Monday, September 6, 2010

Forecast: Hysteria, with Increasing Stupidity


There have always been bizarre, irrational and hysterical responses to certain events.  Sometimes you could read about them and smile a sad, slightly guilty smile and move on.  Other times, you just cringed and averted your gaze.  But in general, there was a well-understood, somewhat narrow range of rational responses one might expect from any event.  Indeed, I remember a time when you could lay out any group or individual’s public response to any given event on a graph and rather easily determine if it fell below the threshold of rational behavior and could be reasonably discussed; or whether a response exceeded fell outside that range and went far beyond anything that might be considered a valuable contribution to the dialog.  I think of those days as “the adult years”.

Now, with all the media casting about hourly for something new to show us, we have created a self-perpetuating “outrage machine”.  It is hard to come up with anything so banal and generally acceptable that you can’t find someone, somewhere shrieking with the abiding butthurt of agonizing victimhood.  Everything offends someone, and that very offense is sure to offend someone else, which leads to a mad, squirrel-like scurrying about to announce and then to denounce the latest outrage, every one of which is the most appalling, offensive act in human history, until the next one eclipses the previous outrage and the squirrels drop that nut in order to scurry about, outraged by some newly egregious offense.

All of which brings us to a new video game release by Electronic Arts, a warfare simulation called “Medal of Honor”.  And what has this game, set in Afghanistan, done to earn the panicked opprobrium of flag-draped patriots from Fox news to the Armed Forces commissary system?  Why, it allows players to play either as American or Taliban forces.  A war simulation that allows the game to be played from the viewpoint of either side?  Unprecedented outrage, they shriek.  Only they're wrong. When I was a young man, I had a board game that simulated the battle for the Normandy beachhead we call D-Day.  Playing the Nazi’s side wasn’t an option - as it was a two-player game, it was a necessity.  That’s right, in order to play the game SOMEBODY, some wholesome young American male had to be the German forces, fighting to push the American invasion into the sea.  Oddly, I can’t remember anyone who was shocked by this, or really, anyone who even thought it was odd or problematic.

In a war, there has to be at least two sides.  Any discussion, conversation, simulation or education about warfare by definition MUST include a realistic understanding of the goals and motivations of all sides.  Pretending that there are not dedicated, motivated people who fight against Americans is beyond unrealistic - it is childish in the simplicity of its worldview and provincial, even tribal in the way conflicts involving Americans are viewed.  “But they’re killing Americans!” they scream.  How can they allow the people who play this game as virtual Taliban to kill virtual Americans?  One can only wonder, do they understand that this is happening, in the real world, every day?  Honestly, if you don’t have the stomach for imaginary American casualties, you ought to be out on the barricades every day demanding an end to the war in Afghanistan.

But all that misses the point.  The key question, the one they can’t answer, the one that exposes the entire tempest as nothing but another manufactured outrage, is what are they afraid of?  What awful thing do they think will happen when American gamers can play the role of Taliban fighters in a simulation of the Afghan conflict?  Obviously, anyone who’s sensibilities are that easily damaged is unlikely to play this sort of video game, and if they do they can always stick to the American side, avoiding any threat to truth, justice and the American way that might arise.  For most players, though, it is merely a game, with sides labeled “American” and “Taliban”, to be played and mastered, another example of interactive cinematic entertainment that, like the earlier controversial “Grand Theft Auto” is understood at the deepest level to be imaginary, a game to be played in a digital realm, not to be in any way confused with things that happen in the real world.

Afghanistan is a brutal war in a remote land with the harshest terrain imaginable.  Logistics can be a nightmare, roads are mostly non-existent and the enemy fighters are hardened by the conditions and decades of war.  Perhaps, by seeing the war through the eyes of the insurgents, American children might learn something about the strength and courage of the American infantryman, and if the games leads to any deeper thinking at all, might bring some deeper understanding about the nature, costs and consequences of a militarized foreign policy.  America used to be a self-confident nation, powerful and fearless, secure in the understanding that we have nothing to fear from symbols and shadows, carried forward by the sense that we needn’t fear our own.  Today everything is a threat, danger lurks in the smallest of inconsequential things, and none of us are safe, even from our own children.  It would be laughable, what we have allowed ourselves to become, if it wasn’t such a tragic, irrecoverable loss.


  1. Russian Campaign, also.

    It would take FOREVER to play that game. Computers came along and made it easier.

  2. hey, even the Lord of The Rings version of Risk makes one player play as Mordor.

    Usually wins, too.