Call of Duty: Trivializing War?
by, 10-18-2010 at 01:43 PM (6384 Views)
I love shooting Nazi’s in the face, don’t you?
I remember storming castle Wolfenstein with all manner of boom sticks – blasting my way through every single one of those mass-murdering bastards in an avalanche of hot lead and death. The outcry over FPS’s began around the time Doom and Mortal Kombat were hitting the scene. Members of the previous generations flinched as they watched us annihilate enemies via decapitation or splattering rocket fire. As a kid, I felt their chorus of disapproval was ridiculous. I knew full well it was just a video game and the only thing I was actually killing was time. The only things being harmed were clusters of pixels. Almost every gamer I know feels the same way about war games and FPS’s. We would roll our eyes when we heard about some lame ass parent coming on television and attacking the violence in video games.
It’s not a new phenomenon, is it? Girls start wearing flapper dresses – the previous generation has an outcry. Elvis shakes his hips on stage and the previous generation has an outcry. Punk music hits the scene and challenges social norms and the previous generation has an outcry. But is this the same? Sure feels like it. Remember when the media went crazy over the tragedy of Columbine? Everyone pointed the finger at violent movies, Marilyn Manson and, of course, violent video games. As a teen I found myself once again rolling my eyes before going back to my Deathmatch on Quake.
My first foray into realistic FPS was Delta Force by NovaLogic. The gratification I felt when my M-60 SAW tore apart squads of South American drug cartels was enough to make me keep coming back for more. The games evolved and kept getting better and better, adding Co-op and intense PvP action. The next game I had to get my hands on was Call of Duty so I could experience the heart-pounding thrill of the Normandy Beach invasion. Every time I think of that game, I think of the effects of being killed: The sounds abruptly and rapidly fade as you take a lethal round to your body and then…FADE TO BLACK.
Press X and try again.
It was amazing and a game I recommended to everyone. I even remember telling non-gamers of its importance as a piece of education in helping people understand the horrors of war. Yeah, right. You think I sat in reverent silence as I played through this game? Hell no. I played this game reloading my M1-Garand as quickly as possible during suicide charges on Nazi dugouts so I could kill me some brown shirts. And the game kicked ass for that. All of the Call of Duty games did. They are fast-paced, fun and exciting as hell to play. I stocked up on war games because the Co-op play was everything I wanted in an action game: coordinating with a few of your closest pals in taking down over-powered enemy targets just like a real Chalk of bad-ass Marines. HOOAH!
One year ago, I changed my mind.
I met a vibrant and playful girl named Katherine whom I was able to convince to go on a date with me. The conversation on the date was pretty standard stuff: favorite music, favorite movies, favorite books and authors…family military service. It was unusual to meet someone else who grew up a military brat and I was a little intrigued. I’m damn proud of my family’s history in the service and when the subject came up I puffed up my chest and recited our military lineage with pride: my father, who was drafted for ‘Nam but found himself retiring as a Major more than 20 years later; my grandfather, who served with distinction in the US Navy at the Battle of Midway in World War II; my great-grandfather, who fought the Kaiser and hypothermia in his Army uniform and gasmask, shoulder-deep in the muddy trenches of France during World War I.
But Katie’s story got me to shut up.
Katie’s father was a Delta, nicknamed “Griz”. Master Sgt. Tim "Griz" Martin, a Purple Heart and Silver Star recipient, was killed in action on Oct. 3, 1993, during the Battle of Mogadishu (more commonly known as The Black Hawk Down incident). In fact, Katie’s father is actually portrayed in the film Black Hawk Down. He was a father who deeply cherished his three girls and enjoyed drawing illustrations for them (in fact his character is seen doing this in the beginning of the film). As she stood there telling me about her father I felt a gentle sickness twist my stomach and heat the back of my neck. Maybe it was the way she relayed the story to me as someone who had come to terms with his passing but who clearly felt it every day of her life. Maybe it was the fact that Black Hawk Down was a favorite film of mine and the chill that stiffened my spine was from the immediate recognition of who her father was and his last lines in the film: “Tell my girls…I’ll be okay”. Or maybe it was because I owned the game Delta Force: Black Hawk Down, and had just played it the night before with a bunch of friends.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t pass judgment on those who enjoy these video games. Admittedly I have long been an avid player of them. But I will say this: All of the sudden my character in this video game had a face and a name. When I got home, the game went in the trash and I gave away my copy of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. My contact with Katie got me to ask bigger questions about these games, questions that became very important to me as someone who has had loved ones serve in the military.
I began to become silently revolted by realistic FPS’s and turned my attentions towards the more fantastical ones like Halo. Third-person shooters also gained some appeal, like Mass Effect, Star Wars: Battlefront and Gears of War. If it was over-the-top, Sci-fi, or just plain crazy, I was ready and eager to play. Whenever I was invited to play Call of Duty I would politely decline and make up some excuse about motion sickness or the like. I really didn’t give it any more thought and respectfully kept my opinion to myself. Then one day I see this headline:
MILITARY BANS THE SALE OF CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS.
Any fan of the series has heard by now that the US military has restricted the sale of the Call of Duty games on bases over the controversy of allowing players to play Taliban in the PvP matches. This particular outcry came about over the disrespect this appeared to show towards US troops. After all, you are giving players of a video game the option of portraying a modern day enemy that is looking to kill US soldiers. But is this anything new?
“This Medal of Honor is no different from any Medal of Honor that has come before it," Greg Goodrich says. "That reverence, honor and respect for those men and women (in uniform) is alive and well, and we appreciate them. If that name change will allow them to get that 'Thank You' card, then, sure, let's make that change and get on with it." (Source: Mike Snider, USA TODAY)
Something about that quote chapped my ass. I could picture it so very clearly: Mr. Goodrich walking up to Katie with a copy of Medal of Honor for Xbox 360 and handing it to her with “thank you” written on it. Right. Thanks. It had the stink of someone rationalizing a massively successful commercial franchise about a sensitive subject and I found myself getting pretty ticked off over it. But I had to remember, the reality for someone who has served or lost someone who has served is vastly different from someone who hasn’t. Remember, the Call of Duty franchise was launched by Steven Spielberg, who made Saving Private Ryan. That film definitely inspired reverence and awe in moviegoers, myself included. So maybe I was rushing to judgment on this and folks were getting worked up over nothing, just like they were when I was playing Wolfenstien?
Recently I caught up with Katie and asked her a few questions about the issue of war games in the media, to get the opinion of someone who had personal history with a video game tied to her own personal loss.
In March of 2004, after the release of the film Black Hawk Down, a company called NovaLogic released the game "Delta Force: Black Hawk Down" in which the player plays US soldiers (Rangers and Deltas) during the Battle of Mogadishu. What are your thoughts and feelings on this?
I'm sure these games are fun for people, I know men and women in the Navy that know about my family and still play them. I've never really been into video games so I try not to judge or anything. It does feel weird though. My father died for this cause and to see it played in a game...it just feels like it devalues human life somehow. It's hard to think about.
The Company, Electronic Arts has said in a USA Today quote that the Call of Duty Franchise of War Video Games (based on actual events): "Medal of Honor is a big thank-you letter to the troops..."
Do you think Video Games where players immerse themselves in these recreated scenarios, is an appropriate thank you letter?
Personally I don't, no. It's a tough subject because I get why people play these games and all...but for me...I don't know. You're celebrating the sacrifice these families make by playing this game. It's such a layered issue. Like when Playboy came out, you could argue that in a way, it was celebrating the sexual revolution for women. It was empowerment. But it was also objectifying them wasn't it? A little of both maybe. I appreciate what they are saying. It just doesn't feel like a "thank you" to me.
Would you ever play one of these video games?
No. Never. I don't think my sisters ever could either. I won't even watch war movies. I tried watching Saving Private Ryan one time. It was hard to see, because you put your own history into the story. When Black Hawk Down came out, my mom, me and my sisters were invited to see it at a special screening for the families of those who died in the battle. We said "No".
Katie pauses, then adds, "I've always felt like the odd one out. Like when I would walk into a room and see a war movie or game being played. I don't want to judge because I think free speech and all that is so important. Maybe the answer is just to keep asking the questions. Maybe we are dehumanizing war a little."
His girls. Master Sgt. Tim "Griz" Martin's place of rest.
I then turned to my friend Raymond Guerrero who served in the US Army. Ray never saw action during his time in the service and has since become a fan of FPS’s, as have some of his other friends, a few of which have also served in the military.
“I heard about them changing the Taliban to Opfor and I can understand why.” Ray told me, “I'm indifferent to it. I don't really think about what side I'm playing in Team Deathmatch. I try to pay attention to what my team looks like so I don't shoot them accidentally.”
Well , all right, that sounds pretty reasonable to me. Hell, some active US servicemen and women love Call of Duty and own copies of the title in their own living rooms. Again, they are just pixels right? It’s true it’s just a game and how is it any different than going to see Behind Enemy Lines in the theater? And Mr. Goodrich is right; there are a slew of Medal of Honor titles before Black Ops. Why the upset now? It raises all sorts of questions about war games, like “How soon is too soon”?
But isn’t that just the same as asking, “When can we get away with it”? Does the passage of time change the issue? It’s so easy to dismiss these questions on the basis of “It’s just a video game”. We’ve made games about fighting in World War II and not all of them are FPS’s. Silent Hunter: Wolves of the Pacific, puts you at the helm of a sub in the Pacific as you hunt down Japanese warships and convoys. Is Ubisoft disrespecting my grandfather? It crushes my mind when I think of the implications on the gaming industry. What constitutes being a responsible developer and what constitutes being an irreverent, money-grubbing jack ass? For example, is it irreverent to play games about the Civil War? Can I no longer play North and South on my old school 8-bit Nintendo? What about the Civilization series? Am I trivializing the deaths of thousands when I conquer half the world as Alexander the Great in a video game and if not then why is it trivializing death when I play other games about actual wars where actual people died? The arguments can run in circles and go on and on, both sides will make excellent and thoughtful points and will no doubt challenge us to pay closer attention to what we see as entertainment.
There will be no Respawn.
Still, the issue doesn’t seem to sit too well with the US Military, who is still holding firm to the ban against the Call of Duty game as of the time of this article, even though the word "Taliban" has been changed back to "OpFor" (Opposition Force). Seems like the brass agrees with Katie and doesn't think it’s such a great “thank you” card. Are they just another piece of the older generation that doesn’t understand? The Call of Duty games – speaking from a critic’s stand point and judging their entertainment value, sound, play control and so on – well they are phenomenal in my opinion. It’s no coincidence why it is they are so staggeringly popular. The debate will just have to rage on for now. But maybe as consumers, we should practice asking ourselves bigger questions. Sure they are just pixels, but, like paint, they represent concepts and some of these concepts hit much closer to home than others might appreciate. Some of us know someone or knew someone that heard the call of duty and carried that great mantle upon their shoulders, braving the crucible of battle with an American flag proudly stitched to their uniform. We should scrutinize how we say “thank you”.
I can absolutely appreciate Call of Duty as a form of art and interactive experience. I get what they are trying to say when they tell us they are paying tribute to the American Soldier. In the back of the instruction manual of Delta Force: Black Hawk Down, is a letter of gratitude and a picture of the monument dedicated to those who lost their lives in The Battle of Mogadishu. There’s even a note that proceeds from the games’ purchase will go to the Veteran’s fund to support families who have lost loved ones. I can tip my hat to that. They should keep making games like those in the Call of Duty series and continue revolutionizing FPS’s the way they have for the past decade. EA will continue to set the standard in the FPS franchise and the gaming industry will be stronger for it, and maybe some tribute can be paid in the end. I think Katherine Martin has it right: we need to keep asking the big questions about war and the way it's portrayed in the media and our video games.
As for me personally, I’ll never play one again.
Eric "GameScribbler" Campbell