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Liam Fox misses point, destroys neighbouring village

August 23, 2010

No matter how jaded I get, I doubt it will ever cease to amaze me how many kinds of cluelessness your average politician can fit into a one-paragraph soundbite. Today we have Liam Fox (who is, unfortunately, our Secretary for Defence) calling for the ratings boards to ban shops not to stock the new Medal of Honor game. In the space of a few lines, he concocts a delicious stew of offensiveness that deserves some sort of prize for packing so much fail into so small a space. He even uses the word ‘un-British’, which is usually the exclusive province of the frothing far right.* Mr Fox’s comments:

It’s shocking that someone would think it acceptable to recreate the acts of the Taliban. At the hands of the Taliban, children have lost fathers and wives have lost husbands. I am disgusted and angry. It’s hard to believe any citizen of our country would wish to buy such a thoroughly un-British game. I would urge retailers to show their support for our armed forces and ban this tasteless product.

Emphasis mine. And really, most of the fail is packed down into that one sentence.

The Taliban have perpetrated atrocious acts of violence. Many, many people back home have lost their siblings, partners, parents, children, friends, and it would have been fair and good for Fox to have pointed this out – depicting a conflict that has caused so many people so much pain is always going to be problematic. But he didn’t say that Britons have lost their siblings, partners, parents, children and friends: rather, he specifies that “children have lost fathers and wives have lost husbands.”

I’m sure they have. I’m equally sure that children have lost mothers, and husbands have lost wives: around ten percent of British servicepeople are servicewomen. No doubt, too, that wives have lost wives and husbands lost husbands: the law banning (openly) gay and/or trans people from service was struck down in 1999. (Nowadays the military seem to take the pragmatic view that arbitrarily excluding ~10% of potential recruits is a stupid idea – the first recruitment stand at a Pride event was in 2005, and they’re now a fixture, apparently; there were definitely a couple of Army blokes handing out flyers at Leeds Pride this year.)

Fox’s cavalier erasure of non-male, non-heterosexual servicemembers – when there are plenty of ways to make the same point without doing so – is depressingly par for the course. As a pertinent point of comparison, the number of ‘realistic’ war-themed games that let you play as a servicewoman is pretty much zero, despite the fact that it would require almost no additional programming – when the player never sees their own character aside from the occasional outflung arm, the sex of that character is completely cosmetic. People occasionally pull out the excuse that there are no female frontline troops in the militaries depicted and claim that the total lack of women is therefore careful attention to detail, rather than sexism. Considering the many, many liberties taken in your average game with history, geography, human endurance and nuclear physics, adding in a female Ranger or SAS operative would be barely a blip on the real-o-meter. (I thought the point of games was to be more awesomecool than real life, anyway.)

Anyway.

Fox’s reduction of our Armed Forces to a male, heteronormative monolith is fucking offensive, but what truly takes the cake in this whole buffet of Not Getting It is the assertion that it’s vile and disgusting to play as a Taliban guerilla because they kill people who have loved ones. Apparently the British military have never deprived a child of their parents or an adult of their spouse! Let us all celebrate the wonderful news that our glorious British troops have never, ever, committed acts of gratuitous violence that destroy lives and leave families shattered. Because fucking hell, it’s news to me.

Discussing the ongoing trend to glamorise and/or trivialise war in games,** and the potential problematic aspects of making into a game a real-world conflict in which people died and were otherwise horribly traumatised, and how to represent wars, and the people in them, and the violence of them, sensitively and respectfully? All conversations that are worth having. That we should be having.

Liam Fox, however, doesn’t seem to be interested in any of those things. It’s telling as hell that he frames this as a patriotic issue: it’s “un-British” and is disgusted that “any citizen of our country” would buy it. He voices no objection to the portrayal of war (and possibly war crimes) in general – just to the game’s option for the player to step into the shoes of a Taliban insurgent. (He also seems to have misunderstood how games like Medal of Honor work, with both single-player and multiplayer modes. In multiplayer, people are assigned – basically arbitrarily – to ‘sides’. In single-player, you stay with one or two of the good guys throughout. The chances of MoH actually letting you play as the Taliban during a plot segment are . . . minimal.)

What, exactly, is Fox worried about? That people will be inspired to pick up an AK-47 and gun down their neighbours? If you believe that (which I don’t), surely it would be equally likely to happen with any depiction of graphic violence. That people will be somehow radicalised? I doubt it. Or is his worry that by letting the player step into the shoes of the Taliban, the game risks making the enemy du jour a little bit too human?

If it is the latter, I think he’s giving EA too much credit, really. Game antagonists can occasionally be done very well, but in an FPS – where the plot is rarely more than an excuse for shooting a lot of things in a really cool way – they have a tendency to be on the thin side. So I don’t think there’s too much for Her Majesty’s Government to worry about on the sympathising-with-the-enemy front. But it is, still, telling that this is evidently where his mind goes. Though perhaps in view of his voting record – pro-Iraq War, pro-keeping Trident, anti-EU (and anti-gay rights, possibly relevant to my earlier point) – perhaps this isn’t so surprising.

Finally, one more thing. He’s calling for it to be, if not banned, restricted from sale. Now we may not have a Constitution, like our transatlantic cousins, which sets down the right to free speech – but it’s still a cornerstone of British law. Calling for stuff to be banned or otherwise prevented from reaching consumers is a bad move on two accounts, practical and ethical. On the practical side, there is nothing that will get a game, or movie, or book more worldwide publicity than banning it. It’s also liable to cause a direct uptick in sales, as people who wouldn’t otherwise have been interested are attracted by the lure of the forbidden. And on the ethical side, why is Mr Fox advocating restricting British citizens’ choice of entertainment? The government want a voice in the contents of our game cupboards now? Shocking. (Actually, they don’t. The Dept of Culture, Media & Sport were pretty quick to disavow Fox’s statements as purely his own and not a reflection of government policy. Well played, DCMS.)

I won’t be buying the new Medal of Honor: I am not a fan of combat-oriented games in general,*** and I don’t like the games industry’s persistent fetishisation of humanity’s least pleasant pastime. (Games are entertainment properties: they are meant to be fun. By making so many of them about war, you are pretty much sending the message that war = fun. Not accurate, not helpful, and potentially hugely disrespectful.)

But it’s a testament to the inanity and all-round offensiveness of Fox’s remarks that I thought about getting it, just to piss him off.

*

*The UK has less of a sense of morality as somehow linked to nationality. I put it down to this country’s just sort of happening: unlike the US, we have no founding principles to point to, because we were never founded. The rhetoric of certain things/behaviours/people being ‘British’ or ‘un-British’ has increased in recent years with the rise of the BNP and the return to power of the Tories, but it still seems to be a lot less common than equivalent uses of ‘American’/’un-American’.

**I have no idea yet whether Medal of Honour is glamorising, trivialising or otherwise – the game isn’t out yet. Personally, I would bet on the virtual Taliban being inadequately motivated, randomly psychopathic generic scary brown people.

***Except for Team Fortress 2. And as Team Fortress 2 is approximately one million miles from a realistic representation of mercenary combat – unless Blackwater et al. have access to teleportation, invisibility and infinitely-refilling jars of piss – I don’t think the charge of glamorisation really holds.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    August 23, 2010 11:39 pm

    There are a few common generalisations about video games here that I disagree with, but the rest is spot on, and I’m also glad that the government seem to be distancing themselves rather than joining in.

    I do, however, object to the assumptions that all shooting games have no plot and are just about shooting, and that video games have to be fun to entertaining. While there are plenty of games that are just about shooting, there are also lots of games where shooting is a mechanic that is used with others to drive the storyline. The Modern Warfare series do this very well – I don’t think playing a soldier crawling through the wreckage of a nuclear explosion before dying is a trivial subject, or glamorises war in any way.

    ‘Video games = fun’ seems to be based on the ‘video games are for kids’ opinion that is still knocking about, and it ignores so many other forms of entertainment that don’t get a second mention in other forms of media – does a film have to be a comedy to be entertaining? What about films with deep and intricate narrative, plot twists and suspense, or even horrors? (I don’t like horror films or games, but plenty of people seem to.) Saving Private Ryan is a favourite film of mine, and there is no fun involved, because it is a gritty real-life picture of how the fighting in Normandy went in 1944. You see how unpleasant the fighting is, how cruel both sides can be, and how much of an effect it has on everyone involved, directly and indirectly. That is what makes it a great film, and some realistic war games work on the same basis, not glamorising war but in fact the opposite instead.

    This does not excuse the games that do not do this, though, that do glamorise war and violence, and it saddens me that there are an awful lot of people who like to play them…

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