As it turns out, government pressure may have contributed to the about-face. According to a report published by Kotaku soon after Goodrich's statement, the U.S. Army may have threatened to withdraw its support for the game had the playable Taliban remained.
Whether such duress ever materialized is irrelevant, since the developers don't really have anything to communicate about Afghanistan in the first place. Restrepo and The Hurt Locker also deemphasized geopolitics in favor of the experience of soldiering, but neither set of filmmakers would ever have argued that their respective settings and contexts were irrelevant to that experience. Yet in an interview on this site, Goodrich makes precisely this claim, that he intends the game to be "devoid of politics or political discussion or debate."
I think we've always approached [the game] in the sense that it's not about the war itself. We've not approached 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.
Instead, Goodrich suggests that the game is about "individuals doing their job," a kind of milquetoast soldier's homage: "Let's support them, let's get them home."
So let's review. Electronic Arts made a war game about the U.S.-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but that game is not about war, not about Afghanistan, not about the Taliban, not political, and not interested in making or supporting any discussion.
Instead, Medal of Honor is just another well-produced first-person shooter, one that invokes a recent war as a marketing gimmick to accompany an equally generic plea to "support our troops." Playing as the Taliban never mattered anyway. It was just a menu item, so no big deal to remove or rename it. Just a marketing tag on the box. Just a clever hook to spin free publicity, and just an inconvenient but essentially irrelevant feature to drop when the Army brass raised its eyebrows.
How shall we square this total disinterest in earnest speech with another statement issued on October 1, this one from the Entertainment Software Association about the forthcoming Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association Supreme Court case? In a brief filed with the court, the ESA argues that "video games are a popular form of modern artistic expression involving classic themes, storylines and player involvement, affording them the same First Amendment protections as other media, such as books and movies."
Yet as Medal of Honor demonstrates, the wealthy corporations like Electronic Arts that fund the ESA to lobby on their behalf are typically not the ones to take up such a charge in earnest. In an inversion unseen in any other popular medium, the majority of truly challenging artistic expression in games comes primarily from rogue creators, independents whose political and artistic ambitions typically conflict with rather than complement their connections with the commercial marketplace (to name but a few examples: Brenda Brathwaite, Gonzalo Frasca, Jason Rohrer, Paolo Pedercini).
As video game critic Casey O'Donnell recently pointed out, the work of such independent developers remains largely unpublishable on first-party systems due to the very fears of effrontery that led EA to hedge on its promise of a playable Taliban. Says O'Donnell:
I can't speak on my Wii. I can't speak on my DS, my PS3, my PSP, or even my bloody NES. It is largely a broadcast medium; a commercial medium. So while I deeply and firmly believe that games should be protected and current efforts, like those in California, are unconstitutional, the game industry is its own worst enemy in this respect with its tight control over content.
O'Donnell's point is this: the very structures that drive the operation of the most visible and influential circles of the commercial video game industry, the ones that have raised the ire of governments like California's, simultaneously resist the expansion of the mass market video game console into the domains of the speech the First Amendment was created to protect.
If I wanted to make a playable version of Restrepo (or for that matter, A Clockwork Orange or Crash or Brokeback Mountain), it's highly unlikely that EA would publish it or that Microsoft or Sony or Nintendo would license it.
Sure, there's the web, there's the PC, there's the iPhone and so forth, but such markets are not where the video game mainstream resides, either commercially or culturally. Such works are not what the State of California hopes to regulate. Such artists do not enjoy the commercial success of the corporations that lobby through the ESA.
The possible regulation of commercial video games ought to concern all of us. But I can't help but ask if the commercial video game industry will ever make good on the claims it spews when legal battles like next month's Supreme Court hearings flare up.
Will commercial video games ever care enough about the world they share with war and sex and crime and brutality to want to speak about those issues in earnest, in public, in spite of the negative reactions or even in order to elicit those negative reactions? Or will they merely want to sell bits and plastic at $60 a go, any one just as good as the last -- so long as its Metacritic scores hold up?
Free speech is not a marketing plan. Free speech is only any good if you take advantage of its invitation. So I say this to you, my video game maker brethren: say something. Say it like you mean it. Otherwise you just make a mockery of those who do, those who have the courage -- the honor even -- to go out on a limb, to compromise their popularity, their success, their safety even on behalf of something more than a bonus check.
Free speech is defended in courts, but it is practiced on the streets and in the media by people who want to intervene in their world, not just to occupy it. Commercial video games deserve a place at that table, to be sure. Whether they will ever choose to show up for dinner is an open question.