Call of Duty, The Military-Industrial Complex, and Me

Can you love Call of Duty while hating war?

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Activision Blizzard

War is hell. Human beings place their bodies and souls at near-certain risk, using god-awful weapons against other human beings. As we witness warfare well into the 21st century, we see a repetitive kind of playbook: The ruling class sends their inferiors toward death, drumming up interest with inflammatory, othering rhetoric, and profiteers make money from the required resources. It’s the idea known as the military-industrial complex, the devilish, green-hued handshake warned by President Dwight D. Eisenhauer, a World War II five-star general, in his 1961 farewell address.

War is also a game. And for publishing company Activision Blizzard, since its pre-merger days of 2003, it’s been a lucrative one. With myriad developers taking point on myriad iterations, the Call of Duty franchise puts players in the first-person perspective of soldiers and puts an 80 percent increase of operating income into the pockets of Activision Blizzard (and now, Microsoft). Elements of geopolitical conflict and face-to-face combat are gamified, codified, and incentivized into gigantic packages of mass entertainment. The idea of a mass culture may be gone, but Call of Duty comes awfully close. Heck, Nicki Minaj is a new avatar, making palatable the unthinkable ideas of state-sanctioned death and destruction with the visage of a four-quadrant pop-rapper.

You can play as Nicki Minja in Call of Duty.

Activision Blizzard

If it isn’t clear by now, I’m anti-war. And I’m especially against the normalization of war in facets of shared culture, like mall recruiting pop-ups or primetime TV ads. So Call of Duty should really make me sick. Right?

And yet, in practice, I can’t help but load up each new game, each new arsenal, and hold down that R2 trigger until my clip is empty. Cognitive dissonance is sublimated by guttural thrills. Am I a monster? A hypocrite? Or does a more complicated heart beat at the center of Call of Duty’s tentacle grasp?

Can you love Call of Duty while hating war?

After playing these levels, I do not put my controller down and think, “I would like to do this in real life.”

Activision Blizzard

Within the actual narrative campaigns of Call of Duty lies a startling disinterest in “making the military look good.” Especially in this recent Modern Warfare reboot trilogy, much of the twists and turns come from the stark realization that your player-characters — most often an endearing group of rugged individuals with code names like Ghost and Soap — are serving corrupt masters embedded in a corrupt operation run by more corrupt masters.

Beyond the machinations of the military, Call of Duty levels can instill an awe-inspiring sense of the hellishness of war, in an effectively subjective use of storytelling only possible in video games. Stealth-based levels, a cornerstone of action games, become especially fearsome, punishing the player with realistic-feeling blitzkriegs of death upon discovery, making you feel, accurately, like security is impossible on the battlefield. And controversial levels like “No Russian” from the first Modern Warfare, where you are given the option to shoot and kill a horde of civilians under the fog of cover, are welcomely subversive and critical of “choices made for the greater good” not just in war, but specifically in “war video games.”

After playing these levels, I do not put my controller down and think, “I would like to do this in real life.” But that individual “I” Call of Duty’s single-player campaigns speak to can be where it gets into ideological trouble. The games, borne from an American cultural insistence upon the superiority and ubiquity of individualism, often reduce what are clear consequences of systems into the acts of an individual “gone rogue” — and the way to defeat that rogue is to “go rogue” yourself.

Part of this could be borne from an inherent need to simplify and symbolize in narrative storytelling. It’s more emotionally tangible to pin the idea of “a corrupt military” on one person you need to foil. But the games tend to actively avoid using these individuals as representative symbols, often textually comparing them against other individuals in a transparent effort to avoid culpability or indictment.

In Call of Duty, war is hell and war is a game.

Activision Blizzard

To use another concrete example: the Call of Duty games can’t perpetuate Islamophobia in their depictions of fictional terrorist leaders from fictional countries because the characters talk about “good” individual Muslim characters. Some people are A and some people are B, and that’s as far as we need to go! Whee!

Tellingly, the Call of Duty games focus on “the group” most explicitly in their acclaimed and influential multiplayer modes, where I (and most players, I’d bet) spend the most time. These matches strip any and all narrative for a purely visceral distillation of the military experience into “have fun killing people with your gun.” The guns are upgraded regularly, alongside skins and perks that make the experience even sweeter.

This impulse toward group abstraction continues further with Zombies mode, where verisimilitude, used so heavily as an aesthetic tool in the campaign, is completely thrown out the window for the sake of complete purity in combat. We’re used to the dehumanization of humans so we can mow them down at regular CoD levels. Zombies are just the final frontier of that perspective, no?

CoD’s popular Zombies mode throws out realism for pure carnage.

Activision Blizzard

And, once again: I love it. I’m not a Jack Thompson-esque crusader against violence in video games. I have been playing violent video games for nearly my entire life — Mortal Kombat 1 is my current obsession — and I live with peace, harmony, loved ones, and a healthy differentiation between fiction and reality. If, after reading all of this hand-wringing, you still wish to play the new Call of Duty, I would not blame you. In fact, I will be joining you. Maybe I’ll see you in multiplayer Deathmatch.

In Call of Duty, war is hell and war is a game. War is condemned and war is glorified. War is the sickness of the individual crossed with the strength of the group, and vice-versa. With so many contradictions pulsing around an admittedly cathartic engine of familiarity in FPS gaming, what else can we do but compartmentalize, contextualize, and criticize?

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