The Commotion Over 'Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2'

A brutal massacre scene from the world's most-hyped video game sparks controversy around the globe

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The video game industry has already boasted of being more profitable than Hollywood, but things are about to get headier. Analysts are expecting one new game to be "the most successful product launch in the history of entertainment," says the Times of London. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a first-person-shooter that puts players in the role of a lethal counter-terrorist operative, is expected to earn $500 million within its first week alone.

Not everyone is rejoicing over the mass appeal of a violent combat simulator, particularly after videos showing players massacre civilians in a commercial airport leaked to the Internet last month. Though the scene can be skipped, the game has already sparked political controversy in Australia, where the game is rated for 15 and over, and England where it has received an 18 and up rating. Political backlash among gamers in America (where the game has an 'M' or 17 and up rating), has been somewhat muted for now.

In England, many writers are jeering at English politician and staunch video game opponent Keith Vaz for bringing the game up for debate in Parliament.

  • Politicians Need to Grow Up  Calling Keith Vaz's outcry 'as laughable as it was predictable' the Independent's Paul Vale says knee-jerk reaction against violent games degrades discussion about what constitutes age-appropriate media. He accuses Vaz of being disingenuous in his morality crusade, but agrees that government should have some say in regulating a burgeoning industry. As he puts it: "The gaming industry along with Government should maintain the ongoing debate on responsible content in what is a rapidly developing interactive media. Unfortunately, the histrionics coming out of Leicester East only serve to delay that process, amounting to nothing more than a 2D pantomime in a 3D world."
  • Video Games Are Art  Den of Geek blogger Simon Brew unloads on his media colleagues who are disparaging the game, contending that they're trying to get page views for their respective columns. He has no sympathy for claims that the game will negatively impact younger players who sidestep the game's 18+ age limit in the UK. Finally, he thinks much of the outrage can be traced to a double-standard when it comes to popular entertainment, with movies and TV praised for tackling the same controversial real-life subjects that get video games banned: "Is it making entertainment out of terrorism? Or is it confronting and presenting an issue? The answer may well be all of the above to an extent, but I can't call that, as I've not played that segment of the game. I do, however, believe that it is a duty of entertainment media to deal with real life issues, however frightened that might make people who have 1000 words to write before their copy deadline hits."

In Australia, bloggers actually support a push by a children's lobby group to re-rate the game so that sales were restricted to those 18 and older.

  • 'Crossing a Line' Jarno Kokko, a blogger for You Gamers, argues that the the civilian-massacre scene is too excessive. He wants readers to realize that the maximum age limit imposed on games in Australia is 15, which seems inappropriate given the graphic, cold-blooded violence of the game: "Both Infinity Ward and Activision [the game's creators] are sounding righteous when they defend that this is a game for adults, yet in some markets it is rated for 15 year olds," he asserts. Ultimately, he sees the fallout from the game having a negatively impact on the industry writ-large: "Personally I think Infinity Ward has probably crossed a line here and went for the distasteful. It'll put the game into headlines, Grand Theft Auto style, but it may also cause a backlash that harms mature games as a whole."
  • Ratings Reform Necessary Surprisingly, the anti-censorship Electronic Frontiers Australia Inc. agrees that the country's games rating system needs to be overhauled because of Modern Warfare 2. As blogger Nic opines: "If we're concerned about allowing people to make informed decisions about what games they want to play, and empowering parents to make those decisions for their children, it really seems like it's time that we should introduce an R 18+ rating."

In America, two bloggers for the popular video game blog Destructoid dueled over whether or not the civilian-massacre scene was artistically defensible.

  • Misguided Ambition  Brad Rice says that he physically sickened by the civilian massacre scene, and disagrees with Activision's defense that is is meant to "evoke the atrocities of terrorism" to make them more appalling. He compares it to another similarly controversial game in which players can murder noncombatants, the popular Grand Theft Auto series, which he says is excusable because it is not meant to be photorealistic. Rice doesn't fault Modern Warfare for lacking ambition, but cannot support its presentation: "The way that the plot is likely being handled comes across with a lot of the wrong messages, and shows a poor method of thinking when it comes to the sensitivity of the issue: simply presenting something like this in its full form."He also offers more tasteful ways of including the scene.
  • Console Commentary Destructoid blogger Jim Sterling accepts the scene because players can skip over the carnage if so inclined. However, he thinks it's an important commentary on the place of video games in the world.
Whether you approve of the scene, find it disturbing, love it or just don't care, I believe that this is a scene that needs to happen, and was bound to happen sooner or later. It's a statement, more than anything else. A statement that videogames need not be afraid to tackle incredible controversy and make bold statements on modern day politicial issues. It's a statement that videogames don't need to invent fantastical worlds of elves and goblins in order to portray violence. It's a statement that videogames can affect emotions and provide stories that don't just entertain, but also shock, surprise and even disturb.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.