Medal of Honor was the first in a line of games that truly attempted to explore (and create) a shared collective past. Now, video games are creating a warped, two-dimensional view of a collective present. What happened?
The Medal of Honor (which began in 1999) series got its start as, essentially, a companion piece to Saving Private Ryan (1998). Steven Spielberg, who directed Saving Private Ryan, wanted to create an “educational experience” that would teach players about the conflict by playing it. Both the game and the film begin with large setpieces about the Normandy landing–men rushing off of boats only to die in an unending barrage of machine gun fire.
It was also the first major return of Nazis to video games since the last Wolfenstein game, in 1992. For reasons that I believe to be both technical (limited AI and graphics capabilities made facing off against ‘mere’ humans repetitive), cultural (the mid-1990s was not exactly a hive of discussion about WWII), and financially driven (the success of Doom created the ‘space marines’ and ‘demon-killing’ genres), Nazis almost immediately dropped off the radar of video games, except for tactical combat games that take their inspiration from board wargames.
Until, of course, Medal of Honor.
Medal of Honor kicked off a huge boom in the WWII game industry, even resulting in the resurrection of Wolfenstein in 2001. However, eventually, the easy-to-mythologize narrative of WWII became played out and stale. Although the Medal of Honor series stuck with the WWII setting until its 2010 reboot (as a gritty, modern FPS set mainly in Afghanistan), Call of Duty abandoned WWII in 2007 (except for a brief return in 2008′s World at War). The result were FPSes set either in Vietnam or in contemporary conflicts–conflicts which are significantly more complex, from a moral standpoint, than the fight against the Axis forces in WWII.In doing this, they took some pages–superficially, at least–from the Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six/Splinter Cell/Ghost Recon series, which are from the same period of the Medal of Honor/Call of Duty games.
The result is, fundamentally, that which happens anytime you try to create a history of a present reality: thin, shallow work that tends either towards the extremes of jingoism or pacifism. And because these are shooters–jingoism it is.
These games take modern conflicts–overwhelmingly against a non-white Other–and turn them into shooting galleries. While the first Black Ops actually had a reasonably nuanced singleplayer storyline as you follow the life of Alex Mason (Castro mission aside), this is the exception. At one terrible extreme, the plot of Call of Juarez: The Cartel is so unapologetically racist it almost beggars belief, pitting you against Black and Mexican gangs whose duty it is, apparently, to steal white American women. (In real life, the opposite is true: Mexican women are trafficked into the United States for what is effectively sex slavery). The 2010 Medal of Honor reboot, which I have played, provide absolutely no motivation for you to do anything you are ordered to do–the justice of the war in Afghanistan is taken as a given.
And while Spielberg went to great lengths to ensure accuracy, he also tried to allow you to relive the experiences of real heroes. The new generation of gritty FPSes is disillusioned with the idea of heroes. So much so, in fact, that many modern FPSes allow you to commit war crimes.
Why is all this happening? In short: a misguided quest for authenticity combined with a lack of historical context for the things that are happening. I hope that soon, it will be authenticity of situation, instead of authenticity of violence.