Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Politics of Command and Conquer

Let me preface all of this by saying that I love Command and Conquer. I was a total nerd growing up and I took the existential struggle with the Soviets in Red Alert as seriously as anyone. When Yuri started doing mind-control stuff in Red Alert 2, I fought valiantly for the future of the free world. Out of all of the computer games I played as a kid, Red Alert 2 consistently ranks in the top 3 (along with Age of Empires II/The Conquerors and a little-known knockoff of Civilization called Alpha Centauri). So when I was tooling around on Muhammad and Waleed’s computer yesterday morning and I saw a bootlegged copy of C&C: Generals, I naturally got a little excited. I had to search for a good half-hour, but I eventually found everything I needed to make the game work. I sat Muhammad and Waleed down and started to explain how to build vehicles, move soldiers, shoot at things, and all of that good stuff (the whole game is in English and the only relevant words I know are “jaysh” [army] and “adroob” [hit, meaning “attack” in this case], so this process took a while).

Every videogame should be like this.

At first I was proud—mainly of the fact that I actually taught them how to play—but after watching them play a little I got this really weird, uncomfortable feeling. See, the whole plot of Generals is set in Iraq (the game was released in 2003) and as a player your job is to defeat a rebel army and secure the country. The rebel army has chemical weapons and usually sets up camp in the middle of cities, so there are always a ton of civilian casualties (it doesn’t help that Muhammad and Waleed like to destroy everything on the map when they play, including random houses, trees, and occasionally their own base and air support). The point is that Generals was just a little too close to reality for comfort. C&C usually has ridiculous, James Bond-esque plots involving sci-fi stuff like time travel, teleportation, mind control, roving packs of attack squids and dolphins, soldiers with nuclear reactors in their backpacks, etc. The characters are cartoonish stereotypes like a rogue Russian commander named Yuri or an obese, cigar-chomping American general with a thick Southern accent (and let’s not forget Tanya, the Lara Croft look-alike commando whose missions always seemed to require low-cut tank tops). I think David Koechner (aka Champ from Anchorman) played the U.S. president in one of the games, which should give you a good idea of how ridiculous the C&C universe usually is.

The problem is that when you put these cartoon characters into a semi-realistic situation, the stereotypes become offensive. It’s fine to be jingoistic when you’re sending a squad of rocketeers (little soldiers with jet packs) into battle against a Soviet Zeppelin bomber with a giant shark face painted on the side. But it’s kind of a messed-up situation when Waleed is laying waste to Baghdad with Apache helicopters, Humvees, and tanks and the American soldiers are shouting things like “Bring the rain!” (especially because Waleed doesn’t really understand what’s going on and he’s stoked about everything).

Anyway, I decided that maybe it wasn’t a good idea for Muhammad and Waleed to be playing Generals, so I disabled the game. They complained basically all day, so I asked Sawsan if it was OK for them to play. Of course, she said “yes” even after I explained that it was about war—in a country where eight-year olds regularly watch Steven Seagal movies, nobody really tries to prevent their kids from seeing violent stuff. So I set it back up for them, but this time started them on the Chinese campaign. When I came back into the room a few minutes later, Muhammad was driving around Beijing with a bunch of tanks whose main guns were giant flamethrowers, and I smiled. Sure, the game still has some bad stereotypes (every time Muhammad gave orders to the tanks, the soldiers inside responded with thick Engrish accents like the City Wok guy from South Park: “Helro, welcome to shitty Wok, home of shitty beef, shitty chicken”) but when they look back on Generals in ten years, hopefully Muhammad and Waleed won’t think about the political angle and regret playing.

[Edit: I guess it also looks pretty bad to march tanks through Beijing and run civilians over (in C&C, the tanks don’t stop like they did for that guy in Tiananmen Square). But I doubt that political angle is as potent, just because Muhammad and Waleed will probably identify more with innocent Iraqis being killed by the American military than with Chinese rebels being repressed by the People’s Army. At any rate, I think my host brothers are too young to enjoy C&C properly right now anyway (after the first few levels, you can't just destroy everything, you have to actually use a little strategy) so this whole post might just have been me looking for an excuse to write about C&C.]

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