War Stories: How Medal of Honor and Others Get It Wrong
“It is well that war is so terrible, lest we should grow too fond of it.” – Robert E. Lee
First-person accounts of war, from Robert Graves’ epochal WWI memoir Goodbye to All That to contemporary examples like Generation Kill, share certain similarities. Whole chapters of banality, absurdity, and boredom are punctuated by mere paragraphs piecing together the confusing, tragic, arbitrary violence of combat. In Afghanistan today, many soldiers spend weeks simply waiting for something to happen, enduring extreme weather, tedious paperwork, and grueling physical training.
These experiences stand in stark contrast to the current array of “Modern Military Shooters,” which depict soldiering as a never-ending series of white-knuckle firefights. Players spend their time mowing down hundreds of be-turbaned enemies, striding forward with a voice in their ear telling them who to shoot next. A carefully choreographed slaughter ends, another begins.
One such game, Medal of Honor: Warfighter, has recently made news. Several Navy SEALs who consulted on the game have been disciplined by the Navy for showing developers Danger Close classified equipment designs unique to their elite unit.
This indiscretion was almost certainly committed in the name of “authenticity,” a buzzword often deployed by the Modern Military Shooter. Danger Close’s designers wanted to depict the SEALs’ weapons in Warfighter with as much loving precision as possible. Their game bills itself as the “most authentic shooter” on its official website: www.medalofhonor.com/most-authentic-shooter. Under the slogan “Authentic Game, Authentic Brands,” Warfighter explains its claim: the game “partners with real world brands that supply Tier 1 Operators around the world with weapons and equipment.” Rarely has the collusion between consumerism, entertainment media, and the military-industrial complex been so naked, or so nauseating.
Let’s be clear: representing an “authentic” experience of combat has nothing to do with equipment. Not the dimensions of a rifle scope, nor the texture of the uniform, and certainly not the brand logo on a pair of gloves (right). As long as games of this ilk continue to provide the same shooting galleries full of foreign heads to be pulped, the same clips of ammunition that magically recombine every time you mash the reload button, they will never be authentic. When real soldiers are shot, they bleed, or they die; they can’t hide behind a crate for five seconds until the trauma is magically healed. In the wars of 2012, many come home missing limbs that never heal at all.
One Warfighter subplot, the deteriorating marriage of protagonist “Preacher,” is a heart-wrenching exception. When Danger Close leaves its virtual battlefield, it can depict the unique horrors of the home front with painful, intimate accuracy. These are welcome truths; according to Pentagon statistics, the military divorce rate is at its highest level in 10 years. Unfortunately, they only bring the rest of the game’s unrealistic failings into sharper relief.
Modern Military Shooters can’t have it both ways, expiating jingoistic, war-porn fantasies with interludes of human reality. Better to admit that they are nothing more than hyperbolic fun, not so far removed from other video game fantasies — the kind with spells and swords. Players don’t mind; Black Ops 2, unapologetic about its floating numbers, future technology, and other fanciful touches, raked in $500 million on launch day alone. Developers will keep making these lucrative shooters as long as people keep buying them. But they should stop claiming that they’re authentic.