ACAB/MAGA

The left-wing gamers who love Call of Duty

For many players, a cultural reckoning about police violence hasn't dimmed the shine of the venerable shooter.

Images of police: Getty. Image of Call of Duty character: Activision

The clan tag for Joe Cristando and Tom Browne in Call of Duty: Warzone is ACAB.

The four-letter tag (“All Cops are Bastards”) next to their user names in the online battle royale game informs other players, in a tongue-in-cheek style, exactly how they feel about police culture.

“Dudes have MAGA clan tags in there all the time,” says Cristando. “So Tom and I recently changed ours to ACAB. We'll just talk trash nonstop. Especially the dudes with MAGA tags. I'll fucking go off. I can't help it.”

“I am, admittedly, extremely left,” says Browne, 32, a chef who lives in London. The same goes for Cristando, 35, a gym co-owner who lives in Brooklyn. Since the Covid-19 quarantine measures went into effect in March, the two play Call of Duty together about three hours a day, usually seven days a week.

The tension between the game’s military cosplay and their firm political beliefs is something they talk about often, especially after the protests and marches formed worldwide following the killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis.

“It is weird,” says Cristando, who has been playing the game for 10 years. “I've actually thought about this stuff a lot, just the dichotomy of it.

“I’m anti-war, anti-militarization, anti-imperialism. And like, I'm playing a game that's just killing people.”

Browne and Cristando both recognize the contradiction in their politics and the military action game they love. Cristando says Call of Duty feels like gambling — “just one more game” — and they play into the late hours, shooting, looting, camping, and sometimes actually winning.

When I ask the two about their experience with other players in the game and their politics, I’m reminded that trash talk is part-and-parcel of online video games.

“I think that the user base of Call of Duty is probably a little bit more right-wing than the user base of Animal Crossing,” Browne surmises. “When you talk about normcore, mainstream games, there are trolls across all of it. Across FIFA. Across Madden. There are always going to be people who say inflammatory things, cuss you out, or make racist comments.”

Secret Service in riot gear stand guard while US President Donald Trump visits St John's Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington, DC on June 1, 2020.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The fun in Call of Duty, for these two anyway, isn't about pretending to be a trained killing machine armed with a high-powered weapon. Not exactly. The fun is in learning to solve problems in real-time as quickly as possible, making small bets here and there that could help their character survive in a battle royale. Do you slow down to open that chest — and possibly get killed — or keep moving? They're making these split-second decisions in a team dynamic during rounds that only last around six minutes.

As for the game's story mode — the immersive single-player soldier narrative — neither care much for it. The fun is in the online mode and the real-time challenge with other players across the country.

“I enjoy playing against other people and sort of pitting my skills against them,” Browne says. “Having a guy that's got a mustache and a bucket hat as a person I can buy — I don't really care.”

Would Call of Duty offer the same addicting thrill if it wasn’t about playing soldier? On this one, Browne and Cristando are split. Maybe, Browne says, but Cristando says that the gun details — the type of grip on the handle of your gun, the sound it makes, and how that changes the experience — are also defining for the experience. Fortnite, the most popular battle royale-style game, is cartoonish and fun. But the characters still have guns, including a cartoon version of a real-life FN Scar, even if there’s no blood.

I ask if they have ever come home from a protest to play Call of Duty. Browne says he has been to three protests in London. Cristando hasn’t been able to go; his wife is pregnant and he’s not risking catching Covid-19.

As our discussion about increasingly militarized and well-funded police forces wraps up, I ask the two if they are going to play Call of Duty later. They laugh and say yeah, inviting me to join. I decline, but I did download the free-to-play Warzone from the PlayStation store later that night. I rolled my eyes at the loading screen, showing a militia-styled dude-bro who looked like he belonged at a protest because he couldn’t get a haircut.

But an hour later, I was still playing — and getting better. Just one more game...

—Nick Lucchesi

Cristando and Browne aren't the only left-leaning players who continue to enjoy the wildly popular Activision shooter. The Inverse staff spoke with several friends and colleagues about how they reconcile — or don't — the worldwide protests of recent weeks with their Call of Duty fandom. For many of them, it's a vital social outlet and absorbing escape despite being fundamentally at odds with how they think about the real world. That incongruity is easier to stomach for some than others.

Mo Mozuch, 36

How often do you play Call of Duty?

At my peak, I played every day for like six weeks straight, for about three or four hours a day.

What’s the latest you’ve played CoD at night?

Oh, like four in the morning.

Do you consider yourself to have liberal political views?

Yeah, I listen to Chapo [Trap House]. I’ve watched the protests, but I haven’t gone. Got a kid and all. I’ve donated a lot of money in the last two weeks. Been a real sucker for bail funds.

Do you think Call of Duty runs counter to your politics?

Oh, yeah. It’s very jingoistic and militarized. But that’s not something I think about when I play. Like, McDonald's is McDonald's for a reason. No matter where you are, you know what you’re getting. Like, Call of Duty just does the best shooting, and I wanted to play something with good shooting. I hadn't played a Call of Duty game in a very long time [after working as a games journalist]. So in the spirit of playing things that I wouldn't normally play, I gave it another shot and found myself really enjoying it.

How does Call of Duty make you feel?

With a lot of shooters, it’s sort of a sensory deprivation thing. There's just so much going on; I get out of my own head. I don't have any space to think about anything, and it pushes out any background thoughts or anxieties. If I have a bad day at work or I made a mistake and keep thinking about it, getting into an intense shooter just washes everything out of my head.

It's a different kind of relaxation than something like Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley, which is really passive. If my mind is very busy about something, then I carry that into the game. If I've got a lot of anxiety, I prefer something like Call of Duty because it's so involved.

It’s a focus thing, similar to when I used to work in kitchens. It's like when you have a whole lot of tickets during a dinner rush. You're just very present, and it’s only about the task at hand. So you can kind of get into a place where an hour or two flies by. Then when you get out of it, you feel good.

Police members in riot gear hold a perimeter near the White House as demonstrators gather to protest the killing of George Floyd on June 1, 2020 in Washington, DC.OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

Adrian Apolonio, 27

How often do you play Call of Duty?

Three hours a day, so 21 hours a week.

What’s the latest you’ve played CoD at night?

Until 3 a.m.

Do you consider yourself to have liberal political views?

Definitely.

Do you think Call of Duty runs counter to your politics?

Yes. Even the online community is highly conservative and extremely toxic. Just the other day I saw clan tags for MAGA and a username that literally just said "Fuhrer" and "WhitePrivilege."

How does Call of Duty make you feel?

While the contents of Call of Duty, from the story to the online community, run almost 100 percent counter to my political views, it’s hard to say the game itself upsets me. It’s a shooter, just more real? Overwatch exists, and the themes and ideas are more progressive, but that’s also a shooter. So, I guess it makes me feel weird? Confused? Conflicted?

Honestly, [the reason I play is] probably just the social aspect. A lot of my friends play because it’s the most popular, most accessible, has crossplay, etc. It’s also just constantly rewarding you for tasks. It bombards you with all these on-screen notifications. It’s easy dopamine.

Call of Duty includes some weapons banned in real war. Does that bother you?

I was aware of incendiary objects but didn’t know tear gas and proximity mines were banned. That’s actually pretty troubling. By allowing players to use these items in-game, you actually run into the problem of accidentally reinforcing the idea that these things are okay.

I think you have to understand the differences between reality and fiction, but there are people that wouldn’t. I know I’m only 27, so saying, “Y'all kids don’t understand” seems weird, but I can’t play through "No Russian" in the Modern Warfare 2 remaster. When you’re younger, you aren’t exposed to or truly understand the realities of a mass shooting. I’m sure you could play it, but it hits so close nowadays.

A cutscene from 2019's 'Call of Duty: Modern Warfare'.Activision / Infinity Ward

Mike O’Donnell, 24

How often do you play Call of Duty?

Oh man, I’m getting exposed now. Between 20 and 24 hours a week, probably.

What’s the latest you’ve played CoD at night?

Are we going all the way back? I remember being 13 or 14 summer break and winter break quickscoping on Rust with the boys in MW2 until around 6 or 7 a.m. Yeah, it’s bad.

Do you consider yourself to have liberal political views?

I would say I’m center-left, if you had to categorize it that way.

Do you think Call of Duty runs counter to your politics?

I think the context for that depends on when you started playing. [The most recent installment], Modern Warfare is a reboot. The original that got everybody going was Modern Warfare 2.

I learned how to curse playing that game. People had zero filter. I'm Hispanic — so in my household, you'd have people speaking Spanish in the background and that would be picked up on the mic. You would hear racial slurs being slung left and right. And [the makers of] Call of Duty did nothing to regulate that. This was back in 2009. The world has changed a lot since then. But a lot of people remember that, and a lot of that has continued to stay in Call of Duty over the years, especially online multiplayer.

I've been able to separate the war aspect. I don't really think of myself as being more violent because I played a violent and realistic video game. But I do think the trash talk in the lobbies, how people get so into it, does transfer to real life. Those same people yelling out racial slurs and curse words and trash-talking — "your mom" this, "your mom" that — I have friends who were those trash talkers. You hear them in real life, and they sound a lot like that when they have no filter. It's easy to hide behind the mask online. Not so much in life, but there's a little bit of a transfer.

How does Call of Duty make you feel?

It's more of a social event for me. I won’t play by myself. I never do. If I don't have my friends to play with, I will not play. You catch up with each other, hear about each other's day and whatnot.

There are certain game modes where the objective is to stay alive as long as possible. You get these moments of exhilaration where you're either close to killing someone else or close to being killed yourself. You definitely feel your heart rush. It's an exciting feeling. And you share that moment with your friends, too. It’s a feedback loop and a social event, too, which makes it all the more addicting.

A demonstrator walks in front of a row of military police members wearing riot gear as they push back demonstrators outside of the White House on June 1, 2020 in Washington DC.JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AFP via Getty Images

Shawn Krick-Smith, 35

How often do you play Call of Duty?

Eight to 10 hours a week.

What’s the latest you’ve played CoD at night?

I average 2-3 a.m.

Do you consider yourself to have liberal political views?

Yes, I align more with the left side of the political spectrum.

Do you think Call of Duty runs counter to your politics?

Absolutely. In reality, I'm an advocate for gun control and limiting access to assault-style rifles, and anything bigger than needed for hunting. In CoD, my favorite guns to run with are a light machine gun and .50 caliber sniper rifle.

For me, the game isn't about guns. It's about the competition. It's about jumping into a competition with 150 other players and coming out on top. My friends laugh at me because my motivation for ranking up my weapons in-game isn't to unlock more attachments; it's so I can unlock more outrageous skins to place on the weapon.

In Black Ops 4, my favorite gun to run around with looked like a unicorn. I don't choose specific guns in game based on what the weapon looks like or if I happened to own the exact same gun in real life. I make all my decisions based on the stats of the weapon. What will give me the best results in the match I'm about to enter? What gives me the best chance at winning the overall match?

How does Call of Duty make you feel?

I know Call of Duty is a game. I have been playing video games since I got my first NES at the age of 6 and got the combo Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt cartridge. Call of Duty is just Duck Hunt, except the graphics are much better. And now, when the dog shoots at you, it's game over and you start again. I really only play Call of Duty over games like Fortnite, Overwatch, and Apex Legends for two reasons: My friends like playing it so I have the best chance at joining squad games if I play CoD with them, and I just enjoy the overall gameplay and feel to the game. It's not about the realism and getting the guns and kills 100 percent accurate; it's about the mechanics of the game.

Jake Kleinman, Just Lunning, and Eric Francisco contributed reporting to this article.

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