The impact media has on our lives can sometimes be disturbing. Subtle messages delivered to an audience, slow poisoning of the human mind, and reinforcement of stereotypes are all characteristics of modern-day media warfare. Whether video games today can be classified as media or not is debatable, however they are no longer "just video games" as they've become a medium unlike any other. For that reason alone it's wrong to assume that people would be indifferent to any messages, intentional or unintentional, entrenched within a game's plot.
Very recently, China placed a blanket ban on EA's shooter Battlefield 4, better known as ZhanDi4 there, because the authorities saw Battlefield 4's plot as a smear campaign against China. To put it simply, you are the American hero fighting against some Chinese and Russians, and of course, the enemy is better off dead. Those who have been following video game news regularly might also be aware of Russia's reaction to Company of Heroes 2, a game that they found particularly offensive because it allegedly falsifies history. That’s two high profile cases in just one year.
Here's the problem: this isn't the first time we've seen a video game projecting Germans, Russians or Chinese as the bad guys. Therefore, whatever warrants such a harsh reaction this time around deserves a second thought. I must admit that I sometimes find a very thin line between the fictitious nature of these games and reality or actual events in history. It's hard not to make something of the sudden influx of shooters featuring Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan that came in light of the war against terrorism. I'm not suggesting that video games should be taken seriously or that they are deliberately aimed at upsetting any faction or nation, but I'm also stopping short of implying that they have zero impact on stereotypes.
In light of the news that Battlefield 4 was banned in China, I noticed a plethora of serious debates on the internet full of hateful comments against the Chinese. Some of those commenting threw the word "communist" around as if it was an insult. Others went as far as suggesting that the Chinese and Russians see such video games as a threat because they know that whatever is contained in the plot is true. Reading these discussions makes one question those who immediately disregard the notion that video games reinforce stereotypes. These comments are a stark reminder of where that belief stems from to begin with.
One of the defining features of video games today is realism. In fact, an increasing amount of gamers demand realistic settings. I’m one of them. Nothing beats the experience of walking around 15th century Italy or 16th century Constantinople, especially when you know that some of the landmarks that you are climbing actually exist in real life, or that some of the characters you encountered were real persons in history. I make no mistake in confusing a video game with reality, but I can also attribute my purchase of Niccolò Machiavelli’s controversial book, The Prince, to me thoroughly enjoying Assassin’s Creed II. The influence is there and it is a mistake to assume that developers can continue to reinforce the same message, albeit through a fictitious plot, featuring the same “bad guys”, and not expect any kind of a reaction.
We must not forget that every nation believes in its own version of history or controversial events like war, and that the west is no exception to this. Many of us might not be aware of the US military placing a ban on Medal of Honor in 2010, and issuing an order for the game to be taken off shelves from stores located within its bases. The reason wasn’t very surprising. Apparently, allowing players to play as the Taliban didn’t go down too well with the military, and they thought that it was demoralizing. The British Defense Secretary at the time, Liam Fox, chipped in by calling the game a “tasteless product”. I have the utmost respect for any soldier in any country who puts his life on the line for his nation, but are video games really supposed to be taken seriously? Why the US military’s ban was never publicized as much as China’s ban on Battlefield 4 is contentious, but the underlying problem is more or less the same, whether we admit it or not.
I’m not an advocate of political correctness but over the past decade I have seen the game industry bring together communities of people, and even nations, using video games as a medium. Competitive tournaments, online matches, clans, groups, you name it. Bearing this in mind, it is slightly unsettling and discomforting to see the very same medium causing such a ruckus. I can’t say what a developer’s intentions are other than wanting to make a hit game that will sell, but it’s about time that they stop beating a dead horse and selling the same old plot enclosed in a shiny new box year after year. A video game is one thing that such political innuendos need to be left out of and developers should save them for the grim news channels.