Is There Any Morality In Sitting On Your Couch And Playing Virtual Soldier?

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We’re just about two weeks away from the launch of Call of Duty: Black Ops, and besides the fact that it’s yet another Call of Duty game (which usually means a decent multi-player mode, and a campaign of varying quality), there’s not a whole lot of “heat” surrounding it. Yes, it’s setting all sorts of pre-order records, and the critical reaction is already largely positive (PSM3 magazine calls it “2010’s top shooter” in its December issue), but there’s no real, I don’t know, excitement surrounding it. That’s my perception, at least. Could it be that Medal of Honor, with its Taliban-infused multi-player, has already exhausted this country’s supply of outrage?

Foreign Affairs has published an article that asks a simple question (the best questions are simple ones): Is the new crop of hyperrealistic military video games driving home the reality of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, or simply exploiting them?

As you know, EA went to great lengths to convince people that Medal of Honor wasn’t so much about the war in Afghanistan, which is a fairly complicated matter to address in a relatively short single-player campaign, as much as it was the soldiers themselves. You know, pay no attention to the fact that this is a war that’s happening right now, and just focus on the bonds soldiers make with each other—a common refrain in the previous Medal of Honor games.

But if all EA wanted to do was create a game that’s sympathetic to soldiers, did it really need to create a game based on the ongoing conflict on Afghanistan? Call of Duty 4 carefully skirted this controversy by setting the campaign in an imaginary country, and by not specifically labeling “the bad guys” with a real world name.

The Foreign Affairs article charts the history of such games. The first Medal of Honor, which came out in 1999, was the game that kick-started the video game industry’s obsession with World War II shooters. Next to zombies, Nazis are the easiest, most guilt-free targets you can ask for. (Though I suppose you can argue your plain ol’ German soldier wasn’t necessarily a Nazi, but that’s neither here nor there.) But after years and years (and years) of shooting Nazis, apparently gamers became bored.

In steps Call of Duty 4, set in a reasonable facsimile of a “modern war,” and here we have the next craze: modern shooters, which can be boiled down to this:

There is no moral nuance at play in any of the first-person military shooters on the market today, no greater cultural lesson to be learned — there is only the opportunity to use a cool-looking machine gun to take the head off a bad-looking dude, in a beautiful-looking environment.

There’s no “meat” to these games, so why go out of your way to set them in a “real” environment if no “real” concerns are addressed? It does nothing but generate accusations of exploitation.

What’s funny is that the best multi-player shooter out there today, Valve’s Team Fortress 2, is about as unrealistic as you can get. You don’t see military mothers on Fox News complaining about its graphic depiction of violence, do you? It’s RED versus BLU, and you’re essentially controlling cartoon characters.

So why push people’s buttons so needlessly?

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