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Controversy around Call of Duty series raises questions about public sentiment on war

by admin November 16, 2010

On its first day of release last week, retailers sold 5.6 million copies of Call of Duty: Black Ops, solidifying both Activision’s quarterly success and the cultural pre-eminence of video games. But the game walks a tight rope of public sensitivity, gamer expectation and historical endurance.

CBC’s Peter Nowak made an interesting argument when he said, “There’s one big problem with this push toward modernity and realism, and that’s the double standard that still dogs video games […] given that films set during ongoing conflicts typically escape scorn, and often garner praise from Oscar voters.”

Black Ops has only been somewhat controversial: Cubans have complained about a part of the game that involves an assassination attempt on Fidel Castro. I empathize with this, but remember that this representation is consistent with the contemporary climate of American politics.

Consider the nuances of the commentary the game makes about military operations, and whether or not this is tastefully done. The game questionably rewards torture tactics. This may be an attempt at gritty realism; on the other hand, the success of torture tactics may simply be gratuitous violence which operates on false presumptions about interrogation techniques. Perhaps one should consider that these interactions that players are forced to have are actually designed to make them feel uneasy as they play it, a feature that can only be this dramatized and in-your-face because of the interactiveness that is exclusive to video games.

This heightens the significance of how this affects the attitudes of gamers towards warfare. Games bear the stigma of juvenility, but this is due to misconception, not inherent flaws.

Its content aside, Black Ops is a game with themes that society is insecure about engaging with viscerally. Last month’s release of Medal of Honor, another popular war video game series, allowed users to kill civilians and play as the Taliban until public outcry convinced developers to rename the Taliban units the “Opposing Force.” The integrity of Medal of Honor aside, the stigma of games forces many people to falsely compare every dramatic war game with this perceived gratuitousness. Black Ops narrowly escapes this level of scorn because it takes place during the Cold War, but Call of Duty could directly treat a modern war just as viably without tiptoeing around it.

This game would likely even be more enduring if it touched on an open social wound by challenging people’s perceptions about art, games, violence and war. It would be controversial, but the experiment would earn video games a respect closer to that which film and literature already have in the long run. The average Canadian gamer is 34-years-old. Black Ops is rated “M,” which means it is an interactive drama meant for older audiences to engage with. Its commentary and levels of subtlety are meant to be communicated to adults.

The game features presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon as playable characters. These figures are historically consecrated, but still detached enough not to cause too much controversy. Perhaps Call of Duty is playing it safe this time by inching closer to something intriguingly recent, while restraining itself.

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