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.