LOS ANGELES - The punishment of Navy SEALs who worked on the video game "Medal of Honor: Warfighter" is the latest in a series of misfires for the interactive medium's popular military shooter genre, which continues to face scrutiny as high-definition graphics become more lifelike and gamemakers attempt to create the most authentic experiences possible.
"These games are now trying to portray things and tell stories around current events," said Casey Lynch, editor-in-chief of the gaming site IGN.com. "When you're dealing with current topics, there's a higher level of sensitivity. I think most people would agree there's not the same level of sensitivity when compared to old World War II or Vietnam War games."
Navy officials said last week that seven members of the secretive Navy SEAL Team 6, including one involved in the mission to take down Osama bin Laden, were reprimanded for disclosing classified information to the creators of "Warfighter," a modern-day, first-person shooter from developer Danger Close Games and publisher Electronic Arts Inc.
"We worked really closely with more than two dozen operators on the mission objectives, operations, maneuvers and various elements in the game that helped shape our single-player campaign, things like the weaponry, the gear, the way these operatives perform door breeches," said Luke Thai, producer at Danger Close Games, ahead of the game's Oct. 23 debut.
Thai noted that both the gamemakers and military personnel who consulted on "Warfighter" were cognizant about not detailing too much about current conflicts - or making them boring in virtual form. One of the game's missions tasks players with explosively battling a band of Somali pirates. Thai said the real-world inspiration for that level was far less fiery.
"In terms of the various conflicts that are still going on throughout the world, we touch upon those, but we don't replicate them exactly," he said. "They serve as dotted-line inspiration for things that go on in the game. For instance, our overarching single-player campaign story revolves around a global hunt to shut down a fictional terror network."
Still, to ramp up the game's realism, "Warfighter" creators mimicked real-world weaponry and centered the plot on the ripped-from-the-headlines threat of an industrial explosive known as PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, the same material used in 2001 by convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid when he tried to destroy a trans-Atlantic flight.
The tactic doesn't seem to have helped fuel "Warfighter" sales. The NPD Group, which tracks sales of new physical products, said last week that "Warfighter" ranked eighth in overall game sales in October, behind such titles as "NBA 2K13" and "Resident Evil 6." EA noted in an earnings call last month that "Warfighter" had a "weaker than expected performance."
(EA spokesman Peter Nguyen said last Friday the company has no plans to recall or alter "Medal of Honor: Warfighter" in light of the SEALs' punishment.)
It's not the first time a "Medal of Honor" game has found itself in hot water. Two years ago, military officials opted not to stock the first-ever modern-day "Medal of Honor" title after protests over the game's multiplayer mode, which allowed gamers to represent the Taliban. The characters were later given the more ambiguous moniker "Opposing Force."
"Call of Duty," the most successful military shooter franchise, experienced its own controversy over a skippable level in 2009's "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" that cast gamers as an agent who infiltrates a Russian villain's inner circle to defeat him but ends up participating in a bloody terrorist attack on an airport while acting as part of his group.
The "Medal of Honor" and "Call of Duty" franchises both began as harmless World War II shooters before EA and Activision respectively shifted their focus to more contemporary - and complicated - conflicts and settings. It's paid off for Activision. Last year's "Modern Warfare 3" smashed records by selling 6.5 million copies within 24 hours, earning $400 million.
EA didn't experience similar success when it relaunched the "Medal of Honor" franchise in 2010 with a present-day, Afghanistan-set chapter, though it sold a respectable 5 million copies.
It's unlikely the punishment of the Navy SEALs will affect the creation of future military shooters, which have long employed military personnel as advisers.
"I think there's still going to be people out there using their expertise and experience in the military that will help bring entertainment products to life, whether it's in games, movies or other things," said Lynch of IGN.com. "I imagine after what happened with this situation that people will be a little more sensitive and careful."