The words of the enemy rang in my ears, "Carry the jihad to the infidel lands!" Undercover in a terrorist training camp, I fired shots into the chests of inanimate dummies standing in for the capitalist elite, while an Arab voice bellowed words of anger. As I boarded a makeshift airplane--the final step of my initiation--I turned my gun onto passengers while tearing toward the cockpit. I kicked the door in, tossed a grenade, and then murdered the two pilots in charge of the flight. The Arab man--head of this terrorist organization--mocked my speed but took me into the fold anyway. He had a mission to perform, and any able-bodied man with a cold, black heart could further the cause.
Moral judgments are made during this sequence and cemented through the course of Medal of Honor: Warfighter. The Arab and Somali forces who oppose you are bad. While you, a good guy from America, kill to protect your family and to preserve your freedom, their motivations are never properly explored. Instead, they exhibit the same stereotypical behavior prevalent in so much media. Terrorists shout threatening words in a foreign tongue, mercilessly execute hostages, and, when their end is near, strap a bomb to their chest so they can't be taken alive. Honor? Pride? Respect? Save that for the Americans. The alien people depicted in Warfighter don't deserve your sympathy. They deserve a bullet to the head.
Because Warfighter doesn't take the time to explain who your enemies are, they become nothing more than evil strawmen who represent every deplorable thing terrorists have done to America. But such a representation is lazy and unfair. Exploration of the cause of their unrest is necessary to establish them as real human beings. But if Danger Close gave them a purpose other than to be mindless killers, if they also had families waiting for them at home, dreams of a life without oppression, that would shatter the illusion the development team has created. To give them feelings, a personality, would make murdering hundreds--thousands!--of them during the course of the campaign upsetting. Fleshing them out would have required respect for the players, that they are mature enough to fight a fully realized enemy. But that's not the case here. Your enemies are part of an organization dedicated to the murder of your countrymen.They are foreign. They are different. And they deserve to die.
Modern military games are damaging in too many ways to count. From the way they transform American soldiers into unfeeling automatons capable of killing thousands without the slightest twinge of sorrow, to their explosion-filled set pieces that further the notion that war is a fun pastime, military shooters are filled with the realization of our unhealthy desire for senseless bloodshed. But the one element that's most troubling is how the other side is depicted as little more than feral dogs. It's sickening that human beings could be treated so poorly in popular video games, and it's only strengthening society's tendency to fear that which they do not know. It doesn't matter that Warfighter doesn't develop your enemies. They are the other. They want to hurt you and that's reason enough to want them dead.
Your enemies are foreign. They are different. And they deserve to die.
Such an unjust portrayal should have disgusted me. But instead of anger boiling my blood every time my enemies were painted as less than human, I felt only a cold pang in the bottom of my stomach. Medal of Honor: Warfighter is just the latest in a seemingly never-ending string of military shooters that fuel the flames of righteous jingoism and the insidious us-against-the-world mentality. I played through Warfighter with quiet determination. Dialogue thick with combative patriotism spewed from the screen and into my subconscious, joining the wealth of such poisonous rhetoric that any consumer of video games and popular media absorbs over the years. I've become numb to all this chatter. This is the kind of game that sells, and every developer eager to make a splash at retail is willing to set aside moral obligations to rope in those who crave senseless killing.
The cutscenes and gameplay join hands in an unholy marriage of xenophobic pride. While the cutscenes continually stoke the fires of your unrelenting hatred toward the other, the gameplay allows you to enact a dark fantasy with little repercussions. In some games, dodgy artificial intelligence could be chalked up to the limits of the development cycle, and the enemies could be excused their recklessness and idiocy. In a modern military game, the enemies are modeled after actual people, which makes their stupidity more obvious. And these mindless enemies feed into the messages these games continually communicate.
First, by creating an enemy that is unfathomably stupid, the notion that the people you're fighting are less than human is hammered home. Watch as your squadmates duck behind cover, circle targets to get a better vantage, and do their best to stay out of their enemy's line of sight. Their impenetrable shields protect them from bullets that sink into their flesh, making you and the forces of good seem like gods compared to the lowly people who oppose you. Now contrast that with how your enemies react. A foreign soldier may run from cover to find a spot in the middle of a wide-open courtyard, assuming a vulnerable position while you gun him down in cold blood. Another pauses expectantly while you execute the person next to him, waiting for you to deliver another oh-so-satisfying headshot.
The second reason the artificial intelligence is lousy in so many modern military shooters is that these games are little more than power fantasies. Programming enemies to favor suicidal tactics instead of self-preservation allows players to kill thousands of enemies during the course of the game. Imagine the alternative for just one second. If every enemy were as smart as your squadmates, hiding behind cover as long as possible, forcing you to be on the offensive, each encounter would stretch on for dozens of minutes, if not longer. Because your enemies are mindless, you don't have to put yourself in your character's head. You don't have to consider how the enemy thinks; how he's going to react. Instead, you wait a second or two for the enemy to expose himself, and you gun him down with a couple of shots. And the bodies pile up at your feet.
Different games and different difficulty levels can mitigate the divide between the superhuman protagonist and his subhuman foes, but the underlying message is unmistakeable. Medal of Honor: Warfighter is a game that furthers the divide between Western philosophies and the rest of the world. But it's not alone. It's only a meager imitation of what has come before it, underlining how pervasive this problem has become. Until we recognize what these games represent, and how damaging they are, developers will continually parrot the same jingoistic blather. We live in troubling times, but as long as we see through the facade, there's hope for the future.