This past week marked the release of the latest version of Medal of Honor, a videogame that has come under a great deal of fire since it was revealed that in its newest iteration players would be able to assume the role of Taliban fighters and fire on American troops. After fielding protests and complaints, Electronic Arts made a last-minute decision to rename the terrorists in the game, calling them “an opposing force” instead of “the Taliban.”
The controversy is hardly a surprise, given that the game addresses an ongoing conflict, a fight where moms and dads, brothers, sisters and friends are still in harm’s way. What is surprising is that playing a videogame where players can assume the role of terrorists is something that the U.S. Army not only understands, but actively develops and plays on a regular basis.
To understand why the Army (and other branches of the Armed Forces) are playing videogames — and playing as insurgents — let’s backtrack. When the United States mobilized its forces and headed to the Middle East nearly a decade ago, some in the public, media and politics assumed it would be a quick fight. Here was the most advanced fighting force the world had ever known — its soldiers were well-trained and they had access to technological weapons worthy of science fiction novels. Their foe was a disparate group, underfunded and fighting with outdated weapons in various states of disrepair and munitions left over from a handful of other wars.
But then the unexpected happened. Instead of rolling over, the enemy’s guerrilla tactics (specifically the use of roadside bombs) changed expectations of a quick victory. These improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have accounted for about half of all coalition casualties.
It took a while for the Army to react, as most large organizations do, and most of the initial reactions to the IED problem weren’t entirely successful. In fact, it wasn’t until 2004 when John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, insisted on the equivalent of the Manhattan Project to come up with real solutions to counter IEDs, that the Army was able to kick it into high gear.
Many organizations were born out of Abizaid’s request (and the funding that accompanied it), and it’s one of these new groups that is tasked with using videogame tools to help soldiers and commanders understand how to not only train smarter, but also to understand how their enemy thinks. Part of that mission is occasionally playing the role of insurgent in these games.