EA, guns, and the dangers of brand identity

EA is promoting its partnership with real-world weapons manufacturers for Medal of Honor: Warfighter by letting players buy the real thing.

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[UPDATE]: Within a couple of hours of this story being published, EA deleted the partner site and Greg Goodrich post links from its Warfighter page, and one of Goodrich's posts. EA has since provided GameSpot with a comment in regards to this, which can be found at the bottom of this article.

What kind of message is a video game publisher like EA sending when it encourages its players to buy weapons?

The race to create a perfect, all-encompassing brand identity that infiltrates every aspect of gamers' lives has become of increasing importance to game publishers. It has also thrown some of the gaming industry's ethical boundaries into question.

In a bid to extend the reach of its Medal of Honor: Warfighter brand, EA chose to test these boundaries by updating the official Warfighter site to include links to the sites of the real-world weapons and weapon accessories manufacturers that are helping turn the game into the "most authentic shooter" yet.

Anyone visiting the Medal of Honor: Warfighter site can click through to these external sites and, where legally permitted, purchase weapons like the ones featured in the game.

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More startling than EA linking its players to sites where they can buy real-life weapons to match the ones used in its game is the decision by Medal of Honor executive producer Greg Goodrich to write accompanying blog posts for each of the companies (there are currently 11 listed, three of which manufacture guns or knives) in which he seems to wholeheartedly endorse their products.

In a blog post for the weapons manufacturer McMillan Group International titled "Shoot to win", Goodrich reveals he knows the company's VP and will be featuring four of McMillan's guns in Warfighter.

"I first saw the completed CS5 [described as a 'concealable' sniper system] late last year, and was blown away," Goodrich writes. (His choice of words is apt.) Later in the post, he describes the company's guns as "impressive" and "awe-inspiring":

"It doesn't get any more authentic than this. Check out the McMillan website and shoot to win!"

In another of Goodrich's posts, this time about knife manufacturer SOG Knives, the producer takes the endorsement a step further. After revealing the company will be selling a limited edition Voodoo Hawk tomahawk designed specifically for Warfighter, Goodrich encourages players to "visit their website and reserve your exclusive limited edition Voodoo Hawk today!"

Sure enough, anyone who clicks the link in the post will be taken to SOG's site, where they will be able to fill out a form to be alerted when the weapon becomes available for purchase.

Is this about selling weapons, or making games? Or have the two become inter-changeable?

Promoting weapons (not just promoting, but being excited at the very idea that a Medal of Honor: Warfighter player can use a virtual weapon to kill another player as a form of entertainment and then turn around and order the real version of the same weapon online), feels wrong. It feels wrong even with the understanding and acknowledgement that that there are carefully-enforced restrictions and background checks in place, or that it would be just as easy to seek out and buy these weapons without EA's help.

What makes it feel so wrong is that EA has turned the race for brand identity into an obsession. It has drawn a direct line between a work of fiction and the truth behind it, bridging the gap between fantasy and reality and in doing so, coming dangerously close to glorifying not just the bravery of individuals, but the concept of war itself. There is nothing about endorsing and promoting real-life weapons that makes Medal of Honor: Warfighter a more authentic game, nothing that advances the artform or broadens the boundaries of game development. There is nothing that even entices players to buy more copies of the game.

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Some have pointed out that EA is donating all proceeds from sales of its Medal of Honor-themed "merchandise" to the Navy SEAL Foundation and the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. When EA first announced this, president of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation John Carney Jr. claimed the partnership would raise awareness of the foundation's work with families of fallen Special Operations forces.

"This is a great way to give back to some of our country's greatest warriors," Carney Jr. said at the time.

It remains to be seen how the promotion and sale of weapons is a great way to support the families of men and women who died using similar weapons.

This is not the first time's EA's definition of authenticity has come into question. At E3 this year, GameSpot editor Tom Mc Shea questioned Warfighter's regenerating health as being in clear contrast with the game's painstaking efforts to be as "authentic" and realistic as possible.

"Military games have turned war into a silly good time, and yet they hide behind their realistic claims as if they're doing justice to the armed forces," Mc Shea argued. "In reality, they're exploiting the people who give their lives for a cause they believe in. By focusing on instant satisfaction and extreme accessibility, they turn real battles into a virtual fantasyland where no harm is lasting and no danger exists."

Goodrich chose to confront Mc Shea, face-to-face, about his views. In the recorded debate, Goodrich stated that no matter how hard developers try, it's impossible to perfectly simulate a real-world experience in a video game. Authenticity, he argues, is not achievable through game mechanics. It's the stories, and the way these stories are told, that make games feel realistic.

It seems EA is no longer satisfied in having us simply believe these stories are real. It wants us to experience them for ourselves.

GameSpot has received a comment from EA in regards to why the company deleted links to its partners and Goodrich's posts from its Warfighter page. The statement reads:

"After listening to feedback from the community and reviewing our program for supporting veterans, we have withdrawn the Tomahawk from the promotion and removed related URL links on our website. We continue to work with gear manufacturers to provide an authentic videogame experience and to support veteran’s organizations. Medal of Honor is committed to delivering an emotional, authentic depiction of the today’s war and today’s soldiers. It is inspired by real people, real places and real operations. The game is M-Rated and a work of historic fiction. Though a work of entertainment, the themes, scenarios and battles are a sensitive subject and may stir conversation among press and players."

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