When it came to light that the newest release in EA’s Medal of Honor video game series contained a mode in which players could choose to fight as a group named the Taliban, and the US Army was understandably not too happy about it. After all, they had previously been cooperating on developing the game, allowing EA access to military equipment for rendering as well as aiding in the recording of sounds for the game. Yet the thinking behind this pressure from the Army and EA’s final decision to remove the game mode is more complicated than it seems.
The newest Medal of Honor, set in the contemporary war in Afghanistan, is a classic example of a first-person shooter: you and your brigade run around, shoot things, accomplish missions. Given that the enemy your faction is posed against is the Taliban (this is in the news, after all), that’s all well and good. Why not use another form of media to reinforce a black and white depiction of the war? But like all good first-person shooters nowadays, this Medal of Honor has an online multiplayer mode, where players can choose to fight against one another rather than cooperate. The problem with multiplayer is that it takes two teams to fight.
Obviously, this being the war in Afghanistan, EA chose to call the force playing opposite the US in multiplayer mode the Taliban. The game’s screenshots, cliche depictions of turban-wrapped freedom fighters posed on dusty mountaintops against US helicopters, are transparent attempts to represent the Taliban, or play to an American stereotype thereof. After Army pressure as well as complaints from veterans of the conflict, however, EA has renamed the Taliban the “Opposing Force,” opting for a generic title rather than the reality. Visually branded US military operatives are still fighting against robed and scarved guerrillas, but they’re no longer fighting the Taliban. No, American players would never play as the Taliban. They’re just playing as the Opposing Force.
Think about this in terms of representational politics. The aesthetic intention that this group of video game characters is the Taliban is blatantly clear no matter what renaming they undergo; the visual signifiers are far stronger than the political labels. It seems like a ridiculous restatement of our own exclusionary mindset that gamers can kill Taliban (in name or not) fighters, but are spared the degradation of playing as them in the name of it being “too soon.” Like all representative art, the visuality of video games hides its own biases and slights, stereotypes perpetuated endlessly. This example is yet another.
As coverage of a current conflict, Medal of Honor stands in this case as a kind of staged photojournalism, a media re-representation of a war the US is currently embroiled in. The difference is that Medal of Honor holds no pretension of being unbiased or documentary. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad piece of art — think Susan Sontag’s supportive analysis of Jeff Wall’s “Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986)” (1992). Sontag called “Dead Troops Talk” “the opposite of a document,” a re-created, re-lived experience that doesn’t just represent the atrocities at hand but allow them to be experienced emotionally. A video game seems a natural extension of that, presenting the possibility to experience a multifaceted conflict in a multivalent way. But then, EA’s removal of the Taliban name from the multiplayer mode completely eliminates any hope of emotional identification with the other faction, and eliminates the possibility of multivalency. In art, representation, naming, is everything.
How do we experience the pathos of a war that isn’t honestly represented to us? EA’s Medal of Honor might turn out to be a fun game, but the choice to pull the Taliban label makes it bad art.