The Games We Play: With All Due Respect

Brandann Hill-Mann
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Medal of Honor video game


If you are a service member on deployment or stationed overseas you may find yourself limited in the ways that you are able to spend your free time. You could spend your time doing PT (physical training), studying for exams, doing PT, maybe doing college work online, doing PT, or, if you are a gamer, spending some quality time with your console or computer and your choice of n00bs to pwn. Because there are always n00bs to pwn.

But for military personnel are can be a limited variety of games available, especially if you are in a location that is dependent upon an Army, Air Force Exchange Services (AAFES) for the purchasing of goods. DVDs, CDs, and video games could possibly come in limited supplies, and depending on the titles and ratings, they may never come at all. You might wait beyond a release date for a long-anticipated new game. Or, in the case of one particular game, you could find yourself extremely disappointed.

Last Fall the release of Electronic Arts’ (EA) most recent iteration of the Medal of Honor series sparked much debate by allowing gamers to engage as either U.S. or Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Mind you, a past version of the game, set in World War II allowed you to play as either U.S. or Nazi soldiers, but this game, predictably and understandably for many, hit a little close to home, with their family and friends actively engaged down range. Now, being a military spouse, myself, I can understand perfectly well why some people were plenty put out by Executive Producer Greg Goodrich’s idea, and not mollified by his edit to change the game to replace “Taliban” with “Opposing Force.”

What got me going, though, was AAFES Commander Major General Bruce Casella’s decision to bar the game from all military bases. Over 300 bases worldwide and 49 Gamestops located on military bases banned the game from their stores, “out of respect for the men and women serving and their families.” Well, I am not a believer in censorship, least of all when the best someone can do is come up with a half-arsed excuse such as that, and not at all when I am one of those women who both served and is part of a family. They are not mutually exclusive, and furthermore, violence enacted against women in entertainment media is sold in AAFES stores every day.

See, scanning through my own games (along with some other titles that can be purchased in AAFES stores, because there are many games and entertainment media that have similar themes that can still be purchased there), many of which were purchased in AAFES locations, I came up with a list of those that contain material that are not respectful to all of these people serving, nor to their families. I found many instances, for example, where graphic violence against women is posited as entertainment, or as a way for the playable character, in most instances a male character, to rack up some achievement or XP (experience).

[Trigger Warning for descriptions of violence]

Grand Theft Auto: (We don’t actually own one, but I have have played one of the earlier titles that my brother did.) In any of these delightful games you can run all willy-nilly through the sand-box style game, killing anyone you want. Elderly women, police officers, pretty much anyone who happens by you. And make sure you kill that sex worker after you have had your fun, because you can be certain to get your money back. I have never had more of an aversion to a single video game franchise. Ever.

Dead Rising 2: Contains an exciting and thoroughly fun scene where the playable white dude watches as two magician dudes use a table saw to cut a woman named Madison Laney in half in the name of entertainment. Noted is how the dude PC doesn’t step into the cut scene until the woman has been garishly cut in two while screaming, then states the obvious, that “Hey, that isn’t magic, you killed her!”. Also, the very busty Asian television reporter, Rebecca Chang, is shot in the head just as she is about to call her news team for help. But, she is rather aggressive and mouthy, and I am sure she had it coming. The entire Zombie Uprising in the first Dead Rising is unleashed because a woman who is posited as too stupid to exist can’t live without her poodle, so I am not surprised that they would up the ante with this sequel. Despite the fact that you supposedly can’t go wrong making your evil characters zombies, these games have serious flaws.

Red Dead Redemption: I’ll tell you what, Rockstar Games really knows how to treat a lady! Sex workers are frequently dragged away and beaten on their way to an attempted rape as a means for the Playable Hero to earn Cool Points by saving them from a grisly death. You don’t even have to kill the sex worker yourself anymore, Rockstar Games is so advanced! In one quest you go on to save the life of a nice Mexican woman who has been forced into prostitution and kidnapped. You arrive just in time to see her murdered anyway.

Dragon Age: Origins: While any menfolk who are captured by the darkspawn are usually killed, and dismembered, in this dark fantasy RPG their bodies are forcibly fed to any women who are sometimes captured and taken. Women are held captive in this manner and fed and violated until they grow into abominations known as “broodmothers”. These broodmothers are large, tentacled, and basically piles of immobile breasts, and are what, erm, spawn tainted darkspawn monsters in hives.

Bioshock: (and hey, Bioshock 2) Who wants to kill little girls? You do? Go ahead! Run around, yank out that symbiotic sea slug and chug it down as a power shake if you want, drain them of their life force (called ADAM)! When you get around to Bioshock 2 you have to beat up the Big Sisters. I’ve never been less of an Ayn Rand fan since discovering these games, or until reading Faith of the Fallen. It’s still a toss-up. But no love lost, really.

I could go on. Word counts that I frequently dismiss and all…

Remembering that women still make up part of the military, about 15% on average across four branches plus the Coast Guard (and about 40% of the current gaming market), and not taking into account several other factors that would look at video game treatments of other oppressions, I am failing to understand what is so appalling about this particular game that it called for barring it from the shelves of military stores if they allow all of these other titles to remain on shelves. Sure, the Major had every right, I suppose, to decide what will and will not be sold in AAFES stores so long as he didn’t bar service members from owning the game and thereby infringing on EA’s free speech rights.

It’s a question worth asking, as we remember that upper-echelon military brass are well-known for privileging the feelings and sacrifices of one group of their rank and file over others. I wonder why it has been that some violence in entertainment has long been OK (you know, killing brown people, or faceless foreigners), but now that it is depicted against the model soldier it suddenly must be hidden from sight.

Very curious.


Photo from Medal of Honor Wiki

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13 Comments Have Been Posted

While I've never actually

While I've never actually seen ANY of these games being played, I have heard about a few of them. This piece is INCREDIBLE. Thank you a million times over, and I'll be saving this to reference in the future, as I'm sure I'll need it countless times.

I consider myself a gamer,

I consider myself a gamer, and while your piece raises an important point about censoring games, it kind of makes me fear people reading this will want to censor more games, not less! That being said, I think this piece raises very important questions about what is sacred in our society and who is deemed worthy of protection (and from what). I just wish sometimes people would write about the games that have progressive political slants, or the games that are embracing queer identities and rights. Instead the focus always seems to be on the violent and the misogynistic....

Well, there is more coming

Well, there is more coming up. I'm not finished yet!

My point in this piece, while I can see how I came off as in favor of more censorship, is that censorship is quite wrong, especially when the reasons given are poorly substantiated. Medal of Honor isn't any more violent than any of these games listed, it just focuses that violence on a model demographic. Game companies, however, should give more attention to the type of violence they are selling in their games. EA hired actual soldiers who had been involved in Afghanistan to advise them on the way they developed MoH to make sure it was done as respectfully as possible (however successful they were, I can't say, not having played it). I don't think any of these things call for censorship, rather more attention to making their games better.

At the end of the day, however, if the game is made and sold, people have a right to decide for themselves what they buy and play, I believe. Same with books.

There is a landmark Supreme Court Case being heard right now that I plan to discuss, about video game censorship that I think is incredibly important. Schwarzenegger v the EMA could really affect the game market and it is something I am watching closely.

You are SO wrong about BioShock

I know this wasn't the intended target of this article, but seeing as how I just completed the first BioShock and considered it one of the best gaming experiences of my life, I felt I had to contradict what I felt was a very hasty and unfair generalization of the game.

I agree with you on most of your points about how women are treated and depicted in games. This is precisely why I loved BioShock so much. And, let me say without an ounce of ambiguity, I detest Ayn Rand and the objectivist-libertarian "philosophies" she excreted onto the world. And this game, in my experience at least, was 100% a validation of that aversion.

The entire game was, for me, a rejection of objectivist philosophy, and the "killing of little girls" (which, you know is not the whole truth) presented that issue as a moral problem:

Advance yourself through committing an abhorrent act,


Ascribe to a higher ideal of compassion at the expense of your own self interest and immediate gain.

When I played the game, I did not kill any of the little sisters. Not a single one. This was before I read about the benefits or advantages to either ending. I simply didn't kill them because I, personally, as a gamer did not want to make that choice. My gameplay choices reflect my real-world personality and I considered it every bit as "wrong" to kill little sisters in the game as I would in real life. It had nothing to do with what I knew I would or would not receive as a reward, and had everything to do with my own morality.

The game designers were very aware of this and provided that choice in the game, which made it a more rich experience. Yes, there are sad sacks out there who will derive some juvenile pleasure in killing little girls, and others who will go by the power-gaming philosophy of "level up, level up, no matter what, level up" without caring about the narrative or overall meaning of the game.

But you can't hold the game itself responsible for the behavior of these gamers, particularly when all elements of the in-game story provide a better ending and more emotionally satisfying one precisely by going <i>against</i> the immediate, amoral options you have at your disposal.

And, I really hope you don't see this game as an <i>endorsement</i> of objectivist philosophy. Everything about the depiction of Rapture, the inhabitants of the city, the man who built it and led it with his twisted views, and the eventual collapse as a result of them speaks to the ugliness and horror of the logical conclusion of such a perspective. Rapture is a terrifying, emotionally unsettling place because it depicts the way a Randian society would devolve into the worst of human exploitation.

Anyway, just my two cents.

I agree

Reducing the entirety of Bioshock into a Little Sister killing fest does a disservice to the game for the reasons Casatron stated. I'll even add another one. Bioshock is one of the few games that actually made gamers re-examine the reasons why they automatically jump into a game and kill everything in sight with no hesitation. It's programmed in every gamer to do that after a while, but Bioshock's one of the few games that really makes you feel like a bastard for undergoing the same-song-and-dance killing machine tendencies of FPS games.

What did bother me about Bioshock's split endings was that they didn't have a wide enough range of conclusions to match the moral decisions you chose to embark. Strangely enough, my gamer tendencies AND my personal morality clashed in the process with the decision. I admit that I killed a few Little Sisters out of necessity, even though I wanted to save as many as I could. However, the moment I found out that saving three Little Sisters wields bigger rewards than killing them (240 ADAM for the three sisters, plus 200 more and some items), I had no reason to continue going the darker path. Honestly, I wish the developers DIDN'T reward you in that fashion for doing the right thing, and purposely make the game harder if you chose to act against temptation, much like real life. Reaping the 160 ADAM may feel sweeter in the short run, but saving them all at the cost of 80 less ADAM per Little Sister makes beating the game much more rewarding.

But yeah, taking the Little Sister killing aspect at face value does a great disservice to the multi-layered narrative that Rapture provides.

But the choice is still there...

Why does violence against little girls have to exist in order to make the game, as you say, a "more rich experience"? The game divided morality, as we often see in these types of games, into a dichotomy. You either kill the little girls, going down a decidedly evil path (and when Bioshock was first released you didn't have all the wikis to tell you what was going to happen if you did one or the other), or you save them and become some saintly father-type figure they practically worship.

The point of the short blurb I made about <em>Bioshock</em> is that your morality, in a nutshell, centers around the killing of little girls who have a power source that you need/want. They are essentially drug mules. You can harvest it and reap the benefits immediately, or "rescue" them, and they trounce around helping you harvest it from the splicers. They are reduced to a source of income of sorts.

The jabs of the anti-Randian philosophy was not lost on me... but combined with other pop-culture I have consumed that is based on this same ideal, it just left a sour taste in my mouth. Boiled down to allowing someone the option of killing little girls to show how evil you can be just doesn't suit my idea of a good time or innovative story telling, no matter how shiny of a hero or ugly a monster you become in the epilogue. It's like when I read a good novel and the author has to show someone being raped to prove a point. I just don't dig it and find it unnecessary. I don't think it should be removed from shelves, but it isn't my cup of tea.

When <a href=""... from Zero Punctuation</a> [trigger warning on the video] finds something "dreadful" and the morality choices "jarring", I feel I can rest assured that I am not over-thinking my opinion that this is a bit extreme. It seems that killing the Little Sisters put him off as well, and that is saying something. His point about so-called moral choices in RPGs is rather apt, and certainly applies here.

I am not saying that <em>Bioshock</em> wasn't fun. It sure was, but it was incredibly flawed in this aspect of violent depiction. Go ahead and enjoy it. We sure did, and jumped on <em>Bioshock 2</em>.

I guess I just have to disagree...

I do understand what you're saying, but if your argument is that the mere presence of a disturbing choice in the game is a narrative flaw, then I just have to disagree.

The difference is that killing little sisters is still, ultimately, a decision made by the player, not an objective in the game. If it was an objective, then it would be impossible to finish the game without carrying it out. If that were the case, then I might consider it an ethical misstep by the game-makers and label it tasteless. But that's not the case. As I said before, I chose not to kill any little sisters because my own personal ethics would have made me feel guilty about it, and it would hinder my enjoyment of the game. I'm not saying it's not still a selfish motivation (it totally is), just that it's a less morally objectionable motivation than the alternative.

I do agree that there are certain stereotypes the game-makers exploited in the narrative, but I still believe they did a better job than most simplistic good/evil archetypes. Bridget Tennenbaum fulfills the role of the "virtuous mother figure", but she is also one of the most horrible characters in terms of her backstory. And the little sisters, once saved, do not become virtuous angelic children. The "good" ending (SPOILER ALERT!) still depicts them as more than eager to attack and harvest the ADAM from Fontaine.

Of course, all notions of "morality" go out the window when you consider that you spend most of the game willfully blasting splicers without so much as a second thought. It's easy to justify this because the splicers, like any game villain, are attacking you (ie, killing is okay in self-defense). Add a further layer of detachment by making them <i>former</i> humans, and thus beyond redemption, and it's quite easy as a player to accept (and enjoy) widespread massacre of them.

I dunno. Maybe because I am fascinated by ethics, philosophy, and how they're depicted in science-fiction, I was looking for that experience. But I feel BioShock delivered it in a more–than–satisfying way.

I think you are missing the

I think you are missing the bigger ethical point I am making by running to the defense of a game made by a wealthy video game company who doesn't need nor care about you.

Stepping back from how fun or creative <em>BioShock</em> was, or how your moral compass is set so it makes the existence of certain elements of gameplay OK, these elements being added for no other reason than to entertain or demonstrate how good or bad a person can be are simply problematic at best. You seeing that it is disturbing is one matter, and certainly doesn't erase the fact that there are people who just won't view this content and give second thought to why slashing little girls for a quick fix of power as a fantasy escape should be viewed through a broader lens.

I am not saying that a person is good or bad for enjoying or not enjoying engaging in these game elements, or even that these wealthy companies that people are always so quick to defend whenever I find valid criticism (not just by me, but by anyone who deigns to criticize popular games) are the suckiest people to ever cast a shadow upon the Earth's surface. I find certain types of violence disturbing when posited as pure entertainment value, and violence towards children, especially young girls (in a society that grossly undervalues young girls, and essentially tells all children they have no rights and have to take violent abuse because it is "discipline") deeply appalling. I find no need for it, especially if the only purpose it serves is just to show you how good or bad someone can be -- a chance to play at being a complete malevolent being in make-believe land -- , and it isn't integral to the game objective (as you noted). It clearly is for entertainment value. It is important to look at why game developers think that it is hunky-dory to include things like this and pass it off as fun. And stuff like this is done all the time. Lionhead lets you do it in the <em>Fable</em> series. There are weapons you level up by killing five spouses or 50 nobles or whatever.

I wouldn't say "all" notions of morality are tossed aside when dealing with self defense situations. Humans have an arguably innate instinct towards self-preservation, and a right to do so, evolutionarily speaking. Traditionally in games, zombies are supposed to be fair game for enemies, and whether the splicers really are former humans is debatable. I was pretty sure they were actually people who were mentally ill from ADAM withdrawal (so your point about detachment by calling them something else sort of holds). The game did a great job of conflating mental illness with acts of violence, another issue I have ethical problems with, and I suppose I could spend paragraphs discussing the reasons why that is ableist and should have been better thought out as well, but I get the feeling that would be a poor use of my time.

I also didn't say "take it out", or "take it off of the shelves". I don't want anyone to do that. But for the sake of topic, we aren't here to discuss the purity or evil of 2K or Irrational Games, or if <em>BioShock</em> was or wasn't the Holy Grail of games to deliver us from the depths of "Like God of War, But" gamer hell.

The point of the post is that when trying to censor a game for a reason it is silly to say that a game depicts violence against a group of people, then pretty much ban it when continuing to sell games that depict violence against marginalized bodies. If we have some more Not All About <em>BioShock</em> things to discuss, that would be fun too.

I definitely see what you're saying.

You've given me some interesting things to think about. Really great column!

Actually, I'm curious to know if you've played Heavy Rain, and if so, what your take on it is. I played it for the first (and last) time recently and found it extremely problematic, and so far haven't encountered anyone else who shares that opinion.

Again, sorry, I know this wasn't the point of your original post, but it is very refreshing to see a video game column that intersects with pop cultural criticism.

I have not!

So I may have to add it to my ever-expanding list.

One thing that I find difficult (and I found it refreshing <a href=" Yahtzee has the same problem</a>, though I am not nearly the famed reviewer or critic he is -- why yes, his reviews are a guilty pleasure of mine, why do you ask?) is finding enough time to play through all of the games I want to play and review while devoting enough to thoroughly pay enough attention to all the elements I would like to (I also do other pop culture as well). Plus, I have to share my toys with a partner and a Kid (poor me, I know). I do my best to get to as much as possible, and am always looking for suggestions. But, sometimes, I really just can't bring myself to play games that people tell me are awful, LOL. I prefer to critique games I enjoy and that others have told me they like. But even I am sometimes a happy glutton, ya know? Maybe my partner has played it. I'll ask.

I am glad you are enjoying the series! I'm enjoying the discussions.

Curious indeed, but understandable

People have a tendency to be separatist with escapism media versus real events, so when the line between them blurs, people tend to hesitate or even flee from such depictions. Unlike the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games (which focused on yet another Russian terrorist group), the Medal of Honor reboot really wanted to ground itself in the current middle eastern conflict, so it's no surprise that it got far more controversy. Even Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" mission - in which you're a secret agent trailing Russian terrorists who're gunning down hostages in an airport - didn't generate such outrage. Again, since Russians pose no real threat to the U.S. since the Cold War ended, that's not going to rub people the wrong way. Now switch the Russians with the Taliban, however...

Going off topic a bit, this article reminds me of a Stephen King column he did for Entertainment Weekly during the winter 2006 movie going season. He watched Paul Greengrass's poignant and powerful 9/11 based film <i>United 93</i>, and thought it was one of the most important movies to see that year. However, when he gave his recommendation to numerous folks, they all gave the same reply: too soon. It's too scary of a film for a nation still healing from the aftershock of 9/11. This wouldn't be too bad if during the same period, <i>Hostel</i> wasn't the #1 film in the box office during its debut weekend. Basically, people don't mind watching a horror movie to be frightened, but when real life comes into play, it's unbearable. Similarly, an entire generation of moviegoers loved watching films that involved big cities like NYC, Washington D.C., or L.A. getting pulverized by aliens or monsters, just because it would be fun imagining such an attack. After 9/11, and witnessing what would really happen in such a disaster, the escapism films weren't so fun anymore.

Videogames are still essentially escapist entertainment, and not something that generally makes people re-think or re-shape their lives, like they would with movies or TV. The only time the public re-thinks the position on how videogames affect people is when some youth are responsible for a murderous tragedy, and use certain videogames to blame (I'm looking at you, Columbine/Doom), or when some troubled videogame addicts go off the deep end (Shawn Wooley and Everquest). Medal of Honor's situation is unique to videogames, though hardly surprising, given the gravity of the middle eastern conflict.

And yet, if a piece of media being socially irredeemable (i.e., it has no value in bettering mankind) is all it takes for such censorship, I seriously doubt games like Mortal Kombat, Grand Theft Auto 3, Gears of War, or Manhunt would exist. Ironically enough, those same standards have never affected films or TV shows, which are just as guilty or even guiltier of crossing those barriers, but they're not as ripped apart as videogames. So the censorship in display is weird and contradictory in several ways, but not at all surprising.

I've noticed these serious

I've noticed these serious fallacies in censorship as well. Here's my hypothesis--with full knowledge that I could be totally wrong, and if I am, someone please tell me:

Video games are a relatively recent phenomenon, and I think for a large group of people, they are still associated with children and adolescents. This isn't true, of course, but I've definitely gotten that idea from older people; at 23, my boyfriend, an avid gamer (and an intelligent and discerning one) is often given the "aren't you a bit OLD for that kind of thing?" And if video games are associated with kids, then adults who play them are often seen as immature or somehow lacking in "normal" development. Therefore, it seems to me, that since video games are still so commonly thought of as a pastime for young people, it seems extra shocking when violent elements are involved. I'm much more sickened by the things I've witnessed on primetime TV (ahem, Law & Order: SVU and other let's-talk-about-gross-crimes-against-non-white/male/hetero-folks) more often than I am by the things I've seen in video games. I'm not giving video games a pass here, or saying that the misogyny in games like GTA is somehow better, but shows like SVU and CSI seem to be viewed as much more worthwhile and acceptable, and I think the reason is that they are ostensibly "for adults." Since children and adolescents are generally thought of as more impressionable, it could be that that's where the outrage comes from. TV is still not as accepted as an intellectual or cultural pursuit as film is, and it hasn't been around as long. Maybe it's the fate of all new and relatively new forms of media. I remember reading about Theda Bara, who played a villainous character in silent films, receiving nasty letters about how she was personally leading the young astray. About a hundred years later, movies don't instill those kinds of feelings in viewers (to my knowledge). Perhaps one day in the future video games will be received as people receive film, as a culturally worthwhile pastime for children and adults alike.

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