Friday, May 22, 2009

Memorial Day: A Day to Remember or A Gaming Fiesta?

Celebrate Memorial Day by blowing shit up!“War.  War never changes,” declares Ron Perlman in the opening of Fallout.  War may not change, Ron, but I wonder if we should change how we treat it.

Memorial Day comes hot on the heels of another AAA-wargame release.  Originally called “Decoration Day,” the holiday was first officially observed on May 30, 1868, following a proclamation by General John Logan.  Perhaps because Logan was a Union general asking that we remember fallen soldiers on both sides of the war, his holiday (already spreading state by state in the North) went unrecognized by Southern states until after World War I (when the holiday stopped being exclusive to the Civil War). 

In recent years, there’s been talk about changing how we (fail to) observe this holiday.  In 1999, a bill was introduced to move Memorial Day from the “last Monday in May” back to its original May 30th date; many believe that the current three-day weekend has contributed to turning Memorial Day into a generic, “Start of Summer” holiday and to diminishing the importance of the date.  Ten years later, no progress has been made regarding the bill.

I’ll refrain from weighing in on the May 30th/Last Monday debate (I love my three-day weekends as much as the next guy).  But I do agree that restoring the day’s original intention is important, especially given the current state of US Foreign Affairs. 

So imagine my reaction when I fire up my Xbox and see a Community video about how Xbox Live is celebrating Memorial Day.  In fact, you don’t have to imagine.  Just hit the jump.

Let me begin by saying that I have nothing against the WeTheGamerz guys, who are featured in this weekend’s Community Playdate .  These guys are trying their damndest to bring civility to online gaming (a feat whose very attempt should warrant a medal).  My beef is with the promotional video, hosted by trixie360.

Am I wrong to take umbrage at this promotion?  We’re going to “celebrate this holiday Xbox Live-style” by blowing each other up in Battlestations: Pacific, a game hyped in press releases for the ability execute Kamikaze attacks?  Am I the only person disturbed by the marriage of a holiday created to honor the dead with a sweepstakes whose entry requires the creation of virtual dead?

Now, I’m not trying to begrudge anyone their war games.  They’ve been around for centuries (check out the history of Chess when you’ve got the time).  And I do play and enjoy them.  I blog about games of Starcraft, for god sake.  But the message sent by this event just seems so wrong, so insensitive.  Granted, games have a history of being insensitive (e.g. Punch-Out!!), but that’s no excuse to continue such behavior.

I’m reminded of Emanuel Maiberg’s “See No Evil” article in The Escapist (which we linked in a previous Marginalia).  In it, Maiberg recounts his childhood in Israel, which he spent (among other things, I presume) blasting virtual Nazis in Wolfenstein 3D.  He remembers how uncomfortable his grandmother seemed “watching her grandchildren casually gunning down her former oppressors with the click of a mouse.”  He argues that Call of Duty: World at War, a game praised for its elaborate limb destruction, does the war (and those who lived through it) a disservice by completely ignoring the Holocaust and including (this is true) a Nazi Zombies mode.  How can this game be “respectful” (term from 1UP review) and honor servicemen when it glosses over what they were fighting for and turns a frightening, complex enemy into extras in a George A. Romero film?

This is not to say that games cannot/do not honor those who have defended our country.  Much of the hubbub surrounding Six Days in Fallujah seems to be the tension between the people crying “Too soon!” and the reports that Iraq vets support its development and release.  I personally am tired of games set in Unnamed-Middle-East-istan, but I understand why developers do it: as developer Borut Pfeifer wrote in his blog, “The notion that you can make a game set in modern day Iraq without making a political statement is complete nonsense…”  I suppose that by avoiding actually naming the country, you can say you’re not commenting on the war (though I think anyone with half a brain can connect the dots). 

But why don’t games want to say things about war?  Why do we have to settle for blanket, generalized assertions like “War is bad.  Can’t you tell by our bump-mapped blood spatters?”  Why can’t we use the unique qualities of a procedural medium to explore how specific wars are started, fought, and won/lost so that we might actually learn something about them? 

How all of this relates to Xbox Live’s Memorial Day extravaganza is a little shaky, I’ll admit.  I’ll also concede that on Microsoft’s webpage for the event there’s a sidebar titled “Support Our Troops.”  You can donate games to deployed soldiers via Cheap Ass Gamer, send more generalized support via the USO, or get involved with Homes for Our Troops.  This is all in good taste.  But it’s overshadowed by the promise of run-and-gun fun and a sweepstakes whose image tag reads: “Here’s your chance to claim some killer swag!” (Not to mention that the term ‘swag’ isan acronym for Stuff/Shit We All Get – if it’s a sweepstakes, we can’t all get it, Microsoft.)  If Microsoft actually wanted to do some good on Memorial Day, they could charge for entry into the sweepstakes and donate the proceeds to one of the aforementioned charities.  Anything would be better than this we-want-Live-traffic, promotional bullshit.

Unfortunately, we’re stuck with this version of Xbox Live Memorial Day.  And it’ll be a year before this bothers anyone (or perhaps just me) again.  But Microsoft can do better.  They can set an example in the industry in how they (Microsoft) approach serious topics and charity work.  Not encouraging us to kick off Summer by celebrating war would be a welcome start.  War may never change.  But we can definitely change this.