Bring On The Bad Guys!

There’s a Congressional candidate in Iowa Ohio who’s having a bit of a publicity problem over his hobby. It turns out that Rich Iott likes taking part in historic re-enactments, including World War II, and sometimes he takes the part of a German.

In similar news, Electronic Arts has tweaked its latest iteration of its “Medal Of Honor” video game. In the Afghanistan scenarios, players could choose to play on the Coalition side or the Taliban side — and people didn’t like the idea of gamers taking on the role of the Taliban.

I’ve been a gamer of various sorts most of my life. Not so much video games, but board games, trading-card games, and role-playing games. In a lot of those games, conflict is essential — player vs. player or players vs. the game master.

And in a lot of cases, that means that I’ve had to play as the bad guy. In “Fighting Steel,” a World War II naval surface warfare game, I’ve played on all four sides — American, British, German, and Japanese sides. In other World War II games, I’ve occasionally taken the side of the Nazis.

It’s a fact of gaming. If there are bad guys, sooner or later you’re going to have to play them. Because without bad guys, there’s no one for the good guys to fight.

In one Tom Clancy novel, the United States is under attack from a biological weapon (weaponized Ebola). One of the experts from the Army brings up the time he developed a plan to carry out just such an attack against the US as part of an exercise. Another character is appalled — here’s a United States Army doctor who’s planned out, in detail, how to kill millions of Americans.

The response is simple: attack and defense are two sides of the same coin. To properly develop a defense, one needs to face a realistic plan for attack — the more effective, the better. And that means that those who are tasked with defending us have to understand how to best attack.

The players in Medal Of Honor aren’t that concerned with the politics of the actual conflict in Afghanistan. They’re more interested in testing themselves against other players. And the game designers at EA are not interested in the politics of the war, either — they’re trying to keep players’ interest by using a real-world model. And their concern isn’t in portraying the politics of the fight, but balancing faithfulness to the reality of the situation with game balance, giving each side an equal chance to win.

A little while ago, some folks brought up the TV series “Hogan’s Heroes.” A lot of people had a problem with a comedy set in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp (not a concentration camp) and using Nazis as sources of humor.

By an odd coincidence, nearly all the major German characters were played by Jews. Col. Klink, Sgt. Schultz, General Burkhalter, and Major Hochstetter were all portrayed by Jewish actors. Further, three of them had fled Nazi Germany, and a fourth actor — Robert Clary, who played Corporal LeBeau — had actually spent three years in a Nazi concentration camp.

Werner Klemperer, the actor who played Col. Klink, had a few conditions before he took the role. He insisted that Klink be a lackluster Nazi, and that he never be allowed to “win.”

So, what do Mr. Iott’s historical recreations, computer games, war games, and “Hogan’s Heroes” all have in common? They’re all make-believe. They all recreate actual historical conflicts, with people assuming the roles of participants in those conflicts.

And in each case, some people will have to take on the roles of the good guys and bad guys. It’s the way the game is played. You can’t be a hero unless you have a villain to defeat — and the tougher the villain, the greater the triumph.

One final point: at their core, the players all know that they’re just playing. They know it’s make-believe. They know they’re just playing a role. The ones to worry about are those who actually take things seriously — the Neo-Nazis, the racial supremacists, the actual terrorists.

And, to a lesser degree, those who have trouble separating the fantasy from reality. They’re most found among those who get hysterical about the fantasy — and they’re most often not actually players.

Update: I forgot to insert this one paragraph:

One of the most fun games I’ve played in the last year required me to portray a drunken Communist gnome on a sinking nuclear submarine. I’m a six-foot-tall teetotaling capitalist, but that game is seriously nuts. I’ve also played a game where I was a brain-eating zombie, and that was also a fun (except when I got blasted in the face with the shotgun).

Hope and change now doubt and disenchantment
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