I studied history in undergrad and grad school for six years, but I’ve never worked a day as a historian or a teacher. I have defended my college degree as being an influence and resource on my writing as well as a good way to learn how to think. Also, I can recognize the first 15 Roman Emperors by coins or busts, which is amazingly useful. But now I have an all new benefit to crow about: I get a lot more interest out of Call of Duty: Black Ops because I know something about the historical events that form the game’s backdrop.
These are subtle, fleeting pleasures to be sure, but I really do appreciate the ways that Black Ops works on multiple levels, depending on your familiarity with the era. It can be played like any other Call of Duty game, in which flashing images and maps scroll by at high speed while a serious sounding man expresses concern and ruthless resolve in the face of the enemy. Like those other games, I often went into missions with no clear idea why I was there or what I needed to do. Because Black Ops is spread out across many years and continents and moves forward and backwards in time, this can all be even more confusing than is maybe necessary.
But then there are those moments where the game’s path crosses with real history, and when it does, there really is something extra exciting about it for me. The first came when I got off a helicopter at the Pentagon and was greeted by a man in a suit. I thought to myself, hey, I know that guy. That’s Robert McNamara. A few moments later, the game confirmed this for me, but the fact that they’d modeled him well enough that I could recognize him (aided also by the fact that I knew it was 1963 and that he was Secretary of Defense) was kind of awesome in a way that not many games are. My mind flashed back to the excellent Errol Morris documentary about McNamara, The Fog of War. I could see this young, digital version of the older man in that film, reflecting back about his own decisions during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. For me, this moment of wider context made the game come alive for me. For some reason, this moment with McNamara worked more for me than the moment with JFK that follows or with the earlier contact with Castro. The inclusion of a “second tier” historical personage helped sell me on the game’s world more than seeing the expected famous faces.
As the game moves on in time, we find ourselves in Vietnam in late January, 1968. My birthday is January 30th, which is why I know that January 30, 1968 was the beginning of the infamous Tet Offensive, considered one of the great turning points in the war. Of course things go badly right away in the game as you’re thrown into the famous battle of Khe Sahn, but even our victory on these game levels is overshadowed by the knowledge that it’s only going to get much, much worse. Like so many other historical facts in the game, “Tet” does fly by on the screen during one of the interstitial montages, but I imagine most players who don’t have outside knowledge of the era won’t have any idea of its real import.
Of course there are people playing Black Ops who actually remember some of these events from their own lives, and their experience must be even more different than mine. It’s all further complicated by the fact that the game not only references real history but also Hollywood history, drawing clear inspiration from movies about the era. All the while it proceeds at a breakneck, action-packed pace, leaving these details and homages for the observant or knowledgeable player while not detracting from the experience for those who don’t know or care about such things.
In the end, I like Black Ops more than Modern Warfare 2 for its creation of this historical context and what it adds to the game’s story. But I’m also looking forward to finishing it soon, so I can sink into the Rome of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. I only took a few classes that covered the cold war. I live and studied in Rome for four months. Finally, that semester abroad is really paying off.