As many PaxSims readers may know, there has been considerable controversy in the electronic gaming world over the forthcoming release in October of Medal of Honor, a first-person-shooter that allows players to assume the role of US Special Forces—or Taliban insurgents. UK Defence Secretary Liam Fox has called for the game to be banned. Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay has blasted the game too, saying that “I find it wrong to have anyone, children in particular, playing the role of the Taliban. I’m sure most Canadians are uncomfortable and angry about this.” Electronic Arts, maker of the game, has not surprisingly, stood by its decision to produce it.
This isn’t the first time these issues have come up with regard to video games. Commenting on the debate, Richard Poplak (who has written a book on Western popular culture in the Muslim world) offers some interesting thoughts on “Why It’s OK to Wage Joystick Jihad,” today in the Globe and Mail, setting it all in the broader context of gaming violence for entertainment purposes. How does one balance free speech, censorship, the rights of game players, concern over the effects of violence on the impressionable, sensitivity to war victims, realism, and other concerns? (In this regard, it may also a good time to go back and reread Frida Castillo’s paper Playing by the Rules: Applying International Humanitarian Law to Video and Computer Games, which we mentioned last year on the blog.)
In the case of simulating violence for educational purposes, it is easier to make the argument that some participants should be playing the “bad guys.” Doing so—in a well designed simulation—can help to breakdown stereotypes, generate greater understanding, and help to predict future challenges and responses. Indeed, many of the reasons for doing so parallel the general arguments in favour of red teaming, whether in simulations, analytic settings, policy development, or otherwise.
That being said, realistically simulating violence can have its risks even in an educational or professional setting. For example:
- Simulating something as horrific as genocide might be seen to be disrespectful, or to trivialize it. Most instructors would think twice before designing a WWII simulation in which some participants played the role of SS Einsatzgruppen or concentration camp commanders. Would it then be more acceptable to simulate mass killings in the Balkans, Asia, or Africa, or assign participants to roles in which they might be inclined to commit fictionalized mass atrocities?
- The more accurate the representation, the more unpleasant it might make the simulation process—a challenge where players are required to self-motivate themselves to a significant degree. I well remember one civil war simulation where an insurgent players kidnapped aid workers, and then began issuing graphic descriptions of their executions as part of an psychological effort to undermine humanitarian initiatives. His logic for doing so was impeccable, but I was worried that it would ruin the experience for the students playing aid agencies. Consequently, after complimenting him on his gruesome writing skills, I asked him to tone things down a little.
- Graphic simulated violence—even in prose—might well trigger psychological responses from students who have experiences of it in either civil conflicts or otherwise. In another simulation at McGill, one of the students playing the role of a human rights NGO drafted an excellent “report “on gender-based violence in our fictional setting, including detailed accounts of rape as a weapon of war. I was concerned that there could be students in the class who had experienced sexual assaults in other settings, and again asked them to tone it down a little before they released to report to the other participants.
On the other hand, these things can be difficult to call, and potential effects can be difficult to predict. In one case where I asked a student to be a little less graphic in their simulation materials, they informed me that they had been a personal victim of precisely the sort of violence described—and thought it was important that its real horror be brought home to their classmates. Certainly there is a cost in excessively sanitizing the horrors of war for simulation purposes, or to ignore the fact that there people in conflict-affected countries that engage in instrumental mass abuses of human rights.
My conclusions? I don’t really have any, other than to suggest that the issue may deserve some reflection and thought when designing educational and training simulations around these issues. As with peacebuilding itself, there are rarely perfect answers to such dilemmas—only thoughtful ones that pay due attention to the risks, benefits, and potential complications involved.