Published Nov 21, 2009On the eve of Remembrance Day ― less than a week after a Muslim-American army major massacred 13 fellow soldiers in Fort Hood rather than deploy to Afghanistan ― gamers stormed midnight sales to spend a world record-smashing $310 million on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a game that begins in that very same central Asian warzone and, infamously, permits players to gun innocent people down in a terror attack.
So, yes, it's controversial...but could Modern Warfare 2 also be anti-war?
America's aughts-era incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan have often been described as videogame wars, what with all those gee-whiz camera-guided missiles, pilotless drones, night-vision goggles and other assorted futuristic armaments. Games have also been used to train soldiers and, indeed, lure them into enlisting via the federally funded first-person shooter America's Army.
The imagined convergence can also be blamed on ever-increasing digi-realism ― graphically, at least, real dead soldiers don't respawn at save points ― and modern war coverage so bloodless the media won't film flag-covered coffins.
But though shooting has been a primary part of gaming since Space Invaders, most military titles have either donned a sci-fi coat or stuck to the past ― albeit mostly WWII as Vietnam remains a sore spot. The rare games set during this war-ravaged decade, like Army of Two, come off as jingoistic wish fulfilment.
"You can only storm Normandy so many times," says Joel Emslie, lead character artist for MW2 developers Infinity Ward, which originated Call of Duty as a WWII series before turning it into a 24-esque near-future franchise. "Everybody knows that Nazis are bad guys, so that's great. But when you step into the modern worlds, it really comes down to building villains. That's something that's new to us."
Modern Warfare debuted as 2007's Call of Duty 4, a risky terror-era shooter that won mass acclaim and popularity while managing to be timely, gripping and not racist. Partly that was because, despite that jaw-dropping nuclear explosion in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, the game's Big Bad was a Russian ultranationalist ― a storyline continued with the sequel's villainous Vladimir Makarov.
Sure, evil Ruskies seem as real-world threatening as Nazis, but the dangers of nationalism endures ― a notion intriguingly illustrated in quotes by Ghandi, Voltaire and Dick Cheney that display after each death scene.
"We're not out to glorify war, we're just looking or a good, fun time without trying to offend anybody. Good game play, keep it tasteful, it doesn't need to get gorier than it is," Emslie says, albeit somewhat disingenuously considering the furore that subsequently erupted over the game's gut-punch airport terror-attack level (including being banned in Russia).
Despite Fox News claims to the contrary, you're playing an undercover CIA agent, not an actual terrorist; the level is skippable and you can participate actively or passively. But there is a point to the shocking brutality ― it's intended to be emotionally disturbing as scared civilians bleed, scream and desperately crawl away from you. By being playable rather than a cut-scene, it implicates you in the carnage and reinforces both the villainy of terrorism and the dangers of morally compromised counter-terrorism. (Your commanding officer even warns, "you're going to lose a piece of yourself").
Turns out ― spoiler alert ― your cover was always blown. Makarov kills you, leaving your dead body as smoking-gun evidence of U.S. involvement in the terror-attack, igniting a Russian-American hot war. The message seems clear ― military involvement, even for altruistic reasons, can backfire horribly.
Though less controversially, later levels continue the anti-war stance by bringing the horrors home. How does it feel to be one of those occupied Afghanis you slaughter early on? Maybe like how you feel while street fighting across suburban Virginia, fending off tanks from atop a burger joint, or battling Russians inside a bombed-out White House.
Wandering through America's burning capital city, enemy helicopters circling the Washington Monument, is an intense moment that, despite the admittedly exhilarating game play, tries to show what it's like on the wrong side of an invasion.
"It doesn't come close to the horrors of real war," Emslie demurs. "We've hung out with real soldiers and you can tell it's hard for them to talk about certain things. I would rather keep the games we do fictional and fun and stay away from something that might hurt someone. Never in a million years could we come close to the real experience those poor guys go through out there. God bless 'em."
That's not something we'd ever expect from a game ― especially one whose cinematic, Hans Zimmer-scored set-pieces roam from Brazilian favelas, Kazakh snow fields and Russian gulags to Afghani airplane graveyards, offshore oil rigs and orbiting space stations.
On the other hand, we also didn't expect that the biggest military-shooter ever would boil down to a provocative, defiantly anti-Cheney argument that morally blind patriotism and ends-justifying-means can only lead to more modern warfare.