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The Bullshit Politics of ‘Realistic’ Military Video Games

In ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,’ there’s true-to-life hurt and uncertainty to digest — but the main tactic at hand is still blasting dozens of dudes in the face with high-powered rifles

Five years ago this month, a very serious military shooter game birthed an iconic moment that would become a classic gamer meme. The 2014 title Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare takes place about 40 years in the future and follows a group of American paramilitary fighters as they take on a global terrorist threat. Early in the game, while serving as a U.S. Marine, you lose a friend in a firefight. Afterward, you take part in his funeral and watch as his squadmates come up to the casket to pay their final respects.

Then it’s your turn. The video game offers a simple command: PRESS F TO PAY RESPECTS.

The moment was ridiculed almost as soon as the game came out, mostly because the absurd interactivity (Really? Press F?) shattered any sense of gravitas and mourning in the scene. But I think it was especially funny as an earnest attempt to stir up emotion within the human player on the other side of the screen. With a swing and a miss, the press-F moment encapsulated a thematic trend in video games that’s taken root through the 2000s: We love leading America into “justified” wars, and we want it to mean something even if tragedy is unavoidable.

I thought of that game, and that widely mocked scene, while playing though the new game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which has received largely positive reviews for its blend of immersive gunplay and its heavy narrative. You play as different characters: a London cop motivated by a terrorist attack, a radical Middle Eastern freedom fighter with heart and a CIA operative thinking of switching sides. The powers above them are portrayed as uncaring at best and conspiratorially sinister at worst. Your actions, meanwhile, can be justified as nobility under fire — even as the game dangles a chance to watch a civilian get tortured. The things you see happening around you are horrible, but they’re never mundane. It all seems to pull you to a higher task.

Well, sort of. You’re expected to digest all this hurt and uncertainty, but the main tactic at hand is just blasting dozens of dudes in the face with high-powered rifles at high tempo.

Well, duh, you argue. It’s a first-person shooter! And yet I, a grizzled veteran of online shooters, just couldn’t shake the cognitive dissonance between the grin-inducing gunplay and on-the-nose morality questions. The fact that the graphics verge on photorealistic in some scenes made the calculus weirder still. So did the constant promo collabs with Burger King and Doritos I saw in real life; the latter’s Twitter giveaway for night-vision goggles actually references a mission in which I ended up shooting a mother in her bedroom in the dark.

Research has shown that the much-discussed link between violent video games and real-life violence is shoddy at best, but I can’t help but wonder about the influence of almost two decades of video games that depict war, and especially Western military might, as a necessary detour to the ethical high ground. The tragedy of 9/11 created a national mood that supported actual invasions of Middle Eastern countries — while also leaving a deep yearning for American legitimacy. It coincided with the start of a technological era that revolutionized home computers and video gaming, allowing for 3-D graphics that made the joys of charging through a battlefield clearer than ever. It is no surprise, then, that military shooters boomed in the wake of 9/11.

Call of Duty is the most iconic and innovative shooter franchise to emerge from this early-aughts bang. Over two decades, what began as a straightforward WWII game has become the subject of some fascinating controversy, ranging from its popularity with mass shooters to its own depiction of mass violence, in the form of a now-infamous mission where you mow down dozens and dozens of innocent civilians as part of a false flag operation. The “No Russian” level was an unprecedented move for a mainstream blockbuster video game franchise, and it raised a noisy debate about whether this form of interactive violence critiqued or just normalized political bloodshed.

The game technically allows you to skip the level, but as a curious teenager, I forged ahead. What I remember most is how subversive it felt to machine-gun civilians down. I’m not sure, though, what I learned about the world while doing so.

That’s the same question that comes to mind when I wonder about whether jingoistic video games or shows like Jack Ryan and SEAL Team are slowly inuring us to the effects of real war — the one that taxpayers support. Americans have long been the subjects and recipients of some seriously powerful military propaganda. Then consider how video games empower players in a way other media don’t. Researcher Nina Huntemann, co-editor of the book Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games, is critical for this reason: “Military-themed video games simplify, glamorize and fetishize global conflict. The narrative possibilities offered players are exclusively militaristic and indiscriminately destructive,” she told Kotaku. “Blind faith is placed in the technologies of war … however, the cost and consequences of these shock-and-awe machines are largely missing.”

What’s truly telling is that war shooters gained so much popularity in the early 2000s that the government itself began treating games as recruitment tools (the U.S. Army literally built a free game from scratch called America’s Army, which, honestly, I loved). In the last decade, the U.S. military has funded digital innovation and even an e-sports program. The symbiosis between war games and the literal war machine is more explicit now than ever before. Perhaps because of that, Modern Warfare has received applause for bothering with thorny politics and American military imperialism in an attempt to get more “real.” (Though it can’t get really real: Modern Warfare takes place in the made-up country of Urzikstan, because of course it does.)

The fact remains, however, that fighting in a war doesn’t feel anything like Modern Warfare’s ambitious narrative arc. It’s the first thing Matt Moores, a Marine Corps veteran who moonlights on Twitter as “The Warax,” points out when I ask him what he makes of war games that try real hard to be deep. “The dissonance for me is that those shooter games have more plot than a real deployment. The plot of mine: ‘Okay, we’re gonna drive from here to here, and if any random dudes shoot at us, then we’ll shoot at them, rah?’ And we’re like, ‘Rah.’ Seven months later: ‘Okay, cool — time to go home,’” he writes over text.

(What does he think is the most true-to-life video game? “Contra. Hard, and no plot — the ultimate expression of the modern combat experience,” Moores quips.)

What we also don’t see in war games is the repetition, mundanity and fuck-you exhaustion of being stuck in combat. While those qualities don’t sound like ripe territory for video games, you have to wonder: Could we learn something valuable about war and service if our virtual experience got more raw? Could a military game capture the desperate desire for nonviolence that a traumatized young man or woman feels while stuck in a botched operation? Or the quiet insanity of marching into the dark for another uncertain patrol?

These questions make me think of another hyped blockbuster video game that dropped recently. It’s Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, a game about the end of the world that mostly forces you to march through said world, weighed down by a towering backpack of shit you need, with little clue of when or where danger will strike. There are rules of engagement in this battle, as you’re not allowed to kill. And like in war, the repetition of the daily agenda morphs into a sense of sheer exhaustion for the real-life player over time. A number of reviews have noted that Death Stranding is an experience that can be infuriating and depressing as much as it is exciting or fun.

Contrast that with Modern Warfare, which challenges you with some disturbing info but keeps the gameplay tight and electrifying throughout. It brings to mind something that game design expert Marcelo Viana Neto told me in a conversation about Red Dead Redemption 2, which attempts to mix a redemption story about finding peace with a whole lot of abject killing. “There’s a huge disconnect between the story missions and the rest of the gameplay. You can have humane interactions with non-player characters and your horse, but when you get to a mission, you end up killing 50 dudes,” he pointed out. “The plot and character development is saying, ‘You don’t want to do this.’ But many moments, I don’t have the option to act morally. It’s almost like the game is confused about what it wants you to do.”

Again, these kinds of warped morality questions aren’t unique to video games, but it’s hard to shake the fact that military shooters are more than just visceral — the genre is a major way young people (and men, especially) relate with the concept of war and geopolitics in a meaningful way. Moores is cautious when discussing potential harms of this stuff, as am I, but he does note that people will interpret their entertainment how they will. “Take Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, for example. Those are anti-war films,” he says. “Gunny Hartman was a bad dude. He abused his recruits. People love him, though. That’s funny to think about.”

Despite all the chatter about how single-player games are dead, Modern Warfare is an unquestionable win for Activision, raking in $600 million in just three days after debuting. As with the Forever War we entered after 9/11, there appears to be no end to this massive, lucrative genre. There’s reason to believe that the moral gray sludge of Modern Warfare’s story is a sign that war games will get better at showing us the reality of life in a battleground. I have a feeling, however, that a lot of it’s going to feel as contrived and superficial as a civilian-torture scene you can “avoid. 

Or hitting F to pay my respects, for that matter.