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Double Standards on Playing Video Game Villains? Taliban OK, German Soldiers No

Times video game reviewer Seth Schiesel claimed criticism of a game enabling one to play a Talbian fighter against U.S. troops was based on a misunderstanding of what video games are. But how did the Times feel about a game where you could play as the Nazis or a regular German soldier during World War II?
A video game due out in October, "Medal of Honor," is set during an operation in the war in Afghanistan. In one mode, you can play as Taliban fighters against U.S. troops. The game's premise was defended in a review by the papers' video game writer Seth Schiesel, "Whose Side Are You On? It Might Be The Taliban's," who claimed that criticism from politicians from Britain, among other places, was "based on a misunderstanding of what video games are."

The Taliban try to kill American troops every day.

That is reality. Can you handle it in a video game?

On Oct. 12 Electronic Arts, one of the world's biggest game publishers, is set to release a first-person combat title called Medal of Honor. Developed with advice from elite American special forces, the new game is set during Operation Anaconda, part of the Western war in Afghanistan that followed the Sept. 11 attacks.

So far, so conventional. But in Medal of Honor's online multiplayer mode, in which teams of players battle over the Internet, one side in each match will be the Americans and the other side will play the role of Taliban fighters. And that - at least to politicians in Britain, Canada and New Zealand among others - is a problem.

As Liam Fox, the British defense secretary, said recently: "It's hard to believe any citizen of our country would wish to buy such a thoroughly un-British game. I would urge retailers to show their support for our armed forces and ban this tasteless product."

The outrage is surely genuine (though there are no British, Canadian or New Zealand soldiers in the game) and the discomfort understandable. But those reactions are based on a misunderstanding of what video games are.

Schiesel explained "it is important to understand the critical difference between a game's single-player and multiplayer modes." While admitting a "single-player campaign" playing as the Taliban would cause controversy, he saw playing the Taliban during a multi-player match as acceptable, since "in such matches there is no story...The actual identities of the combatants are no more meaningful than the choice of black and white in a chess game."

Near the end Schiesel commented on the humanity of the Taliban:

So what has appeared to prompt the defense ministers of three Commonwealth countries to blast Medal of Honor is their visceral reaction against the idea that the Taliban is human. The very concept that "their side" has soldiers (not thugs, criminals or terrorists, but soldiers) on an equal footing with "our" soldiers can be tough to swallow.

Yes, yes it can be.

But the Times has not always been so copacetic regarding video games featuring enemies of the U.S. in starring roles. A January 3, 2002 story by Jonathan Kay, "Defying a Taboo, Nazi Protagonists Invade Video Games," took a far less sympathetic view of the idea that one could without consequence play a Nazi, or even a regular German soldier, in the multi-player mode of a video game set in World War II.

Few taboos exist in the blood-and-gore world of shoot-'em-up video games. But game makers have traditionally respected one rule: no Nazi protagonists.

Last year that rule was challenged on at least two fronts. In November, Activision released Return to Castle Wolfenstein, a game in which players take the role of a United States soldier on a mission ''to thwart Heinrich Himmler's occult and genetic experiments.'' The multiplayer version, which pits players against one another online, allows some players to fight as German soldiers.

And even before Return to Castle Wolfenstein, another realistic first-person shooter with a Nazi protagonist was making a stir: Day of Defeat, which was released for online play last January.

....

Yet Day of Defeat not only shows battlefields decorated with swastikas and Nazi posters but also attracts many players with an enthusiasm for neo-Nazi role playing. The game tries to recreate specific World War II battles. Soldiers on the German side wield Gewehr 43 semiautomatic rifles, Luger pistols, so-called potato-masher grenades and, when the ammunition runs out, Hitler Youth knives. In some games, a battle is signaled with a rousing call to arms broadcast in German.

The presence of swastikas and other Nazi symbols is so pervasive that the game might be viewed as illegal in Germany, where the dissemination of Nazi thought and symbols is banned. The programmers are moving to avoid any trouble in Europe.

....

Mark Weitzman, the national director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Task Force Against Hate, based in New York, said he found the use of Nazi protagonists disturbing. ''It encourages people to express what are rightly considered to be socially unacceptable sentiments - racism and anti-Semitism and hate,'' he said.

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