As a medium forged in the cauldron of Reaganism, video games are naturally defined by the lone survivor, the one man army who bests impossible odds in order to save the day (or the princess). Over the years, the video game rogue has evolved from the collegial good cheer of Mario to the perma-grimace of Max Payne—but the trope may have reached its apotheosis with Captain Price. What distinguishes Call of Duty from other games is its ripped-from-the-headlines tenor. When Captain Price goes renegade, it doesn’t just mean sneering for the camera or donning a leather jacket but, instead, unilaterally launching a nuclear warhead—which he guides “harmlessly” into space because Captain Price is a maverick, not a monster. (With no small amount of symbolic import, the player watches through the eyes of a hapless astronaut as the warhead destroys a bland stand-in the New World Order, the International Space Station, lobbing one into the men’s room at the UN “Goldwater style” would’ve been a bit on-the-nose.)
The gifted developers at Infinity Ward and Treyarch may not have meant to deliver a John Milius-esque sermon about the triumph of the rugged, red-blooded individual over foreign agents and backstabbing domestic traitors. But in the cultural register of the present, it’s hard not to do so (that said, MW2 pays explicit homage to Red Dawn, and the CoD knockoff Homefront was actually penned by Milius himself—if Call of Duty is Alex Jones, Homefront is Dale Gribble.) Like any effective piece of modern propaganda, Call of Duty does not trumpet its messages but hides them under a steel tide of bullets and rocket-propelled grenades. What Call of Duty does is appeal to those Manchurian cues already buried deep in our minds by decades of cultural indoctrination. For a generation raised on G.I. Joe and Die Hard, Call of Duty is simply speaking in a language that we’re already familiar with. And alongside the familiar action flick tropes, it offers a conspiratorial gloss that resonates with today’s landscape of 24 hour “news” and frenzied status updates.
But here a fair objection can be voiced: isn’t all this a little beside the point? Because after all, who plays Call of Duty for its storyline?
There are in fact plenty of people who don’t even bother with the single-player campaign. Indeed, the main attraction of the Call of Duty games remains its online multiplayer experience. This fact was made clear by an inspired TV spot for Black Ops, which featured an online COD battlefield populated by combatants appearing as they do in the real world: nurse, construction worker, student, concierge, etc. The commercial also starred Kobe Bryant and Jimmy Kimmel as celebrity participants. Viewers are thus offered a traditional advertising enticement—the proximity of celebrity—partnered with a more newfangled social-web-as-global-village sense of clubhouse belonging.
There is, however, one demographic that was not represented in the ad: active-duty military personnel. The popularity of the game among service people is not surprising; aside from the fact that the game is extremely popular in general, its bread-and-butter 18-24-year-old demographic has a distinct overlap with recruits. In Wired For War, P.W. Singer’s study of robotics in 21st century warfare, the author describes the life of a drone pilot: “When the weather is bad and their drone can’t fly, Hermann and his buddies will instead play videogames like Battlefield 2 or Call of Duty. By comparison, they find that flying a recon drone is ‘kind of like old Atari, pretty basic, point and click’” (Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, Penguin Books, 2009, p. 129) The headline of a recent BBC story proclaimed a similar truth: “Afghanistan battles ‘not like Call of Duty’, says soldier” (“Afghanistan battles ‘not like Call of Duty’, says soldier”, BBC, 12 April 2011).
A recent study by Jayne Gackenbach of Grant McEwan University in Edmonton yielded an interesting result: among a sample group of military officers who experienced nightmares about war, those classified as “high gaming” (playing violent and aggressive games such as Call of Duty several times a week) were found to have nightmares that were less intense and “were more likely to be able to conquer whatever the opposing force was. By contrast, those classified as ‘low gamers’ said the enemies in their dreams were more aggressive, and they expressed having feelings of helplessness [. . .] Gackenbach referred to games like Call of Duty as ‘threat simulators,’ and said they can teach the mind to better deal with dangerous situations even when they arise in nightmares” (Mark Raby, “War Simulation Game Helps Real Soldiers Sleep”, Games Radar, 9 March 2011).
Some realities are beyond the purview of Call of Duty; it is unlikely that we will find a level where we play a veteran suffering from PTSD or attempting to adjust to having lost his legs to a roadside bomb. But Gackenbach and McEwan’s study suggests that Call of Duty has value to real world militaries that extends beyond mere recreation. During Vietnam, the domestic radical group the Weather Underground infamously sought to “bring the war home”, but Call of Duty actually does so, albeit in a markedly different way. The game works tirelessly to habituate us to a postmodern version of warfare: constant, borderless, high-definition.
In 1991, Jean Baudrillard famously declared that the Gulf War did not take place, insofar as the war existed for most Americans primarily as simulation and reproduction, both on the radar screens of generals and the TV sets of people watching at home. It’s not impossible to imagine today’s punchy critical theorist making a similar argument about the post 9/11 “Long War” with the caveat that, for many people, even televised and filmed representations of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan played a supporting role with the conflict’s primary existence in the virtual form of Call of Duty on display in 1 of every 8 American homes. And with its earlier WWII titles and the Vietnam-era story of Black Ops, the game extends its representational dominance into the past.
Although Call of Duty draws influence from big-budget blockbusters, its sheer ubiquity means that films have also begun to emulate the game itself. In its depiction of a desperate battle against a shadowy, poorly understood enemy across shockingly familiar territory, the recent alien invasion yarn Battle: Los Angeles recalls no film inspiration as much as the Modern Warfare games. But the relatively small grosses for that movie are utterly dwarfed by the sales juggernaut of the Call of Duty franchise. Even the entire opening weekend of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was outsold by Black Ops—in just one day.
In the final analysis, Call of Duty functions no differently than any other piece of mass culture, reflecting the anxieties and prejudices of our present. Despite the game’s macho bluster, Call of Duty speaks to us as a culture of fear: fear of terrorism, fear of foreign invasion, fear of duplicity and deceit on the part of our leaders. It helps accustom us to a post-9/11 view of war that is perpetual and global, a conspiratorial view of world events, and an apocalyptic outlook that views collapse and catastrophe as ever imminent.
A game like the upcoming Modern Warfare 3 thus represents another accessory in the booming market for end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it paraphernalia such as gold coins, water purification tablets, and home solar generators. The chief difference is that when compared to most of the merchandise hawked by erstwhile Glenn Beck sponsors, Modern Warfare 3 will undoubtedly be an exceptionally crafted and highly polished product.
Jonathan Kirby is a writer from Phoenix, Arizona. He edits For Reals, a zine dedicated to documenting hilarious and horrible childhood stories.