The Unsettling Realism of 2012's Two Big First-Person Shooter Games

Call of Duty: Black Ops II and Medal of Honor: Warfighter take pains to mimic real-world conflicts, but tweak reality just enough to placate Americans' frustration with the new wars they fight.

call of duty black ops 2 thompsen 615.jpg

In an interview with Charlie Rose over the summer, Barack Obama was asked what his biggest mistake had been during his first term. Obama confessed it was "thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right." In essence, the president's biggest apology was for not being good at explaining how he wasn't wrong.

This inability to be wrong, to pervert an apology into a reaffirmation of one's self, is familiar after 11 years of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and a drone attack program that kills without due process. The victims of these endeavors have been overwhelmingly civilian. The Bush administration trained us to expect no admissions of wrongdoing. Mitt Romney made a hosanna of this pathology with his book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. The Obama administration treats inquiry into its worst abuses with victim blaming, as when asked about the drone murder of 16 year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki Robert Gibbs suggested the American citizen should "have had a far more responsible father."

This political tendency has migrated into art in some peculiar ways, most visibly in videogames where military shooters are among the most profitable entertainments in the world. Two of 2012's most popular games, Medal of Honor: Warfighter and Call of Duty: Black Ops II (which had the best first-day sales in the history of entertainment) take an old genre of video game and places it into real-world, present day (or not-too-distant future) conflicts. In the wake of Newtown, critics have renewed their questions about the violence these games portray. But a separate issue is that when taken together, these two titles create just the kind of fantasy one would conjure from a worldview where mistakes cannot happen.

Warfighter tells the story of a group of Tier 1 Operators chasing terrorists who have a new kind of chemical weapon, stopping in the Philippines, Somalia, Bosnia, Yemen, and Pakistan. Danger Close, the studio that developed the game, says it's meant to honor soldiers by translating their experiences into entertainment draped in realism. "[Authenticity]'s everything to us," Rich Farrelly, senior creative director, told the games website CVG. "... that's Medal of Honor's identity. Respecting the soldiers and telling the story from their point of view."

The game is indeed filled with genuine details, from the operational language soldiers use on a mission to the convincing animations as soldiers climb over walls. Its development was supported by seven Navy SEAL consultants, six of whom are active-duty, and one of whom fought on the mission that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. According to a CBS report just after the game's release, four of these consultants are currently under investigation and face possible disciplinary action for having revealed military secrets. It's unclear just what those were, but the game's closing level is a night invasion of a mountain compound in Pakistan that seems to have been inspired by the bin Laden raid.

The environments in the game simulate depth and openness, with collapsing walls and waves of water rushing over a flooded city. But those effects fade into the background while the mission objective draws players forward down a tightly confined and linear path. You're not supposed to think about what you're doing or who you're doing it to; you're a soldier. Soldiers do not deviate from their path, and they do not question orders. This philosophy has defined the first-person shooter from simple vector-graphics games like 1980's Battlezone to the Doom and Quake games from the mid-'90s. But these obedient-soldier experiences have always been presented as fantasies involving aliens or the comfortably distant mythology of World War II. Warfighter, though, applies that familiar model of the escapist field trip to real, modern battles.

But there's still something unreal here. Since the game begins with the assumption that the violence it depicts is morally justified, its developers have had to imagine how the world would have to appear for these acts to be heroically acceptable. Having firefights in Somali homes, taking advantage of a tsunami's destruction for military gain, running over shopkeepers in an open air market during a car chase-- they're presented as necessary evils, but now come with an underlying sense of guilt for the fact that they don't take place in outer space.

The last decade of war has shown a new generation to mistrust their capacity to affect the foreign policy stances of the U.S. government. The invasion of Iraq was launched amid intense worldwide protests, and when it became clear that there weren't weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, an overwhelming majority of Americans turned against the war. But in the years since, though, our political debates have become less about what should be done and more about justifying one set of policies whose implementation becomes inevitable. Warfighter is less propaganda for some future debate and more of a dark rationalization of a fight our generation has already lost. We could not prevent the real world events that Warfighter draws on from happening, and so now we are drawn toward ways of characterizing them that spare us from what Freud termed "expectant fear," the subconscious attraction to imagining the worst possible outcomes in any situation.

Rationalizing defeat is not where we end, however. Call of Duty: Black Ops II is a powerful example of where faith in the order-following soldier's swagger leads us. With its incredible sales figures, there are clearly a lot of people willing to follow along this path for the sake of a good time. Where Warfighter depicts combat as a grim but distant undertaking, Black Ops II makes violence ecstatic. Its first playable moment involves watching a fellow soldier trapped in a burning vehicle pounding on the glass window for help, skin burning away from the palm to reveal the musculature beneath, face panicked as an inevitable death arrives. This scene occurs in a flashback set in 1986 Anglola where a 26 year-long civil war was fought with heavy intervention from both American and Soviet forces. Like Warfighter, the game is unembarrassed by direct references to real-world conflicts, but rather takes pride in them. Black Ops II uses realistic locations and conflicts as the building blocks for a self-consciously insane tale of paranoia and popcorn theatrics, part J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition and part Steven Segal movie.

Its predecessor used real figures like Robert McNamara, John F. Kennedy, and Fidel Castro as plot points in its comic book fantasy about a Nazi super weapon. Black Ops II, moves forward in time, featuring Oliver North, David Petraeus, Manuel Norriega, and an aircraft carrier named after Barack Obama to tell its story about a villain who seeks to destroy every capitalist power in the world by using a computer virus to take control of all their drones. There is a freedom of creativity in Black Ops II that is rarely seen in mass-market art, a willingness to acknowledge that even the self-serious figures of real trauma and tragedy are fair game for the most improbable and indulgent fantasies. It is a near farcical over-identification with propaganda, using all the clichéd warning triggers of psychopaths who want to destroy our freedoms, punctuated by a surreal post-credits concert video where everyone dances together in a nightclub while digital models of the metal band Avenged Sevenfold play a song.

It's tempting to condemn games like Warfighter and Black Ops II for turning the horror of war into entertainment, but it is precisely that brazenness that gives them their power. For centuries we have been comfortable with artists taking real-world events as the basis for morality plays: Shakespeare's looting of Holinshead, Orwell's fictive critique of colonialism in Burmese Days, John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola's reinterpreting Conrad to critique the psychopathy of Vietnam. In these older media, we were trained to accept that the writer or director defines their work's meaning, which the audience then received by viewing. But video games draw much of their meaning from the audience that plays them. The users are also actors; the work can't be interpreted without considering their motivations.

I like the tension of wanting to advance in a game by simulating actions I would, in real life, hate myself for doing. Danger Close may have thought they were making a grim but appreciative argument for the American soldier, but it depends on me to feel thankful when I am shooting at Phillipinos, Somalis, and Arabs. When I kill them all as told, I experience the game not as propaganda but as self-criticism. I feel as though I am cooperating in what I most mistrust in media and the government. I do not have to endorse any of the game's values, and I feel no noble causes have been accomplished. Beyond the escapist thrill that any good game provides, there is only a faint relief in being told again and again that having the most destructive weaponry defines winners and losers, and that I am on the winning side. Only the fatally disempowered need fantasies this big and violent.