A simple, succinct overview of the upcoming Medal of Honour reboot was supposed to go here. Play the game for a couple of hours, boot up a document file, blather about how it’s, um, every other shooter, speculate tepidly about where it slots into the Battlefield/Modern Warfare spectrum of shooty bits, and sign off with a lukewarm yay/nay to its commercial future based on my conception of the fictitious everygamer and the very, very narrow perspective the present open beta offers. But Ian Bogost had to go and write an article on Gamasutra titled “Free Speech is Not a Marketing Plan” and there went my plans for a week in the French Riviera.
(Actually that’s not what I’d hoped to do at all, and I was just going to spend the week getting my ass kicked in Napoleon: Total War anyway. I had hoped to sidestep EA’s decision to excise references to the Taliban that has gobbled up the gaming media’s narrow attention span—Talipalooza* as I’m calling it, though Talibangate might better match certain of the apoplectic attitudes adopted. I, for one—imagine my hubris—thought that the advertising campaign surrounding the game was of greater concern, as it needlessly glorifies the present Afghan war beneath the guise of supporting and respecting our troops. Bogost’s compelling but incomplete argument implies my concern is moot in light of the TalEApocalypse. EA, it seems, would like to concur. We will see why it is not, shortly.)
Allow me to tease out a corollary to Bogost’s larger criticism of the TaligatEApalooza re: the exercise of free speech. It comes in the form of arguing that if, as MoH Executive Producer Greg Goodrich states, the change from “Taliban” to “Opposing Force” “does not fundamentally alter the gameplay,” then “the Taliban never had any meaningful representation in the game anyway.” Bogost asks, “in short, how was this Medal of Honor title meant to be a game about [the Afghan war] in particular?” Worded more strongly, if “the Taliban” can be so easily removed from the game, then the game was never about the Taliban. As the same stunt could conceivably be pulled with “Afghanistan,” then the game was never about Afghanistan or the very real war going on there right now. So if the game can’t really be about Afghanistan then the advertising campaign surrounding it can’t really be romanticizing the fighting there, right? To reach right into the horse’s mouth: “I think we’ve always approached [the game] in the sense that it’s not about the war itself. We’ve not approached [it] as a game about Afghanistan, or a game about Al Qaeda. This is not a game about the Taliban. This is not a game about local tribal militias or warlords.”
That’s bullshit. You can’t make a game about American soldiers shooting at Afghan look-alikes in an Afghanistan-esque country and then pretend that it isn’t about the real Americans (and others) shooting at real Afghans (and others) in a real Afghanistan, right now. Saying that a simulacrum of a thing has nothing to do with the real thing requires some serious cognitive dissonance and a hefty dose of PR grooming. Bogost glosses over this on his way to criticize the industry for their schizophrenic take on freedom of expression. He mentions Restrepo, which “eschews geopolitical context in favor of the raw experience of modern war.” This is true, but Restrepo is still about the Afghan war. Even if in the course of the documentary the soldiers become differentiated by nothing more than their uniforms (or lack thereof), the audience still involuntarily brings their understanding of the conflict into the experience. How does it maintain the balance between this narrow scope and its broader context? Restrepo never claims that it’s not about the Afghan war. It doesn’t need to because the filmmakers weren’t crippled with anxiety about the message they were sending.
EA, on the other hand, is rapidly backpedaling from any suggestion that—god forbid—their vidyablinky product has anything to contribute to the discussion about the ongoing war they copied their concept from. This, at the same time they’re running a series of trailers and adverts that are direct adaptations of the rocked-out, sepia-filtered commercials the United States National Guard runs (why sepia? Because it’s the aesthetic of the grimdark games that young men play). It is discrepancies like this that truly undermine games’ freedom of expression when they go unanswered. Goodrich is a Riefenstahl, claiming his art isn’t propaganda because it’s art (or, here, “it’s just a game”), as if the word were a license to self-ignorance. By failing to acknowledge the fuller message of his product, Goodrich and his EA handlers further neglect and mitigate their privilege to at all express themselves freely.
Since we have come to this point, a parting shot: “the industry,” as it stands, does not have the right to free expression. Videogames as a medium are protected, as are artists that work within that medium. The corporations that comprise “the industry” do not own the medium or the artists that work it; they merely own the means of production of the artistic product. Certain shortsighted and well-compensated American legislators and judges have seen fit to accord corporations ever more freedom to “express” themselves re: profit, but (in my own humble interpretation) this extension of the letter of the law does not correspond to an extension of the spirit of the law. So, dear videogames industry: you are the videogames industry, not videogames full stop. There is a modifier there, so get into it and get over yourselves.
*Sorry Taliban, I already reserved this awesome name for my next get-together so you’ll have to come up with something else for your annual reunion. I humbly suggest the almost-as-great “Whammo! Blammo! Talibanno!” in its stead.