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Defending violent video games, Medal of Honor edition

Yet again, a video game has stirred up controversy, and yet again, a bevy of crusaders have come out to try to convince parents of the world that if you let your children play violent video games, you might as well move to the woods to minimize the damage that they will inevitably do when they snap and decide that a murdering spree is in order.

With the new Medal of Honor game due out in October, there are two distinct groups of protesters aligned against it, one is legitimate, the other is not. The first has an issue with the game’s multiplayer modes, which automatically assign one group of players as U.S. Special Forces, and the other as the Taliban. The protesters see it as disrespectful. The other group are essentially the hangers on. If the first group were a piece of legislation, the second group would be a rider. They are the Jack Thompson’s of the world that also think the Taliban’s inclusion is disrespectful, but they go way beyond that.  Way, way beyond that.  Thompson and his ilk are honestly claiming that this video game will make people want to join the Taliban.  Medal of Honor might end up being a great game, but I doubt it will be good enough to make people join a group of religious zealots determined to kill people.  If it is, I will definitely give it a 10 out of 10.

I want to make a clear distinction here — I am not arguing whether or not it is disrespectful to include playable Taliban characters in EA’s Medal of Honor. I understand the respect issue, and it is a problem with no solutions and several opinions. What I do take issue with is that Thompson (and he is not alone) is claiming that besides the asinine fact that in his mind the game will turn a generation of American children into religious fanatics hellbent on joining the jihad, he believes that regardless of whether or not you play as the Taliban or as the U.S., the game is actually bad for society in general, and he feels the same towards all first-person shooter-style games. “Murder simulators,” he calls them.  Not only is Thompson wrong, he is a dangerous fool that has long since moved passed reason and has veered into something much darker.

There is also an upcoming Supreme Court case that should be heard in October. The case is to determine whether or not video games with a mature ranking should be held to the same standards as pornography, which would severely punish retailers for selling mature games to underage customers. The law originated in California, but has never been enacted due to legal challenges. The courts have so far found in favor of the video game industry, but expect several forces to align on both sides of this argument when the case is heard.

Ladies and gentlemen, Jack Thompson

It is nothing new. Something is happening that you don’t like, and you find someone to blame. It is human nature. Nothing brings this out more than a tragedy, and finding a scapegoat has become the “go to” option for many. When this happens, and this happens often, there is always the crusader in the wings, the person that sees the tragedy as being in line with his or her philosophy. Rather than feeling ghoulish for capitalizing on the event, they wrap themselves in a righteous blanket that defies and reflects any and all criticism as “insensitive.”  Thompson is a perfect example of this.

A Florida lawyer, Thompson first came to fame in 1988 when he challenged incumbent Janet Reno for the Dade County State Attorney General seat. Thompson began his campaign by attempting to cast Reno as a lesbian. When the two met face to face, Reno put her hand on his shoulder and told him “I’m only interested in virile men. That’s why I am not attracted to you.” Thompson then filed a police report against Reno for battery for having touched him, thus beginning the first of many instances that are simply difficult to read and then still take the man seriously.

To discredit Thompson is easy. He makes it ok to hate, as long as it is in a “good cause,” and he sees the world in black and white, which means that an actual dialog with the man is impossible. There is nothing more dangerous than a person who believes they are fighting for the fate of the future and is unwilling to see past their own prejudices.

If you need one example to define the character of Thompson, mere hours after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, before the killer was known, Thompson predicted that the killer would have trained himself on the game Counter-Strike. Seung-Hui Cho was soon identified as the man responsible, and a search warrant discovered that Cho did not have any video games of any kind, and that while he had briefly played Counter-Strike in high school, it had been more than four years since he had played. In fact, Cho rarely played any video games, and according to an official Virginia state panel, none of the games he did play were violent.

Despite that, Thompson refused to give up the idea and stated “this is not rocket science. When a kid who has never killed anyone in his life goes on a rampage and looks like the Terminator, he’s a video gamer.”

He then sent a letter directly to Bill Gates, blaming him for the Virginia Tech massacre. “Mr. Gates, your company is potentially legally liable (for) the harm done at Virginia Tech. Your game, a killing simulator, according to the news that used to be in the Post, trained him to enjoy killing and how to kill.” Although Microsoft published the game on the Xbox, Gates’ company has no actual connection to Counter-Strike.

And that is just one of many examples of Thompson’s character. He is a reactionary that is quick to spout off, he is homophobic and has frequently attacked the notion of gay equality, and just to be a well-rounded despicable human being, he is a racist.  He once described Sony’s rise in the video game world as “Pearl Harbor 2.”

He once claimed that “nobody shoots anybody in the face unless you’re a hit man or a video gamer.” These are not the words of a reasonable man.  But while Thompson might be the most well known video game opponent, he is not the only one, and many of his arguments are shared by others.

Pre-order Medal of Honor now and get the controversy for free!

The game in question this time around is EA’s Medal of Honor, a reboot of the first-person shooter franchise that takes the series to current day Afghanistan, putting players in the role of U.S. Special Forces operatives. In preparation for the game, EA hired several U.S. military consultants to add a level of authenticity to the game, and many of the mission objectives and mission types will be realistic, to a degree.

On paper, Medal of Honor is no different from several other military-based video games, with two key points. As mentioned, the game was designed with input from actual military specialists consulting (although it is far from being the only game to do so), and the game allows people to play as the Taliban.

To be clear, when you are the Taliban, it is simply a name and a character skin. There is no story line, nor are there any special reactions to killing an online opponent who will be playing as an American. It might as well be red team versus blue team, but that would be contrary to the incredible depth of detail and research that the EA team invested into this game.

To further the controversy, some of the online maps featuring Taliban forces will take place in the southern Helmand province of Afghanistan. While the game only features American troops as the Taliban’s opposite numbers, the region is home to several coalition forces, including the British and the Danes. As a result, both governments have members in power that have made their displeasure known. The same is true for Canada, who’s Defense Minister criticized the game, as did the US Army and Air Force Exchange Service — which have blocked the sale of the game on military bases. All of these complaints are legitimate, and whether or not you agree with them, you cannot help but to see their point of view, but that is another argument.

Thompson and those like him see a deeper problem with the game. They essentially think the game will brainwash you, make you go on a murderous rampage, and possibly join the Taliban.  Seriously.

Thompson’s issues (with the game):

Claiming to be representing an undisclosed number of anonymous families (despite the fact that he is no longer a lawyer), Thompson has sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, requesting action. He lists four specific issues with the game:

Jack Thompson

First, Thompson, of course, objected to playing as the Taliban. Second, he claims that EA is allowing anyone, of any age to preorder the game online. Third, the use of U.S. Special Operative soldiers consulted makes the game a “powerful and useful training tool to rehearse killing our soldiers”. And finally, Thompson believes that “military killing simulators” like Medal of Honor are direct causes for school massacres and other horrible things.

The first problem, using the Taliban, is a legitimate concern. Perhaps less so from Thompson than from the British Secretary of Defence, Liam Fox, who also registered his criticism, but it is an argument in itself that has more to do with the sensitivity of the war than a specific concern for video games in general. The second objection is a bit more obscure. Sure, it is legitimate that online sales do not require a person to check IDs, but that is an argument for any adult-rated material online, including R-rated movies, and is not specific to video games. Both are separate arguments.

Then we reach his third and fourth arguments. His third argument, that the game will reveal U.S. tactics, is staggeringly ignorant and uniformed. In fact, I would encourage the Taliban to play this game if they actually believe that the U.S. forces will send in one man to wipe out hundreds of enemies. I have difficulty imagining the use of a rocket launcher as primary weapon, but I do it all the time in video games. I even use a sword now and then — that should really freak out the insurgents, knowing that a U.S. soldier may come at them one day screaming with a blade drawn. It also seems like a long shot that after playing online, the Taliban would actually believe the U.S. Special Forces would call them a noob, insult their mothers, tea-bag their corpse after lobbing dozens of grenades, then charge a defended hill for fun. But if so, then maybe the Taliban would realize that they could never win a war against an army that can reload from a previous save point, and they might surrender. Even in the most authentic missions of the game, the action necessary to make a video game compelling will never be truly realistic, just as any movie made based on a real event will always make certain concessions. Why not go after the movie The Hurt Locker? Surely if a video game can betray the U.S. military’s tactics, then a gritty and realistic award-winning movie about a bomb squad in Iraq, also filmed with a great deal of military input to make it more realistic, would be more damaging.

Thompson’s argument might sound plausible, except to anyone that has ever played this style of video game, ever. It is a game, and it stands as such. If it were a true simulator, most gamers would likely not find much joy in eight hours of guard duty, days of waiting around and the sacrifices our soldiers make. Only fools and schizophrenics would believe that playing a video game could adequately prepare them for combat in any way.

In many ways, it is an insult to soldiers. No matter how fine tuned an enemy’s tactics might be, they can never fully simulate the heart and soul, the determination and courage that our soldiers show every minute of the day!

Do you see what I just did there? I took the argument and essentially said if you disagree with me, you are insulting the intelligence and courage of soldiers. How dare you! With a volunteer army made up of our friends, family, neighbors and fellow citizens, very few people would ever actually go out of their way to disrespect a soldier, but Thompson and others like him (and not just crusaders against video games, but crusaders against anything), regularly use this tactic to make it appear that their argument is not just sound, but also morally superior.  It is hollow rhetoric.  It is an insult to anyone with intelligence, and it cheapens what people in the military do by casting them as pawns to further a point of view. People need to stop doing this. Now. But I digress.

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