Earlier this year, Electronic Arts, one of the biggest video-game publishers in the world, rented out both chambers of the Edison Ballroom in midtown Manhattan for its annual exhibition of holiday titles. Electronic Arts uses the expo to gin up excitement among gaming journalists, and by the time I got there, in the early afternoon, the ballroom was filled to capacity. I passed gaggles of bloggers playing the new Need for Speed racing franchise and the latest iteration of FIFA Soccer and headed toward a dais near the back of the building, where Craig Owens, an Electronic Arts marketing director, was demonstrating a much-anticipated first-person war shooter called Medal of Honor.
Medal of Honor is not a particularly young franchise. The first installment of the game debuted on the Sony PlayStation in November 1999 with a World War II-themed plot written in part by director Steven Spielberg. The game was bloody, vivid, and chaotic -- a kind of first-person Saving Private Ryan. But it retained enough of an arcade feel -- the enemy arrived in great, unending, and totally shootable waves - that gamers could have fun with it, too. Dozens of sequels (Pacific Assault, European Assault, and Rising Sun among them) have followed, all featuring bygone conflicts; most have sold fairly well. But the 2010 edition of Medal of Honor was something new: a "reboot," set in contemporary Afghanistan, and starring American special operations troops.
Owens, who is in his 40s, was wearing a striped button-down and a dark beard, which I later learned he grew out as part of a "beard-a-thon" to raise money for fallen soldiers. He waved a controller in my direction. "C'mon," he said. "Sit down."
I watched as he steered his avatar on foot up a steep mountain pass, toward a Taliban-held village; his fellow soldiers fanned out alongside him. Shadows flickered over the road, and someone off-screen muttered something in a language that might have been Pashto. The village was surreally calm. In a narrow alley, hard between two low-slung houses, Owens finally came face to face with two Taliban. He squeezed the trigger on his PlayStation 3 controller; on the screen, the muzzle of his assault rifle flared, and both guerrillas disappeared in soft pink puffs of blood. "This is going to be the most realistic war game yet," Owens said with a grin.
Medal of Honor, which debuted Oct. 12, largely delivers on Owens's boast -- and for some critics, therein lies the problem. Not long after the Edison Ballroom expo, Electronic Arts began receiving complaints from an array of politicians and veterans-rights groups, ranging from former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.), who questioned the moral integrity of the Electronic Arts staff, to a spokesman for the organization AMVETS, who argued that "products like this trivialize combat." Alabama's Montgomery Advertiser newspaper published an editorial urging retailers to refuse to sell Medal of Honor and consumers to refuse to buy it. "To release a video game that shows such death in such a graphic way is shameful and an insult to the families of the men and women in uniform who have died [overseas], and will die in the future," the editorialists wrote.
The game's detractors were mostly concerned with Medal of Honor's multiplayer mode, in which players could assume the role of Taliban guerrillas and shoot at U.S. troops. "I don't see how shooting soldiers based on real Americans is entertainment while people are dying every day for this country," Karen Meredith, the mother of Ken Ballard, a U.S. Army lieutenant killed in Iraq, told the San Jose Mercury News in August. "How can they say it's OK for someone to play the Taliban? You'll have people sitting at home, drinking beer, shooting at American soldiers, maybe missing, then starting over. Well, Ken didn't have a chance to start over."
In September, in response to what it stiffly described to Stars and Stripes as "well-documented reports of depictions of Taliban fighters engaging American troops," the Army and Air Force Exchange Service announced that it would move to block sales of Medal of Honor on military bases around the country. (Some of the most avid consumers of combat-oriented video games today are American soldiers who play them when they're not preoccupied with the real thing.) Electronic Arts called the ban and the criticism "disappointing," but eventually agreed to drop the Taliban from the multiplayer mode, albeit in name only: Gamers are still invited to shoot at simulacra of U.S. soldiers, and the Taliban avatars themselves are unchanged, but they're now labeled "Opposing Force" rather than "Taliban."
It was a controversy that wouldn't have occurred even five or six years ago. For most of the medium's history, video game studios seemed to be reticent about tackling contemporary conflicts, preferring instead to crank out games based in abstracted worlds and full of abstracted enemies. The baddies were aliens, zombies, heads of multinational corporations, or some unholy combination thereof -- the video-game equivalent of Hollywood's stock villains with ambiguous Eastern European accents. Until relatively recently, there were "almost no games set in current military conflicts," Tristan Donovan, the author of Replay: The History of Video Games, told me. "If they are out there, they were very minor releases that went largely unnoticed."
This had something to do with the nature of warfare in the post-Vietnam, pre-9/11 era, in which conflicts came and went before they would have even made it off the game designers' drawing boards. "The first Gulf War and the Falklands War, for example, lasted only a few months, and so there was little time for game companies to commission, create, and release games about those conflicts while they were taking place," Donovan says. Games that alluded to real-world wars came out long after the fact and approached their subjects obliquely; 1992's Sega Mega Drive game Desert Strike, for example, was inspired by the first Gulf War, but its designers set it in a second, fictional war in Iraq -- it may have been prescient, but it wasn't realistic. A handful of video games released in the early 2000s that looked back at the Vietnam War, including Shellshock: Nam '67 and Vietcong, caused minor ripples in the media, but nothing close to Medal of Honor-grade controversy.