On October 25, video game publisher Activision released the sixteenth installment in the Call of Duty video game series, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. This version is a “reboot” of the original Modern Warfare, released back in 2007, the best-selling video game of that year. The 2007 edition was a seminal shift for first-person shooters, which had based their themes and moods on cinematic WWII depictions like Saving Private Ryan. Modern Warfare instead represents war as it exists today. Like its predecessor, this most recent Modern Warfare aspires to give players realistic, recreational simulations of special forces raids, drone strikes, and shoot-outs. Critics have documented the jarring choice of representing war in a video game, where difficult issues are ignored or neglected at the expense of entertainment. Critics should go further: The Call of Duty games are acting as forms of propaganda, representing real-life historical events and places, some associated with U.S. atrocities, as something other than they were. This goes beyond the normalization of state violence and its supporting industries, to the revision of the U.S. war record in recent decades.
The link between the Pentagon and the entertainment industry is well-known. As documented by Nick Turse in The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (2008), the U.S. military encourages a quid pro quo relationship with the entertainment industries. With Hollywood, the Pentagon provides access to genuine hardware and expert consultants so those blockbuster war movies look authentic, while major studios provide the military with the best recruitment ads money can buy. Similarly, games like Call of Duty emphasize all the “cool” aspects of being a soldier—like charging headlong into a firefight or sniping targets with state-of-the-art weapons—when this is hardly representative of the actual experience for most military personnel, especially those who never see combat. (Of course, no one would buy a video game about desalinating water in Kuwait.) By putting players (most of whom are boys and young men in the 18-35 demographic) in the boots of Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, or CIA intelligence operatives, the games show only a limited aspect of what the military does, one wrapped up in the joy of murder without consequences. The idea that games like Modern Warfare could be considered “training” is laughable; they are, without doubt, meant to provide a sanitized “fun” version of war for their players. The only way these games are challenging is in issues of hand-eye coordination; they do not aim to make players pose hard questions about war, only to experience a scripted imitation of dramatic combat. Yet this imitation is not meaningless; the script contains choices, strategies employed by designers, meant to constitute the U.S. military for players.
The 2007 version of Modern Warfare set the game in “the future” of 2011, in the midst of a Russian civil war as well as a fictional war-torn Middle Eastern country. The “bad guys” were Russians and Middle Eastern militants. For the players of these games, killing Middle Eastern men becomes a recurring experience, desensitizing them to what they could very well do if they enlist, given our ongoing embroilment across the Middle East. The vilification of Russia mirrors tension between Washington and Moscow over Russian interventions in the Republic of Georgia and eastern Ukraine. The Call of Duty games certainly did not invent the Russian bogeyman or the Muslim terrorist tropes, but they certainly help to reinforce them. Taking part in raids on Italian terrorists would not feel… right. The game uses enemies that feel familiar as enemies in U.S. pop culture. Yet, even as it plays on these cultural references, it creates a divergence from our world.
Medal of Honor, a rival series to Call of Duty, featured the Taliban as a playable faction in one of its editions, creating controversy. It did not seem appropriate for U.S. citizens to play as Taliban soldiers killing U.S. military personnel. Call of Duty has thus avoided controversy by changing its universes just a bit from our own. Although Russia is frequently the “bad guy” in scenarios, the Middle Eastern countries are fictional, and their struggles are less historical and contextual and more general “freedom versus dictatorship” material. The game becomes war without the politics or history, an imagined war, hypothetical war, wholly separate from the “complications” of real life. Its this careful, calculated presentation of war that makes the game enjoyable. But it also provides an opportunity for the U.S. military and its operations to be presented in a certain way. The choices made in Modern Warfare are not accidental; they serve to rewrite history, to give new meanings to names and places that already exist.
As Alec Kublas-Meyer notes in his review of Modern Warfare, the game relentlessly shows the grittier features of war, such as the waterboarding (torturing) of human beings, or the deaths of innocents caught in the crossfire. But beyond these general qualities are references to specific events. Kublas-Meyer cites the close parallel between the storming of a U.S. embassy in the game and the real 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya. Unlike real life, however, in the video game al-Qaeda (or its thinly veiled analog of it) is actually involved in the assault. Rather than an uprising by local militia (like in real life) the attack is part of a coordinated operation by the game’s al-Qaeda equivalent. What was a hawkish fantasy becomes real within the Call of Duty universe, and al-Qaeda is represented as more influential and powerful than it is.
The game also mentions a “Highway of Death,” where Russian forces bombed fleeing civilians. In reality, the “Highway of Death” refers to the 1991 massacre of retreating Iraqis who were fleeing Kuwait for Iraq by U.S.-led coalition forces. The “Highway of Death” is now being associated in young minds with a fictional Russian war crime and not the actual U.S. killings. There’s even a map in the game called “Haditha,” which is a real place in Iraq, and the site of another U.S. massacre, this time of 24 civilians in 2005. It’s not just that, as Kublas-Meyers observes, that the game fails to ask the inherent ethical questions regarding war; it’s that it presents an alternate reality very favorable to the U.S. military-industrial complex as propaganda. Setting aside the morality of war is bad enough, but to reconstitute actual events is literally attempting to create a twisted perception, one that unambiguously advances the agendas of foreign policy hawks and arms contractors. This is propaganda in its purest form.
Given the degree to which war pervades our culture, it’s not surprising that it has also found representation in video games. The tradition of “war-gaming” goes back to exercises played by Prussian field officers in early modern Europe. But whereas war games in the Prussian tradition encouraged innovative strategies, games like Modern Warfare encourage an obedience to status quo thinking on war. Certain premises are put forward and must be accepted as an informal ticket of admission: the U.S. military never harms innocents; the enemy commits war crimes, not the U.S. military or its allies; and the consequences, psychological or otherwise, of taking human life is minimal. Just as players shoot the nameless “bad guys” in the game, so too does our society ignore the actual killers trained by the U.S. military, the veterans living with physical or psychological disabilities because of their actions. Worse still, there is the complete erasure of victims of U.S. aggression, as they simply don’t exist within the game. In the case of the aforementioned 2005 Haditha massacre, none of the Marines charged in the killings served jail time. Only one, Frank Wuterich, suffered a rank reduction after six years of prosecution. Modern Warfare adds insult to injury by redefining Haditha as a bit of terrain, not the atrocity that it was. The game is making a very real claim to be representing modern war, yet the atrocities carried out by the U.S. and it allies in recent interventions are completely omitted or revised. Whether a person is a hawk or dove, it should be acknowledged in any representation of war that no side is immune to “collateral damage.” Innocent people suffer as a result of war, yet the war of Modern Warfare is war without civilian casualties, without weddings blown up, women and children shot in the night.
Obviously, the solution is not that Modern Warfare should have U.S. planes bombing civilians as well as Russian planes. And it is also true that video games may just be a dubious medium for considering war critically. Still, Hollywood has produced some anti-war films that also sought to capture war accurately, like Full Metal Jacket and Platoon. While these films were imperfect, especially in their tendency to emphasize sympathy for the U.S. soldiers and not the Vietnamese people, they nevertheless were decidedly opposed to the glorification of war. It is reasonable that a video game publisher could produce an anti-war war game today, but it is doubtful how it would be received by a gaming audience isolated from “real war” like no previous generation. After years of reinforcement that “war is normal,” a message against war and the celebration of warriors would be received as bizarre, a radical idea. After all, that is what “modern warfare” is: the perpetual interventions of the U.S. militarily in the name of “keeping peace” and “restoring order,” as dictated by the interests of the U.S. itself.
Those of us who remember a world before September 11, 2001 probably never imagined the extent to which U.S. military operations would expand in a fleeting period of time. There was a small window between the end of the Cold War and 9/11 when the idea of NATO and global strategic alliances seemed outdated. Now there is an ongoing global military campaign with no end in sight and no clear adversary. Osama bin Laden is dead; the head of ISIS just died. So how many more need to die before the war ends? What final event needs to happen for the “War on Terror” to be finished? The war will never end because its good for business, including the entertainment industry. Games like Call of Duty do not want to ask when the war will end because their makers do not want them to end. It would be like Madden asking its players whether the glamorization of violent contact sports, one that leads to widespread concussions, is really humane entertainment. Since war will exist regardless, video game publishers may as well profit from it, as long as they keep it “culturally appropriate,” a few shades shy of reality.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely at present that U.S. foreign and military policy will change anytime soon, even if Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren win the White House. While their policies would be disruptive to the economic status quo in this country, their visions for U.S. actions abroad remain murky at best. Ideally, some of their promised generous social spending would be funded through cuts in bloated defense spending, and a less funded war machine might lose some of its luster. It’s worth remembering, though, Warren’s connections to defense lobbyists and Sander’s fierce protection of fighter aircraft assembly in Vermont. Historically, they have been allies, not opponents of the military-industrial complex. Given the tall orders they face in reforming our complex financial system, the idea they could take on the MIC as well seems unlikely. Games like Modern Warfare may just be reflections of a forever war that is here to stay.