On a recent brisk Vancouver afternoon, while shooting our review of Medal of Honor for the show, Vic and I got into a heated Crossfire-style debate over the merits of turning real-world conflicts into armchair entertainments.
We hadn't planned on doing this. Our original goal was to have a semi-lucid conversation about the game's multiplayer modes. But suddenly, there we were, doing something neither of us expected to be doing.
It was awkward. It was uncomfortable. But it was real, and necessary. And not completely unenjoyable.
Vic posits that building a virtual experience, as Medal of Honor does, around up-to-the-minute news headlines helps expose gamers to issues that are currently going on in the world, that these virtual experiences can be didactic and enlightening and fortifying, and, finally, that games need to start attempting to work with, or at least wrestle with, this kind of trickier, more mature material if they are ever going to get anywhere. (I think that's a fair approximation of Vic's points. Vic: If it's not a fair approximation, kick me underneath the desk. Yes, we sit across from one another, just like in old-time detective movies.)
I heard Vic. He made some good points. But I don't agree with him.
Not because I enjoy disagreeing with Vic--which I do (oh, how I do)--but because I can't get behind what he's saying. Games, at this point in time, are simply not equipped to offer any sort of mature commentary on, or virtual approximation of, what's happening in Afghanistan.
Now, I'm not going to pretend that I fucking even know what's going on in Afghanistan. Yes, I read the papers and watch the news. From what I can gather from the media, it's an arid pit of death, misery and despair of epic proportions. Awful, nightmarish shit happens there on a moment to moment basis. Your own soldiers, it seems, are far more likely to kill you by mistake than anything else. Sad, complex dramas play out each day--dramas that are throughly unique to this conflict.
What happens in EA's Medal of Honor, I'm 100-percent certain, has absolutely nothing to do with what is actually happening there.
Let's face it: At this juncture, videogames are unfortunately still only capable of reducing complex, happening-now experiences to one or two-note entertainments. Which is what Medal of Honor is: a tepid one-note reduction of a complex, painful, fucked-up-beyond-belief story that is so base and lowbrow that it's not an honor at all but an insult.
You can't take all of this fucked up shit and turn it into a high-resolution shooting gallery and put a $60 price tag on it.
Worse still, if you're in the mood to shoot brown-skinned people wearing turbans--or "towel-heads," as one of our neighbors so affectionately called them when I was growing up--this is the game for you. EA's best customers, I'd imagine, are the people who show up to protest the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero. Hand out some Medal of Honor demos down there, EA. I'm sure those people will find your game thoroughly entertaining.
The bottom line is this: If you've got something serious or important or profound to say, about the war in Afghanistan, or anything else for that matter, a videogame at this moment in time is the absolute last medium you should attempt to say it in.
Re-watch Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. The locale was different--Iraq, not Afghanistan--but I learned more about the type of horse shit soldiers deal with in the Middle East from that three-minute, claustrophobic barracks fist-fight scene--you know the one--than I did from Medal of Honor in its entirety. I learned more from watching Jeremy Renner's character shop for fucking cereal than I did from Medal of Honor in its entirety.
Look at M.A.S.H. I watched that show religiously when I was kid. I saw how the soldiers lived, in their impossibly flimsy canvas tents. (Which seemed flimsier still whenever bombs would fall on their unit.) Sure, there were plenty of good times between B.J. and Hawkeye and Hot Lips and Colonel Potter, and their never-ending quest to foil nemesis Frank Burns. But there were lots of terrible, shitty, god-awful times, too. Choppers would suddenly arrive in droves at least once per episode carrying the dead and the wounded. Watching doctors exchange quips and barbs and zingers, and flirt and insult one another, all while being elbow-deep inside the chests of dead or dying soldiers tells you volumes about the human condition, and about how people endure and survive these sorts of beyond-hellish circumstances.
Games can't possibly hope to enlighten us in these ways. They will one day--oh, they'll enlighten us in ways that we can't even imagine, trust me--but right now, they can't.
How puny Medal Of Honor seems when you hold it up next to Oliver Stone's Platoon, or Coppola's Apocalypse Now, or Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, or HBO's The Pacific, or Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," or Wolff's "In Pharaoh's Army," or Jerzy Kosinski's "The Painted Bird."
How puny. How small. How pathetic.
Man, I am all for pushing the envelope, for seeing games do things that they've never done before, for making me feel things that I've never felt before. But when a game set in a fictional post-apocalyptic wasteland--I'm talking about Fallout: New Vegas now--has more nuance and subtext and depth and intelligence than a game about the war in Afghanistan, and can evoke emotions ranging from heartbreak and anger to frustration and exhilaration, that's a grave, grave problem that needs to be addressed, and right quick.