Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Our own worst enemy

Via Kotaku, the latest episode of the aroused fanboy hordes involves an op-ed piece in the Sun-Sentinel. In it, the author, Ralph De La Cruz, grapples with the moral issues raised by Call of Duty 4, which he bought as a Christmas present for his son. De La Cruz contrasts his sanguine attitude toward killing Nazis on the virtual battlefield with his uneasy reaction to a game set in modern times, and which speaks to contemporary fears. The column is thoughtful and moderate, completely lacking any animus toward games. But you'd never know it from the comments -- 15 on the newspaper's website as of this writing, and 227 on Kotaku.

The majority of the comments challenge De La Cruz on the same point. Although he says the game "sends you... into the teeth of the Iraq war," most commenters point out that Iraq is never mentioned and then do a victory lap. This is the first, typical response to the newspaper piece: "Call of Duty 4 is an entirely fictional conflict that takes place in an equally fictional country. How you missed this, I can't even imagine."

Well, er, that's not right either. The Middle Eastern country is indeed not Iraq, and given the storyline of the game -- a strong-armed dictator controls a nuclear-powered military -- there are several real-world countries that are better parallels. Pakistan, for one. Furthermore, much of the game takes place in Russia and Azerbaijan, which certainly are not fictional. Nor are the allusions to the nuclear material that went missing and unaccounted for in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. (For crying out loud, there's a slideshow somewhere online that compares the computer-generated Pripyat with its real-life counterpart. "Entirely fictional," you say?) The single greatest security threat in the Western world today is nuclear terrorism. How willfully obtuse do you have to be not to apply that knowledge to a topical game like Call of Duty 4? Maybe playing games really does desensitize you.

My biggest problem, once again, are the kneejerk attacks on Mr. De La Cruz simply because he bothered to engage the content of the game with his higher brain functions. Besides the petty gotcha of the "fictional Arabic nation!", one thing most people are saying is that it's just a game -- no need to take it so seriously. If you'll recall, when Roger Ebert dared to suggest that video games are merely playthings, unworthy of scrutiny or respect, the fanboy howls could be heard from miles away. After all, games are Serious, Important Art, and anybody who doesn't think so is trailing the zeitgeist by a good 20 years.

I've said it before and it didn't take, but I'm going to keep saying it until somebody listens: if you want people to take games seriously, the necessary first step is for you to take them seriously.

If your stock response to these types of criticisms is that it's only a game, then why are you playing video games at all? Why not just play Parcheesi? I don't accept that any video game is "just" a game, although there is obviously some wide latitude for pure escapism, or even video Parcheesi.

Call of Duty 4
doesn't fit that mold. Its aim, plainly, is to be realistic: to show the hectic and confusing nature of the battlefield, in which the difference between living and dying often comes down to something as simple and arbitrary as where you choose to take cover. It invokes historical events and real-world locations. It is deliberately set in legitimate geopolitical hotspots. Instead of running from this, as gamers, let's embrace it! Let's start the conversation ourselves.

Look at what De La Cruz actually wrote. He didn't condemn violent video games or worry that he was turning his son into a psychopath. He considers what the computer-generated foes of Call of Duty represent. One of the great things about art -- if you want to call it that -- is that it can mean different things to different people. One person isn't wrong and the other right, as long as they're arguing from a place of reason and mutual respect.

Why are we, as gamers, so apt to distance ourselves from this kind of discussion? When a movie like No Country for Old Men comes out, critics and audiences spend weeks or months talking about what it means. Gamers are more likely to be talking about how much it rules or sucks, and the extent to which we can pwn n00bs at it. Frankly, I find this embarrassing. I love games too much to treat them so disrespectfully.

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