[30 June 2011]
As much as any title, Call of Duty signals the ascent of the video game in economic terms. Gamers who have seen their hobby win new converts in recent years often still draw a distinction between the “casual” gamer and the hardcore, between the Wii-equipped grandma and the smartass teenager with fighter pilot reflexes. But Call of Duty’s dominance suggests that gaming’s transition into the mainstream is less about making video games safe for grandma and more about increasing the size of video gaming’s biggest tent—the one where you go to shoot bad guys in the face.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 sold 4.7 million copies in the first 24 hours after release, making it the most successful entertainment launch of all time. The next game in the series, Call of Duty: Black Ops, did even better, moving 5.6 million copies in the first day. By the end of 2010, sales of Black Ops had passed the billion dollar mark, and in 2011, it became the all-time best-selling video game in the United States. According to an article on gaming website IGN, there is now a copy of Black Ops in 1 out of every 8 American homes (“Call of Duty: Black Ops in 1 of 8 U.S. Households”, IGN, 14 March 2011).
As games take their place in more and more households, another debate has emerged around the question of whether or not games should be considered art. Gamers point to titles like Shadow of the Colossus and Heavy Rain as evidence that games deserve serious aesthetic consideration and as proof that the medium is evolving beyond its staple fare of killing things. But if we are to think of games like films or novels, then shouldn’t we also extend this appraisal to games that aren’t telegraphing how serious they are—especially when they’re as popular as Call of Duty? What are games like Call of Duty saying to us? What are they saying about us?
Some reticence here is understandable: gamers have spent years battling claims that video games brainwash innocent children into becoming sociopaths. It’s reasonable to think that games have no more special power here than films or television shows, but if old media forms can’t turn us into killing machines, they can still transform the way that we see the world. It’s almost impossible to think about organized crime, homicide investigation, or the Vietnam War without recalling the mass media that shaped our view of these subjects.
Call of Duty, especially in its latter-day Modern Warfare incarnations, offers an immersive moral theater that combines the right-wing symbolic register of the 1980s action movie with a post-9/11 paranoid style worthy of Alex Jones. Call of Duty presents a shadowy, bullet-riddled virtual reality where policy mistakes can be reversed with superior firepower, where the player can speak truth to power with bullets, and where the messy process of liberal democracy can be transcended by one well-placed commando willing to do whatever it takes to save the world. It is armed-forces-chic meets conspiracy backlash in an attractive, 60fps package. In Call of Duty, the WMDs are real, the villains may be the ones giving orders, and the clock is always ticking.
Call of Duty flourishes by restricting your options. The limited number of choices that you have in each in-game situation—e.g. shoot the terrorist in the face, or shoot him in the groin—underscores the broader goal of decisive action and forward momentum. Call of Duty is not about fussy negotiations, the sharing of feelings, or the deliberate weighing of multiple points of view. It’s about cutting through red tape, completing the mission, and taking care of business; clearing buildings, killing enemy combatants, and seizing objectives. Call of Duty is not UN negotiators patiently trying to neutralize Iran’s nuclear weapons program, it’s the Navy SEALS killing Osama bin Laden. It’s not Woodrow Wilson; it’s George W. Bush.
But Call of Duty is also a cautionary tale. It continually reminds us that, despite our eternal vigilance and unsurpassed military might (represented by the game’s satisfying snap-aim, where a group of enemies can be neutralized in a cycle of rapid shots simulating the effect of countless hours of elite combat training), terror still lies in wait ever ready to strike. No sooner have you saved the downed helicopter pilot in Call of Duty 4 (exorcising the ghosts of Mogadishu), then a nuclear weapon is detonated, nullifying your heroic efforts in a mushroom cloud. Your character lives just long enough to crawl through a windswept wasteland straight out of Terminator 2. Call of Duty thus fulfills the grim prophecy spelled out by Dick Cheney and undercut by the failure to find WMDs in Iraq: the smoking gun as mushroom cloud.
Modern Warfare 2 does one better by giving the player a front-row seat to a nightmarish terrorist attack on a Russian airport terminal, seemingly inspired by the 1972 attack on Lod Airport by members of the Japanese Red Army. As you walk with an eerily deliberate pace through the terminal, you confront a tableau of dying victims and carry-on luggage disintegrating under machine gun fire. The devil’s in the details: the sight of all of the flights on the arrivals/departures board switching over to “DELAYED” in a clattering red wave provides more chills than an entire library of survival horror games.
Attempting to untangle the labyrinthine plot of Modern Warfare 2 may be a fool’s errand, but there’s something provocative about the game’s heady stew of geopolitical ADD. The rough outline reads like the fever dream of a committee of 9/11 truthers: a vicious terrorist attack is blamed on an American undercover agent, precipitating World War 3—until a team of off-the-reservation commandos discover that the real villain is the high ranking American general who secretly engineered the incident and ensuing conflict in order to drum up hawkish patriotism and blind allegiance. The next game in the series, Call of Duty: Black Ops, takes these cloak-and-dagger themes even further, offering a postmodern pastiche of LBJ-era paranoia so deadpan that it’s almost kitschy, while also reminding you that there’s sometimes a thin line between the rogue agent and the lone nut.
The story of General Shepherd’s treachery in Modern Warfare 2 plays almost like a sop to the Oath Keepers, the right-wing group based on refusing to follow orders issued by the Obama administration that would terrorize American citizens or confiscate their firearms. At the same time, the game brings familiar survivalist fantasies to vivid life. We see America invaded by vengeful foreigners with the Cold War resumed as an army of faceless Russians lays siege to our strip malls and monuments. The player represents a one man army of liberation, saving America from the marauding invaders one headshot at a time.
Call of Duty thus fits neatly into a schema described by David Sirota in his recent book Back To Our Future. Taking our de rigeur ‘80s nostalgia as a starting point, Sirota argues that Pentagon-approved artifacts like Top Gun and Red Dawn taught us a very clear series of ideological lessons, which continue to dominate our public discourse to this day (Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything, Ballantine Books, 2011, p. 139-170). One of the most dominant themes in these parables is our fondness for system-bucking rogues, those rugged individualists who play by their own rules and transcend the gray and mundane reality of a world ruled by timid bureaucrats. Sirota’s rogueography reveals how pervasive the idea is in our culture; from Michael Jordan to Sarah Palin to Christopher Nolan’s Batman, the rogue archetype cuts deep. (Much like The Dark Knight, Modern Warfare 2 ultimately resolves into a triangular battle of rogue against rogue against rogue with Captain Price, General Shepherd, and Makarov standing in for Bats, Two-Face, and the Joker.)
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.