Playing War

Some time ago there has been some outrage in the US about the upcoming Medal of Honor game and how it portrays the war in Iraq. On a weird hypocritical note, the specific problem was that players would be able to play as virtual Taliban and shoot at virtual US Soldiers.

I wonder, why are those people so incredibly sensitive to their soldiers dying? It’s a war, what kind of outcome did they expect? Isn’t soldiers dying a completely plausible, almost likely result? And even if they survive, wouldn’t they end doing the very same to the soldiers of the opposing side, who presumably also have a family? How is a game where you are just gunning down Taliban a more acceptable form of entertainment? Maybe there is something wrong about me. I guess I can’t really put myself into somebody who would support a war. It’s just people dying for some really unrelated reasons.

I also find it weird that it seems like one of the reasons why Medal of Honor was a problem is because the war it is representing is so recent. So a game about the a recent war is mockery but if the war happened a while ago it’s ok? Does morality have an expiration date? What is the statute of limitations for trivializing the death of people?

There is even a tricker problem in Germany. There are a TON of World War 2 games out there where Germans are the bad guys. Of course it’s easy to antagonize members of the Nazi party as villains but the sad truth is that in World War 2, most of the soldiers fighting for Hitler weren’t politically motivated. They were just at the wrong time in the wrong place. That didn’t prevent them from doing some horrible things but again – that’s the whole point in war. The allied troops weren’t just distributing flowers either. It gets even more awkward when you actually meet people, who faught for Germany in World War 2. Some of them may even turn out to be part of your family: “Grandpa, were you dressed like the German soldiers I’m killing right now in this game?”. So when you are served one game after another where Allied heroes are liberating the world by slaughtering German troops left and right, there is this weird emotional disconnect. Of course you don’t want to be rooting for the Nazis. But you know that it just isn’t as simple as the game makes you want to believe. In such cases, you actually welcome modes where you can play on both sides. It separates the moral dilemma from the gameplay.

Going back to Medal of Honor – I think the problem is something entirely different. It’s not the fact that a game deals with a recent conflict or that it shows the conflict from the “other” side. It’s the fact that the purpose of the game is to entertain. Players play the game to engage in pleasurably exciting, simulated combat. The game doesn’t address the emotional, moral and political reality of war. Reality in those games ends with the visual representation. This makes it worse. Realistic representation creates expectations of realistic content. It’s an uncanny valley of substance. The entire meaning of the war is simply not being discussed, especially in the multi-player mode.

So it’s no wonder when people, who experienced the real war and it’s impact on human lives find it so outrageous when they find out the very same war is used as a backdrop for shallow entertainment. If games actually addressed the nature of war in a descent and thoughtful way, we wouldn’t have this kind of discussion. And no, displaying anti-war quotes on the game over screen is not nearly enough, Modern Warfare.

Speaking of Modern Warfare – the series went downhill with part 2 but the original Modern Warfare did have some moments that could have been expanded upon to create a meaningful discussion of war. Imagine a game that consists entirely of scenes like the execution scene or the helicopter crash scene from Call of Duty 4. Imagine a game about war where you don’t have a gun and where your goal isn’t to kill anybody. As long as we don’t have such games, we will have these discussions over and over again. And it won’t be just about war either.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

3 responses to “Playing War”

  1. Matt

    I think the reason no one’s had a serious discussion about this is because everyone’s having a different argument at a different point in the spectrum:
    1-People who want the most recent and topical conflict
    2-People who only want past wars
    3-People who don’t want any actual wars
    4-People who don’t want any conflict at all.
    There’s an understanding within each group but not between them. The companies that develop and produce these games fall under the 1st, “It’s just a game” category, while the woman in the clip are the 2nd, “Too soon” group. And then there’s the “My child shouldn’t be playing this” group that messes everything up.

    I do agree with you though (and I’m surprised it’s not said more) that there isn’t a difference morally in playing the current evil, evil Taliban killing U.S. troops or the past evil, evil, Germans (no offense) killing Allied troops. It says a lot about a person when they make statements like the woman being interviewed like, “People aren’t dying in WWII anymore.” and “It’s not based on real people.” She’s going off what’s directly influenced her but not looking at the morality that makes (or doesn’t make) one war okay but another off-limits.

    I don’t mean to rant, but things like this really annoy me.

  2. Ian

    I’m not sure I completely agree with your article. I would like to say that while there’s opposition towards the release of Medal of Honor in the US and the UK, much of the vocal dissent is coming from the mouths of politicians like Liam Fox and NewsCorp reporters who want to blow up an issue of the sake of ratings. While a few servicemen and the parents and family members of deceased servicemen oppose the game’s release, their dissent is being amplified into something else.

    The game itself was co-developed with the help of so-called “Tier One” servicemen. As opposed to making any political statements which are either in favor or against the war, EA decided to make the game about the experience itself. It’s about the soldiers, and unlike Call of Duty, it doesn’t try to weave it into some Tom Clancy-esque storyline with an overarching message about war.

    It really gives you something more down to earth to appreciate, and I think the servicemen who lent their support in developing the game made sure that the developers kept it that way. Chris Suellentrop’s piece ( ) sheds some good light on the game’s development.

    It’s good to want non-violent, non-war based games, but I think they exist to satisfy a human urge. Before, there were gladiatorial arenas and jousts. These days, we’re content to blasting our virtual selves away behind our keyboards and gamepads. I think it’s pretty harmless.

    In any case, a lot of the dissent over the game is coming from people who a) aren’t gamers and b) have no concept of what the game is actually like. They’re being fed scenarios where players take the role of Taliban militants in a narrative akin to that of the single player campaign. They aren’t being told the truth, in that players are just dressing up as cowboys and indians or red vs blue in the game’s multiplayer mode. It’s a whole lot of ignorance and they’re acting on what they believe. Some of them probably do know better by now, but they’re already so invested in complaining about the game that they think they’d look foolish for shutting up.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      Thanks for disagreeing.

      I’m wiling to give the game a benefit of the doubt. I haven’t played it yet. I’d be seriously surprised if the game differed from Call of Duty in a significant way.

      Here is a nice writeup from Ian Bogost. Some of the points he makes are similar to what I wrote. He goes further and argues that because the game is actually making no real statement, it ironic that it is being used to argue about the application of freedom of speech on video games.


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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