limitations. It could be awful considering how horrid the war is overseas. But at the same time, like in Modern Warfare 2, an agent shoots up a Russian airport. But then you find out he was doing it for a greater good and he wasn't an evil greedy killing machine. So this game, depending on how it plays out, could also help people view things from the "other side."
Question 4: What do you think games say about the current conflicts?
(Polaski, Army) The previously mentioned games cheapen the impact of the war. Games such as MW2 teach the player that it is heroic to play as a nearly invincible shooting machine mowing down brown-skinned people who spout off culturally stereotypical platitudes and die in droves before the player's corporately licensed wrath (i.e. the weapons actually having the correct names such as M4A1, Spectre Gunships, and wearing copywritten ACU patterns). Portraying the conflicts in such a manner cheapens the deaths of all those who have died on both sides of the conflicts.
(Roberts, Army) I think most games portray war as a game.
(Rice, Army) It varies from game to game, however i think it shows the soldiers in a positive light. A chance for the player to feel like he's part of current events.
(Stier, Army) When a conflict has been going on for as long as this one has, people tend to get complacent and forget what exactly is going on. I mean, look at what happened right after 9/11... People were STEALING American flags from their neighbors to hang in their own yards! How many people fly the flag on a daily basis now? People forget, it's easy to do since we're so separated from it all. A game like this reopens our eyes to the point where we go "oh, hey, look, this is still happening!"
Is it controversial? Absolutely. There's always going to be a group of people who will find the most mundane topic offensive, but especially something like this. I personally think that the people that are actually going to play this game, are going to play it since its a new game in a long running series, not because they get to shoot and kill Americans. Please.
(Clark, Navy) They make it seem like its easy to make a quick buck off the backs of actual heroes, without any care of how we feel on the matter.
(Brown, Army) People don't care anymore. They want it to be over. Playing games is a good way to make something seem less threatening and more casual.
Question 5: Do you have any other thoughts or opinions on the matter?
(Roberts, Army) I hate the fact that recruiters use MW as a means of finding recruits, and the fact that they practice this may mean that MW is actually making kids that think war is a fun game, so the military and killing real people must be fun too. Maybe recruiters should use this quote from Albert Joubaire, a French Soldier that served in Verdun in WW I, "What a bloodbath, what horrid images, what a slaughter. I just cannot find the words to express my feelings. Hell cannot be this dreadful" to find recruits, not massive MW contests.
(Clark, Navy) I myself always played these games without a thought in the world, then I joined active duty and have grown to hold our military in great regards.
(Brown, Army) This is a very gray area for me.
There you have some exclusive insights from members of our armed forces about some of the feelings (or lack thereof) evoked from playing as the Taliban.
If you disregard this as "just a game" or if you find this incredibly insensitive, just remember that we are no longer islands in today's world. Everything we do, everything we say – it all says something about us.
This may mean nothing to a lot of people. This may be small blip on the radar for others. Some may find this issue a breaking point. We all have something to say and we should use opportunities like this to examine the crossroads of real-world issues with gaming.