If you're concerned that war (video) games are becoming too real, especially for the kids who get their hands on them one way or another, give former U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer Benjamin Busch's editorial on NPR a read. "The game cannot train its players to be actual skilled special operations soldiers, nor is it likely to lure anyone into Islamic fundamentalism," Busch writes of Medal of Honor. "It can grant neither heroism nor martyrdom. What it does do is make modern war into participatory cinema. That is its business."
Busch's problem with Medal of Honor is in its depiction of the War in Afghanistan -- a war that's obviously going on "right now." He believes that it "equates the war with the leisure of games" (perhaps distorting how best for a civilian, including those considering enlistment, to understand war), and he argues that, despite "the fully articulated violence," Medal of Honor can't possibly emulate the reality of combat. "There is a truth common to all, and that is that playing war in any medium is not combat, and for a gamer, it's not even political. It's just sedentary adventurism in need of a subject."
"The power of controlling your situation, to be able to stop the war and rest, is something that our soldiers are quietly desperate for. For those who patrol the valleys of Helmand, it is a way to impose limits on the uncertainty of war and the constancy of vulnerability," Busch reminds us. "A video game can produce no wounds and take no friends away."
Update: Busch has contributed his own follow-up comment (re-posted in full below) to this post in which he stresses that his essay is primarily a response to "the fact that Medal of Honor, a video war game based in Afghanistan during our current war there, has been banned from sale on US military bases as well as those of several allied nations."
On Joystiq, we've covered the apparent reason for the ban -- the game's usage of the "Taliban" multiplayer team -- extensively, including the initial controversy, the replacement name and Danger Close's explanation. We intentionally avoided retracing the issue in the original version of this post and angled our report on Busch's editorial to, somewhat sarcastically (given our audience), emphasize his "truth" that video games are just games (not to suggest they don't affect our understanding of and relationship to non-virtual experiences). Using Busch's own keen analogy, "playing" as the Taliban in a versus game is not conceptually different than one group having to represent the Germans in World War II-imagined recreation.
Obviously, this point is evident to most, if not all of our readership, so this post was more of a farcical shot in the dark aimed at, in Danger Close's words, "an older generation that doesn't understand games," whose reactions have led to the ban of the sale of Medal of Honor at military bases. While we would never discredit those reactions as not genuine, we would agree, as Busch outlines below, that there is a larger political strategy in play to which the ban is tied. While the government's policies concerning war go beyond the scope of Joystiq's coverage, we do encourage you to read Busch's addendum below.
Benjamin Busch's comment:
My thanks to all who have posted supportive comments in response to my brief essay. In seeing some trends I feel it necessary to address a few of these comments. I posted the same on the NPR, The Escapist, and Eurogamer website.
I originally titled it "Talibanned" when I submitted it. NPR gave it the more literate title, "Why A Video Game Does Not A Soldier Make". In doing so, some listeners/readers have made the assumption that my focus was simply denouncing a video war game's capacity and intention to train game players to be soldiers. It is, of course, obvious that they cannot, and I did not state that anyone had said that it was their purpose. I reiterate that they can't produce soldiers to bridge the point that they can also not produce Taliban fighters. For readers who were following my message, this particular truth of the game lessens the justification for our military banning it as if it were a threat. For readers who missed the lead story to my opinion piece, I respond to the fact that "Medal of Honor", a video war game based in Afghanistan during our current war there, has been banned from sale on US military bases as well as those of several allied nations.
Tim Myers corrected that misunderstanding best in his comment which I repost. Tim Myers wrote: "I don't think Mr. Busch is disputing a claim that video games accurately represent combat, or the life of a soldier. I read his point as being that politicians are misrepresenting what video games do. It is disingenuous -- not to mention out of their jurisdiction -- for the Pentagon to demand that the makers of Medal of Honor change the names of the enemy from the Taliban to another, fictitious enemy. In my mind, this is tantamount to banning the portrayal of the remains of American servicepersons from being represented to the American public in any form. It is an example of undue government intervention, and a propaganda tool. No rational person believes that playing video games adequately prepares someone for the realities of war. But our government seems to think that they strike close enough to home to censor them. And therein lies the rub."
Tim may as well have written my essay. It might have been clearer. But NPR would have only given him 3 minutes 12 seconds as well, and that is what took away some of my connective tissue. The essay began at 832 words. It is now 545. Exact time is difficult to write for. You gamers understand the issue of time better than most as your game experience is driven by it. I am glad to see so much discussion on this site which friends directed me to. I hope that some of you will express your thoughts on the NPR site with the essay as their audience is likely a little light on serious gamers.
For those of you who understood my point and how much of it I could make in the time I had, my thanks. For those who felt I was unclear, I hope that these additional comments allow you to hear the essay differently. I have my problems with "Medal of Honor", but I find it hard to believe that the military found a way to officially ban it from sale on our bases. I stand by my words. Sorry for the clarification as most of you get it. This piece was mostly for an audience that does not understand video games. Anyone visiting this site obviously does. Thank you all for talking it out. Play carefully. Here is the essay.