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Persuasive Games: Free Speech is Not a Marketing Plan
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Persuasive Games: Free Speech is Not a Marketing Plan

October 4, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

How does Electronic Arts measure up? In creating a video game about the war in Afghanistan, the company had "stood firm," in its words, against myriad accusations of the tastelessness of allowing players to take on the roles of enemy operatives in the game, particularly the Taliban.

UK defense secretary Liam Fox had decried the game as offensive and shocking, noting that British families had lost fathers at the hands of the Taliban. On Fox News, Karen Meredith, the mother of a fallen American soldier, had called the game "disrespectful" for "turning war into a game." And most recently, GameStop declared its intention not to sell the game on military bases "out of respect for our past and present men and women in uniform."

EA spokespeople smartly countered that opposition is a part of conflict, and that video games offer a unique opportunity for citizens to play both sides, presumably to understand the differences in motivation or experience on either side of the conflict.

It should be noted that such controversy continued, with its related publicity benefits, even despite a lack of information about just what it would mean to play the Taliban in Medal of Honor.

As Restrepo showed, the pure anguish of the Afghan war may obliterate the very notion of "good guys" and "bad guys" in Afghanistan in the first place. A generous interpreter might hope for such a subtle reveal in the game, one that might send a knowing chill down the spines of its presumably sophisticated playership.

But EA's latest move in the Medal of Honor saga seems instead to reveal that its interest in Afghanistan in general and the Taliban in particular never had anything whatsoever to do with a position on foreign war -- or really on anything whatsoever.

In a statement issued October 1, Medal of Honor Executive Producer Greg Goodrich caved to "concern over the inclusion of the Taliban in the multiplayer portion of our game." Goodrich clarified that the opposition wouldn't be removed from the title, but instead it would simply be "renamed from Taliban to Opposing Force." His statement concluded with a note of appreciation for troops serving overseas, clear contrition for the studio's perceived indignities.

Crucially, Goodrich entreats the public to note the following: "this change should not directly affect gamers, as it does not fundamentally alter the gameplay." This one statement should cause considerable distress, as it suggests a troubling conclusion about Medal of Honor as a work of public speech.

To wit: it suggests that the Taliban never had any meaningful representation in the game anyway. If a historically, culturally, and geographically specific enemy can simply be recast in the generic cloth of "opposition," then why was it was called "Taliban" in the first place?

And if the Afghan war in which the new Medal of Honor is set was one explicitly meant to drive the Taliban from their strongholds in Afghanistan, why should it matter that the game is set in that nation in the present day at all? In short, how was this Medal of Honor title meant to be a game about this war in particular?

If the presence or absence of the Taliban "does not fundamentally alter the gameplay," then perhaps it did not matter that this particular Islamist terrorist group found its way into the game in the first place. And since EA has not altered the experience but only renamed the enemy, then whatever simulation of Taliban life Medal of Honor does offer remains the same save the letters by which it is annotated on-screen.

If a meaningful simulation of the Taliban ever existed, one that meant more than "the name for the current enemy that is in Afghanistan," then the studio would have had to admit that no other name can be given for that opposing force, and that to hedge would ruin the unique artistic expression the game hoped to communicate.

EA's statement is one of commercial political convenience, precisely the sort of hedge that undermines free speech protections by distancing them from earnest contributions to public ideas. Says Goodrich, "We are making this change for the men and women serving in the military and for the families of those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice -- this franchise will never willfully disrespect, intentionally or otherwise, your memory and service."

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