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Who’s Really Up In Arms Over EA’s New Medal of Honor?

With today’s release of EA’s controversial new version of Medal of Honor, set in Afghanistan, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about, who’s upset at what and why did this story get so much traction in the months leading up the product launch. At a casual glance, you might think “guns, violence and mayhem in video games” are once again being used as easy media fodder. Been there, done that, if you don’t like it don’t buy it. Get a life. But let’s not let ourselves off so easily.

Screenshot from EA's new Medal of Honor.

With today’s release of EA’s controversial new version of Medal of Honor, set in Afghanistan, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about, who’s upset at what and why did this story get so much traction in the months leading up the product launch. 

At a casual glance, you might think “guns, violence and mayhem in video games” are once again being used as easy media fodder. Been there, done that, if you don’t like it don’t buy it. Get a life.  But let’s not let ourselves off so easily.  The root of the issue seems to be EA’s decision to allow gamers to play as the Taliban, rather than the usual non-descript “insurgents” or “terrorists.”  With the US and key allies firmly entrenched in a long and vicious war in Afghanistan, with the daily list of casualties getting longer, not shorter, how could EA not spark controversy with such a game? One would think a giant like EA would be neither flippant nor careless in the face of such potential commotion and one assumes that they are no stranger to controversy or moral arguments on all sides of game-related issues.   

An August 13th piece in AOL News (New Video Game Will Let You Play as the Taliban) nicely summed up the controversy:

“While the Nazis in the old ‘Medal of Honor’ came at the safe remove of history, having U.S. children portray Taliban insurgents trying to gun down U.S. forces via the game is indisputably more in-your-face. The game is also set to launch amid the deadliest stretch of the Afghan war for the American military, which has lost more than 1,200 soldiers in the conflict so far.”

The article’s author, David Thier, quotes Amanda Taggart, senior PR manager for EA, saying "Most of us having been doing this since we were 7 -- if someone's the cop, someone's gotta be the robber, someone's gotta be the pirate and someone's gotta be the alien.  In 'Medal of Honor' multiplayer, someone's gotta be the Taliban."  Thier goes on to say that EA, along with DICE, the games co-creator, claim they weren’t trying to make a political statement and that it’s impossible to make a war game of this nature without generating controversy.

The very next day Fox News firmly thrust the story into mainstream discussion.  Karen Meredith, whose son, 1st Lt. Ken Ballard, was killed in Iraq in May of 2004, was interviewed about the upcoming game release. 

Watch the latest video at video.foxnews.com

Based on her interview and blog post, her position primarily seemed to be that its disrespectful and arrogant to celebrate the killing of US soldiers in a game that takes place while the US is at war in that very setting right now.  She argued that EA was being very cavalier and insensitive in releasing such a game while real US soldiers are being killed by that real enemy every day.  To her, war is not a game.  Of course, Fox News took tremendous heat as the network that would never miss a beat in exploiting any story, even the sincere and heartfelt grief of a mother who lost her son in combat, for the sake of ratings.

On August 22, The UK’s Telegraph (Liam Fox calls for Medal Of Honor to be banned) reported:

“Liam Fox, the Defense Secretary, has launched a scathing attack on the forthcoming video game Medal Of Honor, over reports that it allows players to kill British troops as Taliban soldiers. Fox has branded the new shooter from Electronic Arts "un-British" and has called on video games retailers to refuse to sell it.”

Though the British government soon distanced itself from Fox’ comments, and despite EA’s response that there weren’t any British soldiers in the game, the message was gaining momentum across the media landscape, particularly online. 

Ostensibly in response to mounting pressure, on September 2nd, GameStop pledged not to sell the game at any of its military exchange or on-base stores, with the following announcement in an email to its employees:

"GameStop has agreed out of respect for our past and present Men and Women in uniform we will not carry Medal of Honor in any of our AAFES based stores. At this time it does not include our 4 stores on Marine Installations. GameStop fully supports AAFES in this endeavor and is sensitive to the fact that in multiplayer mode, one side will assume the role of Taliban fighters. As such, GameStop agreed to have all marketing material pulled by noon today, and to stop taking reservations. Customers who enter our AAFES stores and wish to reserve Medal of Honor can and should be directed to the nearest GameStop location off base. Again we appreciate the sensitivity, and know our AAFES based stores will continue to honor the great customer base in which they serve."

Hundreds of media outlets large and small continued to pounce on the story, as one would imagine.  Headlines blazed, "the military has banned sales of the game." A casual perusal of online chatter showed equal parts “Eff Karen Meredith,” “Eff Fox News,” “Eff EA” and of course, “Eff the military.”  Too many people with too much time on their hands, unable to walk past a hornet’s nest without kicking it, jumped into the fray and soon digital arrows and nasty invectives were flying pretty furiously throughout the blogosphere. Such an outcome, unfortunately, obscures the real issues and the opportunity for more reasonable discussion. It might be fun to watch from the sidelines for a spell, but what do we really gain from such behaviour?

Gamasutra then reported on September 15th (EA CEO Riccitiello 'Incredibly Proud' of Medal of Honor In Face Of Taliban Controversy) that EA CEO John Riccitiello was “incredibly proud” of the upcoming game and was surprised by the controversy.  Speaking at the 2010 Bank of America Merrill Lynch Media, Communications & Entertainment Conference, Riccitiello was quoted as saying “I think it [the controversy] says more about the newspaper industry than the game industry.”  He reportedly went on to acknowledge the fact that it's hard to get a message across to the general public when journalists that are only seeking strong reaction and outrage are the main vectors of communication.  In other words, how can you discuss something civilly with people whose sole agenda is to incite reader indignation (Taliban Medal of Honor Controversy Was Newspaper Created, Says EA CEO)

Now we fast forward to October 1. In a post on the official Medal of Honor game blog, Executive Producer Greg Goodrich announced:

“…we have also received feedback from friends and families of fallen soldiers who have expressed concern over the inclusion of the Taliban in the multiplayer portion of our game. This is a very important voice to the Medal of Honor team. This is a voice that has earned the right to be listened to. It is a voice that we care deeply about. Because of this, and because the heartbeat of Medal of Honor has always resided in the reverence for American and Allied soldiers, we have decided to rename the opposing team in Medal of Honor multiplayer from Taliban to Opposing Force.” (Read the full announcement here)

Common sense tells us there were a number of reasons why EA decided to make the change.  But in addition to the obvious – they bowed to public pressure, they didn’t want to endure any more negative publicity – we have to ask ourselves, what’s really at stake here?  Public image?  The gaming experience?  Does it really matter if the bad guys are called OpFors rather than Taliban?  Do gamers care?  Will sales be hurt because players can’t play as Taliban in multiplayer mode?  Common sense also tells us that gamers, those wonderfully nutty non-conformist punks (though I think the average game player age is somewhere in the mid 30s and they probably have an average IQ many points higher than mine) everyone seems to harp on mercilessly could care less about such issues and are concerned primarily with the quality of game play, interactivity, graphics and the overall experience.  And Red Bull.

A post by Shaddz on Gamingtruth.com (responding to Goodrich’s announcement) summed up what many gamers were saying online, though he did so much more eloquently and with less colorful language:

“Personally, I am a bit pissed at this…I am the kind of person who likes to go against the grain a bit…I wouldn’t have minded that I’d be playing as the Taliban in online multiplayer; Like I said in August, someone has to be the cop, and someone has to be the robber...But I get the point: We are in Afghanistan currently. We are currently engaged in a conflict with real-life Taliban forces. Our troops are still dying. Hell I have a friend out there who is like a brother (once or twice removed, the dude’s huge) to me that I was in boot camp with that says he and his buddies (who are Marines) don’t give two craps about playing as the Taliban…But forgive me when I say that people need to stop being so friggin’ butthurt about a stupid videogame.”

Screenshot from EA's new Medal of Honor.

Today, October 12th, Medal of Honor has officially launched.  After months of controversy, angst, hand wringing and media kickball, where does this story stand?

Well, EA’s stock dropped 6% today after a recent run on the stock that saw it jump 15% in the last 6 weeks, largely in anticipation of the product’s release.  Gamasutra has a nice breakdown of the market response and some of the factors that may be at work (EA Stock Down Six Percent On Middling Medal Of Honor Reviews).  Obviously, such a bull run on EA stock, in the face of the widespread controversy, shows that investors cared little, if at all, about the moral arguments involved with the game.  Money is money and it’s possible that all the publicity only served to generate more interest in the game, not less.

However, what probably made a bigger impact with investors were the tepid and decidedly mixed initial reviews of the game.  Much like a highly anticipated movie that gets clobbered by lukewarm Friday audiences, it seems that game play, not morality, may have made investors back away from their recent enthusiasm and drive down the price of the stock.

Medal of Honor is just another in a long list of controversial games, where players can indulge every one of their urges and desires in the privacy of their own living rooms in brilliant real-time rendered graphics and imagery that rivals the most visually advanced cinematic experiences available today. 

And so the question at this point still remains – who is really up in arms over EA’s newest release?  The media?  The military? Concerned citizens?  Or, EA stockholders?

[10/13/2010] Postscript - read a soldiers interesting take on the issue published today on the NPR website (Why A Video Game Does Not A Soldier Make).

Questions? Comments? Send me a note at dsarto at awn dot com.

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