Saturday, 16 October 2010

It's in the Game

This week EA Games released the new Medal of Honour game. Normally I’d ignore such news because I’m not a huge fan of shooters, especially online ones. However this particular release has caused a media storm because it allowed the player to play as the Taliban against allied forces online. I said ‘allowed’ because EA have since backed down and renamed the Taliban ‘The Opposition’. This was a terrible decision and indicative of a wider problem with Video Games as a medium

The problem has to do with Video Games in the popular imagination. People see them purely as entertainment and not as art. People do not see that video games can make an interesting or profound point about the state of the world. Nor that they can tell a moving and engaging story. People who don’t understand video games think that they’re only there to entertain people. Games like Medal of Honour and Halo suffer from this especially because they are primarily online games in which no real story is told once the painfully short single player campaign is done with.

It does not need to be said that this assumption is entirely untrue. While there are some who would still dispute this, to most commentators in the industry, Video Games are most certainly an artistic medium. That’s not to say that every Video Games is a work of art and certainly not to say that the industry has produced as many great works as the film industry, even when you take into account their relative life spans, but the fact that Video Games can be used as a medium to tell as story and invoke an emotional reaction in the player means that they most certainly qualify as an artistic medium.

This popular misconception means that, whenever a video game has some content which is controversial, the media does not see it as an attempt to make an artistic point and make people think about the issues being raised, but simply an attempt to increase sales in some clever popularity stunt. This problem is compounded when the game itself is seen as rather juvenile; the image associated with a shooter like MoH is of an adolescent sitting in a darkened room getting over excited over shooting someone through the head. It’s not a great image and certainly one which acts as a barrier to viewing something as an attempt to make a mature comment on current affairs.

While this viewpoint is not without merit, it oversimplifies things. Calling the opposition ‘the Taliban’ probably was, in part, done because it would doubtless attract attention and increase media coverage and hence sales. No doubt many of the players would fail to comprehend the significance of playing as the Taliban beyond it being pretty cool. However for the majority of the audience, no matter how juvenile, the experience of playing the Taliban against the allied soldiers would be slightly more meaningful. Rather than the Taliban just being the bad guys who we all shoot against, the perspective changes and the allies becomes the bad guys who are shooting you. The realisation is that war is a pretty scary experience for them as well as for the allies. When you’re playing as ‘the Opposition’ it doesn’t quite have the same effect because it’s not rooted in reality and so the change is not quite so shocking.

Admittedly calling the opponent ‘the Taliban’ and allowing them to be played on multiplayer is pretty weak as artistic statements go, but if Video Games are ever going to be appreciated as an artistic medium, they are statements that have to be made and staunchly defended. If someone were to make a film told from the perspective of the Taliban fighting the allies it would probably be hailed as a racy and controversial work of genius. Sure there would be some who would oppose the issue, but most of the media would come to accept it in time. Indeed films like The Hurt Locker and Jarhead explicitly criticise Allied forces, but no-one bats an eyelid because films are accepted as a mature artistic medium. There’s no reason why a game should not be able to deal with mature and complicated moral issues with reference to current affairs without being criticised.

The fault here largely lies with EA, who rather weakly backed down in the face of media pressure. Developers have to stand up for video games as an art form or else the popular perception of them will not change. Indeed the industry has already shown how it is capable of weathering media storms; remember the controversy over the sex scene is Mass Effect 1 a few years ago? Now think how many RPGs have sexual relationships as part of them? Pretty much every RPG deals with sex and relationships in some way now. Perhaps if EA had decided to be a little braver many more shooters would be presenting modern conflicts with enemies taken from real life, rather than simply being set in ‘Oppositionstan’. Maybe even single player campaigns will start allowing you to play as the Taliban as well. I mean we’re used to playing as Nazis against the Allies, who’s to say we shouldn’t start playing as the Taliban as well?

The problem that Video Games have is that it’s not just the protagonist who is the Terrorist, it’s the player. Video Games are interactive media, so the audience is not just viewing passively, but actively taking part in the action on screen. This is a fantastic tool for emersion, but sadly makes any attempt to tell a story from a controversial point of view far too racy for the media to accept. This is a great shame because in terms of making an artistic point it’s fantastic. Any story attempts to put the audience in the protagonist’s shoes and nowhere is this done better than in Video Games because you are literally in the protagonist shoes. The potential for creating an emotional reaction is much greater because part of the work of creating an emotional connection is done for you.

Video Games have great potential to create an emotional response, indeed many of them do, however they have some huge hurdles, many of them self made, to get over before people take them seriously enough to consider them art. The most important one of these hurdles is the image of being nothing more than entertainment. Developers need to start taking themselves seriously and consider their games art. They need to stand up for artistic decisions and start making people appreciate games as more than just entertainment. I’m looking at you, EA.

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