by jeffrey pu
Upcoming video game “Homefront” could be the newest addition to a lineage of anti-Communism/anti-Asia war games. Developed by Kaos Studios and published by THQ, the game is currently scheduled for release on March 15th. As a first-person shooter, “Homefront” centers on gun combat from the first-person perspective.
I’ve always been a huge geek and have been enjoying video games since I was a kid, so I sometimes find it hard to critique video games simply due to my fond memories of them. Yet, I readily threw out my qualms about critiquing video games after learning about the premise of “Homefront.” The action takes place in 2027 when Korea is reunified under Kim Jong-il’s son Kim Jong-un, and the U.S. economy collapses due to a dramatic increase in oil prices. Sounds bad? It gets worse.
With American global presence diminished, the unified Korea annexes a number of countries in Asia, including Japan. Finally, taking advantage of a pandemic that has swept through the U.S., as well as employing a strategic military strike against U.S.
communication systems (the Koreans actually trick the Americans into believing that they are sending a “message of peace”), the Korean People’s Army invades American soil.
There’s so much wrong with this premise that I almost don’t know where to start, but let’s just begin with the story overview. Its game developers have labeled “Homefront” as a work of “speculative fiction,” and great lengths have been taken to ensure that the premise is a “plausible” one. The game was written by John Milius, co-writer of “Apocalypse Now” and “Red Dawn” (the 1984 film in which the Soviet Union invades the United States and is beaten back by a team of teenagers). Furthermore, former CIA field agent Tae Kim was hired as a consultant.
According to Kim, “from
the very day the invasion starts in the game, if you combine everything, the
odds are very, very slim this becomes true. But when you look at the storyline
step by step, every step is a coin flip but a plausible step. So once you get
there, it’s plausible. And from there the next step is plausible as well. Even
though the whole thing is fictional, it comes with plausible baby steps.”
While it may seem
presumptuous of me to question the words of a former CIA agent, there is a lot
of what he says that is simply hard to buy. It’s easy to say that every part of
the story is “plausible” without thinking through each portion critically, and
therefore oversimplify the story pieces that you put together. This is exactly
what the storyline of “Homefront” does. The most problematic piece of
“Homefront’s” story is obvious: the reunification of Korea. To suggest that
within the next couple of years (In the game, Korea is reunified in the year
2013) Korea can be unified, seemingly without any outside intervention,
dramatically oversimplifies the issue of both the conflict between North and
South Korea, and the international relations of the region as a whole. The
fact that the miraculous reunification and essential takeover of Asia by Korea
can be seen as a “plausible step” speaks to me of a severe lack of
understanding of the political landscape of East Asia.
Some may take a look at
the issues I’ve raised and dismiss them on the grounds that I am over-analyzing
what is only a fictional storyline to be used in a fun action game. However,
this leads to the next issue I have with “Homefront,” which is the emotional
reaction that the developers are trying to elicit with this game. While action
games in which the main goal is to run around and shoot as many enemies as
virtually possible are by no means rare, the developers of “Homefront” have
attempted to set their game apart from other first-person shooters by
emphasizing emotional response, which is generally hard to accomplish with the
detached medium of video games.
With most games lacking
the high-quality visuals of film and the creative capacity of literature, few
games are immersive enough to allow the audience to invest themselves in the
characters or plot development. The developers at Kaos Studios, however, may
have gotten it right with “Homefront.” According to an article by Stephen
Totilo of video game blog Kotaku, “I have little animosity for the virtual
people I shoot in video games. They are cardboard targets. The worst they can
do is kill the virtual me. My ‘death’ lasts a few seconds. I can’t hate them
for that. This changed last week. I played the beginning of the upcoming
first-person shooter Homefront and I felt a burning urge in the game to do
right with the trigger of a virtual gun.”
I don’t think I need to
spell out why such sentiments are deeply problematic and disturbing. And while
a video game’s ability to draw out angry and violent emotional responses is not
uncommon, it is more often that games are used as a form of catharsis. When I
play shooter games, I do so because I want to release the anger or bloodlust
that I’m feeling at the moment. On the other hand, “Homefront” aims to
recreate and reinforce that anger and bloodlust.
Furthermore, we all
understand the ability of media to shape public perception (as supported by
the correlation between increased media animosity toward Muslim and Arab
countries and the continuous rise in hate crimes against Muslim and Arab
Americans). The xenophobic tendencies of the media, which are directed not just
at Arab Americans but also at Asian Americans with discussion about “threats in
Asia,” combined with the fact that too many people don’t bother to make a
distinction between Korean, Japanese and Chinese or any other Asian (the murder
of Vincent Chin comes to mind here), makes it easy to see the negative implications
this game has on the Asian American community. The developers at Kaos Studios
should have understood the ramifications of portraying all Koreans as
unrepentant killers of mothers and children, especially to an audience that is
becoming increasingly hostile to those with “Oriental” faces.
Now, it’s here that I
have to include a disclaimer, and I’m not just doing this to cover my own ass
and appear “objective,” but as an honest gesture of hope. Considering the fact
that “Homefront” has yet to be released and the only previews of the game cover
the first level, it’s a little bit too early to pass such scathing judgment on
the game. One of the great things about video games is their length, and with
most games lasting at least 10 hours long, there is plenty of room for plot
development and change. It can very well be possible that the developers over
at Kaos Studios have foreseen the controversy around this game and have
addressed it within the game’s storyline.
Preview articles have mentioned
the inclusion of a Korean American internment camp within the game’s narrative.
If used properly, the game could very well send a strong message against the
use of racial profiling and remind us why Japanese internment was such a
shameful period in our history. Other factors such as the inclusion of a Korean
American protagonist could even redeem the game in my eyes. Nonetheless, given
the steady increase in displays of anti-Asian sentiment (the planned remake of
“Red Dawn” where the invader is no longer the Soviet Union, but Communist
China, is a testament to this) as well as an overall poor track record for
first-person shooter storylines, I’m not going to hold my breath.