Taken Out of Context or Sensationalist Violence? Big Risk for CoD Series
Leaked footage of a scene from Modern Warfare 2 where a player blows away unarmed victims in gristly detail has gamers asking what is good storytelling, and what is pure shock value?
It’s kind of strange: large publishers seldom like to experiment when it comes to new kinds of gameplay, but they seem willing to gladly take risks when it comes to innovating how violent a game should be. Modern Warfare 2, Call of Duty 6 in other words, is the closest thing you get to a guaranteed hit.
But some leaked footage of part of the game has the morality police outraged, Activision and Infinity Ward insisting that they are being taken out of context, and gamers wondering where the line between dark, gritty, realism, and the shock-school of marketing, actually lies.
But Headshots Were OK in World War II?
Games based around realistic, modern, combat rightly seek to have a story line that seems right off the CNN ticker. And sometimes it doesn’t go well. Six Days in Fallujah, a game based around the bloody combat that took place in that Iraqi city, being made in extensive consultation of dozens of Marines, active and retired, many of whom fought in Fallujah, was dropped by the publisher, Konami.
The controversy was huge, and the developer, Atomic Games, has been looking for another publisher since (see this article for the difference between developers and publishers). Based on the number of military personal working on the game, and that the game had only just been announced and little about it beyond the title was known, it seemed to be a pretty big jump to make the assumptions many political groups made. While a television show or movie could be expected to treat the Iraq war with the utmost respect, a video game would automatically be “glorifying," “trivialized," “an extremely flippant response," and that “to capitalize on the death and injury of thousands is sick."
The flack interestingly came from very dissimilar sources. Veterans’ and anti-war groups both toted out their spokespeople, deciding that someone making a video game about the war was a larger issue than the mundane goings on of the actual war. Tansy E Hoskins of Stop The War, who knew the game would be “sick" just days after it was announced, knows all kinds of interesting things, like “The American led assault on Fallujah pretended there were no civilians left in the city. Although 60 000 refugees were able to flee, over 50 000 people remained in their homes and took the brunt of the violence and chemical weapons." (Tech Report)
You would think that accusing the organized army of a democratic nation of using chemical weapons on civilians would be a show stopper. You would think the Veterans’ groups would be rather displeased. But when a video game is involved, things like war crimes apparently take a back seat.
Understandably Touchy about Terrorism
Why am I rambling about a game that will probably never see the light of day? Because it makes an interesting contrast to the Modern Warfare 2 kerfuffle. Where Six Days revolved around the Iraq war controversy, the leaked Modern Warfare footage shows the player actually in the shoes of a terrorist. Actually, he might just be undercover; this ties in to Activision and Infinity Wards’s argument that the scene is being take out of context, which we will discuss shortly.
Looking at likely reaction, there might be a benefit to portraying terrorism instead of a controversial war. If you give pundits an opportunity to talk about the Iraq war, it makes good TV. You can almost always find for and against representatives that will argue loudly for as long as the anchor will let them. It’s a little harder to get a rousing debate on terrorism started.
Opposition to terrorism isn’t a special interest group. There aren’t protests with cordons of riot suited police officers separating shouting pro and anti terrorist demonstrators. Have you often been asked to sign a petition to stop terrorism? Six Days ran headlong into a robust controversy infrastructure, per say. There are a lot more groups ready to post outraged press releases, either in support of or opposition to the Iraq war, than looking to chime in on the terrorism conversation.
Modern Warfare 2 could ironically draw less flack than Six Days for no other reason than just about everyone agrees terrorism is bad, so the line of pundits eager to argue about it is pretty short. Having someone play as a terrorist could lead to less noise than having someone play as a US Marine.
But again, are you really playing as a terrorist?
The leaked footage and resulting discussion gives away a bunch of major plot points from Modern Warfare 2. Keep this in mind if you go to the next page.
The leaked footage and resulting discussion gives away a bunch of major plot points from Modern Warfare 2. You might not be able to see the footage anymore. Activision was within their rights to call it stolen, and even the staunch, well-legally defended, and not worried about getting sample or interview access with Activision, CNN has acquiesced and pulled it.
Both Sides of the Story
Many people will judge the footage in a vacuum, which is pretty damning, but not all that fair. Activision and Infinity Ward are essentially begging people not to look at the scene out of context. The footage, violence aside, is a huge plot spoiler, and the attempts to put it into some kind of context by the publisher, developer, gamers, and gaming media are likely revealing huge chunks of storyline in a very disappointing way.
Beyond that, they have a valid point about the violence issue. Taking the terrorist scene out of context is indeed not a responsible way to form an opinion. If you take the most violent three minutes of any R-rated war movie, it will seem pretty violent. Without the rest of the movie, you can’t really tell if that violence is part of a poignant story or gore for gore’s sake. There is something, however, that gamers should start complaining about immediately.
Checkpoints Make for Bad Storytelling
The line from Activision is that we shouldn’t judge that one scene in a vacuum: it is part of a complete story and meant to confront the players with the kind of evil they are facing. Fair enough, we can certainly understand being asked to not jump to any conclusions. But part of the explanation (in an e-mail Activision sent to VG247) has me rather disappointed:
“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."
If you can skip the parts, how important to the plot can they possibly be? And who is actually going to say: “No, I don’t want to see what I paid good money for"? Most importantly, do you remember the page in your Steven King book: the fluorescent orange one that said skip to page 128 if you don’t want to read the disturbing part. What about the Saw III DVD you rented that stops playing and asks you if you want to skip the disturbing part?
Of course you don’t. Trying to do something like that to a book or movie would have the artists involved throwing prima donna fits until the Hollywood letters fell over from the excess melodrama. If the violence is border-line enough to require stopping the story and asking the player if they want to see it, the net effects on suspension of disbelief and immersion are far worse than any benefits possibly provided by said violence. Take it out, or leave it in, but the checkpoints have to go. Imagine a storyteller like Alfred Hitchcock saying: “lets put so much blood in it that they have to stop the movie while the ushers warn people there is that much blood coming! That will engross them in the tale I’m telling!"
An Innocent Mistake?
The terrorist scene/checkpoint decision can be three things. This was either an important, artistic, storytelling decision, and the checkpoints are a Konami-Six Days in Fallujah style cop out: an admission, from people that actually make video games, that they are just toys for kids; not a true entertainment, let alone artistic, medium. Or, the violence is shameless sensationalism, and the checkpoints simultaneously allow Activision to say they tried to warn people while actually emphasising how violent the game’s most violent moments are.
Or, it is just a bad idea, one of those screwball compromises that will be regretted. I hope that is the case. We’re used to having people who have never played a video game say horrible things about them, but when Konami or Activision agree with them, it hits closer to home.