Game On?
October 13th, 2010

Say you are a video game junkie.  Say you love to play Grand Theft Auto or Mortal Kombat.  Say you spend hours upon hours lost in this virtual space taking on avatar personas and doing untold damage on the digital world you inhabit.  What does that mean for your real life when your mom/girlfriend/wife calls you up to dinner?  (I have to assume that if this description fits you that you are also male and in a basement.  Some stereotypes are just too hard to pass up…  I kid.  Sort of.)

I ask these questions because of a story I heard on NPR on Monday.

The popular video game Medal of Honor is getting a lot of press for its latest version of the game.  All of the hoopla has to do with the fact that the new release originally allowed users to select the Taliban as their gaming avatar.  (The final version of the new release changed the name of this avatar option to “Opposition Forces.”)  Now, I am not a gaming junkie.  Far from it.  (I haven’t played anything since the original Super Mario Brothers.)  And I think this may be why I found this piece by Heather Chaplin so fascinating. 

The story begins by explaining the Taliban/Opposition Forces controversy above, but then delves into a discussion of the psychology of play versus other forms of entertainment.  Take movies as an example.  We watch (and acclaim) movies about sensitive and violent subject matters all the time.  You need look no further than Saving Private Ryan or Bowling for Columbine or The Hurt Locker to know that.  Chaplin comments, “Games are held to a different standard. … This double standard between movies and games stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the psychology of play.”

There is a common argument among gaming critics that by making a game out of these subjects they are inherently trivialized.  But somehow this critique is not leveled against books, movies, or television shows.  When I watched the movie Jarhead I could sense in every scene the seriousness with which the filmmakers took their subject.  I felt intimately acquainted with the plight of the characters by the end of the film.  The idea of turning this premise into a game is off-putting to me.  My inner monologue says, “… but this isn’t a game.  This actually happened!” 

The NPR story then goes on to explain that video games are actually more intense for people watching them, than they are for the players.  The players must maintain a sense of detachment from the game in order to interact with it.  That is, in order to run, jump, shoot or strategize you must always maintain the understanding that you are causing the action which continuously reiterates to the player that it isn’t real. 

I suppose that’s what clinches it for me.  These things – things like war – are real.  We should not come to these topics in a way that allows us to deny that reality.  It’s not that I think gamers will run out into the streets killing people because they can’t understand the difference between true and digital realities.  It’s the fact that the gamers can (and do) make that distinction that I find most troubling.  The act of gaming allows them to take something that is an unendurable hell for many people, and turn it into an afternoon pastime. 

In this follow-up opinion piece former Marine Corps officer Benjamin Busch comments that, “For those who truly want to play for a Medal of Honor, recruiters are standing by. Only eight have been awarded since we invaded Afghanistan. All but one have been posthumous.”

One Response to “Game On?”

  1. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I’m with you…that’s just not something I’m comfortable with. And that last quote broke my heart. :(