I have been playing video games since 1978 or so, when Space Invaders hit the scene and caused such a runaway global phenomenon that it actually caused a shortage of 100 yen coins in Japan. (No, really. It did. The Japanese parliament required arcade managers to return their coin haul at least weekly to keep a proper number of coins in circulation, since so many of them were sitting in Space Invaders games.)
It wasn’t long after Space Invaders that video games started landing themselves within the crosshairs of media, concerned parents, social pundits and lawmakers all wondering if this new form of entertainment was causing more harm than good. It is something I have seen come and go many times as I grew up myself, and as I have continued to play video games of one sort or another. The medium has come a long way since those early days, with plenty of games using their unique format to explore deep and compelling artistic and intellectual angles. Others simply seek to divert or to shock. And even though I hate to admit it, there are those that cross the line.
For me, Call of Duty is one of them. It is a first-person shooter, in which you pilot a soldier on a battlefield, gunning down computer opponents and other live players you meet online. The first games of the series were set in WWII, but later installments have been set in the modern day and even the near future. This is one of the true juggernauts of the video game industry, with more than $10 billion in global sales to date and more than 175 million copies sold. You simply cannot talk about modern video games and not be aware of Call of Duty. It’s a bit like talking about modern movies and not being aware of Star Wars. Even if you haven’t seen it, you at least know it’s a thing and its influence is massive. Same thing with video games and Call of Duty.
CoD is perhaps best known as being one of the first truly great multiplayer games out there. You jump in and are fighting with a bunch of perfect strangers, many of whom would take advantage of the anonymity to say some truly awful things to their fellow players. For a while, CoD was the poster child of what you can expect when you get a bunch of kids together in a competitive environment with no social consequences to speak of. There’s a reason why people like me avoided it like the plague. But that is not the big issue I have with it.
There is a lot of violence in video games. I accept that the emotional weight of violence in entertainment depends a lot on portrayal and context. Bugs Bunny dropping an anvil on somebody simply isn’t the same as the pawn shop scene in Pulp Fiction. Likewise, there are violent video games, and there are violent video games. I used to play them all, but when I had kids, I dialed it back significantly, as I just didn’t want to give my kids the wrong impression over what kinds of things are appropriate for u to see as entertaining.
For the most part, this has worked. My son, who is approaching 13, is a hardcore gamer, and he and I have a great understanding on what games are alright for him to play and what games are not. He respects this, much to his credit. And there are a bunch of games I let him play that other parents might not; mainly this is because I play those games, too, and often with my son, so if there’s an issue in this content, I feel that I can talk him through any really hard questions that might arise, or help set a course correction on any behaviors I feel aren’t copacetic.
Call of Duty is our big sticking point, though. My boy really, really wants to play this game. CoD: Black Ops III dropped in November, and was one of the holiday season’s must-have video games. And boy, did he ask for it. He was trying to get on the CoD bandwagon since his birthday, and I kept shutting it down, saying that the game’s violence was too real for my comfort. He kept coming back to this, trying to show me how the most recent game was more science fiction-y in its tone, how the gaming press thought these games were terrific, how the community that played the games had tone down their behavior, etc. None of it worked. And here’s why.
In 2009, developer Infinity Ward and publisher Activision released Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Set in a simmering Cold War between the United States and Russia, the game featured a now-infamous level called “No Russian,” in which the character you play is a deep undercover CIA operative who has infiltrated a Russian terror cell. In this level of the game, the terror cell executes an attack on a crowded airport, and you actually play along as one of the shooters, mowing down unarmed people as they run for cover and scream for help. The level is an optional level; there is a warning that it contains potentially offensive material, and that the player will not be penalized for skipping it. Did they want to continue?
If you understand how a modern kid thinks, this disclaimer is such an invite to forbidden fruit that I’m surprised the programmers didn’t give the player three options for answering that question on whether or not to continue: No, Yes, and OMG YES LET’S GET STARTED ALREADY.
Not surprisingly, the “No Russian” level spurred a huge controversy. In the Russian version of the game, Electronic Arts simply removed the level entirely. This was, after all, a scant five years after the Beslan school massacre, so one struggles to imagine how any Russian gamer would take entertainment out of a simulated massacre of innocent people. In Japan and Germany, the game was reconfigured so that if you shot a single innocent person, the game simply ended in failure. In the United States, the U.K. and elsewhere, the game was flagged as being a symbol with what’s wrong with video games, but not much official reaction followed. CoD Modern Warfare 2 ended up being a smash hit.
One of CoD Modern Warfare 2’s designers, Mohammad Alavi, has since shared his thoughts about this controversial level:
“It isn’t really relevant whether that makes you enjoy the entertainment experience even more because you’re being naughty (à la Grand Theft Auto) or it engrosses you further into the story and makes you resent your actions. What’s relevant is that the level managed to make the player feel anything at all…In the sea of endless bullets you fire off at countless enemies without a moment’s hesitation or afterthought, the fact that I got the player to hesitate even for a split second and actually consider his actions before he pulled that trigger– that makes me feel very accomplished.”
I wish I could share Alavi’s sentiment. On the one hand, it sounds a bit like he realized that after helping gamers blast so many computer people over the years, he felt it was time he got the gamer culture to reflect for a moment on the imaginary violence they regularly commit. Surely, there are those gamers who played “No Russian” and had a serious moment of introspection…before they reloaded and continued. Alavi’s explanation of things come off like a thin justification of providing an extraordinarily tasteless and disturbing piece of entertainment, and then writing it off like some kind of experiment in artistic meta-gaming. It just doesn’t wash, especially when you realize that Anders Behring Breivik, the far-right terrorist who killed more than 70 people in the 2011 Norway attacks actually used Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 as a form of virtual training prior to his act of mass murder.
So, when my boy asked me once again if he could play Call of Duty, I had finally had enough. No more putting it on the rude gamers, or the harshness of the game itself. I finally laid it on the line. I mentioned No Russian to him, and he countered that Activision would never do such a thing again, after the outcry over it on the internet. That may be so, I countered. But it takes many people many thousands of man hours to make a single video game level. It takes a ton of decisions and approvals. And a lot of people knew about No Russian, from when it was a rough idea to a storyboard to a basic game, to a finished product. People worked hard on creating a playable mass murder, and every single person in that failed, at some point, to recognize that they might be doing something unethical. We tend not to blame the art for when somebody in the audience does something horrible with it, but we can blame the art for sending a reprehensible message. And the message here was clear: pretending to massacre innocent people, especially in a way modern terrorists do, especially at a time when such attacks have, can and do occur…that is somehow acceptable entertainment. No, it isn’t. More to the point, it sends the message that it’s alright to make your money by trivializing the horror and pain of others. If Google gets credit for its mantra of “First, do no harm,” then Activision and Infinity Ward surely deserved ire for living up to the exact opposite of that credo.
For me, “No Russian” is a major ethical lapse on behalf of its developers and publishers. And it’s a lapse for which I’m not ready to forgive. I know there are plenty of other folks who feel likewise, but honestly, it’s not like we’re hurting the fortunes of the people behind CoD. In my case, all it means is the loss of a single sale of every edition of CoD that comes out from now to when my boy can buy games entirely on his own. But it’s more than nothing.
Bill Coffin is the Editor in Chief of Compliance Week.