Ta-Nehisi Coates is my favorite non-gaming blogger. Reading him, and commenting in his comment section challenges me to think harder and to see farther. And he’s been known to play, and to write about video games and MMO’s from time to time.
Today, the topic is Medal of Honor, which allows you to play a Taliban character during multiplayer mode. Politicians from Britain, New Zealand and Canada are unhappy about this.
Seth Seisal writes, in the NY Times, thinks this is due to a misunderstanding of the game:
If Medal of Honor let you play as the Taliban throughout an entire single-player campaign, then we would have a real controversy on our hands. Imagine the reaction to a game that included a mission where you were cooperating with Al Qaeda during the siege of Tora Bora and had to protect Osama bin Laden while spiriting him to safety.
That is not what is going on here.
I think it’s probably accurate that the politicians in question aren’t very familiar with videogames. And this doesn’t seem all that different from steam-tunnel “D&D killed my baby” madness.
I’ll take it as given that all my readers are familiar with video games, and multiplayer features of them. I’ve played many Bond villians during Goldeneye multiplay. However, as usual, TNC takes it a step farther:
[I]t must be said that the stories I love generally have a villain I can relate to, someone who I can almost … see myself in. …
As a maniacal “kill them all” villain, Magneto is, to my mind, just another foil. As a dude with a quasi-defensible, if ultimately amoral, perspective on mutants, he grabs me a little. When contemplating evil, I want to see some of myself. I need to feel the lure of evil, it’s seduction. The devil must be luscious to grab me.
My sense is that video games will have to confront this, at some point. They probably already are. A video game told from the perspective of a Taliban insurgent isn’t likely any time soon. Which is too bad. I think that’s exactly the kind of video game that might help us get to some emotional truths about the past ten years.
First of all, I think videogames are doing this already. Not the Taliban specifically, mind you. But consider the story arc for Arthas in the Warcraft series. The fallen paladin is a familiar story to us, Darth Vader, anyone?
Then there’s the quest line for Death Knights in World of Warcraft. That went to a very dark place, and people maybe didn’t understand, but they felt it. Lest you think that only Blizzard does this, the quest lines in Ruins of Kunark had a great deal of moral ambivalence. You would tell one faction, “Ok, I’ll go kill your enemies” and do so. Then you would go to the enemies, and offer to kill the people you were just helping. More than a few people felt dirty doing that, to which my response is: Good!
Still in the fantasy setting, DDO has some quests that have left me shaking my head. For one, The Silver Flame wants you to go to a place where there is gambling, smash the gambling tables and kill the guards. The games content people know what they are doing, since the loading screen for that instance has the message, “The Silver Flame is not afraid to enforce it’s moral judgements by the sword.” In other quests you are asked to steal and collect taxes.
I’ve actually begun to skip a few of these, for the sake of roleplay. That is, given the character I’ve created, and their situation, would they actually take this job if offered? I was talking last night with Boaz, an Eve corpmate (and reader! I have readers!!) who also plays DDO. Their group has mostly let go of the “must level faster” grind, and looks to just do something that’s fun and interesting. Part of that fun is imagining what things your character would do, and what things they wouldn’t.
My alt in DDO is Martyy, currently Figher 1/Rogue 1. Marty wears half-plate, but can bluff and sneak attack (and improved trip). As is typical for me, he started in another system in another (tabletop) campaign. So I have a good idea of his character. He’s happy to be mob muscle, or muscle for the powers that be. But as he was smashing the gambling tables, he was thinking, “I’d rather be playing these tables, than smashing them. This job sucks!”
In Eve Online, players routinely commit acts of piracy, terrorism, and extortion. The game itself provides no moral compass. So, one of the joys I have is charting my own moral territory. Some of the missions in Eve have a decidedly dark side. In one series of five missions, you spend most of your time running around playing nanny for a rich heiress. Bringing her cash from Daddy, bailing her out of jail, etc. But then, in the final mission you find out that Daddy wants you to kill her, because he thinks her unworthy of his money. Outright, cold-blooded murder. As Milgram would have predicted, most people do so, with the thought, “It’s just a game”.
Let me be clear. It is a game. I’m very glad that there are pirates and miscreants in the game, as well as war opponents. I’m even kind of glad that there are scammers in the game. What I’m looking for is for someone to actually own their own black hat, to have the thought, yeah, I’m a bad guy, and here’s why… Goonswarm, our allies and landlords, and notorious Eve bad guys, seem to really get this.
Because, you see, it’s very easy to become a bad guy while still thinking that you are a good guy. That’s how it works. Adolph Hitler was convinced that he was only doing what was needed to save the German people and the country he loved. German soldiers considered themselves honorable patriots, as Seth writes:
That thought has found expression in games for many decades. The Avalon Hill classic PanzerBlitz helped reshape the board game business when it was introduced in 1970 as an evenhanded simulation of the Eastern Front. When, as a child, I played as a German commander in that game or as a Japanese World War II admiral in the war game Flat Top, should my parents and teachers have been concerned that I was turning into a fascist?
In any case, my path, at least in Eve and DDO is to pick and choose my course, my quests, my missions, my code of honor. Not as I would choose, but as the character I’m playing would choose. Because it’s more fun that way, and more interesting.
After all, it’s just a game.