Provocation, Politics, and the Messiah of the 99%

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Published by Jim Sterling 6 years ago , last updated 1 month ago

(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.)

You’re usually never far from the next outrage concerning a Call of Duty game. Fast becoming the Twilight of the videogame community, the very mention of the name is likely to spark furious debate, while admitting that you still enjoy the series can incur excommunication from social circles. The latest kerfuffle was introduced by way of a new trailer for the game, revealing Black Ops II’s principal antagonist, Raul Menendez. While Treyarch has been promising that we’ll get a deep and interesting villain with compelling motivations, right now there’s concern about his status as established in the game’s fictional alternate universe — as the so-called “messiah of the 99%.”

Now, most of you reading will know what connotations “99%” carries. It refers to those who make up the vast majority of the North American public who are suffering as a result of actions committed by a very tiny majority. “We are the 99%” was the battle cry of the Occupy Movement, the movement that wanted to hold accountable those who helped break the economy and made out like bandits while the working classes bore the brunt of the fallout. Now whether you agree or disagree with the movement, its beliefs, or any of the ideas propagated in the debate is neither here nor there. What matters is that Menendez’s association with the 99%, the portrayal of a villain who is idolized by those borne from the same pool as the Occupy Movement is, without a shadow of a doubt, something that looks incredibly politically motivated. The reactions to this easily perceived motivation are already drenching the Internet.

The cynical among us would see Call of Duty’s association with the corporate powerhouse that is Activision and feel a little suspicious about a game that seemingly portrays the downtrodden working class as gullible idiots led by evil men who will destroy society. Whether earnestly or facetiously, the connection can easily be made between Activision and the message that Occupy is stupid and potentially dangerous.

One need look no further than Gameranx and its comments page to see the negative responses. Writer Ian Miles Chong was among the first to point out writer David Goyer’s seeming enjoyment of pitting heroes against the manipulator of common working folk (Goyer also co-wrote The Dark Knight Rises, which casts Bane in a similar role). While Chong remained somewhat impartial in his writing, the commentary that followed was definitely more flavorful.

“Fuck this game,” wrote Marx Drawing Song.

“Cool, really nice how pop culture is being co-opted and used for government & corporate propaganda. Fuck that guy,” declared the charmingly styled Piss Fail Idiot.

Graham Sutherland added something a bit more eloquent: “I wondered how long it’d take before a company with large intellectual property holdings produced a piece of anti-Assange / anti-Anonymous / anti-Occupy propaganda that made it to mainstream media. What I didn’t expect was that it’d be so blatant. Do yourselves a favor — support the indie developers, and don’t even bother with this malevolent garbage.”

There were plenty of comments coming out in favor of the game, or at least laughing at other commenters for being “butthurt” over the content of the trailer. Some complained that left-wing propaganda is just fine while anything right-wing must be scrutinized. In any case, amid the debate and trolling, there were a few seemingly sincere proposals that the game not be purchased. Some even wanted to hack or pirate the game in protest.

Whatever side you fall on, this is a fascinating look at how the content of a game’s premise and narrative is starting to be considered with equal weight alongside the more tangible, technical aspects. Time was, a game’s story and writing really didn’t matter. You bought a game, and it was judged purely on its fun factor. Did its controls work? Were its graphics matching the standard of the time? How glitchy was it? Unlike with comic books, movies, and novels, nobody asked how complex the characters were, whether the story made sense, and how cynical the motivations of the writers were. These are the kinds of discussions that excite me, because they showcase games as more than products. While there are still plenty of pundits who adopt the, “Who cares? It’s just a game,” approach (after all, it’s an intellectually safe attitude), there are increasing numbers who want to judge games based on deeper, more emotionally engaging criteria.

Looking at something like this, I have to ask the question — when I review it, do I take the potentially offensive message into account? Is that a “thing” I should do now? If I find the game cynically written, politically motivated, or espousing a message that I find off-base, uninformed, offensive or even potentially dangerous, is that crucial enough to the enjoyment of an interactive experience that it deserves to be counted? Do we, as gamers, need to start thinking about the motives, the messages, and the purposes of games outside of simply existing to be fun?

Certainly, a movie or a book with an offensive message is going to impact the enjoyment of the offended party. A comedy movie full of rape jokes, for example, is not going to be reviewed too favorably by a critic who takes gender politics very seriously and believes that the issue of rape is no laughing matter. A book that seems to carry a racist message in its story is likely to be mauled in the press by anyone who, well, isn’t a damn racist. Likewise, a game reviewer with a more liberal political leaning may find a (hypothetical) game that paints the Occupy Movement as a bunch of gullible morons offensive to the point that they stop having fun.

For a case in point, when I reviewed Duke Nukem Forever for Destructoid, I called particular attention to the level in which women were captured and forcibly impregnated by aliens. Though the concept was ludicrous and full of Aliens pastiche, the grimly dark, torturous way in which these “impregnations” took place bore a strongly thematic resemblance to rape. Even worse, the unfunny and frankly disturbing imagery was married to Jon St. Jon’s callously dispassionate quips as he was invited to kill each of these women. As creatures violently raped these women, we’d have Duke telling them that they’re “fucked” in a way that wasn’t silly enough to be considered satirical, and really did look like the entire joke was , “haha rape.” Not since The Last House on the Left have I felt like a piece of entertainment was simultaneously sociopathic and awkwardly “comedic” in a way that made my skin crawl.

Now, this level was FAR from the only bad thing in that game, and certainly was a mere portion of my overall assessment. However, I felt it was worth considering alongside the ugly graphics and insipid gameplay because it added an extra level of emotional disgust on top of the general misery that everything else had inflicted upon me. For everything else Duke Nukem Forever did wrong, that added level of disturbance was an important point to bring up, and compounded the lack of enjoyment I was having.

Of course, this argument throws up an opposite debating point — does this not send the message that there are certain subjects games cannot talk about without risking punishment? Is that not the opposite of what I want to see? Certainly, I’ve railed against Nintendo’s decision to exclude The Binding of Isaac from the 3DS eShop on this very site, and I stand by that. But I’d rail against the exclusion of a pro-Christian title at the same time, because I think no topic should be off limits to a videogame, just because it is a videogame. The Left Behind games are pathetic and outrageous in my opinion, but if Texas Walmarts want to sell them, that’s fine. At the same time, however, we ought to be conscious that the topics we choose to address do bring consequences for the audience, and while some may enjoy what’s being said, there are always some who will be offended. I don’t think games are quite ready to reach that stage of acceptance yet (we still need to get past this new idea that sending death threats to each other is a good way to have a disagreement) but it’s interesting to see the feelers extending evermore further into that territory.

For all of its criticism as a brainless glorification of militancy, the Call of Duty series has been notable for some pretty daring narrative and deserves a lot more credit than it gets these days for using its mainstream position as a way to push the envelope for all games. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare popularized the alienating “pilot gunner” level in which the player was disconnected from combat and firing shells on humans that were represented as little more than heat traces. Many found it profoundly alarming in how desensitizing and thoughtless such combat felt. It would further provoke gamers with that famous “nuke” sequence in which the player survives an atomic blast, only to wander through the wreckage and succumb to fatal wounds. Modern Warfare 2 would go even further with the notorious “No Russian” level that placed players on the antagonizing side of a terror attack and, for all the outrage it garnered, I still respect that Infinity Ward was prepared to put something like that out while other publishers scrabble for censorship and try not to rock the boat too hard.

That’s why, whatever happens with the character of Menendez and his 99%, I will at least appreciate Treyarch’s willingness to bring it up, moreso for the fact that it makes us talk, and debate, and think, than anything else. It may be cynical, it may even promote a message that I personally find offensive, but at the very least it will provoke me in a way that most videogames simply don’t. I ultimately think that’s a good thing, and the kind of tiny, subtle step that makes games a more interesting and thoughtful medium to engage with. When reviewing it, I’ll have to think about more than the usual bullet points. I’ll have to think about what it says to me just as much as what it tells my brain to tell my hands.

Message or not, offensive or not, worthy of purchase or deserving of boycott, games that reach into us and make us feel a strong reaction in some way are ultimately contributing to something that, one day, could be truly wonderful.

That’s an optimistic way of looking at it, anyway.

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