War in a Time of Games: How Call of Duty Weaponized an Entire Generation
Teenagers are an easily influenced group and they often carry their influences into adulthood with them. Just ask a weird sword dude in his 30s what his favourite movie is and he’ll probably say The Lord of the Rings. The same goes for a lot of American or British and other western teenagers in the late 2000s through to the early 2010s. Ask them why they joined the army or navy or air-force and most will say that one of the Call of Duty games put them on the path. One of modern gaming’s most recognizable heroes is the mustachioed British S.A.S commando Captain John Price. A tough-as-nails professional soldier who also happens to look really cool shooting Russian insurgents in the face. He has been the face of four CoD games so far, the latest being 2019’s Modern Warfare.
We’ve been questioning war ever since the first tribes faced off in pitched battles in Central Africa ten thousand years ago. That question has only gotten more complicated in the ten millennia since then. Dalton Trumbo wrote Johnny Got His Gun in 1938 three years before America entered World War 2. The book, centering around a soldier rendered mute, blind, deaf and limbless by a landmine, questioned the futility of sending young men off to die and, perhaps worse, to be allowed linger in a kind of half-life. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now made the mad pointlessness of the Vietnam War evident, expressing the sentiments of the first anti-war generation in an epic that felt as thrilling as it did psychedelically hopeless. Very few movies or TV shows can actually claim to be anti-war however.
War with all its action and drama and camaraderie makes for very exciting entertainment. Only a handful of films can really claim to be anti-war the most famous of which include Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Stangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Elem Klimov’s Come and See and more recently Vaclav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird. You can cut that number in half in terms of anti-war games. As a rule of thumb games are supposed to be fun and there’s nothing more fun than the tried-and-tested action of point-click-shoot. It’s why first person shooters have dominated the gaming landscape ever since DOOM and Halo: Combat Evolved book-ended the 90s. It’s why Call of Duty sells in the tens of millions every year and it’s why we see so few games like This War of Mine.
I’ve written about the Balkans War-inspired game before but the point of This War of Mine was to make you feel powerless in the context of war. You were a survivor not a soldier and therefore medical supplies, food and your characters’ mental health were far more precious resources than weapons. The game gave you the option to fight and kill but it was one that came with stark physical and mental consequences for your character. Call of Duty has only ever paid lip service to the consequences of war and, in fairness, critiquing the futility of war is something few games actually do well. It’s why the Call of Duty series doesn’t do it at all but that doesn’t mean it has to swing the other way so completely.
In 2009 when Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 came out it was controversial for a number of reasons. The first and most obvious was its No Russian level. It’s been written about wholesale in the last 10 years but the basic set-up was the player character was an American agent undercover with Russian ultra-nationalists as they shot up an airport full of civilians. The nationalist leader, Makarov, shoots the player character at the level’s end pinning the blame on the Americans and triggering a Russian invasion of the USA. Although initially shocking the level soon becomes a repetitive slog, who knew massacring innocents could be so boring? The level re-lit half-hearted and worn-out arguments over violence in video games as people ignored the real dangers these games had on young and impressionable minds.
The war machine better known as the United States military has always been in need of fresh blood. What better way to convince young men to go off to a foreign land and die for oil than a sequel to their favourite game? It helps that the trailer was set to a blood-and-thunder Eminem track. When most men are young the career of soldier – alongside astronaut, cop and firefighter – ranks pretty high. Some carry that dream job well into adulthood; the notion that maybe they’re not fighting for their country never coming into their heads.
It’s easy for someone to educate themselves about the darker parts of their country’s history. A quick Google search of US war crimes yields 214 million results. It’s even easier for someone not to educate themselves in this regard though. The Google search results can be ignored and dismissed. The sanctimonious conversation partner can too. The trailer for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 set to ‘Til I Collapse’ is fun to watch and easily compartmentalized as entertainment, never even registering as a young man or woman unable to afford healthcare or further education signs the recruitment form with a flourish.
The US Army has never been a fan of subtlety. Although it never had a direct hand in the development of the CoD series it definitely used the games to it’s advantage. Before streaming was as big as it is now the US military was a passive beneficiary blithely and maybe even unknowingly accepting the fresh recruits Modern Warfare 2 was funneling into it’s jaws. Now the US military is no longer so passive – when has it ever been? – as it’s streaming channels demonstrate. With that said seeing the chat flooded with people spamming the phrase “WAR CRIMES” along with the Kramer head emoji makes me feel good. Maybe the kids are all right after all.