The Real Problem With 'Call of Duty': The Ad, Not the Game



After my critique of the ad campaign for the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops went live last week, I felt like I'd walked into a typical CoD online battle. Everywhere I stepped, some columnist or blogger had lined up a violent shot, tearing my phrases apart, and more than a few reader comments sounded like those from teenaged shouters on Xbox Live.

"These aren't the games I play," I'd said, leading people to believe I hate first-person shooters. As I've written before, I love 'em.

"[Games] are silly," I'd said, leading people to believe I don't take games seriously or respect their artistic strides. As I've written before, I'm obsessed with the question of video games as art.

I posted a brief column that disagreed with how the ad portrayed players; but I had no beef with the game. Readers who didn't know my prior work missed the distinction, and I didn't do much to clue them in, which I regret. Still, I feel strongly about the ad's real-life violence—not because I'm squeamish, but because I grew up being told by the fear-mongering media that video games do awful things to players. They make us violent, crazy, and soulless. They make us shoot up schools and kill prostitutes. They make us lose grasp on reality.

When I saw the ad, I saw those old stereotypes loom large. I saw some yokel at Fox News screaming, "Video games are training a new generation of killers!" I wanted to nip that fallacy before it could blossom.

Perhaps I didn't need to. Here's an excerpt from a column by EuroGamer's Rob Fahey:

It's tempting to imagine the press waiting with bated breath to see what fresh outrage [Call of Duty]'s developers might have cooked up this time.

Yet I don't think that that's been the case. If anything, I've been struck by how muted and moderate the approach to Call of Duty: Black Ops has been from the mainstream media. There's talk of the sales figures, a little discussion around the political controversy concerning Cuba, and the occasional vague talk around the violence—but frankly, the will to paint this game as some kind of monstrous murder-simulator seems to have dissipated almost entirely.

In the same column, Fahey describes the brief controversy from last year's Call of Duty title—specifically, from a scene that put players in the role of a Russian terrorist and asked them to mow down innocent civilians. It was a powerful moment for interactive storytelling. It evoked an emotional response by making players commit evil acts. I recall game blogs seeing early footage and wondering when media outlets would freak out in response.

As Fahey notes, they didn't bite. Games were no longer misunderstood bogeymen, and casual observers could draw a distinction between play and reality—and knew that gamers did the same. A few stories came and went, but even 2009's media world was years removed from the outrage over Grand Theft Auto. This year's CoD comes with even less commotion. The most furor I could find, honestly, came from people calling me an idiot. That's good news (for gaming, at least). Even better, two weeks ago, a relatively conservative Supreme Court heard a case about a violent video games bill and seemed poised to strike it down.

It cracked me up, then, when Fox News went ahead with a weekend segment that claimed the CoD ad was "causing a huge debate." Sadly for Fox, and good for the rest of us, it wasn't.

Initially, I'd been invited to speak on the segment, but my invite was later declined. I kinda wish I'd gotten the invite after all, because in spite of Fahey's take, I still see cracks in gaming's public reputation. Perhaps Fox News knew I'd make for a bad guest if I'd replied like the following:

Fox News, I've figured something out this week: Talking about the ad isn't the best way for me to make my point about who gamers really are.

A better way to do that is to talk about games that reshape what we expect from them, because, to me, games are an opportunity to explore and try different, weird, and fun things. We gamers get that from indie games. Experimental iPhone games. Board games. Fake-rock games. Stuff like Minecraft, a game that you mold and shape as if it were the world's largest set of LEGOs. And on and on.

So long as TV re-broadcasts ads like this—over and over, during a morning news conversation, behind our heads—we tell adults, children, and non-gamers, even if only subtly, that we as players are problematic, or violence-crazed, or second-class. Let's not play that game.

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Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle, WA. More

Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle. He began his career in high school as a nationally syndicated video games critic at the Dallas Morning News, eventually taking up the mantle of music section editor at Dallas weekly paper the Dallas Observer. His writing has since appeared in Seattle weekly The Stranger, in-flight magazine American Way, now-defunct music magazine HARP, gaming blog The Escapist, and Dallas business monthly Dallas CEO. He currently serves as a games and tech columnist for Seattle web site, as well as a volunteer tutor at the all-ages writing advocacy group 826 Seattle.

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