Men with Pretend Guns: Good Taste and the Video Game About Afghanistan
Last week Liam Fox, Britain’s Defense Secretary, urged retailers to ban Medal of Honor, an upcoming war shooter set in a fictional operation around the Shah-i-Kot Valley in Eastern Afghanistan. The primary offense seems to be bad taste, which Fox finds in the decision to let players control Taliban soldiers in the game’s online multiplayer mode. “It’s shocking that someone would think it acceptable to recreate the acts of the Taliban,” Fox said. “At the hands of the Taliban, children have lost fathers and wives have lost husbands.”
You can hear the dark echo of this logic in any number of subjects, from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference’s support for an anti-blasphemy resolution in the U.N. to Newt Gingrich and Lynne Cheney harpooning American public furor to an Islamic cultural center opening two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center attack (why do we mark the history of this place with the utter whitewash of “Ground Zero?”).
It can be clarifying to consider the opposite point of what someone is arguing, if only for the sake of having as clear a possible statement of what they oppose. The arch nemesis of Fox, thus, is someone who believes it would be shocking to think we should not recreate the acts of the Taliban in a video game.
It’s precisely because a small enclave of people (Gulf Arabs, Pakistani transplants, and a host of locals converted to the cause) are capable of so violently transgressing human morality that they are good subject matter for further exploration. If the worst thing we can say about some of the attempts to better describe the thoughts and feelings of another group of humans we’ve already committed to a war with is that it’s in bad taste, then there isn’t really an argument at all. If the game actually is offensive, none of us will really know until it’s out. Once it’s here and has made its case to us and we’ve all decided for ourselves what is and isn’t offensive, it might be instructive to have a debate. In advance of that time, the debate is not about taste, politics, or war, but instead about seeking to express prohibitive power over a cause as minor as momentarily wounding someone’s feelings.
The Taliban’s reputation is built on the nasty foundation of Islamic law, which empowers stoning for sex, maiming and dismemberment for women’s right to choose their own partner, and prohibits the celebratory trinity of alcohol, tobacco, and music from public life. The fact that Greg Goodrich, the game’s producer, has imagined a scenario where a player would want to step into these shoes is nothing to be disgruntled about. Without empathy, we behave like mutant beasts mistrustful and afraid of everything different than ourselves. With a key into the interior lives of other people, we can better find the line between what’s different and what’s a genuine threat that requires a decade of war.
Medal of Honor aspires to unseat Call of Duty as the pre-eminent war shooter in the world. It’s a particular kind of entertainment that heavily favors men, and the tone-deaf hero identities we’re expected to revere as the highest form of masculinity. Games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare are often called escapist fantasies, not because being pinned in a ruined Arabian suburb is such an ideal scenario, but because it relieves us of the weight of having to think. War shooters always tell the milky hero story of a man so driven by testosterone that he can absorb bullets, so fueled by honor that impersonal causes trump individual love, and the answer to every proposed problem always comes in blowing something up. In the same way that The Beatles can squeeze every last bit of human confusion, reservation, and mixed-feelings out of existence by turning “Love is all you need” from a greeting card atrocity into an irrefutable maxim, war shooters empower our wrong-headed simplifications, the things we want to really be true but know aren’t.
What’s dangerous about the idea of playing as a Taliban soldier is not that it’s disrespectful to people who’ve fought, suffered, and lost in the real world conflict. Their real source of offense is with events, criminals, and the unabsolvable realities of a 9 year-old war that was launched with three weeks of preparation and lacking due process. Even today, it has no possible end, no imaginable winner and no imaginable loser. What’s frightening is that, when reduced to the single pin-point of emotion-driven delusion, both sides can be made to look and behave the same. That’s worth knowing and feeling, I think.
When people argue that a thing should be banned, a way of mandating its existence be rejected in every possible avenue, it’s easy to miss the unflattering perception of the audience. What people like Fox mean, but never really say, is that the audience is capable of being wooed, manipulated, and made to believe a false idea simply by exposure to it. That we make things magically true by hitting the publish button, burning code to a disc, or loosing a reel of celluloid over a beam of light.
In 2000 a group of UCLA psychologists published a study that found the neuroendocrine response to physical threat was identical in men and women, but their observable behavior to threat was dramatically different. The behavior of men coalesced around a “fight-or-flight” response while the women tested tended to respond with “tend-and-mend” behavior. It’s impossible to draw any grand point about gender and behavior from this study, but it does reveal something provocative.
The chemicals released in our brains are the same when exposed to threat, the more dramatic differences in the way we respond to those chemicals happen on social, cultural, and intellectual terms. At some point, being who you are is a choice, irrespective of genes and predestination.
We are a mimetic culture, we imitate, assimilate, and seek consensus where nature provides none.In the places where our natures and invented identities come into conflict we too often rule in favor of the invented identities over our more honest and irrational selves. And so, we grow to fear others for being susceptible to a system of coercion and manipulation that we have helped prop up. The same logic that was the cause of a belief can be the undoing of it.
Things don’t become true just because they’ve been written. Likewise, things don’t cease to exist just because they’ve been sterilized out of the ledger of our collected public expressions. But we give ourselves the tools to make these discoveries when we open ourselves to the widest possible spectrum of ideas, feelings, and experiences.
All of which is a way of saying the nightly news doesn’t know any better than Greg Goodrich who the Taliban are. In a mammal-ruled world, both are necessary in connecting our ignorance with its masters. The kinds of violence that kills fathers, sons, and neighbors is more likely to happen when they do what they can to wipe away the record of our stupid daydreams, for fear that we might one day start to question where they’ve come from.
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