Playing the Bad Guy

IFC News reports that stores on Army and Air Force bases will not be stocking EA’s new edition of the Medal of Honor video game this fall.  The first-person shooter – previous editions of which were set during World War II – will take place this time in modern Afghanistan and will feature a controversial  multiplayer mode that allows some players to take on the role of the murderous Taliban.

According to Kotaku, Army & Air Force Exchange Service’s Commander Maj. Gen. Bruce Casella defends the PX ban as an act of “sensitivity to the life and death scenarios this product presents as entertainment.

In an article in Develop Magazine, EA Games president Frank Gibeau defends the game on artistic grounds:  “At EA we passionately believe games are an artform, and I don’t know why films and books set in Afghanistan don’t get flack, yet [games] do. Whether it’s Red Badge Of Courage or The Hurt Locker, the media of its time can be a platform for the people who wish to tell their stories. Games are becoming that platform.”

Now, of course, this is an old argument.  When Warner Bros first started making gangster films like Public Enemy and Little Caesar, they were lambasted by critics for romanticizing gangsters.  In response, these films would often begin with some sort of pompous, self-righteous statement insisting that the purpose of the movie was ultimately moral, intending to show the wages of sin or explore a social problem.  Like Mr. Gibeau’s statement above, I always find such rationalizations suspect, a cynically high-falutin excuse for greed.

But a larger question nonetheless remains.  Does art that sweeps us into the lives of villains, murderers and rogues debase us and romanticize bad behavior?  Do artists have a responsibility to show us a world in which good triumphs and evil is punished?  Everyone enjoys a good villain, after all.  We turn on Mad Men to watch Don Draper cheat, seduce and lie.  We acknowledge as classics those gangster films that were once so controversial.  A story in which everyone does right and everything goes well and everything turns out fine wouldn’t be any kind of a story at all.

That said, I tried to play the supposedly great game Grand Theft Auto and simply couldn’t.  Taking the role of a street thug who drags innocent civilians out of their cars and beats them with a club made my stomach turn.  And I can’t watch horror films (like Friday the 13th, for example) in which I feel the filmmaker is siding with the killer; that we’re meant to experience not horror at all, but the thrill of eviscerating young women.

The question of art’s place in the moral world is massively complex and I can’t possibly even begin to formulate an approach here.   On the one hand, I completely support the Army’s decision to ban the game.  It would be tasteless to do otherwise.  EA’s Mr. Gibeau should understand that even storytellers might wish to show some respect to the people who risk their lives to make storytelling possible.  The real Taliban, remember, would hang Mr. Gibeau on Mr. Gib-bet.

On the other hand, and in general, I can’t in all honesty join the Outraged Brigade when it comes to the arts.  Art works in the realms of play and imagination, realms where truth and beauty supersede morality.  Except in rare instances – as when Hollywood made anti-war films while our troops were in harm’s way – no one is actually put at risk.

This is because human beings are not empty vessels.  Visions of good or evil that go into them do not come out again unchanged.  The nature of the individual, and human nature, transform experience.  I read the psychotic ravings of De Sade and began my turn from atheism toward God.  Another man read “Catcher in the Rye” and committed murder.

If artists are responsible first and foremost to the beautiful, the audience – and that’s all of us – remain ever responsible to the good.  That’s why I support both EA’s decision to make the game (in principle anyway) and the Army’s decision to ban it.

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  • Graham Nickerson

    I’ve played video games since the ’70′s . I’ll describe my experiences the best I can…
    In the game Bioshock for instance, one has the choice of either harvesting the wee little girls to gain maximum benefit or healing them for significantly less reward. I have never harvested one….just can’t seem to bring myself to do it.
    I play the games and only the games where the choice is always one to be the good guy. I like being the good guy….I also like a good bad guy. A good bad guy makes being a good good guy even better. Am I making any sense??
    Modern Warfare some what avoided all this by making the Middle Easternesque bad dudes “inhabitants of a small, oil rich country”. I have also seen many WW2 era games feature playable Nazi characters in multi-player. My, how time heals all wounds?
    Long story short…video games are just pixels on a screen. I can tell the difference. Staving off hordes of (whatever) make me no more inclined to go out and “bust a cap” than watching the Polar Bear club inclines me to go out and jump in 33 degree water.
    Cheers.
    Andrew, keep up the good work

  • ari

    Out of immense curiosity, what were the readings and way stations on your way to Christianity? I’ve read one interview where you say where you end up. But how did you get there? I’ve read three of your books. They are sinewy with moral wrestling- not foregone propaganda schlock. I am most curious how you went about reading your way to a moral position that you defend so well, and without compromising your artistic integrity.

    ari