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Persuasive Games: Free Speech is Not a Marketing Plan

Game designer and writer Ian Bogost uses the Medal of Honor censorship controversy as a lens to focus light on the issue of whether the game industry -- soon to defend its rights in the Supreme Court -- truly exercises the free speech it may soon lose.

Ian Bogost, Blogger

October 4, 2010

14 Min Read

[In his latest regular Gamasutra column, game designer and writer Ian Bogost uses the Medal of Honor censorship controversy as a lens to focus light on the issue of whether the game industry -- soon to defend its rights in the Supreme Court -- truly exercises the free speech it may soon lose.]

In November, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments from the State of California, as the latter attempts to prohibit the sale of certain games to minors. The issue has remained a nail-biter for the industry and its advocates, who see the proposal as an attack on the First Amendment rights of game makers.

Despite its importance to American life, many citizens misunderstand the First Amendment. It is not meant as an anything-goes license to say whatever you want in any context without consequence. Rather, it is meant primarily to protect citizens from government reprisals if the former wish to mount criticisms or advance unpopular ideas against the latter.

Unpopular ideas, it should be noted, have often been central to American civic reform. Many of the issues we now take for granted, both as rights won and as formative moments in our political history, have been made possible by citizens' unfettered rights to unpopular political speech.

This tradition continues today all across the political spectrum, as debates about issues like gay marriage and health care clearly reveal.

Commercial speech is subject to slightly more limited freedom, although the history of free speech legislation in the U.S. has often included debates about such a distinction. In this regard, it's worth pondering how well video games have pursued the social and political speech the First Amendment exists to protect.

As November's Supreme Court date approaches, there is perhaps no more ironic example of video game speech gone awry than Electronic Arts's decision to cave to public pressure and remove the Taliban from its forthcoming edition of Medal of Honor.

The game has courted controversy for months now. In a departure from its heritage as a game glorifying World War II era combat, the latest edition of the long-running series takes up the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Purportedly developed in consultation with U.S. Tier 1 Special Operations Forces, the game promises that players "will step into the boots of these warriors and apply their unique skill sets to a new enemy in the most unforgiving and hostile battlefield conditions of present day Afghanistan."

It's a promising idea for a video game. After all, warfare has changed considerably since the mid-twentieth century, and the game-playing public might benefit from an experience of modern warfare drawn from the pages of the news rather than the pages of fantasy novels.

Certainly other media have taken up this goal. The recent documentary film Restrepo, for example, chronicles a terrifying year of unforgiving impasse in Afghanistan's dangerous Korangal Valley, which is sometimes called "the deadliest place on earth" by American troops.

Like Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and David Simon & Ed Burns's Generation Kill, Restrepo eschews geopolitical context in favor of the raw experience of modern war. In fact, that's really the main point of the film: despite home-front rhetoric about the political justifications for extended wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the modern soldier's experience is neither rooted in nor justified by political accomplishment. In a strange and perversely poetic inversion, it is little more than an exercise in terror -- for terrorist and for liberator alike.

For its efforts, Restrepo won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. A small cultural victory, to be sure, but a poignant one too in light of the incredible pointlessness of the American occupation of the Korangal Valley. On April 14, 2010 the U.S. closed its outpost there, admitting that no military nor political progress had been made there during the four years it had been in operation.

Restrepo is hardly the most controversial of recent art about a contemporary political issue. It's tame, in fact, compared with the long history of filmic button-pushing. Movies have mostly stirred controversy through depictions of sex and perversion (a subject about which video games haven't gotten to first base), but war has had its share of filmic contentiousness too.

Michael Cimino's 1978 film The Deer Hunter, for example, won the Oscar for Best Picture despite stirring up considerable debate about the historical accuracy of its depiction of Vietcong atrocity. More recently, Michael Moore's 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 earned public ire for its take on the Bush administration's handling of the "war on terror."

Among the latter film's controversies were accusations of commercial censorship, as Moore had accused Disney's Miramax division of refusing to distribute the film for fear of political retribution in the state of Florida, where Jeb Bush served as governor at the time. (As it happens, Disney sold Miramax this year -- for $100 million less than it spent to buy social gaming studio Playdom.)

Despite ruffling feathers, these two films serve as relatively modest specimens of art made to spur public debate in the ways the First Amendment is supposed to facilitate. They represent resolve and intention on the part of their creators, who hoped to advance potentially unpopular positions as a matter of speech, not just as a matter of marketing. And as works made for private gain, they advocate for the amalgamation of public and commercial speech, for they draw the public interest out of the accident of industrial production and distribution.

How does Electronic Arts measure up? In creating a video game about the war in Afghanistan, the company had "stood firm," in its words, against myriad accusations of the tastelessness of allowing players to take on the roles of enemy operatives in the game, particularly the Taliban.

UK defense secretary Liam Fox had decried the game as offensive and shocking, noting that British families had lost fathers at the hands of the Taliban. On Fox News, Karen Meredith, the mother of a fallen American soldier, had called the game "disrespectful" for "turning war into a game." And most recently, GameStop declared its intention not to sell the game on military bases "out of respect for our past and present men and women in uniform."

EA spokespeople smartly countered that opposition is a part of conflict, and that video games offer a unique opportunity for citizens to play both sides, presumably to understand the differences in motivation or experience on either side of the conflict.

It should be noted that such controversy continued, with its related publicity benefits, even despite a lack of information about just what it would mean to play the Taliban in Medal of Honor.

As Restrepo showed, the pure anguish of the Afghan war may obliterate the very notion of "good guys" and "bad guys" in Afghanistan in the first place. A generous interpreter might hope for such a subtle reveal in the game, one that might send a knowing chill down the spines of its presumably sophisticated playership.

But EA's latest move in the Medal of Honor saga seems instead to reveal that its interest in Afghanistan in general and the Taliban in particular never had anything whatsoever to do with a position on foreign war -- or really on anything whatsoever.

In a statement issued October 1, Medal of Honor Executive Producer Greg Goodrich caved to "concern over the inclusion of the Taliban in the multiplayer portion of our game." Goodrich clarified that the opposition wouldn't be removed from the title, but instead it would simply be "renamed from Taliban to Opposing Force." His statement concluded with a note of appreciation for troops serving overseas, clear contrition for the studio's perceived indignities.

Crucially, Goodrich entreats the public to note the following: "this change should not directly affect gamers, as it does not fundamentally alter the gameplay." This one statement should cause considerable distress, as it suggests a troubling conclusion about Medal of Honor as a work of public speech.

To wit: it suggests that the Taliban never had any meaningful representation in the game anyway. If a historically, culturally, and geographically specific enemy can simply be recast in the generic cloth of "opposition," then why was it was called "Taliban" in the first place?

And if the Afghan war in which the new Medal of Honor is set was one explicitly meant to drive the Taliban from their strongholds in Afghanistan, why should it matter that the game is set in that nation in the present day at all? In short, how was this Medal of Honor title meant to be a game about this war in particular?

If the presence or absence of the Taliban "does not fundamentally alter the gameplay," then perhaps it did not matter that this particular Islamist terrorist group found its way into the game in the first place. And since EA has not altered the experience but only renamed the enemy, then whatever simulation of Taliban life Medal of Honor does offer remains the same save the letters by which it is annotated on-screen.

If a meaningful simulation of the Taliban ever existed, one that meant more than "the name for the current enemy that is in Afghanistan," then the studio would have had to admit that no other name can be given for that opposing force, and that to hedge would ruin the unique artistic expression the game hoped to communicate.

EA's statement is one of commercial political convenience, precisely the sort of hedge that undermines free speech protections by distancing them from earnest contributions to public ideas. Says Goodrich, "We are making this change for the men and women serving in the military and for the families of those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice -- this franchise will never willfully disrespect, intentionally or otherwise, your memory and service."

As it turns out, government pressure may have contributed to the about-face. According to a report published by Kotaku soon after Goodrich's statement, the U.S. Army may have threatened to withdraw its support for the game had the playable Taliban remained.

Whether such duress ever materialized is irrelevant, since the developers don't really have anything to communicate about Afghanistan in the first place. Restrepo and The Hurt Locker also deemphasized geopolitics in favor of the experience of soldiering, but neither set of filmmakers would ever have argued that their respective settings and contexts were irrelevant to that experience. Yet in an interview on this site, Goodrich makes precisely this claim, that he intends the game to be "devoid of politics or political discussion or debate."

I think we've always approached [the game] in the sense that it's not about the war itself. We've not approached as a game about Afghanistan, or a game about Al Qaeda. This is not a game about the Taliban. This is not a game about local tribal militias or warlords.

Instead, Goodrich suggests that the game is about "individuals doing their job," a kind of milquetoast soldier's homage: "Let's support them, let's get them home."

So let's review. Electronic Arts made a war game about the U.S.-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but that game is not about war, not about Afghanistan, not about the Taliban, not political, and not interested in making or supporting any discussion.

Instead, Medal of Honor is just another well-produced first-person shooter, one that invokes a recent war as a marketing gimmick to accompany an equally generic plea to "support our troops." Playing as the Taliban never mattered anyway. It was just a menu item, so no big deal to remove or rename it. Just a marketing tag on the box. Just a clever hook to spin free publicity, and just an inconvenient but essentially irrelevant feature to drop when the Army brass raised its eyebrows.

How shall we square this total disinterest in earnest speech with another statement issued on October 1, this one from the Entertainment Software Association about the forthcoming Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association Supreme Court case? In a brief filed with the court, the ESA argues that "video games are a popular form of modern artistic expression involving classic themes, storylines and player involvement, affording them the same First Amendment protections as other media, such as books and movies."

Yet as Medal of Honor demonstrates, the wealthy corporations like Electronic Arts that fund the ESA to lobby on their behalf are typically not the ones to take up such a charge in earnest. In an inversion unseen in any other popular medium, the majority of truly challenging artistic expression in games comes primarily from rogue creators, independents whose political and artistic ambitions typically conflict with rather than complement their connections with the commercial marketplace (to name but a few examples: Brenda Brathwaite, Gonzalo Frasca, Jason Rohrer, Paolo Pedercini).

As video game critic Casey O'Donnell recently pointed out, the work of such independent developers remains largely unpublishable on first-party systems due to the very fears of effrontery that led EA to hedge on its promise of a playable Taliban. Says O'Donnell:

I can't speak on my Wii. I can't speak on my DS, my PS3, my PSP, or even my bloody NES. It is largely a broadcast medium; a commercial medium. So while I deeply and firmly believe that games should be protected and current efforts, like those in California, are unconstitutional, the game industry is its own worst enemy in this respect with its tight control over content.

O'Donnell's point is this: the very structures that drive the operation of the most visible and influential circles of the commercial video game industry, the ones that have raised the ire of governments like California's, simultaneously resist the expansion of the mass market video game console into the domains of the speech the First Amendment was created to protect.

If I wanted to make a playable version of Restrepo (or for that matter, A Clockwork Orange or Crash or Brokeback Mountain), it's highly unlikely that EA would publish it or that Microsoft or Sony or Nintendo would license it.

Sure, there's the web, there's the PC, there's the iPhone and so forth, but such markets are not where the video game mainstream resides, either commercially or culturally. Such works are not what the State of California hopes to regulate. Such artists do not enjoy the commercial success of the corporations that lobby through the ESA.

The possible regulation of commercial video games ought to concern all of us. But I can't help but ask if the commercial video game industry will ever make good on the claims it spews when legal battles like next month's Supreme Court hearings flare up.

Will commercial video games ever care enough about the world they share with war and sex and crime and brutality to want to speak about those issues in earnest, in public, in spite of the negative reactions or even in order to elicit those negative reactions? Or will they merely want to sell bits and plastic at $60 a go, any one just as good as the last -- so long as its Metacritic scores hold up?

Free speech is not a marketing plan. Free speech is only any good if you take advantage of its invitation. So I say this to you, my video game maker brethren: say something. Say it like you mean it. Otherwise you just make a mockery of those who do, those who have the courage -- the honor even -- to go out on a limb, to compromise their popularity, their success, their safety even on behalf of something more than a bonus check.

Free speech is defended in courts, but it is practiced on the streets and in the media by people who want to intervene in their world, not just to occupy it. Commercial video games deserve a place at that table, to be sure. Whether they will ever choose to show up for dinner is an open question.

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About the Author(s)

Ian Bogost


Dr. Ian Bogost is an award-winning videogame designer and media philosopher. He is Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Founding Partner at Persuasive Games LLC (which makes games about social and political issues), and an award-winning independent developer (Cow Clicker, A Slow Year). Find him online at http://bogost.com.

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