The other day a friend of mine lent me a copy of Call of Duty: Black Ops with the promise that it was overblown, and ridiculous, to say the least. I wasn’t expecting it to be much good for several reasons; the first reason, that the developers of this game historically aren’t particularly strong at their craft, isn’t really relevant to what I want to talk about. The second and third reasons, however, are relevant: (2) in the past few years I’ve become to feel more and more uneasy about the treatment of various real-world issues in games such as those in the Call of Duty franchise, and (3) I think that the Call of Duty franchise has shown itself to have gone supernova, and emerged as a creative black hole.
But I thought I’d try it out, attempt to be fair, and get what I could from it. Any game or series of games that hails itself (and, to be fair, is hailed by countless others) as the biggest and most important thing the industry produces is worthy of examination; at the very least it can tell you a lot about the state of the industry at the time of its production and release. Just as Avatar is probably more interesting as a sign of what those in the movie industry are trying to do than it is as a film in itself, Call of Duty: Black Ops is very interesting because of what it can tell us about the state of the games industry. And by God, it’s kind of a sad and worrying insight.
I actually don’t have a great deal to say about Call of Duty: Black Ops regarding what it actually is as a game; it’s a rather competent execution of what its developers clearly intended it to be. In other words, you run around, you shoot people, you get shot, and that’s really all there is to it on a mechanical level. The AI is pretty lacklustre, and there are plenty of other problems beside, but I had a bit of fun a lot of the time, and quite a lot of fun at times. It’s nothing we haven’t seen ten years ago, and, perhaps unfortunately, it’s nothing we won’t be seeing in ten years time. What I’m interested in really forcing myself to think about here (and if you’re interested why not come along for the ride?), is (1) what I think of its treatment, and the treatment by many similar games, of warfare and political issues, and (2) what I think of its impact, including creatively, on the games industry as a whole.
So then, number 1: how does Call of Duty: Black Ops treat warfare, and is it in any way objectionable? My issue here isn’t that I think that violent videogames cause someone to become violent, to act violently, or to treat real-life violence differently. The scientific literature on that topic is mixed, and there genuinely doesn’t appear yet to be evidence to say that violent videogames do consistently make people more violent in any meaningful or long-term way. I’m completely open to that literature changing, and I realise that videogames, like movies, books, theatre, and so on, can have profound effects on people. Furthermore, I realise the possibility that games affect people differently than other media does due to their interactive nature.
I just, well, think that games like Call of Duty, with their fairground-ride interpretation of real-life warfare, are distasteful. Black Ops is a game that lingers in the adrenaline rush of combat, where I can obliterate a Vietnamese shanty town to the sounds of the Rolling Stones. It’s a spectacle; a farce, and it never treats its subject matter with respect. I think that you can have silly, fun games where you shoot guys and guys in turn shoot you, but once you take it into a real-world setting you have to be a bit more careful. But in Black Ops you gun down hundreds of enemies, who are displayed as mere obstacles, not human beings, you take gunfire like its nothing, you move ever onwards like a superman ducking and dodging, and knowing that everything is without consequence. I’m still not entirely sure how comfortable I feel about this kind of thing.
But that’s not even to mention its treatment of political and historical events: The Viet Cong are soulless machines to simply be killed, as are the Soviets, and the Cubans. The Americans are the unqualified good guys; in Vietnam, in the Bay of Pigs, in any of the questionable activities America took part in during the Cold War; there’s no mention of Agent Orange, or anything of its ilk. Just raw machismo and patriotism. A game that tasks you with assassinating Fidel Castro with sensitivities between Cuba and the US as they are (and obviously have been for a long time) has no understanding of, or no regard for the notion of treading lightly.It never quaver in its devotion to the kind of Jingoism that should have died out years ago.
I do think there’s room for games about warfare. I even think that videogames as a medium could produce hugely powerful anti-war games, for what it’s worth (and I certainly don’t think violence is something that should be absent from videogames; Jesus, violence is an integral part of every artistic medium, though other, more mature mediums seem to know, in general, how to use it better than videogames as a whole do). I just want more games to treat it with some weight; either by showing war for what it really is, or at the very least making what you do in the game less ridiculous and false.
Finally, I think games like Call of Duty: Black Ops are an indication of a worrying and somewhat overwhelming trend in the videogame world: the Call of Duty franchise makes billions of dollars with every new, marginally-different release, year in, year out. And so other developers are encouraged to go down a similar, creatively-limited route. The prevalence of these kinds of games (a) financially marginalises the genuine successes and artistic merit of many unrelated videogames, and (b) alienates a hell of a lot of people who could find something really worth engaging with in the medium, both as players of games and creators of videogames (and I really think we need some different people in the industry; more women, for a start). And the sad thing is that this is what most people who play videogames want. Many people who would really enjoy a lot of games won’t ever really try, because of what videogames appear to be. But not all videogames are the creatively bankrupt and morally problematic creations that Call of Duty: Black Ops are; I’ve played games that are an extended discussion of depression, regret, the fear of death, and so on. I’ve played games that I would consider mature works of art. And I want more games like this; I want more games that do new things; I want more games that understand that choice is interesting, that emotional depth is interesting, that, bloody hell, choosing not to shoot someone can be more interesting than choosing to shoot them. I want games like Shadow of the Colossus, Pathologic, The Void, Passage, Gravitation, The Path. But the people are so rarely there, and the money’s so rarely there. Chris Hecker, a man in the videogame industry, spoke a few years ago about the importance of preventing videogames from becoming a cultural ghetto, like comic books have become (and there are many genuinely artistic comics; about war, about Palestine, about Iran, about the Holocaust). Videogames could be a relevant, important artistic medium one day, but by God if we aren’t fucking that possibility up for ourselves.