The Sticky Race Politics of First-Person Shooters

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If we learned anything from the flap over the feature in the Medal of Honor video game that allowed gamers to play as a Taliban insurgent fighting the U.S.—which provoked so much outrage that the feature was removed—it's that people take virtual warfare seriously. Even if the combat is simulated, its cultural implications are not. First-person shooter games, a market worth hundreds of millions of dollars, are not going away. But as the technology progresses, making the experience look and feel more real, there is more attention on how video game companies design recreational warfare. A current focal point of that attention, as explained in an essay by Jim Gourley for Foreign Policy, is race.

Gourley writes that race has become an increasingly controversial issue in shooter games as they shift from the old paradigm of fantasy zombie-shooters or futuristic alien warfare into more recognizable modern warfare against human enemies. Medal of Honor's decision to set a game in the very real Afghan War is just one example. What kinds of people is it socially acceptable for you to spend an afternoon killing in a video game? Which are not? It's complicated.

2008's Resident Evil 5 ran into opposition because it changed the location of the gameplay from Western civilization to Africa. Protests and polemic ensued shortly after players remarked that the game's white protagonists ran all over the place killing predominantly black zombies. No one bats an eye at games like Delta Force or Bad Company, though, in which the "terrorists" and "insurgents" are of homogenously Middle Eastern descent. These games are available in bulk at any AAFES location. Nor does anyone debate the racial distribution in shooters set in World War II.

But the cultural standards are inconsistent. Gourley writes that, in one game set in Iraq, "Everyone plays the good guy, and the game simply paints the world red or blue based on your perspective. To your teammates, you look like Specialist Jones in standard issue ACUs. To your opponents, you look like an Arab with a ski mask and shemagh." The generic, racially defined "enemy" in this game, which has created no controversy, reveals that we are OK with games that ask us to kill Middle Eastern-looking enemies. It's not about who you pretend to kill, it's about whose virtual shoes you wear when you do the killing. "It can only be assumed then that Infinity Ward's crime was in explicitly naming the killers, making the context for their actions as realistic as the graphics, and then giving us the opportunity to act as our own enemies." Gourley concludes with an anecdote from his military service, which shows just how complicated and contradictory these video game politics can be.

I watched my troops in Iraq play Grand Theft Auto constantly during their free time, even on days we ran convoy escorts through Mosul. They used a game simulating swapping paint and threatening motorists with assault rifles as a way to unwind from a hard day of swapping paint and threatening motorists with assault rifles. Those are anecdotes, but if you know more than one soldier that's been overseas, you probably know a soldier that took a video game system with them.
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