The first video game I connected with on a gut level was Call of Duty. I was playing at a friends house, and he had me start on the first mission in the Soviet campaign. I took control, and for one tense minute could only turn my head and listen as the commissar told us how we were to be Stalingrad’s salvation. Then the Luftwaffe strafed our boats, and I had to reload the mission. I sat through the same speech a second time, knowing I could just as easily and arbitrarily die again. Several of my AI compatriots couldn’t handle the pressure, and jumped overboard only to have their backs filled with lead from the commissar’s PPsh-41. I looked the other way, and then rushed out of the landing craft, where I received only a five-round clip for the entirety of the mission. Unarmed, I sprinted between cover to draw fire so that a sniper could silence several MG-42s. It was an immersion into one of the hardest moments in any war, the darkest night before the long, grinding conflict would lead to victory.
The first Call of Duty game came out in 2003, and like much popular content of its era, it was set in WWII. In Cinema, the WWII revival started with Saving Private Ryan in 1998 and the juxtaposition of war’s absurdity with WWII’s noble purpose, continued that trend through 2001’s Band of Brothers and by now has found itself with meta-commentary and alternate history in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds and the science fictional backdrop for 2011’s Captain America. As popular as WWII was in film, it was an all-conquering genre in gaming, where even Halo’s now-cliched space marine stood out against an environment composed entirely of GIs.
Yet at their core, Halo and Call of Duty (released only two years apart) fit into the same overarching theme: unequivocally good guys fighting evil in a faraway land, and sometimes getting messy doing it. Gamers spend so much time re-fighting WWII because it has the clearest-cut villains in recent history: strong, bent on conquest, with skulls on their uniforms and horrors systematically perpetrated within their borders. As such, fighting Nazis has gone from comforting to cliche to self-parody; the later Call of Duty games feature “Nazi Zombie” modes, combining the most ubiquitous of gaming enemies over the last decade into a survival shoot-’em-up. It’s natural, then, that games would look elsewhere for inspiration, and modern wars have given at least the context, if not the substance, for many recent games.
Game makers have certainly tried to tackle our modern wars realistically, but they’ve run into problems, almost all of them political. Six Days in Fallujah, a shooter based on the direct experience of Third Battalion, First Marines in the Battle of Fallujah has been held back by publishers fearful of controversy. Medal of Honor, a WWII first person shooter series started in 1999 and executive produced by Steven Spielberg, was relaunched in 2010 with a game set in contemporary Afghanistan. Almost immediately, a controversy erupted over the multiplayer mode, where one side would play as the American forces and one side would play as the Taliban. After a summer of public outcry, Medal of Honor backed down & replaced every instance of “Taliban” with “Opposing Force” in multiplayer, abstracting a portrayal of war to “cops and robbers” level absurdity.
Call of Duty also moved from WWII into modernity, and in Modern Warfare 2 the series featured a notoriously upsetting level. While Call of Duty from it’s inception had featured special forces missions, the Modern Warfare series highlights the blurred lines between intelligence operations, counter-terrorism, and the wars on the ground that have dominated this century of American conflict so far. The Airport Mission has the player in the role of an undercover CIA agent accompany a group of Russian ultra-nationalists as they massacre the innocents and, later, police in an airport. While the level was skippable and the player didn’t have to fire on civilians, the existence of the level alone was controversial enough to lead for calls to ban the game.
The entry point for Michael Vlahos’s culture piece on video games and war is Call of Duty:Modern Warfare 3’s “Face Off” trailer. He notes the strange setting, a post-apocalyptic duel, and from there extrapolates that our games are emblematic of a culture of defeat. As with all media, changes away from once-popular subject matter is more in keeping with a general exhaustion with the theme. The heroic narrative that fueled the shooters of the late 1990s/early 2000s has been replaced by grim combat and covert missions now, but the genre it displaced was a 90s cyberpunk dsytopia, which itself replaced the foundational the explosion-happy juvenile gorefests embodied by DOOM and Duke Nukem, games that their origins in the pioneering shooter & WWII send-up Castle Wolfenstein. That said, the heroic narrative in shooters is hardly gone.
Fallout, a popular late-90s role-playing game, was re-imagined in 2008 as a shooter. It’s setting implies defeat – the protagonist emerges from a vault into a post-apocalyptic beltway, and there are traces of our destroyed world all around (in particular, WMATA tunnels feature prominently). But the apocalypse is the setting, not the narrative. The player is free to make a range of choices, not it isn’t an inherently heroic story, but the possibility for heroism exists, and many plot set pieces demand it. This is an inherited mess, and throughout the Fallout series the player has the option to work towards fixing it. In making sequels, this is the plot path assumed.
While writing this piece, I discovered a much more concise response to Vlahos, using Mass Effect as it’s primary example. Mass Effect is, like Fallout 3, a hybrid shooter/RPG, which allows for more story telling than most one-track shooters. Part of that means high stakes, a longer narrative arc, and more potential for heroism or villainy. But a lot of it means really tedious chores. As D. Gomez put it:
Instead of looking at Call of Duty et al, I’d compare military service and wartime service to the game ‘Mass Effect,’ where the key events driving the plot in that game are the decisions made in non-combat situations, the interactions between leaders, subordinates, and outsiders, and the development of relations over time. Mass Effect has its share of kinetic combat, but it happens less frequently and chaotically, and usually between long periods of ‘inactivity’ filled by user-driven dialogue, planning, and preparation.
What the long wars have brought to gaming is not a culture of defeat, but a culture of boring professionalism needed to tackle extensive but low-intensity conflicts. Sure, the world is saved in Mass Effect, but that’s after a lot more time spent talking to local notables and going through inventory. And it comes after the third game in a series, which were released over a span of five years. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, it’s worth noting, is the eighth game in a series that began the same year as Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Our games during the long war have evolved from high-stakes girt and heroism, in the guise of WWII or transcendent space marines, through shadow wars and special operations, to a workmanlike state now. The stakes are still high, but the journey is slow, the details important, and with the exception of a few crucial set-piece engagements, the combat, while still intense, is more incidental than decisive. Name a medium that describes our wars better.
While I was working on this, Adam Elkus released his own response piece to Vlahos. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include it here.