Monday Musings: War Games

Monday Musings: War Games

The debate around Infinity Ward’s decision to include a mission in Modern Warfare 2 where players assume the role of a terrorist group is a discussion we need to have. By pushing video game boundaries in such a deliberate, provocative way, it highlights how immature our medium remains.

On one side we have scaremongering tabloids allowing fearful lobby groups to voice their ignorance of the medium; on the other we have gamers ill-equipped with the necessary vocabulary to defend a brave developer.

Jane Roberts, president of the Australian Council on Children and the Media, told the Sydney Morning Herald that the images seen in the leaked footage of an MA15+ game would not be out of place on the evening news where, I might add, they could be viewed by people of all ages.

Roberts claims that Modern Warfare 2 is guilty of “promoting” terrorism, saying, “If that material was on the internet about how to become a terrorist, how to join a group and how to wipe out people – that would be removed because it would not be acceptable.”

She falls for the fallacy that to depict something is to endorse it.

Gamers claim that Modern Warfare 2 is just a game. It’s fantasy; it’s not real; you shouldn’t take it so seriously, they cry. Gamers, it seems, agree with Roberts’ view that it is “a product that’s meant to be passed off as a leisure time activity.”

Both perspectives are mindless. Both perspectives only trivialise the medium.

The debate demonstrates how immature the medium is when the argument is focused solely on the very inclusion of this content. Surely what’s worth discussing in Modern Warfare 2 isn’t the fact you play the role of a terrorist in a particular mission, but rather how Infinity Ward handles that scenario. Shouldn’t we be more interested in who the player is controlling? How is this scenario structured in terms of mission objectives? How complicit are we? What happens if we refuse to carry out those objectives? What are the fail states?

Let’s not forget that neither Roberts and the general public, nor indeed anyone outside of Infinity Ward, Activision and an exclusive coterie of games media have actually played the game in its entirety. Without knowledge of vital context, we can’t answer these questions. We can, however, address the broader issue of what such confronting, provocative scenes mean for the medium.

Activision says the mission “is designed to evoke the atrocities of terrorism.” Cinema has a rich history of taking viewers inside the minds of people who commit atrocities. As a more mature medium, film can portray serial killers, murderers, terrorists or just base thugs. As an audience we accept that such films aren’t automatically promoting these activities, but may in fact have something important to say about the human condition.

David Cage, president of Quantic Dream and currently working on the defiantly adult Heavy Rain, recently said: “As a game creator I have one very simple rule: Everything is allowed, no limits, as long as it makes sense in the story and is not gratuitous.”

Video games shouldn’t shy away from something just because it is unpleasant. Choose almost any game and one could describe a scenario that, at least on the surface, seems horrifying. In Cage’s own Fahrenheit, for example, one of the player-controlled characters is a serial killer who, in the opening scene, brutally murders another man in the bathroom of a restaurant.

The idea that the player is assuming another identity, stepping into the shoes of a virtual character is a challenging notion. The language we use to relate our in-game experience reinforces how blurry the distinction is between player and in-game avatar; we talk in phrases such as “I did this” and “I did that”. In Far Cry 2, for example, I shot a man in the legs then watched as he staggered away to collapse behind a tree. I pursued him, drew my knife and stabbed him through the chest.

Did I do this? Was I guilty of murder? No. But the brutality of the scene combined with the necessity of my actions – if I hadn’t killed him, he may well have killed me – heightened my emotional connection to the world, to the character and the themes the developers had intended. I understood the desperation of this place.

The emotional climax of BioShock arrives when you finally encounter Andrew Ryan. You realise you have no free will and have been blindly obeying whatever instructions you’ve received. Atlas asks you to kindly kill Ryan and, since you have no choice, you bludgeon him to death with his own golf club.

It’s a shocking, repulsive sequence. The player is forced to watch “himself” commit bloody, gruesome murder. But it serves a purpose. In context, the whole scene – especially the way direct control is taken away from the player – is crucial to understanding your character’s relationship to Ryan and the tragedy of his downfall.

Shawn Elliott asks, “Must we commit mass murder to appreciate the extent of its evil?” Perhaps not. But Infinity Ward, recent marketing cock-ups notwithstanding, has previously displayed a deft touch in presenting us with an intelligent and mature commentary on how war can affect us. Let’s play the game and hear what they have to say before we condemn them. Isn’t that what a mature medium would do?

Monday Musings is a regular column designed to get you thinking and talking about game design or an industry topic. I’ll be tackling a specific subject each Monday, so email me if you have any suggestions.


  • Pretty much, yeah. The problem is, I suppose, that gaming isn’t taken seriously as a medium of narrative, even in the world of academic games writing, where the issue seems to be discussed in all-or-nothing extremes. Call of Duty 4 is, to me, hugely effective as an anti-war piece, and it looks as though Modern Warfare 2 is upping the ante yet again. I commend anyone who can make a game as enjoyable as the Call of Duty series whilst still drawing attention to just how damaging these conflicts are for the people involved.

      • Ryan – the game never overtly proclaims ‘war is bad!’, but I think it really emphasizes just how ‘damaged’ your squad is, and how desensitized they are to killing. The best example, of course, is the AC-130 gunship. I find that level disturbing simply because it’s so easy – the people light up on your screen, you blow them away, you get congratulated in a monotone voice. They really have no way of defending themselves from you, an it feels…wrong. It’s easier to fire when someone is firing back at you.

        Then, of course, there’s the ending and the nuke scenes. Countries don’t go into wars expecting to lose, and the way the game forces you to deal with loss immediately after big, successful missions is quite confronting. Sure, you don’t ‘lose’, per se, but you pay a heavy price for the conflict. They’re not anti-war in the sense that they say “we shouldn’t go to war”, but they do show just how terrible the fighting really is.

        I imagine people may say that I’m off track here (and I probably haven’t expressed my point all that elegantly, since this is a quickie Kotaku comment and I haven’t played the game all the way through in a while), but at the very least you could not say that Call of Duty 4 was in favour of warfare.

      • From the second level, the opressed people of an Bagdad like town run for their lives and be mercilessly shot in the street, you see this senselessness all through your own eyes, before you yourself are beaten and shot at point blank, only afterwards do you know that you were seeing events from the perspective of the President Al-Fulani. The whole time he doesn’t make a sound, an intentional design decision, in order to not alienate the player from what they’re seeing. Later in the game when a nuclear weapon is detonated, you survive the aftermath just long enough to see the desolate destruction that’s just reigned down. Neither of these things promote war, there’s no triumphant rock soundtrack with guitar solo in the background, if these scenes don’t cause an emotive anti-war response I’d be worried.
        I’m trying to think of films where you see events from ‘the other side’ – Letters From Iwo Jima is a fine example. I watched this at the height of playing Battlefield 1943 (yearning to know a bit of history about the battle). In western media we’re only really familiar with our own perspective on WW2. The movie itself was extremely moving, but after returning to BF1943 which allocates you to the Japanese or American team at random for each online match, the futility of war became extremely clear to me.

  • Question: have you ever played as a terrorist in counter-strike and killed the hostages?

    I have yet to see a game that promotes the same emotional discontent towards graphic warfare that Saving Private Ryan achieved (personal opinion, not stated fact)

  • I think this is more an issue of perceived genre than our medium. Games is seen as entertainment without serious cultural value, so any topical content will be seen as trivialized by being in a game.

    Personally, I didn’t like the last Batman film using a realistic terrorist scenario to add impact to the Joker’s character (the scene with the bombs and triggers on the ferries). But no one else seemed to mind.

    Is the same kind of content in Arkham Asylum? And if where, how do you think the press would respond?

  • “She falls for the fallacy that to depict something is to endorse it.”

    That seems to be the main problem with this sort of thing. Should we ban all movies that depict violence?

  • To respond to this topic in the way it requires, I would need a lot of time and would probably want some money to do the appropriate research on the issue. The topic is full of questions, some without definitive answers at this point (especially since the game hasn’t shipped) and I’d want to do it justice.

    • This piece is a good discussion, but itself is unfortunately cursory. I am an academic myself, doing just that kind of research into the artistic qualities of videogames. I’ve written extensively on Bioshock, in fact, highlighting some of the same things you discuss above.

      I think, to put it far too bluntly, that videogames are regarded as a medium for children (why we still have no R18 rating) and thus the same people who are so against this kind of material in a videogame are also against this kind of material in cartoons, anime or comic books for example. A children’s medium is not ‘meant’ to express deeper meaning, which many of our AAA titles are today… its a problem, and one that will not have an easy fix.

  • Well said mate, What I don’t understand is that if parent’s don’t want there kids playing these games the latest consoles have very easy to use parental controls, the focus in media needs to be back on the maturity as you state and the responsible parents, not the government. We need to start behaving like mature adults and take use of such great controls on our systems. I know I will be as my son gets older.

  • I think she also needs to reevaluate her understanding of the internet.

    Just because something offensive is on the web, doesn’t mean it will be removed. Realistically terrorism techniques can be learn’t from books like “for whom the bell tolls” or even highschool chemistry. The fact that that information is on the internet isn’t what scares agencies… terrorists need to be inventive and that it’s publically accesably means someones working on a way to counter it. The whole premise of her statements smacks of Conroyism.

    This is an issue that’s been going on since early video games though.

    Admittedly, you’re not going to find too many differing opinions on a gaming website… but the people who wish to commit crimes against civilians are going to do so.

    I really don’t believe that people are going to play this scene and say to themselves…
    “Yep, terrorism… that’s the life for me alright!”. People who are going to harm civillians are going to do so anyway… video games are not the deciding factor for them.

    Driving a car doesn’t make you Nigel Mansell.
    Riding a bike doesn’t make you Lance Armstrong.
    Paddling a canoe doesn’t make you Aurthur Nimitz.
    Knowing how to carve a turkey doesn’t make you Jack the Ripper, and knowing how to schoot a pistol doesn’t make you Chesty Puller.

  • Haven’t we been playing the Terrorists side in Counterstrike for years before this?
    Multiplayer of most games feature a GOOD and EVIL side, Modern Warfare isn’t exclusive of this either.

    Sigh, Media often only covers a small portion of the whole and makes that focus an issue.

  • I also wonder how many media outlets reporting on this are aware that, from what I understand, you don’t exactly play a ‘terrorist’ in this mission, but an undercover operative for the “good guys” trying to gain the trust of the terrorist group or whatever it is by doing an act like this?

  • Great piece David, now if only someone with a level head would pick this up and publish it in the age or something there might be a balanced take in the print media of this issue.

    I think what infinity ward does well is present their depictions of war with a great deal of accuracy. War is inherently abhorrent, and if presented accurately always results in an essentially anti-war message (as in COD4 as others have noted).

  • “that” scene in mw2 is absolutely necessary. i have finished the game and after you have gone through that scene you will know why. yes there is an option to not do that scene before you even start the game. but to not play it, i think, would ruin the whole game. it is an integral part of the story. i dont know what happens if you choose not to play it. i would certainly hope you get to see it anyway otherwise the rest of the game wont really make any sense.
    as far as i could tell, you could go through that scene without firing off a round at a civilian if you wanted. therefore keeping your morals (or whatever you wanna call it) intact.
    BTW i am not a pure pirate either. before you flame me for already having the game, know this: i have preordered the prestige edition and will certainly buy it on the 10th at 9am. but i had the opportunity to play it over the w/end and i did. so 😛

  • wow isnt everyone forgetting in splinter cell double agent you had to infiltrate a terrorist organization and in one scenes of the game had to make a choice to kill an innocent civilian?

    for those who forgot its on the back cover of the game also underneath the picture it said and quote “Lie. Kill. Sabotage. Betray. You choose. WHICH SIDE ARE YOU FIGHTING FOR?”

    hmmm promoting terrorism?

  • So what’s the difference from this and Six Days in Fallujah? Why does this game gets to be published and not Six Days?

    Has everyone forgotten about Six Days in Fallujah???

  • its a game. the level were u become a terrorist is not different to watching the movie psycho were u see the main character butcher helpless women to death. however i am rather intrigued on how this level plays out

  • I just don’t know…

    On the one hand, I beleive we need an R18+ rating, I beleive video and computer games are unfairly targeted by a mainstream press largely ignorant of them; but on the other… where the hell is the responsibility from the game developers putting out these AAA titles? They can’t operate in an artistic vacuum from the expectations people have on consumer products.

    The problem as I see it, is this: video games are incredibly expensive to make. Therefore, the production of high quality, immersive games is limited to less than a dozen studios at the most. To recoup those costs, these games have to reach the widest possible audience. Developers are thus in the awkward position of pitching product to both the harcore, enthusiast end of the market while trying to attract new, ‘casual’ consumers. This is destined for failure, and cannot be sustained.

    Imagine going to see Transformers at a multiplex cinema, having been bombarded with mainstream advertising for it. Then half way through the film, Megatron rapes Optimus Prime in a black and white arthouse inspired dream sequence. If you were a parent, you’d be justifiably pissed off. Because your expectation of the product was that of a mainstream film.

    Call of Duty is a mainstream franchise. It crosses over from the hardcore spectrum, it’s a household name. The developers didn’t stop to think that maybe it’s not the best franchise to insert these kinds of sequences? It demonstrates a lack of maturity.

    Until the cost of game production goes down, allowing for more independent visions, until we get an American Zoetrope of games, and I hope digital distribution and diminishing costs will allow for this; we’re stuck with the gaming equivalent of high concept, Holywood blockbusters. In fact, it’s more like we’re in the pre 1950s era of cinema. We’re all watching musicals and the gritty, edgy revoltion of Easy Rider is decades away.

    Until independent game development catches up with quality expectations, I don’t think we should be seeing the kinds of imagery that are getting MW2 in hot water. It’s pointlessly provocative.

    • I think parents will be more put off by the excessive amounts of violence in the Transformers series rather than an inclusion of some arthouse scene involving Optimus Prime.

      The point is, Modern Warfare isn’t going out of its way by creating a situation where the point of view is in the eyes of an undercover terrorist. It’s called modern warfare for a reason; it’s supposed to depict warfare that is undergoing in the modern era. To not include themes of terrorism would mean that developers are ignorant of what’s going on.

      And why is it only a problem when there are terrorists involved? Regardless of perspective you’re in the hands of a person killing others, does this mean that the Australian Council on Children and the Media wholeheartedly support the killing of others, so long as you’re not a terrorist?

      I don’t play a lot of FPS, but I’m pretty sure that there are WWII games that allow you to be in the control of a German soldier. Now unless it involves any abhorrent scenes involving Jewish people, I’m quite sure that no one is propping up to suggest that they will invoke Nazi like values upon players to exterminate all that don’t have blonde hair and blue eyes.

      It’s because this whole thing is a a farce. The game already is violent, adding terrorism to the plot doesn’t make it any worse. There is already an MA15+ classification, which is a suitable age to handle such strong themes.

      If parents fail to recognize that this is a game that will involve a lot of violence just from its title and gives it to their children, then it is their own damn fault for not being responsible.

  • “She falls for the fallacy that to depict something is to endorse it.”

    As soon as i heard about this story that is exactly what came to my mind. Since when did depicting or expressing something meant you supported it?

    So many people refuse to beleive that a game can acheieve the same level of narrative, character or evocative imagery that films or any other medium can. It is a safe bet that these very people have not played a game since Pacman.

  • The terrorist mission doesn’t bother me – I haven’t seen it yet, but its not something thats going to traumatize me or affect my opinions of the game or war.

    Its all fictional. And they may be trying to send some message about war and terrorism (any d**k that doesn’t praise Allah knows terrorism is just effed up) – but its still something different and they’ve clearly done it for promotion.

    No game that i’ve experienced has been truely fictional in story, gameplay, setting and realism. Okay you have games with one shot one kill – but if you wanna get real technical, nothing has ever showed the affects of war. Fallujah is trying to attempt that – but look whats happened so far.

    COD4 to me is fictional. Well it is fictional. But i cannot take it seriously in a way that that IW are sending some message and doing all that. I mean the ending was okay – but still sloppy. Attempting some sort of boss fight, but not being one. ANd it all being done with one little squad.

    Then it ends with some news broadcast saying all the events were then explained to be some accidents and other crap. Cause thats believable. If anything liek COD 4 happened in real life – do people really think a Govt. can just brush it under the doormat. C’mon….

  • It’s a NONISSUE. A game is a game. It is not real. It does not encourage or promote terrorism. It is no different than shooting any other pixel in any other game. Come back to reality now, media please.

    • And films are nothing but celluloid images that flash before our eyes and have no deeper meaning, novels are simply ink on paper and theatre, well, don’t even get me started on theatre. What a fucking waste of time THAT is. Pointless.

      Seriously, that view is half the reason games AREN’T considered more than a childish concern.

    • So do you care for the fate of MW2? You sound like you won’t have any more fun than you do in Pixel Shooter for the Atari 2600

  • Eh, there’s so many ways you can put it and still be right, but IMO it comes down to narrow minded conservatives that feel the need to blame something that seems tangible enough to the average person. It’s total bullshit… it’s the same as when they blamed Marilyn Manson and Doom for Columbine, or Counter Strike for Virginia Tech… it’s like violence is a 21st century idea or something? As though as video games became more and more popular, violence went up? Not. The. Case.

    Video games just aren’t taken seriously as a medium by conservatives, the same type of people who, however many years ago, said film, television and radio were just ‘fads’… how could they be more wrong? …and I think even a non gamer like Margaret Pomeranz hit the nail on the head in that interview a while ago, where she said gaming is as much an artistic medium as anything else, and because it’s interactive doesn’t change shit. I’m paraphrasing of course, but when you look at it logically games are not training devices… they’re games. I’ve been playing Doom and Duke since before I can remember, and I don’t have a violent bone in my body.

    There’s a difference between games/films/books and reality… the people who embrace games can see the difference easily, but the people who look at it from a far away can’t. If you blame society’s problems on such peripheral things, you’re just straight up ignorant and detached. I’d like to say I wish these people would all just disappear, but they’re so blatantly wrong that I know they will sooner or later.

  • I think the argument is simpler than this. What most of these lobbyists get caught up on is the concept of this being a game. The argument can not really progress further until we all come to understand that works like Modern Warfare 2 are primarily art.

    The games industry itself should start to shift the focalpoint away from game and re-focus towards art. With the level of sophistication that we are dealing with here in modern title’s and the language that we use to describe them are not to dis-similar from movies.

    Modern games are the interactive movies that cinema can not ever provide. We have shifted the paradigm, now we need to re-focus the discussion….

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