'Medal Of Honor' Game To Debut Without Taliban

Medal of Honor is a new military video game, out Tuesday. It generated controversy because in multiplayer mode, it allowed you to play as the Taliban. Publisher Electronic Arts stopped calling them "The Taliban," but they're still dark-skinned guys in Afghanistan. Reporter Heather Chaplin explores why playing as "the Taliban" sounds so much worse than watching a movie about the Taliban.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block, and it's time for All Tech Considered.

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BLOCK: Our topic today: war games on video. The latest installment of a popular video game series will be released tomorrow after weeks of controversy. The game is called Medal of Honor. It's set in the current war in Afghanistan, and it was going to offer people the option of playing as the Taliban, but there were calls for bans and boycotts.

Heather Chaplin explains what happened.

HEATHER CHAPLIN: The game starts by dropping you.

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CHAPLIN: Guns blasting into Gardez - the town in Afghanistan held by the Taliban and Chechen militants.

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GAME AVATAR: All right. Here we go.

Mr. GREG GOODRICH (Executive Producer, Medal of Honor): We're trying to tell the soldier's story from the soldier's point of view. You know, devoid of politics or debate or any of that.

CHAPLIN: That's Greg Goodrich, executive producer of the game. His game is like a love letter to the American military. It was made with the support of the army. And it's filled with opportunities to kill members of the Taliban and heroic dialogue about getting the bad guys.

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GAME AVATAR: Well, keep your fingers on your triggers.

CHAPLIN: But there's one small part of the game that seems to be particularly problematic: The part where you could play as the Taliban. With all the controversy, Goodrich decided at the last minute to change the label Taliban to opposition forces in the menu in this one part of the game. Other than that, not a single pixel has been altered. Brian Crecente, the editor of gaming site Kotaku, says it's a fake fix.

Mr. BRIAN CRECENTE (Editor-in-Chief, Kotaku.com): My feeling is, if you think that the decision to include the Taliban in the game needs to be addressed, then you should address it. You shouldn't put a band aid on it.

CHAPLIN: The name change might satisfy some critics, but there are those who think that setting a video game in a current war trivializes it, period.

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CHAPLIN: Never mind that the movie The Hurt Locker about the war in Iraq won the Oscar for Best Picture last year. Games are held to a different standard. And not only when it comes to military conflicts. Danny Ledonne learned this first hand when he made Super Columbine Massacre role playing game. A disturbing and thought-provoking look at the last day of Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold.

Mr. DANNY LEDONNE (Creator, Super Columbine Massacre RPG): So the idea was that this video game, regardless of it's content, the very form of a video game with the subject of Columbine, inherently trivialized the subject of the shooting.

CHAPLIN: This double standard between movies and games stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the psychology of play, says Eric Zimmerman, co-author of The Rules of Play and a professor at NYU.

Mr. ERIC ZIMMERMAN (Assistant Visiting Professor, NYU): The things that make a game a game are only experienced when you actually interact with it. Which is why there's such a big difference between looking over the shoulder of someone who's playing a game and actually playing the game yourself.

CHAPLIN: Here's where the big misconception about play happens. It can actually be more intense to watch the game than to play it. While you're playing, you have to think about things like jumping and shooting and strategizing, so you're held just outside the fantasy world the game creates.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: When you play a game, you are always aware that you're playing.

CHAPLIN: So even if you're playing as, say, the Taliban, you're not going to start thinking you are the Taliban or that you want to be the Taliban.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: Now that doesn't spoil the game. That's actually an intrinsic part of all play.

CHAPLIN: The Taliban is as much a tool as a character. Like a cursor on a computer screen, Zimmerman says. And here's another big thing people misunderstand about play: The difference between play fighting and actual fighting is hard-wired. And not just in people, you can see it in dogs. They nip at each other when they play fight.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: That nip signifies a bite.

CHAPLIN: But they're not really biting, and both dogs know it.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: So a nip signifies a bite, but it signifies the opposite of a bite at the same time. And that is what happens when you're playing a video game as well.

CHAPLIN: It's easy to see when dogs are just play fighting, but when you watch someone else play a video game, it can be hard to understand that it's just a game. Zimmerman says the harshest critics of games are people who don't play themselves. They judge, because the only know what they see over someone else's shoulder.

CHAPLIN: For NPR News, I'm Heather Chaplin.

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