Modern Warfare is Fun, but ‘Modern Warfare’ is Not
(This is another edition of </RANT>, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
As with any game to enjoy such a significant history of success, Call of Duty has a huge target painted on its back and no shortage of critics with their bows at the ready. The series has been accused of skating off of its name value, of bringing down the quality of the industry overall, and of encouraging a sprawling mass of indistinct military shooters that have turned the industry into gloopy brown sludge. Perhaps the most persistent argument, however, is that Call of Duty — its Modern Warfare offshoot in particular — glamorizes war for mewling idiots who cannot think for themselves and come away thinking that heartless slaughter is the militant equivalent of a birthday party.
I am a self-confessed fan of the series, but admitting so among polite gamer society seems to be on par with telling a 1950′s housewife that you’re a communist, or running into Salem with a pointy hat and broomstick. In fact, the “witch trials” come to mind when I see threads like this, where a user proudly states that he is removing any Xbox Live friends who have a trace of Modern Warfare 3 in their game library’s history. If we carry on like this, we’ll soon have senators bringing gamers in for questioning, asking if they or anybody in their family has played Call of Duty. The revulsion reserved for COD fans is quite extraordinary, eclipsed perhaps only by the Internet at large’s hatred for those who subscribe to the “Furry” way of life. So-called “real” gamers love to look down their noses at COD players, reserving haughty disdain for the “kiddies” who enjoy Activision’s franchise and snootily writing off anybody who does as a dribbling imbecile with nothing of value to say.
At the heart of this arrogant scorn is the game itself. Modern Warfare 3 is the latest chapter in Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty installments, and it’s come packaged with the same kind of controversies and arguments that we’ve come to expect. I have grown tired, however, of the complete and utter myths that people use to perpetuate their hatred of the series because, while there are plenty of valid criticisms people could use against the games, they insist on using arguments that have no basis in reality.
I want to focus on this argument that Call of Duty is a dumb, gung-ho shooter that glamorizes warfare and makes it look like a laugh. As someone who has played all three of the Modern Warfare games, I can safely attest that the last thing Infinity Ward does is make armed combat look like fun. Now, the game may be fun to play, and that certainly throws up a conflicting message, but the actual context of the gameplay, the characters and their situations, is quite clearly unpleasant. People foolishly assume that the game is about badass marines high-fiving over the corpses of arabs while Uncle Sam proudly stomps on America’s enemies, but when you actually pay attention to the games, you find a highly critical story that portrays violence in a fairly negative light and actually manages to comment on the military’s failures, rather than tout its successes.
With its focus on switching player characters and “anyone can die” storyline that frequently has players acting out their own mortality, one of the overarching messages of Modern Warfare is that people die in war — a lot of people — and it’s not a laugh when they do. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare had two iconic moments where the player characters die — one featuring a man dragged to a public execution at the hands of violent extremists, and the other forcing players to suffer the after-effects of a nuclear attack, staggering from a burned helicopter wreck and taking a soldier’s final few steps in a burned, broken, ruined village. Both of these scenarios were very effective and highly praised at the time, but while gamers have forgotten about Call of Duty 4′s achievements, the series never stopped communicating a subversive anti-war message throughout its narrative. It’s a message that may be lost on the majority of detractors and fans alike, but it’s a message that’s still there, and Infinity Ward cannot be blamed for those who don’t take on board what is very clearly there.
Across Modern Warfare 2 and Modern Warfare 3, a running narrative element concerns the repeated failure of the American military to cope with threats, mostly due to incompetent leadership (World War 3 is sparked by one government’s failed attempt at espionage and another government’s desperate need for scapegoats). Another element is that the characters involved are distinctly unpleasant people with unpleasant jobs, and that perhaps the jobs helped turn them into the unlikable chaps that they are. Respected columnist Charlie Brooker recently tackled this idea in a column for the Guardian, expressing concern that Modern Warfare 3 encouraged undue machismo attitudes by portraying soldiers as heartless dicks. While he’s right about the tone, I think he got the message entirely wrong. His issue with one character in particular — Captain Price — is that the man is able to slit throats with a cold, callous indifference. That has always been part of Modern Warfare’s message, however. Going back to Call of Duty 4 once more, there was another widely lauded sequence in which players had to gun down helpless enemies from a military aircraft. The enemies were no threat whatsoever, and they were presented as featureless white shapes through the lens of a heat sensor. As players “lit up” the opposing forces, he was congratulated by the disaffected, disconnected pilot. It was a very effective way of portraying just how alienated soldiers can get from the death and destruction they cause, an issue bookended by a man who can slit another human being’s throat with the same banal disregard he’d have for clipping his toenails. We’re not supposed to think that this is awesome. What Brooker calls “the trouble with videogames” could more rightly be called, “the trouble with human beings who are trained explicitly to cut into the windpipes of other human beings.”
Like it or not, there are men and women in the world who are trained to do just that, and like any job, it runs the risk of becoming mundane. I have to wonder how familiar Brooker and other gamers are with the work of Andy McNab, a former SAS operative who isn’t exactly known for his sensitivity (nor his unwillingness to use the word “slot” that Brooker had such a problem with). When you kill for a living, killing doesn’t exactly become something you stop to cry over every time you do it. That does not mean it’s glamorous, however, and I don’t think Modern Warfare portrays it as such. In fact, the indifference is exactly the right way of portraying it. By not sensationalizing the death and destruction, I think Infinity Ward did a commendable job of showing just how reprehensible war is, how cheaply it renders life and how easy it can become for people to turn into killers. In our civil society with our civil rules, the idea of slitting a person’s throat behind their back is a huge and terrible thing, and something that should affect the lives of everybody involved. In war, it’s just another day, and I think that’s a message that comes through in Modern Warfare. It’s certainly the message I’ve always come away with.
Of course, it’s difficult to make a game that portrays the message that war is horrible while still remaining fun to play, and this is where the Modern Warfare series comes undone. There are all kinds of big action sequences that are indeed “badass” and gratify our base needs for some action, crammed with explosive setpieces and insane vehicular thrill rides. Juxtaposed against the “war’s no good” theme, it does seem a little two-faced and I agree that it’s an issue. It throws up some very intriguing questions as to whether a game can accurately portray the horrors of war without sacrificing enjoyable gameplay. It’s just a shame that nobody wants to have that discussion as far as Call of Duty is concerned because they’re all too busy reaching for the low-hanging fruit and ignorantly accusing the game of reveling in military fanfiction that caters to morons. It’s ironic that these people, who clearly see themselves as intellectually superior gamers, are stifling potentially intelligent discussion about a game series because they’ve already decided it’s stupid and won’t entertain an opposing notion. It’s a shame, really.
Infinity Ward is not the best storyteller in the industry and Modern Warfare’s plot won’t win any awards, but it deserves far more credit than it gets. It deserves to not be written off simply as dumb entertainment for kids with bullet-flavored hard-ons. The Modern Warfare series has a lot to say about how unnecessary – yet how inevitable — war can be, and the affects that it can have a person’s attitude. Yes, it definitely falters at times and its rollercoaster ride levels seem at odds with the message that war’s not pleasant. Nevertheless, it does better than most games on the market at showing the lasting results of violence, and it’s unfair that it shoulders more criticism than any other game for doing the opposite. Few games are as critical of war as Modern Warfare, yet few games are charged with trivializing it so much.
Makes you wonder why Infinity Ward even bothered if nobody’s going to take notice. Still, I’m glad they did.