Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Modern Warfare

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

In Darren Aronofsky’s film The Wrestler, Randy “the Ram” and a young boy from his neighborhood discuss Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare while playing an old Nintendo game. Here’s their exchange (transcript from Kotaku):

Randy: What's it about?
Adam: It's a war game. Most all of the other Call of Dutys are, like, based on World War II, but this one's with Iraq.
Randy: Oh yeah?
Adam: You switch off between a marine and an S and S British special operative. So it's pretty cool.
Those familiar with the plot of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare might say that this is not an entirely accurate description, since the game isn’t actually set in Iraq. Here’s a brief summary: the United States invades an unnamed Middle Eastern country that is currently being ruled by a brutal dictator who assumed power un-democratically and who is suspected of having ties to a terrorist group and possessing weapons of mass destruction.

Stop me if this sounds familiar.

In an article on Destructoid, Anthony Burch makes the excellent point that all of the spectacular graphics, affecting first-person storytelling and gripping action sequences are in the service of a plot that is intentionally irrelevant:

“The battles presented in Modern Warfare don’t recreate or parallel the ambiguous skirmishes of the Iraq War; they take place within a ‘War on Terror’ which doesn't actually exist -- within the world of Call of Duty 4, there really are evil Muslims and Russians in the Middle East armed with nuclear weapons.” (Full article here)

It seems clear that Infinity Ward intended to make their game non-controversial by setting it in a fictional conflict. In his article, Burch calls this a “missed opportunity,” explaining that a truly unique and valuable experience could have been crafted by setting this game in Iraq and addressing real questions (like the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist).

It’s more than a missed opportunity. Instead of making a game about actual modern warfare, Infinity Ward idealized war, stripped it of its controversy, removed it from reality, and made it palatable for public consumption. In this alternate-reality Iraq, no political forces brought the new dictator to power; he simply killed the previous ruler of the country. There is no question as to the regime’s connections to known terrorists; those connections are clear and easily traced. And there is absolutely no doubt that they have weapons of mass destruction and the intent to use them.

With a setting so strikingly similar to Iraq, these omissions are more than just missed opportunities; combined, they turn this game into a propaganda piece for the “War on Terror.”
It’s no surprise that Adam from The Wrestler thinks that the game is set in Iraq. He sees Iraq on television, he sees locations and situations in the game that look similar, and he equates the two. But what does this game teach him? It teaches anyone unfamiliar with the actual circumstances of the Iraq War and other modern conflicts that these battles are simple: there are no innocent bystanders, the enemy is always clearly identified and shooting at you, and the path to victory is a forward march over the bodies of one’s enemies.

Further, it presses the importance of the “War on Terror”; in Modern Warfare, global catastrophe results if you fail in your mission.

While this makes for an entertaining video game, this has very little to do with modern warfare. The weaponry and locations may be modern, but this is ultimately the same martial vision that we see in Infinity Ward’s World War 2 shooters. The sense of black and white morality remains, and clearly villainous enemies organize their forces against the heroes. They have moved the year forward, but the central ideas have remained the same.

A true “modern warfare” game would likely not be enjoyable. Imagine waiting by a military jeep, holding a gun, wondering whether anything will happen. Maybe nothing does, and you wait all day, and then head home; that would be a good day. Maybe you’d feel like you kept the peace and did the neighborhood a favor, even if not everyone appreciated your presence. On a bad day, shots are fired at you from windows, or a passing person turns out to be strapped with a bomb; you or one of your fellow soldiers winds up dead or crippled for life.

Infinity Ward certainly made the right business decision when they simplified their vision of modern war. (For comparison, see these kotaku articles on Six Days in Fallujah, a game based on the real Iraq War, and that game’s quick cancellation.) But in doing so, they failed to deliver on their basic premise, they failed to show “Modern Warfare.” In Call of Duty 4, the armed conflict starts for all the right reasons, has a clear, defined ending, and serves a greater purpose that we can all agree is for the best. The larger question here is this: does Infinity Ward have any social responsibility, or is it enough to deliver a compelling gaming experience? If they tell their audience that they are going to deliver a realistic modern war but instead provide a piece of propaganda - intentionally or otherwise - have they done something morally reprehensible?

With Modern Warfare 2 fast approaching, here’s hoping that they don’t continue to oversimplify war.


  1. I completely agree with you on the fact that the game is stripped of any real meaning. But don't you think the game is stripped of so much meaning that it ceases to replicate life in any true fashion? I just don't feel like the game makes people think this is what fighting in Iraq is really like. And how do you make sense of the idea that people just as freely play as the "terrorists" as they do the Americans or British. My complaint with the game is that it so homogenizes all of the sides that there doesn't even seem to be a good or bad side. It's just people fighting. As I write this I realize that I'm speaking to the multiplayer almost exclusively and not the single player. Who honestly is playing this game for the single player? Really my point is that most of the long-term interaction that people have with the game is in multiplayer and in that aspect of the game there is little to no distinction between who you're character is. You just pick your stats and play as whoever.

  2. Ollecram, you make an interesting point about the multiplayer gameplay. I definitely agree that in games of this kind, the multiplayer is both intentionally and appropriately free of meaning. Multiplayer gaming is primarily about competition, and not storytelling (with the exception of some co-operative examples), and generally has no narrative structure.

    I also agree that most people who are still playing this two-year old game today are probably playing almost exclusively multiplayer, but the single-player game was a massive selling point when it was first released, and was widely hailed as a narrative masterpiece. I'm assuming that most people who purchased the game played through the single-player portion at least once, and this was the focus of my article.

    As far as the multiplayer goes, however, I imagine that that's about as far from realistic modern warfare as one is likely to get, what with the respawn timers and such. Multiplayer gaming is the new arcade more than the new art form. You're there to get more points than your friends, not to be enveloped in the sweet embrace of a story or an amazing gameplay mechanic.

  3. I'll be honest, I never even finished the single player. Didn't really engage me. I purely played for the multiplayer component. Was the story actually lauded? I never read up on the game, which is surprising for me actually, so I just assumed it was bought for the multi and peopel skipped the plot. Oh yeah, and this is Marcello.


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