The Call of Duty series has become a kind of shorthand in many circles, many of which I frequent. It’s often the punchline whenever eggheads like me decry annualized sequels, toxic online communities, overly-scripted gameplay, and jingoistic stories about glorious war heroes. The latest installment, Black Ops II, doesn’t really refute any of this.
Outside of Madden, Black Ops II is perhaps the most mainstream traditional video game of the season. It’s the game that gets prime time commercials. It’s one of the titles that folks who only buy a couple games a year eagerly await. It’s a summer blockbuster in November, something carefully marketed and crafted to appeal to as large an audience possible. It would be completely understandable if the search for such a broad appeal led to a bland product; trying to please everyone usually negates a lot of interesting ideas.
And yet, I always look forward to playing a new Call of Duty game. The foremost reason being that the snappy controls and dopamine-inducing multiplayer progression system create a compelling one-two punch. However, I’m equally drawn to the bombastic, single player experience campaigns. Despite being squarely in the mainstream, Black Ops II broaches topics that few other games touch.
My knowledge of African history is pretty poor, and I was a disinterested kid for most of the Cold War. This is all just an apologetic way of admitting that Black Ops II was responsible for me learning that Jonas Savimbi was a real person. Every year, we get movies like Lincoln and TV shows like Boardwalk Empire that offer takes on real historical figures. Granted, these portrayals come along with a healthy dose of artistic license, but at least they acknowledge the existence of history and the outside world. According to the video game landscape, if you’re not a space marine, you’re probably a wizard. If you’re not a wizard, you probably live in a completely fictionalized reality like Liberty City.
In Black Ops II,Manual Noriega is an NPC, Oliver North gives you missions, and the game predicts that David Petraeus is (or, in this post-scandal world, was) in line to be secretary of defense. Clips of a jolly looking Reagan are juxtaposed with secret CIA dispatches to sketchy military strongmen. A huge chunk of the story is about the shady business that the U.S. government got into during the Cold War. Outside the independent space, are there any other games that even acknowledge real world politics?
But there’s a problem with Black Ops II‘s use of real world people, and it’s a doozy: the game offers a wealth of historical figures but offers very little historical context. Savimbi’s political and philosophical background takes a backseat to his charismatic battlefield persona. Noriega is a sleazy character, but the ways in which his sleaziness was enabled by the U.S. government are shoved off to the side. Oliver North’s cameo is little more than a walk on. Without doing any outside research, it’s conceivable that younger players might not know about his sordid history.
More troubling is the fact that the marketing surrounding Black Ops II seems to leverage its connection to the real world for scare tactics. An extreme story suddenly sounds more plausible when it’s framed by seemingly-knowledgeable talking heads:
The clip above perfectly encapsulates the problems with Black Ops II‘s relationship to reality. Fact and fiction are mingled without comment and bolstered by seemingly authoritative sources. The game skates along the surface of history, which is more than most games aspire to do. However, real world people tend to be used as set dressing as opposed to being used as tools to provide real historical insight. Like the soldiers you control in the game, the player simply follows orders as a pawn in the larger conflict. True, this particular pawn has an entertaining and dramatic backstory, but it’s a story that comes at the expense of exploring the larger narrative.
In this way, Black Ops II’s approach to history is brilliant. It’s provocative for the people that care and innocuous for those that don’t. It manages to lionize figures like North while demonizing the monsters he helped create. It’s a political Rorschach test with a story that could be interpreted as critical of the U.S. military or proudly patriotic. Its careful balance of reality and fantasy appeals to everyone from rabid shooter fanatics to columnists that usually focus on niche games like Papo & Yo, and does so while also selling millions of copies. Even if I don’t agree with such a strategy, it’s hard not to be impressed.