Call of Duty: Black Ops is Americanism With Its Sleeves RolledPosted by Martin on 21st July, 2011
We broke out of the mines of the Vorkuta Gulag in a violent dream and a flurry of bullets. Hundreds – possibly thousands – of men died in the attempt, both prisoners and guards. Grabbing the chain gun was a particularly bold move on our part, as was spearing the helicopter, but fortunately I was up to the task. Reznov, my crafty Russian accomplice, vouched for me when the other prisoners questioned putting an American at the heart of the plan, and while he was perfectly happy for them to be gunned down, he carried me through tear gas and fire to victory. Finally, we came across two motorbikes, positioned by providence to face towards two ramps which led to our exit. Reznov compelled me to jump aboard the second bike and secure my freedom; two rugged individualists, risen from hell, escaping through a plate glass window to . . . I don’t know, apple pie and handjobs, presumably.
Fuck you, Call of Duty. I’m so sick of this shit.
My country – and here I’m referring to the real world as you and I experience it, not the twisted version of it found in Black Ops – is currently at war on multiple fronts, for inarguably muddy reasons. Regardless of your ideology, the motivation for our war on Iraq alone is an impossible to break down in simple terms. Between the oil crisis, the ‘war on terror’, the military-industrial complex and the political egos involved, our actual purpose for invasion – and then occupation – cannot possibly be reduced to black and white, good vs evil, from any perspective. To claim otherwise would be just dishonest; I’m a hardline anti-war activist, and even I concede that removing Saddam from power was probably for the best. Nothing is ever simple.
The last thing we need in a world this complex is media – of any kind – telling us that there are ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, and that the way to tell them apart is to look at how chiselled their jawline is. Call of Duty: Black Ops is the guilty of the worst kind of propaganda; the kind that masquerades as realism. The ‘heroes’ of the piece – all of whom are square-jawed white males who quip their way past even the most grievous injury – are so joyfully violent that it is hard to believe that there is no level of self-awareness to the game.
Even the Vietnam section finds ways to cast the Americans as heroes by showing the NVA shooting medics and executing civilians, whilst you fight for freedom against the filthy communists. You’re expected to be outraged by the Vietnamese atrocities, despite the fact that you get patted on the back by the game for shooting fleeing scientists and torturing an unarmed man.
It’s impossible to justify, and that’s often due to the tone rather than the content itself. Team Fortress 2 employs violent, hyper-masculine archetypes, but with a sense of tongue-in-cheek silliness which transforms it into ridiculous, campy parody. Grand Theft Auto 4 was all sex and death, but it was uncompromising in its refusal to glamorise; Niko Bellic was ugly as hell, inside and out. Even a game as thematically serious as Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood doesn’t try to cast its heroes as entirely positive. The ethical dilemma of keeping Desmond in virtual reality against his will is central to the storyline.
Black Ops, by contrast, uses action movie tropes alongside references to serious real-world events, and there is nothing in the main campaign which implies that they take this anything less than completely seriously. This is a game which features graphic dismemberment, strangulation, torture and execution, all by the lead character, and all condoned by the characters around him. I really, really tried to read a critical stance into the presentation, but it simply isn’t there; it can only be concluded, therefore, that the game itself condones these acts. Other games have gone that far, but few have been so positive about it. Hell, the game even suggests that torture is a fun, effective way to get information. Your victim gives you the details you need, and then gets up and walks off his grievous injuries as though they were nothing at all. It’s ridiculous, offensive propaganda.
A few missions later I found myself in Vietnam, as Khe Sanh got attacked from all sides. After dragging one of my injured friends to safety – only to have him promptly stand up and shake it off once we hit the checkpoint, as all good heroes should – I was ordered to run through a bunker to help with the defence effort. On the way through, I noticed one marine clutching his gun and rocking back and forth on the floor, clearly suffering from a very Hollywood version of shell-shock. His name tag read ‘Private Baker’. I crouched down next to him and stayed there for a good ten minutes, watching the animation loop, whilst my compatriots up ahead waited for me to activate the next action trigger. I knew I was supposed to run straight past him and shoot more bad guys, but I think that’s what compelled me to stay.
The Call of Duty franchise relies on recreating the horrors of war for you to run past and glance at. It’s a tour bus travelling through a war zone, where you aren’t even encouraged to take pictures as you pass. Even Private Baker’s incessant rocking is just another meaningless sideshow to be gawped at; PTSD is placed alongside exploding barrels and motorbike jumps as light entertainment, to glance at before moving on. And, as the box proudly proclaims, it’s “The Best Selling Xbox 360 Franchise of All Time”. More living Americans bought Black Ops (13.7 million units sold) than actually fought in Vietnam (7.6 million veterans left at last count), so representing the conflict – and conflict in general – in such a binary, jingoistic fashion is irresponsible and disgusting. The message of this game is clear: Good guys are good. Bad guys are bad. And there’s nothing in between.
I’m simply not prepared to write these things off as just entertainment any more.