Ever wonder what it's like to kill your own countrymen? Video-game players in Japan are finding out. Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, the latest war game from the American company Electronic Arts, is a first-person shooter that puts you in the shoes of a U.S. Marine as you, to quote the game's press release, "Survive and Avenge the Attack on Pearl Harbor." You blast Japanese planes out of the sky, lob grenades at onrushing troops, and generally stomp the Imperial Guard to pieces. It's a great game, but as I frantically emptied my M1911 .45-caliber pistol into the chest of yet another Japanese solider, I began to wonder what the hell Electronic Arts is smoking. They released this game in Tokyo? What do the Japanese think?
As it turns out, they love it. Japanese reviewers gave Medal of Honor: Rising Sun a thumbs-up, praising the "extremely intense" action. Electronic Arts affirms that the game is selling well in Japan. (Some American reviewers weren't as kind when it came out stateside. Gamespot called the controls "clumsy.") But the Japanese critics never mentioned the elephant that was trumpeting in the living room. "Basically, they all reviewed it without ever really mentioning the fact that it was, you know, Pearl Harbor," says Dan Tochen, an American game journalist who was in Tokyo during the launch. As the online comic strip Penny Arcade joked, "I don't see what's so odd about it. The people of modern Japan are simply taking on the role of foreign soldiers, killing their fathers and grandfathers in a grisly pantomime of history's greatest tragedy."
Why didn't the game outrage Japanese players? Perhaps the younger Japanese (the main audience for these games) are not particularly sensitive about World War II. "Older people ... saw their country ravished," Chris Thompson, vice president for EA Japan, told me in an e-mail. "Younger people do not share that context, are detached from the atrocities of war and have grown up in an affluent society." And to give the game credit, it's as sensitive as you could be toward the Japanese, given that you're constantly, you know, killing them. Unlike the cackling Nazis of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, the enemies are not caricatures. They seem as desperate and panicked as you are.
Besides, part of the fun of some war games is that they allow players to cross battle lines. Germans happily buy World War II games in which they whack the Third Reich, and Vietnam games sell nicely in Southeast Asia. American gamers loved Panzer General, in which players control Nazi forces against the Allies and try to dominate Europe for Hitler. And plenty of folks—Yank and Reb alike—played Sid Meier's Gettysburg! so they could command the Confederate army against the marauding forces of Northern aggression. One of the pleasures of these war games is that they give you the weirdly rebellious experience of being in the other guy's foxhole, where you regard your nation's flag as the enemy.
So, on a simple level, games like Rising Sun cater to fantasies about a particular type of mayhem. They provide an excuse to mess around with vintage AK-47s, much as Star Wars games allow you to finally get your hands on a light saber. But after a while, the fantasy element fades, and all you're left with is gameplay. When I play Battlefield 1942, I'll actually lose track of whether I'm technically supposed to be Soviet, German, or American. I'm too busy blowing the crap out of the guys in differently colored uniforms.
This leads to a surprising facet of game psychology: Really hard-core gamers often look past the cultural "content" of a game. They're mostly worried about a more prosaic concern, which is whether the game is fun. The geopolitics of a game melt away as players, like philosophers musing on their favorite platonic solid, ponder gameplay in the abstract.
We're accustomed to thinking that a piece of entertainment is nothing but its cultural content. A movie or TV show is just what you see on the screen. But a game is also about play, and play is invisible. That's why outsiders are often puzzled by the success of games that would appear to be nothing but screamingly offensive content. They can't see the play. Sure, you've got raw guts flying around—but for the player, part of the joy is in messing with physics (even if that happens to be bullets and shoulder-launched grenades) or with strategy (even if that's figuring out how to starve a village).
Pacifists might argue that this is precisely why war games are a social problem. By making violence playful, games desensitize us to it. They turn war into just a bunch of way-cool physics and inventory control. Medal of Honor did have some Japanese critics. Aki Nakamura, a professor at Japan's Waseda University, told me he'd heard grumbling—not from oblivious hard-core gamers, but from casual ones. "I remember some of them saying, 'What is fun about shooting your own people?' " he wrote in an e-mail.
Put the shoe on the other foot. How would U.S. citizens react to a game where you played as the 9/11 terrorists, flying planes into the World Trade Center? Will our grandchildren find that fun in 60 years?