Those who know me, know that I often deride the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series as a exploitation of veterans. The game seems to offer an unrealisticly positive representation of modern warzones, twisting something terrible into something fun. The game appears as Halo, only skinned to look like real war. Replace the SMG with an AK-47, the Warthog with a Humvee, Space Marine with a real Marine. Also, if you know me, you know that I, until this writing, have never played the Modern Warfare series.
Call of Duty is one of the most popular and successful first-person shooting games to have ever been created. A copy of Black Ops sits in one in three American households. As a game designer, it would be a bit daft of me to ignore the massive influence that a game like this has. But still, I have found myself conflicted because of the basic premise of the game.
Video games don’t typically handle weighty topics with any finesse. Grand Theft Auto has always caused such controversy because games are still seen as a medium that cannot effectively communicate adult themes. Games are childish, and as you get older you put aside such things. The reason that games are not taken seriously is precisely because they have thus far not proven that they should be.
The Call of Duty series is mass market. It reaches the lowest common denominator. These types of games tend to be base experiences, loaded to the brim with cheap thrills and explosions. War is anything but fun. I am not the game’s target audience, so I have been reasonably worried and somewhat hesitant to play the Modern Warfare games.
I pick up a used copy of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare from Gamestop. Two days later, my mind is changed.
Call of Duty 4 is both impressive and dissatisfying. It is a triumph of modern game design, tackling war in an effectively terrifying way. A line can be easily drawn between the fantasy war that the game presents, and the real global conflict against terrorism. The game depicts suffering up close and personal. It is frank and honest, even if it occasionally exaggerates. It doesn’t shy away from showing you the brutality of war, but it also manages to never feel gratuitous. A sense of reality is preseved throughout the experience. And it’s weight is traumatic and oppressive.
In a word, it’s haunting.
But the game is conflicted. Although it is clearly not a simuluation, it attempts to be unbiased and never really forces any particular interpretation of what is happening. It just puts you in the shoes of a soldier and throws you against an aggressive situation. But on the sidelines, the game makes comments on both sides of the anti-war sentiment. The game tells you that war is terrible, but then raps atop the end credits with a tone slightly south of “Guns! Fuck yeah!”
The game leaves you with a taste of onions and sugar. It would be insufficient to call the game anything less than a monumental achievement–it is both more affecting and more intense than it’s best film counterpart, Saving Private Ryan–but it’s botched delivery leaves me terrified that many people will see it as a simple glorification of war, fun in the same way as Halo or Gear of War.
Perhaps it’s impact only comes from within the player: The game gains it’s weight from the connection that must be intentionally drawn between reality and what the game represents. Surely there are many adults who play the game without consideration of the tragedy of murdering people who you have never even met for causes that don’t really personally concern you. People will not wonder what these “bad guys” might be like if you just got to know them. Instead, some will posit that real war is “just a game.”
I am no longer worried about the content of the game, merely the shallowness of its players. Games will not truly be revered as a mature artform until the artistic appreciation thereof is reflective of the strength of the content rather than the perseverence of its players.