Electronic Arts Inc. (Nasdaq: EA) has removed a controversial promotion from the website for its upcoming military shooter "Medal of Honor: Warfighter" video game to sell branded weapons to the general public.
The promotion was part of an initiative known as Project Honor, a partnership between EA and, according to its website, "many elite weapon and gear manufacturers who equip the Special Operations Community" to sell weaponry and other gear to raise money for veteran's organizations.
When Project Honor was first announced in June, EA made the partnerships clear but did not elaborate on what each of the partnered brands would be selling either through their own websites or through the "Medal of Honor" website itself.
"Through unique partnerships program with EA for 'Medal of Honor Warfighter,' elite weapon and gear manufacturers who equip the Special Operations community, including Kaenon, London Bridge Trading, Magpul, SureFire, Mechanix Wear and others, will donate to the Navy SEAL Foundation and the Special Operations Warrior Foundation for the benefit of Project HONOR," a June 13 press release stated. "These esteemed weapon and gear manufacturers will also have their products featured in the game to help deliver the most authentic video game warfare experience this holiday season."
In the part that has now come back to haunt EA and the "Medal of Honor: Warfighter" development team, the statement continued: "In addition to this, select partners have signed up to create and sell exclusive 'Medal of Honor'-themed merchandise and donate 100 percent of the proceeds of their sales to the Navy SEAL Foundation, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and other charities."
It was not immediately apparent, however, that some of that rebranded merchandise would be weaponry itself. A news post from the game industry site Gamasutra from June described the partnerships primarily as a tool for philanthropy, saying that "EA has launched a charitable program that aims to raise awareness and generate contributions for the families of fallen soldiers from the Special Operations Community."
"Project Honor is dedicated to raising awareness and generating charitable contributions for fallen warriors from the Special Operations Community in honor of the sacrifices they and their families have made for their country," the site's mission statement reads.
However noble the intentions of Project Honor may be, the partnership disturbed many video game critics and journalists uncomfortable with what they see as a growing overlap between real world military violence and the wanton destruction represented in video games. Shortly after the partnership was announced in June, game site the Gameological Society wrote an editorial criticizing EA for failing to "protect the fourth wall between the first-person shooter and real life."
In the essay, writer Ryan Smith explained that the gamers (or really anyone in the general public) could "visit the official website for 'Warfighter' and click on a sponsored link that will take you to McMillan, the manufacturer of the gun. There you may purchase a real-life TAC-300 to your own specification (night-vision kit is optional!) and have it shipped to your local federally licensed gun dealer for pickup."
When the larger industry specific site Eurogamer picked up the story, EA felt enough pressure to respond publicly.
Speaking to Eurogamer last week at the industry tradeshow Gamescom "Medal of Honor: Warfighter" producer Greg Goodrich said that the "The Voodoo Tomahawk has since been removed from our website because of the article," referring to Eurogamer's original report.
The Voodoo Tomahawk was particularly controversial because, as opposed to some of the other weaponry made available for sale on the site, the bladed weapon was rebranded specifically for EA's "Medal of Honor: Warfighter" intellectual property. Other items that weren't fully clarified when the partnerships were first announced included weapon modifications like increased magazine clips and flashlights in addition to "Medal of Honor" badges.
Since the partnership began, Goodrich had also started blogging on the official "Medal of Honor" website about the partnerships. As detailed in Eurogamer's Aug. 14 report, these posts included personal snapshots of Goodrich shooting different guns. The posts discussed how close the development team for "Medal of Honor: Warfighter" had grown to its partners in weapons manufacturing.
All of these blogs posts have since been removed from the game's official website, along with the promotional material for the Voodoo Tomahawk. A page on the website still shows a number of "proud partners" under a banner reading "Authentic game. Authentic brands." But any links to the manufacturer pages selling weaponry and related merchandised that Ryan Smith first identified have since been removed.
When contacted for this story, Peter Nguyen, EA's PR representative for "Medal of Honor: Warfighter," said in an email that besides these changes, the company will "continue to work with gear manufacturers to provide an authentic videogame experience and to support veteran's organizations."
"This began with the best intentions," Nguyen explained, echoing Goodrich's original comments to Eurogamer. "We want to raise money for veterans with items that related back to the Medal of Honor Warfighter experience. Clearly, including the tomahawk was a mistake -- one that we corrected before these items were circulated in public."
It's not entirely clear, however, what EA sees as the "mistake" it made besides offending some videogame critics. Nguyen went on to say that EA's hope with designer the story and gameplay of "Medal of Honor: Warfighter" around real-world issues (as opposed to the fictionalized premises of other military shooters like the popular "Call of Duty" series) is that "though a work of entertainment, the themes, scenarios and battles are a sensitive subject and may stir conversation among press and players."
EA's weapon partnership have certainly stirred "conversation among press and players" since they were first announced. And removing the promotional material while continuing the partnerships has an unclear effect on EA's larger strategy for "Medal of Honor: Warfighter."
More importantly, EA's comments don't make an apology or admit any wrongdoing on the publisher's part. When speaking to Eurogamer, Goodrich remained firm in asserting that EA's original intentions were perfectly sound:
"That was an effort to raise a lot of money for charity, and we were well on our way to raising a lot of money with that tomahawk, but I don't know what will happen with that now. That whole effort, we've been working with those partners because we wanted to be authentic, and we wanted to give back to the communities. Every one of those partners, none of them paid a dime for product placement -- all the money generated went to Project Honor."
Pressed on the connection between virtual behavior and real-world violence, Goodrich remained similarly resolute. "In a first-person shooter we're not teaching someone how to shoot better or be a better operator just by playing a game," he told Eurogamer. "It doesn't compute, just like when I play John Madden football I can't expect win the Super Bowl just because I played a video game."
When asked what, exactly, he thought EA's "mistake" was in the case of the Voodoo Tomahawk, Nguyan reiterated that the company is continuing to work with all of its partnered gear manufacturers. "Regarding the Tomahawk promotion," he wrote in a follow-up email, "after listening to feedback from the community and reviewing our program for supporting veterans, we immediately withdrew that particular item from the promotion and removed related URL links on our website."
Shares of Electronic Arts Inc. (Nasdaq:EA) fell 14 cents to $13.42 in midday trading.