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Hate and War: the Many Controversies of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2

Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell

Activision’s highly anticipated Modern Warefare 2 ships tomorrow, which should make for some very happy gamers, the original is held as one of the finest examples of the FPS genre. Even before the public has had a chance to get their hands on the thing, however, the title has been beleaguered by controversies of one type or another all the way along its promotional path. In honour of release day, let us recap.

Video game controversies are a dime a dozen these days, with zealous patriots getting offended over disrespected iconography, watchdog groups incensed at moral line-crossing, or raging liberals bemoaning one upsetting -ism or other. But it’s not often a title manages to hit all three of these categories during its promotional pregnancy, but Modern Warfare 2 has successfully pushed a whole lot of buttons before firing a single bullet.


The earliest ripples of incredulity came in the wake of a trailer released in early October. At a time when much of its content remained secret a simple tease of the game revealed the iconic landscape of Washington, D.C. in flaming ruins, the victim of the game’s terrorist villains. 


I don’t mean to be dismissive, or maybe I do, but of the feathers eventually ruffled by the game this was by far the softest target. Hence, I suppose, the only real reaction coming from that paragon of righteous moral scorn, The Christian Science Monitor. In an article suggesting that the realistic fantasy war game setting is ‘too much’ for a post-9/11 audience, the website all but suggests video games should just steer clear of grown up current events altogether.

Maybe it’s just my non-American perspective, but I struggle to see why anyone would have a problem with a video game grappling with pertinent issues, especially when apathy towards such serious subjects has become so endemic. Whether or not Modern Warfare 2 is the kind of game that can manage such a discussion in mature, sophisticated tones is another issue entirely. Though it does lead nicely into controversy two.

Later in the month leaked footage of the game in action surfaced on the net, thought of dubious quality and unknown source many gamers were chomping at the bit to sneak a peek at the forthcoming title. What was revealed, however, was a little more than some had bargained for.

Around the world news outlets were soon echoing the story of a new game video that allowed, nay, forced players to kill civilians as part of a terrorist attack. Beyond flippant treatment of national icons, Modern Warfare 2 had now apparently crossed a line into morally indefensible territory, coercing delicate young minds into acts of unspeakable evil.

Of course this footage was loosed onto the Internet with absolutely no context whatsoever, and it didn’t take long for Activision to purge video sharing websites of its presence. To the publisher’s credit they didn’t simply yank the footage over copyright infringement and walk away, they issued a statement hoping to explain the volatile recording and assuage moral panic.

The scene establishes the depth of evil and the cold bloodedness of a rogue Russian villain and his unit. By establishing that evil, it adds to the urgency of the player's mission to stop them.

Players have the option of skipping over the scene. At the beginning of the game, there are two 'checkpoints' where the player is advised that some people may find an upcoming segment disturbing. These checkpoints can't be disabled.

Modern Warfare 2 is a fantasy action game designed for intense, realistic game play that mirrors real life conflicts, much like epic, action movies. It is appropriately rated 18 for violent scenes, which means it is intended for those who are 18 and older.  

A perfectly reasonable response, though one that once again hinges on the game being a thoughtful enough vehicle for a sensible and useful meditation on terror, civilian casualties, and the nature of evil. Yes, it seemed as though Modern Warfare 2 was going to have to deliver a rather high level of achievement, beyond the mere technical, if it was going to cash the lofty critical cheques it’s promotional run-up had written. Was it possible? Certainly. Was it likely? Well, not so much, it seemed, after controversy three.

At the end of October developers Infinity Wards returned to the promotional battlefield to deliver their next salvo on YouTube, a weird Public Service Announcement-like clip decrying the tactic of grenade spamming in online gaming. The video didn’t really reveal all that much about the game, but rather featured a digitized version of Cole Hamels (apparently some sort of fancy Baseball man and unashamed media whore) telling us eager gamers not to be “pussies” and support his imaginary organisation Fight Against Grenade Spam (see what they did there?)

While the video’s comment thread soon filled up with net denizens who seemed positively delighted at the clips apparent wit, it didn’t take long for a backlash of blog entries to bubble up, taking offense at the deliberate use of offensive and derogatory language as a (truly bizarre) marketing ploy.

Whether such outrage stems from oversensitivity and taking one’s self too seriously or if the video was just genuinely offensive is up to the individual (though I will point you over here, here and here for some rather good responses), but I think its difficult to argue that the video wasn’t aimed at a rather low common denominator. It’s telling that Infinity Ward have since pulled the official video but, like the studio themselves have said, they know their audience and they know what they want:

Not only do we know the game but we know the gamer. We know what to expect from them and what they expect from us. So it helps us guide design decisions and decisions overall, including with PR.

Despite the negative backlash to their silly little video, Infinity Ward aren’t wrong when they say they know ‘the gamer’, that simple and often bafflingly embarrassing singularity made up of a million ignorant comment posts and bigoted Xbox Live retorts, which has unfortunately come to represent us all in the minds of the media, PR departments, and even game developers industry wide.

If you, like me, don’t feel particularly comfortable being branded as that ‘gamer’ then it’s down to us to make our voices heard. After all, developers want us to play their game, publishers want us to buy their game, marketers want to target us, it just seems like the poor dears don’t know how. To paraphrase Ghandi, be the target market you want to see in the world.

An awful lot of fuss over a game that won’t even see the light of day for a few more hours, huh? Much of the kerfuffle can be easily dismissed as excited speculation over a product nobody has played yet, though that will soon change. Are the answers to the questions raised by this myriad of outrage and confusion likely to impact how well the game is received? No, not at all. Sadly the game’s most grievous sin of will likely be its inflated price or lack of dedicated servers. Still, I’m looking forward to seeing how things pan out, and the few thoughtful and considered missives that might be generated in response.

Because I guess I'm just that kind of 'gamer'.

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