Call of Duty Terror: Activision's Contribution too Little, Too Late Edition



I am proud to be an American. While it is not the most popular thing to say in some parts of the world and we often joke about being the "ugly American." I am proud and Activision's choice to involve players in a terrorist act is neither who we are or who we want to be. We are a country of ideals. When our government falls short of our ideals, and it does, we can freely challenge their actions and ultimately vote them out of office. At our best, we challenge ourselves to achieve goals which appear insurmountable at the outset.

Challenges like John F. Kennedy's challenge to go to moon:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.




Ronald Reagan's challenge "Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall."



Al Michael's commentary when the young, inexperienced US Hockey team beat the Russians in a particularly tense time politically:

"Do you believe in Miracles"



These are just a few that came to mind and I can't think of these events without getting emotional. They are American dreams turned to reality. They draw on Thomas Jefferson vision of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," He knew these rights come at great cost "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it's natural manure" and the cost should be respected. Men and women put themselves in harms way and gave their lives for Americans to have these choices. By placing a CIA terrorist mission in Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, Activision is making the choice to dishonor the very people who provided the company with the ability to make the game.

From time to time our resolve and our commitment to our ideals are challenged and we rise the occasion by answering the challenge and leading by example. We, along with that of the rest of the world, faced a challenge during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor our President Roosevelt called upon the nation to support an effort against a very real threat to our liberty as a nation and to free nations around the world. He recognized the challenged and called for a unified response, not terrorism.


No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.




Two and a half years later when he sent our soldiers onto the shores of Omaha Beach on D Day, he described very real boys in a very horrible situation.

They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest -- until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men's souls will be shaken with the violences of war.

For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.

Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.




The soldiers did not want to be there. They answered the Call of Duty. Hence the name of the game. The first Call of Duty game was created to tell the story of real people stepping into harm's way to answer their nation's call. Young kids were risking their lives to save the world. They were not trained killers with a bloodlust or pretending to be terrorists. They were scared young men who should have been at home playing baseball and drinking too much beer at the fraternity party. Instead they fought for our freedom. The freedom to practice the religion of our choice, the freedom to set and pursue our own goals, and the freedom of speech. Within that freedom of speech is our right to put whatever we want into a video game. Activision chose to include a level where Americans engage in a terrorist exercise in an airport. But just because they can, does not mean they should. There decision dishonors the people who fought for their rights and puts our country in a bad light. Is this really who we want to be?

The latest installment of Call of Duty allows you to play a character who infiltrates a Russian terrorist organization and engages in a mission in which you kill civilians. Activision issued a statement trying to explain their position.

“Yes it is. The scene establishes the depth of evil and the cold bloodedness of a rogue Russian villain and his unit. By establishing that evil, it adds to the urgency of the player’s mission to stop them.

“Players have the option of skipping over the scene. At the beginning of the game, there are two ‘checkpoints’ where the player is advised that some people may find an upcoming segment disturbing. These checkpoints can’t be disabled.

“Modern Warfare 2 is a fantasy action game designed for intense, realistic game play that mirrors real life conflicts, much like epic, action movies. It is appropriately rated 18 for violent scenes, which means it is intended for those who are 18 and older.”


But the explanation falls far short. These types of portrayals do happen in movies and there are scores of the Government is dirty plots in other linear media. But there is an increased level of responsibility when it comes to a game. There is something different when you ask someone to pursue a terrorist mission in a game and give them a reward for completion. It is condoning the behavior and telling the world we do it. The player is driving the action, not observing. The player is being forced to actively participate rather than observe and react. I remember sitting in the audience at the E3 when the 360 was being introduced. The graphics were something we never saw from a console. When Call of Duty was shown, it looked like we were killing people and when a person was shown being hit by a car, the audience gasped. Not the "way cool" gasp associated with video games, but the "ooooh" gasp of watching Faces of Death. This console generation added unprecedented realism and it is being abused.

Activision's responded you did not have to play the mission, but that is not enough. Rather than a reward for avoiding, or a consequence for pursuing, you just skip it. The atrocity is there, but you can choose to ignore it and move on. Isn't this the very thing we are accused of as a nation? If the goal was to show the depth of evil, and the company feels compelled to show it, let it be played out in front of the player so the player can see the evil, rather than forcing the player to participate and try to rationalize his or her behavior after the fact.

It is too easy to look at it and say "it is just a game," but even setting aside the higher goals of the original game, in the world in which we live, we cannot afford the lack of self respect which drives an American company to portray our citizens in this light. Terrorism's presence is a horrible evil in our world. While we do not have to ignore it, our role as purveyors of medias for world wide consumption should be to condemn it. The messages portrayed in our media inform the world of who we are. Messages cross culture through film, television, books, magazines, the web and with the migration into mainstream, games. What we launch on the world stage is interpreted by people who have no other access to our country as a reflection of who we are. When people who do not like our country or want to do harm to our country use this piece of media in support of their argument, they will not say it is a just a game. They will say it is American. I am not talking about a propaganda spin aimed at gaining "hearts and minds." It is not Activision's responsibility to rebuild America's status in the world. But it is a poor decision to proactively decide to include this level in the game. Given the opportunity, should we choose to portray ourselves as terrorists? The choice to portray our soldiers in this type of mission not only dishonors the franchise, but dishonors the soldiers who fought and those who gave their lives for us to have the freedom to make a game like Modern Warfare. It is only worsened by putting the Call of Duty name on the package. Activision tried to address the issue through statements and more recently a contribution to the Call of Duty Endowment, but it is not enough. The level should not ship. In this case, it is not just a "fantasy action game" and it is not social commentary. There is enough fodder out in the world, that we really don't need to provide more? Why do that, when you can do this?

Do not confuse my position with censorship. Censorship is a government action taken to suppress content. Our Constitution protects us against such an action. My position is a reflection of my voice from a country where I am aloud to use it. They are free to do what they want and I am free to express how I feel.

I tried to do it, but I really cannot say it better than Ronald Reagan in his farewell speech to our nation. I hope Activision is listening.



An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions. If you didn't get these things from your family, you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed, you could get a sense of patriotism from popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-'60s

But now, we're about to enter the '90s, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren't sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven't reinstitutionalized it. We've got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It's fragile; it needs protection.

So, we've got to teach history based not on what's in fashion but what's important: Why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. You know, four years ago on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, I read a letter from a young woman writing of her late father, who'd fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, "We will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did." Well, let's help her keep her word. If we forget what we did, we won't know who we are. I'm warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let's start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual. And let me offer lesson No. 1 about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins. And children, if your parents haven't been teaching you what it means to be an American, let 'em know and nail 'em on it. That would be a very American thing to do.






Comments

Kylie Prymus said…
Let me see if I understand your argument right:

1: Rewarding someone for their behavior in interactive media is necessarily to condone that behavior. ("There is something different when you ask someone to pursue a terrorist mission in a game and give them a reward for completion. It is condoning the behavior and telling the world we do it.")

2: Anything made by an American company, assuming it is "mainstream", is a reflection on the country and therefore is how the rest of the world will view Americans. ("The messages portrayed in our media inform the world of who we are. Messages cross culture through film, television, books, magazines, the web and with the migration into mainstream, games.")

You then make the claim that terrorism is such a heinous act that it is irresponsible for a company to put it into a game for the above reasons. But this sets the stage for objections to any type of game. If rewarding someone for their actions in a game condones that behavior and reflects American values then why not also criticize Rockstar for the GTA games? They condone all sorts of objectionable behavior including, perhaps, terrorism since you can mow down innocents for the sake of stealing the money their corpses leave behind. Taken to the extreme we could even criticize games themselves. What, for example, does WoW say about Americans? That we're willing to pay money to spend massive amounts of time for meaningless and arbitrarily scarce rewards? Is that the message we want to send to the rest of the world?

I disagree with that first premise because some of the strongest messages a game can get across come from rewarding players for their behavior without the player knowing what their behavior represents. The experimental board game Train is a good example, as is the final level of Braid (not to spoil it, but if you've played it you know what I mean). I don't think that means the developer condones said behavior. At its best it's an attempt at understanding what would motivate a person to behave in ways we may find objectionable. Understanding does not equate to condoning and without understanding there is no way to resolve conflict other than subduing (killing?) any and all who disagree with you.

Regarding the second premise is it really our fault if people in other parts of the world interpret the views of our media as the views of all Americans? You continue to promote American values and ideals but you neglect to mention the idea that we embrace differences. I have a difficult time with your closing paragraph about learning what it means to be an American simply because I think of America - as a free land - as a place where people can live drastically different lives and get along. Hold polar opposite views of right and wrong and yet have their opinions protected by the government. It may be hard for people in the rest of the world to understand that if they lack those freedoms, but America is decidedly heterogenous. If anything the proper response to people who would take this scene in MW2 as indicative of an American mindset should be to look to any of a million other American made games/films/books and they'll (hopefully) say "Hey, Americans are really diverse! How is it they can have so many different views on so many different things? It must be great to be able to disagree like that! I want to be an American!"
Kylie Prymus said…
Let me see if I understand your argument right:

1: Rewarding someone for their behavior in interactive media is necessarily to condone that behavior. ("There is something different when you ask someone to pursue a terrorist mission in a game and give them a reward for completion. It is condoning the behavior and telling the world we do it.")

2: Anything made by an American company, assuming it is "mainstream", is a reflection on the country and therefore is how the rest of the world will view Americans. ("The messages portrayed in our media inform the world of who we are. Messages cross culture through film, television, books, magazines, the web and with the migration into mainstream, games.")

You then make the claim that terrorism is such a heinous act that it is irresponsible for a company to put it into a game for the above reasons. But this sets the stage for objections to any type of game. If rewarding someone for their actions in a game condones that behavior and reflects American values then why not also criticize Rockstar for the GTA games? They condone all sorts of objectionable behavior including, perhaps, terrorism since you can mow down innocents for the sake of stealing the money their corpses leave behind. Taken to the extreme we could even criticize games themselves. What, for example, does WoW say about Americans? That we're willing to pay money to spend massive amounts of time for meaningless and arbitrarily scarce rewards? Is that the message we want to send to the rest of the world?

I disagree with that first premise because some of the strongest messages a game can get across come from rewarding players for their behavior without the player knowing what their behavior represents. The experimental board game Train is a good example, as is the final level of Braid (not to spoil it, but if you've played it you know what I mean). I don't think that means the developer condones said behavior. At its best it's an attempt at understanding what would motivate a person to behave in ways we may find objectionable. Understanding does not equate to condoning and without understanding there is no way to resolve conflict other than subduing (killing?) any and all who disagree with you.

Regarding the second premise is it really our fault if people in other parts of the world interpret the views of our media as the views of all Americans? You continue to promote American values and ideals but you neglect to mention the idea that we embrace differences. I have a difficult time with your closing paragraph about learning what it means to be an American simply because I think of America - as a free land - as a place where people can live drastically different lives and get along. Hold polar opposite views of right and wrong and yet have their opinions protected by the government. It may be hard for people in the rest of the world to understand that if they lack those freedoms, but America is decidedly heterogenous. If anything the proper response to people who would take this scene in MW2 as indicative of an American mindset should be to look to any of a million other American made games/films/books and they'll (hopefully) say "Hey, Americans are really diverse! How is it they can have so many different views on so many different things? It must be great to be able to disagree like that! I want to be an American!"
Keith said…
Thank you for your response. You bring up very good points.

The rewarding comes with completion of the objective and by doing so, an argument of approval could be made. I am not saying Activision condones terrorism, I am just saying it is easy to make the leap and we should think about what we are putting out into the world.

Second, placing terrorism in the game is not the issue. It is the way it was done. GTA is a great example. If you choose to mow down innocents, you will be arrested. Their are consequences to the behavior. Then again, Rockstar never positioned you as an American soldier. With regard to WOW, it actually is a positive export. Players from around the world are able to interact in an environment without regard to border, race or culture.

Finally, in a perfect world, people would be able to see it all and make a judgement. Unfortunately, when arguments are being assembled, the presenter chooses only to portray the worst. If you do a quick search you can find things taken grossly out of context and used as propaganda. In this case, there is no need to even take it out of context. Activision delivered it on a silver platter.
Kylie Prymus said…
There is a very vague line in determining what constitutes "grossly" taking out of context and what can reasonably be misunderstood. Particularly when it comes to propaganda I'm not so sure one can hold themselves responsible for how others may possibly misrepresent you - to do so leads down the slippery slope to restrictive political correctness. Whether or not there is a scale of what can be reasonably misconstrued and what's served up on a silver platter is something for, well, the politicians and PR people to decide.

What interests me is your argument that there is a different standard for interactive media. I gather you wouldn't have as much of a problem with the events portrayed in MW2 if it were a chapter in a Tom Clancy novel, for instance (correct me if I'm wrong there). But asking the player to do it, essentially dangling a carrot in front of them to convince them, does what? Implicitly ask the player to agree with that action?

It seems to make a difference what that carrot is. In GTA you are never - I think - asked to mow down civilians as a direct requirement for completing the game's story, true. But IW gives you the same out by allowing you to skip this part of the game. Assumingly that plot point still happens, you just don't control it - thereby turning that part into non-interactive media. And while GTA does have putative consequences for objectionable behavior I'm going to go out on a limb an assume that there are some kind of consequences for the player's role in the terrorist scene. Even if there aren't in this particular case would it make a difference if a game tried something similar for the sole purpose of showing the consequences of that behavior? Maybe the soldier's commander has gone rogue and the player is given the choice of carrying out orders that seem blatantly un-American or following the chain of command. Wouldn't that be a valuable experience for a player to have in a game, learning in some small way what it's like to be an American soldier asked to do things that feel very, very wrong to them but balancing that with their oath of loyalty to their country?

I'm moving beyond the confines of what I assume MW2 is trying to do (full discloser: I haven't played it and don't really intend to, mostly because I'm not that big a fan of shooters) to a larger issue of whether there is something meaningful games can do *because* of their interactive nature. If you agree that such a difficult situation for a soldier to be in is acceptable in non-interactive media then why not do it interactively, with all of the consequences present?
Keith said…
Thanks again for the thoughtful response. When I say grossly out of context, I think of things like the Apple Store in New York being portrayed as an affront to Islam. Search Kaaba Bar and you will see what I am talking about.

If the action took place in a Clancy novel, you are an observer, but it would also depend on how the character's actions are treated and how his feelings about the action are portrayed. In the game you are not given the opportunity to object. The action is beyond a carrot, once you start, you have no choice.

Actually the game only punishes you if you don't kill the civilians. If you kill the bad guy and leave the civilians alive, you fail.

Finally, to answer your last question. I deeply believe in using games as a tool for experiential learning. Giving a player a single option without consequence does not afford learning. Give the player the options with consequences and we start to unlock the potential you suggest.
Michael said…
Yes, that's all very well and good, but what about my dedicated servers?!
Anonymous said…
Keith, I have to ask: have you played the mission in question?

After all the fuss online (and I include your commentary in that statement) I was pretty underwhelmed with the final result.

I do think that Activision have been very smart here (from the perspective of selling units). The press and online community are giving this "terrorism level" way more coverage than it deserves.

I don't want to wade into spoiler territory but you seem to be making some assumptions regarding the player's role in this level.

Can I take this opportunity to opine that COD MW2 appears to be a somewhat over-rated game. It is a fantastic follow-up to COD4, but at this stage (4 hours in) I think the previous game from Infinity Ward showcased more variety and more imaginative level design.
Keith said…
Yes, I did play the mission. It does a good job of making me feel uncomfortable as I watch innocents gunned down in the airport. Watching others shoot that same guy in the blue shirt and khaki paints all across the airport a he flails bleeding on the ground is even more disturbing when you can't do anything about it. Trying to do something about it ends the level through disclosure of your identity.

The lack of context is what makes it inexcusable.
Hughie said…
I disagree with much of this article, but I'll just comment on something in the first few paragraphs that may be a little off topic. You see the US as a country that gives you the right to challenge its shortcomings? You do realize there are academics on the no-fly list for simply criticizing US policy, right?
Keith said…
Hughie,

I don't know who you are referring to specifically, but I do know the point of the section you referred to is to highlight your ability to post what you did with impunity.

Keith

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