War-themed video games stir controversy, showing not all 9/11 wounds have healed

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It’s been 10 years since our nation looked on in horror as the actions of 19 terrorists claimed the lives of nearly 2,800 people and forever altered the course of United States history.

Even today, the reverberations caused by the attacks on Sept. 11 still permeate much of our society as the nation continues to deal with the aftermath of those events.

From the extension of the Patriot Act, to the ongoing reformations to the ways we travel, there’s no mistaking that our view of the world is quite different from the one we left behind in the waning years of the 20th century.

However, as our nation continues to come to terms with this new outlook, the entertainment industry has often offered us a reflection of many of these varying viewpoints.

The same could also be said of video games, as they have also shared in many of the changes in attitude as well as controversy that came after that fateful September morning.

Casting the role of the villain for example, has been a particular point of contention over the years.

It used to be that this was a fairly simple choice for game makers, as the selection was typically between fighting the Nazis or some unnamed member of the former Soviet Union.

However, developers now find themselves juggling between reflecting the realities of today, while remaining respectful of the culture they are portraying, as well as honoring the memory of those who have fallen on the battlefield.

From a financial standpoint, this shift has clearly tapped into the public’s demand, as games like Activision’s “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” series are consistently among the industry’s top sellers with sales well into the billions.

Other franchises have also found commercial success by fast-forwarding their timelines to be more in step with today’s battlefield.

For example, EA Dice’s “Medal of Honor” series recently underwent a retooling of the franchise, placing players in the role of a Tier 1 Operator in the harsh Korengal Valley of Afghanistan.

Dubbed the “Valley of Death” by American forces because of the amount of lives lost and intense fighting in this region, “Medal of Honor” introduced gamers to an area made famous by the documentary “Restrepo.”

Unfortunately, not everyone is comfortable with an antagonist being plucked from the frontlines of Iraq and Afghanistan, especially in the case of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,” which has had more than its share of controversy throughout the years.

In April of last year, WikiLeaks released classified footage of a 2007 incident in Baghdad involving a U.S. Apache Helicopter that left 12 men dead, including two Reuters employees.

At the time Julian Assange, the website's co-founder, charged, “It seems like they are playing video games with people’s lives.”

Even though Assange’s comments were directed more toward the detached style of combat employed on the modern battlefield, many people clung onto his words as an indictment of the entire video game industry.

Critics even went so far as to splice footage from the incident in Baghdad with clips of a mission in the “Modern Warfare” series that bore a striking similarity.

Needless to say, in spite of the industry’s best attempts at dealing with such a sensitive topic, developers have also learned that the wounds from that day, as well as the subsequent wars that followed, are still too fresh to allow players to take on the role of terrorist regardless of the context.

In “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2,” there’s an early level titled “No Russian” in which players may take part in the massacre of hundreds of civilians at an airport.

Even though the storyline has the player assume the role of an undercover CIA operative tasked with infiltrating a rogue organization comprised of members of the former USSR, and that players could also complete the mission without taking part in the violence themselves, critics immediately called for the boycott of the game.

However, in fairness, timing may have played a larger factor in this particular controversy, as the fatal shooting at Fort Hood had recently taken place.

Nevertheless, while the U.S. version was released unaltered, the fierce global consumer backlash caused Activision to alter the level in several countries to end if a player killed a civilian. In Russia, the level was removed entirely.

The makers of “Medal of Honor” also found themselves being chastised over their decision to include the Taliban as a playable team in the multiplayer portion of the game.

This decision also caused a global wide condemnation of the game, with the United Kingdom’s defense secretary saying, “It's shocking that someone would think it acceptable to recreate the acts of the Taliban. At the hands of the Taliban, children have lost fathers and wives have lost husbands. I am disgusted and angry.”

Eventually, EA Dice removed the name “Taliban” from the game, opting instead to simply label them as “Opposing Force.”

In the end, most people agree that we’ll eventually look back on this time, as well as the enemies we faced, much in the same way we view World War II.

To that end, it’s safe to say that video games can be a large part of this healing process much in the same way that movies are. However, as we look back at those tragedies of that late summer day in September 10 years ago, there are still a lot more wounds to heal.

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