Political Milestone

As a senior British politician discovered this week, videogames are no longer a soft target for conservative polemic

There was a time, not too long ago, when any politician looking for a quick headline in the right-wing press could rely on a manufactured stink about a violent videogame to do the business. A few inaccurate descriptions of the game in question, peppered with fiery condemnation from politicians and wildly uninformed statements from various victim's organisations or individuals who have never actually seen the game, was a guaranteed hit with the audience - and the backlash from the industry and the young people who form most of their vocal consumers was sufficiently small as to be unimportant.

Indeed, some politicians and news journalists are under the impression that times haven't changed - that games remain a soft target, with just about everyone that matters being willing to believe any old nonsense about this evil force that is corrupting the nation's youth. Every couple of months, some news source will attempt to make a scandal out of a new game, and each time, they manage to find a politician so desperate for public exposure that they're willing to spout off about a topic they know nothing about in the hope of earning a soundbite on TV or a quote in a tabloid newspaper.

This isn't new. Countless gamers have complained about exactly this over the years. I've written about this phenomenon in columns before, bemoaning the mainstream press' willingness to view games as an easy target for negative stories during slow times for news - and especially during the "silly season" that ensues in the press during the summer, when political news tends to dry up.

What is new, however, is the completely resounding rejection of the comments made by British defence secretary Liam Fox regarding EA's forthcoming modern-day reboot of its Medal of Honor franchise. The game allows you to play both as Coalition forces and as the Taliban in its Afghanistan-themed multiplayer levels - Fox, no doubt sensing a handy headline, slammed this as "un-British" and effectively called for a ban on the game, stating that retailers should refuse to stock the game in order to show their support for our armed forces.

Fox probably expected that this was a pretty safe comment to make. It would earn a few headlines, get panels of self-styled experts on daytime chat shows nodding gravely, and play well to the Conservative heartlands. It was a fire-and-forget statement - hardly one that would come back to bite him in the backside.

Except that that's precisely what it did. Unsurprisingly, gamers were angry about his statement, and vented forth on social networks and forums. EA was also nonplussed, issuing a statement correcting factual errors in Fox' comments (for a start, you can't actually kill British soldiers in the game since, er, there aren't any British soldiers in the game), while industry bodies queued up to condemn Fox' demands for censorship.

So far, so normal - but then something rather unusual happened. The story broke free of the specialist games press and started making waves across the political blogs and websites. The readership of these sites has exploded in the past few years, and despite the scoffing of some more traditional journalists, the influence of the larger blog sites is well-understood both at Westminster, and across the UK media industry.

Once the political blogs had picked up the backlash, then, it was only a matter of time before the mainstream media did the same - and indeed, the tone of the coverage shifted dramatically, from nodding at Fox' condemnation to slamming it as an example of a minister who's uninformed, out of touch and worse, one with deeply "un-British" attitudes to censorship.

Suddenly, Liam Fox' jab at videogames is starting to look quite costly. Across social media outlets and on major blogs, his own record is dissected - from his regular praise for Henry Kissinger to his hawkish outlook on war, the hypocrisy of a man so comfortable with real people being shot being so outraged by pixels and 3D models being shot is a source of both mirth and anger to audiences far, far beyond those who regularly play videogames.

Worse again, the man's own colleagues have distanced themselves from him. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which oversees the videogame ratings system as part of its brief, was dismissive of Fox' comments, and its statement seemed rightfully peeved that the defence secretary had completely ignored the existence of the rating system. His words, the DCMS was at pains to point out, were a "personal view", which is Westminster new-speak for "bloody stupid and off-message".

And so, we have the spectacle of a British defence secretary, the man at whose desk the buck for all of our military engagements stops, being forced to clarify and defend his comments about a videogame. It's not the biggest political scandal of the week, not by a long shot, but it's an extraordinary milestone for the relationship between videogames and society in the UK. Politicians and media outlets have been looking more favourably upon videogames for some time - but never before has a minister been so comprehensively slapped down across such a broad sphere of public opinion for a cheap attack on the medium.

Electronic Arts, of course, will be nothing short of delighted. Fox has just earned them the kind of coverage that money genuinely can't buy. Don't feel sorry for the company being attacked over the decision to include the Taliban in the game - it is quite blatantly a controversy-courting move, deliberately designed to provoke outrage among right-wing, conservative commentators.

I'll be the first to argue that videogames have every right to tackle controversial modern-day issues, just as every other creative medium does, and would never demand that EA's game should be banned or censored - but equally, I'm under no illusion that the Taliban force in the game is a creative statement, rather than a deliberate ploy to generate headlines.

It's childish, cheap and frankly in poor taste, but they're entitled to do that. It falls to people like Liam Fox to have the common sense not to get riled up and start shouting about censorship over things like this. Sadly, our defence secretary seems to lack this common sense - but I suspect that in the wake of his drubbing over the past week, others in Westminster may now think long and hard before allowing themselves to be goaded into uninformed, censorious statements on a medium they barely understand.

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Latest comments (12)

Simon Garner Managing Director, Gameplanet NZ8 years ago
I absolutely agree - and so it's all the more surprising that New Zealand's Minister of Defence has chimed in to echo Liam Fox's comments:
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Jay Crowe Creative Director, Bohemia Interactive8 years ago
Enjoyable and thought provoking piece, as always.

While I agree broadly that this marks some sort of development in the relationship between the 'industry and society', the backlash against Fox is consequence of a more fundamental shift towards rebuking public figures that make shallow, headline oriented statements - regardless of context.

The 'comprehensive' nature of the 'slapping' has deeper roots in the sensitivty and inflammatory nature of the subject matter - soldiers dying, freedom from censorship - than in the ascendency of industry in the public consciousness.
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Andy Payne Chair/founder, AppyNation8 years ago
The more commentators there are, the chances of the truth being found increase. The traditional media - newspapers, TV and Radio had a throttle on the presentation of the facts by way of argument. Rare exceptions such as the BBC have always striven for balance, but binary views of the world were instigated and perpetrated by some usual media companies. Reason and progress come from debate and consideration of multiple viewpoints. We are in the new age of reason and that must be a better place for every citizen.
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Josef Brett Animator 8 years ago
Andy - minor point (and off topic really), but I would argue that the BBC isn't as balanced as you would think. Sure, they're more subtle than the 'Daily Mail in tv form' that is ITV news etc, but they still have pretty strong bias'.

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I enjoyed the commentary and balanced argument of the columnist.
Good one Rob.

Looks like a Foxed Fox enjoys the full effect of a karmic boomerang.
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Karel Mořický Senior Game Designer, Bohemia Interactive8 years ago
Funny is, British government is also funding game where you can actually shoot British soldiers as middle-east guerilla:
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Richard Wilson , TIGA8 years ago
Excellent article, Rob. Once again we have seen a demonstration that a video game can be a cultural product. Not only does this game reflect in part a real world event, but at the same time it has caused senior politicians and civil servants to then comment on the game. EA must be delighted.

Richard Wilson, CEO of TIGA

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Gregory Keenan8 years ago
I feel this article is missing a point - Liam Fox politicly in the conservative party is not very popular by trying to defend the MOD budget. The treasury is looking for an opportunity to oust him. The article should have considered if some of the back-lash was political pouncing by Liam Fox's enemies.

Also in the writing of the article; part of what may have confused Liam fox is once again stated: "The game allows you to play both as Coalition forces and as the Taliban in its Afghanistan-themed multiplayer levels". In your attack of Liam Fox not knowing the facts - you include an obvious mistake - EA have stated that you only play as Americans or the Taliban - The colition is more than just the USA, it includes the British, French, dutch, german etc...

So in analysing WHY he said it one could assume:
-NEWSPAPER: What do you think of the new EA game that allows you to play both as Coalition forces and as the Taliban in its Afghanistan-themed multiplayer levels based in Helmand? Therfore being able to shoot Coalition forces?
-LIAM FOX- "its un-british and should be baned"

It seems the article has a rather narrow focus - "Hurrah that Liam Fox didn't get away with this; but we dont want to explore the reasons - we will assume that people are starting to take games seriously"
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Stephen Woollard Online Infrastructure Specialist, Electronic Arts8 years ago
Again let me state the following is my opinion, not necessarily that of EA...


Just once I'd like to see a politician engage brain before mouth. What makes me laugh about this is the fact that as a parent I'm more concerned about the rubbish shown on kids TV these days, many of which seem to be little more than a marketing idea to sell the toys shown in the myriad of ads every five minutes, and the amount of toys these days that are aimed at the 3+ market that have guns and bombs etc in them is staggering - I spend half my time watching kids programs recorded on Sky+ to make sure they're actually safe for my kids to watch, in fact most of what they watch consists of DVDs of programs I watched in the 70's like the Clangers, Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine etc that actually have a story and a positive slant.

I'd write more, but I have to put the kids to bed.

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Josef Brett Animator 8 years ago
Great comment Stephen.

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Lisa Ohanian8 years ago
I loved the article (and am so happy to see this happening!), but I only agree with it up until the last paragraph or so.

I'm not familiar enough with the details of the game to comment on whether or not the inclusion of the Taliban is a 'ploy to generate headlines', but even if it is, I don't see how this would necessarily make it 'cheap, childish and in poor taste', even if you did admit that it was justifiable.

There's nothing wrong with inserting a cultural hot topic into a game in order to drum up attention as long as it doesn't sacrifice the quality of the game itself in doing so. 'Instant publicity buttons', for lack of a better term, do exist, and there's no reason we should look down on EA because they decided to take advantage of one. It's good business to be aware and take advantage of the culture you're releasing your game into, not a tacky publicity move (again, assuming it's not the entire point of the game, and it doesn't shamelessly press the issue more than it needs to. I suppose the game could be doing this - but I would be surprised).
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Tony Johns8 years ago
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which oversees the videogame ratings system as part of its brief, was dismissive of Fox' comments, and its statement seemed rightfully peeved that the defence secretary had completely ignored the existence of the rating system. His words, the DCMS was at pains to point out, were a "personal view", which is Westminster new-speak for "bloody stupid and off-message".

Perhaps this statement here, gave me the real impression that back a few short years ago like before the Byron review, many politicians both in the USA and the UK were quick to label videogames with a bad name.

Nowdays...this is slowly changing thanks to the (not so informative but allot more better than in the past) awareness of the Byron Review also with Social Media allowing the comments from gamers to become a mainstream level at least...

Also first it was Books, then music, then movies, then cartoons and the politicians and tabloids need a new scapegoat to blame things on in the future and even if they do there will be a whole lot of people who know and have seen it all before with things happening to things they have liked...

But as long as there are always stupid people beliving in what they say, these will always happen sadly.

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