This discussion of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 contains spoilers for this game as well as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Bioshock.
The most compelling thing about the use of the first person perspective in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was how it victimized the player. From the opening scene in which the player was forced to take on the role of the victim of an execution to the sequence in which the player tried but failed to escape a nuclear blast, the game victimized the player by immersion. Taking full advantage of the illusion of the personal that the first person evokes in video games (you do after all seem to see right out of the eyes of the character that you are inhabiting), the immersive quality of being able to control your perspective in the first sequence but being left unable to escape the consequence of a fatal shot leaves the player sharing and experiencing the helplessness of the doomed character. Likewise, the ability to crawl from the wreckage of a helicopter downed by the eddies of a nuclear explosion but being unable to get much further before dying in the ruined landscape is a suggestion that despite seemingly having “control” over a character (something the gamer is accustomed to having) that control of a final destiny is tenuous at best. The character’s helplessness is the player’s helplessness, reflecting the game in the experience of it. For gamers used to the sense of invulnerability and immortality that gaming experiences provide through multiple lives and continue options, this experience produces an unaccustomed impotence.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 significantly ups the ante of exploring ways of reflecting the experience of playing a character with the players own experience of gaming, but it additionally begins to explore how that relationship coincides with questions of rules and authority.
At the beginning of the third chapter of the game, an Army Ranger, Pfc. Joseph Allen, is briefed on his mission to go undercover with a Russian named Makarov who has no territorial or political affiliations. Makarov is genocidal and traffics in human beings. As the briefing reveals, “Makarov’s fighting his own war, and he has no rules and no boundaries.” Rules and boundaries become the chief interest of this sequence and subtley also everything that the player has done thus far and usually does in an FPS or any video game for that matter. Playing at soldier is what a player does in any game in the Call of Duty series and always within the same sorts of boundaries that a soldier has. You are given mission objectives and meant to fulfill them. Gamers are most often followers of rules.
Indeed, in the previous mission while playing as Sgt. “Roach” Sanderson, the player is given an onscreen prompt to “Follow MacTavish” as Sgt. “Soap” MacTavish leads a mission to infilitrate an enemy compound. The instruction is almost needless as any player of games is accustomed to following other characters’ leads in missions. The player is unlikely to give any second thoughts to following the instructions of MacTavish. Falling into the role of a soldier is about the equivalent to falling into the role of the player of a game. Follow the rules and don’t step outside of the boundaries. Conforming to rules leads to solution, the solving of the game.
The Makarov mission, however, begins to challenge rules and boundaries with its content and much of that challenge lies in the mission briefings description of the events surrounding the mission. It explains that in the current global political situation “Uniforms are relics. The war rages everywhere, and there will be casualties.” This reference to uniforms certainly informs about Makarov’s nature as an apolitical animal that is not affiliated with, not marked by the uniform of a citizen loyal to a particular national interest, but it also alludes to the situation that the player is about to experience, one that violates the “rules” and “boundaries” of a typical military FPS.
The mission begins with the player riding an elevator alongside four heavily armed men that are dressed as civilians (one of which is Makarov). That familiar and almost invisible prompt “Follow Makarov” is one of only two instructions that the player receives in terms of his objectives for this mission. The second is one of his colleagues turning and simply stating “No Russian.” As the elevator opens and the player moves forward (“following Makarov”), the reason for the second instruction becomes clear. A group of civilians easily noted by their lack of uniforms (indeed “uniforms are relics” and the “rules” and “boundaries” of the game of war have seemingly been altered in modern warfare) waits in line at airport security.
As a player that was “following Makarov” and drawing conclusions about the lines that I had just heard about uniforms now being irrelevant in warfare and that I was to follow Makarov’s lead to complete my objective, I felt one thing at this moment, despair. My character had lifted his machine gun, and I felt a sick feeling in my stomach. Makarov and his men opened fire. I did not.
What I did wonder as I watched Makarov and his men gun down three or four dozen people in front of me is: how many players would open fire on the crowd? After all, like every other mission in the game and most missions in video games, instructions were clearly given on what to do: follow.
My choice not to do so seemed cued by the lack of uniforms in front of me. Enemies in video games generally are marked visually in some way to represent them as targets. Such markings include ugliness, monstrosity, and, of course, the uniform of a foreign government. My choice to not open fire may have been as “rule driven” as the choice to open fire. Players opening fire may do so because they are trained to follow onscreen prompts. Players who do not may not do so because they are trained to recognize the “otherness” of enemies through simple and clear signs like uniforms.
In any case, I stood and watched. As Makarov and his men advanced, I quickly fell into the role of “following” as I was supposed to. I followed Makarov up an escalator as he and his men killed civilians in droves. At one point, I even stepped to the edge of a balcony to watch the man that was now beside me kill everyone below. I fell into my role as undercover agent. Unwilling to participate, I also was participating in not blowing my cover. I realized that I had become complicit in the actions of Makarov and his thugs by merely observing.
My second feeling of despair hit as we were about to descend to the floor below, and it occurred to me that I was armed and standing behind Makarov. While uniforms were obviously not relics to me, why hadn’t I tried to intervene on the behalf of the victims of those who violated such rules? I am ashamed to say that I hesitated for a moment wondering if shooting Makarov would cause me to fail my mission (again, rules intervened in my considertaion of how to appropriately participate in this sequence). However, I determined to see what the outcome of shooting Makarov would be.
Indeed, killing Makarov branded me a traitor and ended the mission. Thus, as the game loaded me once again to the checkpoint, I found myself fatally bound to follow Makarov whether as an active participant or not. I continued as observer and found myself scanning the faces of crumpled bodies that we waded through as we approached the doors out to the tarmac where rules and uniforms saved me once again.
Outside we were greeted by policemen that began shooting at us. While I waited a bit and watched Makarov and his men engage the cops, I could clearly see that they were making no headway and in any case, my life was being threatened, and I knew the rules: when you are being shot at you can shoot back. Suddenly, my role as soldier and as a gamer had been reinstated by the uniforms of my enemies.
The ending sequence of the level does provide a kind of means of absolving the player of the guilt of either having had directly participated in this sequence or in indirectly by avoiding but still watching an atrocity. Pfc Allen is gunned down by Makarov, removing the stain of his actions by negating the character as a future protagonist.
Currently, it is all the rage to prize games that offer players complex choices, moral and otherwise, in approaching solutions to levels or resolution of narrative. Indeed, one of the most compelling and largely unique things about games as a medium is that the audience of the medium is given the ability to participate in and potentially alter the narrative itself. Much maligned are games that enforce narrative elements like the often criticized sequence in Bioshock in which the player suddenly loses control of himself and is made to execute Andrew Ryan. Despite the seeming choice that the player seems to have to not fire, though, like Bioshock, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 seems interested in interrogating the relationship between authority and free will.
Certainly, I may have “chosen” the more noble route of not participating in the murder of innocents. Nevertheless, I still followed Makarov as instructed. Even when I realized that I might have some alternative option to intervene in an activity that was distasteful to me, I still felt hamstrung by rules and hesitated in executing Makarov and his men because of my expectations of the rules and conventions of the game despite my own moral quandry.
Despite being a simulation about soldiers, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 calls into question our tendency to blindly follow rules in general. In fact, as I was playing through this sequence the prompt “Follow Makarov” evoked my recollection of how I had previously been quite comfortable with the prompt “Follow MacTavish” and made me wonder why I had not felt anything about gunning down humans that were one symbolic marker away from civilians. If uniforms are only relics now, why were uniforms something that I could acceptably assault before now with no concern for the human underneath?
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is ferocious and terrible. It once again victimizes the player, ironically, by offering the illusion of choice to the player but then reminding him of his own dedication to rules that are followed consciously and unconsciously. The reflection of the life of the soldier on the experience of the gamer once again becomes a way of causing the player to reflect on themselves. In this case, though, it may be a reflection of a terrible ferocity that we share with the game.
Even if we believe that rules don’t guide our decisions and that we are free to make choices, remember that even a man with no rules and no political boundaries may find himself falling prey to deeply embedded rules: “No Russian.”