Black Ops And The History Of Violence

Black Ops And The History Of Violence

Compared to the developers we’re used to interviewing, Hank Keirsey is a little different. He’s wiry and athletic despite clearly being middle-aged; he’s softly spoken and polite, but utterly engaging. He sits upright. You listen closely. Every single word he sounds seems like it matters. He commands your respect. And despite being heavily involved in the development of Call of Duty franchise, we’re certain he would instantly stand out in a room full of developers.

Our interview has just begun, and we wonder – how on earth does a guy like this get involved in the development of a game like Call of Duty.

A History of Duty “I always ask myself that!” laughs Keirsey. “These are not the kind of people I would normally hang out with! But you know, in the end, I developed a real grudging respect for the games industry guys, because they work so damn hard. They’re a real hard working bunch of humans in this industry.”

Hank Keirsey is a retired Lt. Col. and now works as the Military Advisor for the Call of Duty franchise. It’s his job to make sure Treyarch and Infinity Ward get the details right – that the weapons have the right attachments, that the environment rings true.

“The way I got involved,” remembers Hank, “was I used to run training courses after I retired, training corporate leaders.

“I would take people into the woods and treat them like they were army units and teach them that way. One of the guys that was in that particular outfit was an officer in the military – he was on CNN or NBC for some reason – and someone at Activision was like, ‘we need a military advisor for the game we’re working on’. They called him, he calls me. He said, ‘I’m kind of a grand strategy guy, I don’t know too much about guns’. I was like, ‘hmm, I’m not really a video game guy’, but we decided to just go down there anyway and see what they were doing.”

The level of detail and work that Infinity Ward had put into recreating the large scale battles of World War II was what convinced Hank Keirsey to help out.

“When I got there,” says Hank, “I saw that the developers were paying such close attention to the detail of World War II and they were kind of teaching history through that. And that’s why I bought in.

“They really started teaching history through all those World War II games – and with the Modern Warfare game I thought, ‘well, they’re teaching a legacy of honour and courage’, so I was fine with that.

“And now they’re going back to the Vietnam era – filling a hole. It’s an exciting game, but you know it’s also recovering a period of history.”

A History of War In a sense World War II is the perfect setting for drama – and Nazis the perfect fodder for a first person shooter in which the primary mechanics are, well… shooting. Nazis have become your go-to bullet sponge in many a shooter but, perhaps more importantly, WWII is the quintessential good war – representative of a fight against oppression, defence against an aggressor. The perfect setting for a blockbuster videogame.

In Vietnam and the Cold War, however, conflict takes on a different tone entirely. It becomes a murky shade of gray – wars fought in secrecy and espionage are not typically an ideal arena for the kind of heroism the Call of Duty franchise usually espouses.

Hank, however, doesn’t necessarily agree with that assertion.

“Yeah, you know interestingly enough,” he begins, “the crew that’s told to take the hill is the same guy no matter what war he’s in. He doesn’t get to make the decision. He doesn’t decide. You follow your leader with courage and you give up a lot to do that. And so for you to come home and be sullied by someone’s moral decision that this was bad or good – you gotta separate that. This guy was just doing his job. And he’s doing the same job that soldiers did in World War II.

“Now you can argue with the moral decisions about going into Vietnam,” he continues, “but as I remember it, it made perfect sense. We watched Hitler take Europe piece by piece by piece and we didn’t stop him. We now have this monolithic model of communism that is present in China and we watched them go piece by piece by piece, and no-one had the courage to go over there and say, that’s enough.”

Call of Duty is a franchise with so much power and influence – a series with the potential to redefine history for a new audience. Will Black Ops be the kind of game that redefines the Cold War in the public consciousness, or at the very least inspire a healthy interest in the period?

“Absolutely,” believes Hank. “First and foremost, these guys have to make an entertainment product – they want to make a game that sells – but there are enough intellectually curious people that they’ll come out of this single player campaign and wonder, why did 58,000 Americans get whacked in Vietnam, maybe I’ll ask my grandfather what he did in the 51st Marine division – you know, there’s so many people out there whose knowledge of history is like a thimbleful, their history is what happened last week at high school.”

A History of Violence But as historically accurate as video games often are, the push and pull dynamic between what is factually correct and what works as a video game often results in an experience that devalues the violence of war, transforming what is a harrowing experience into a blockbuster piece of entertainment.

We get the sense that it’s an issue Hank has spent a lot of time thinking about.

“You know,” he begins, “people ask me about that level in Modern Warfare 2, where you end up playing as a CIA plant in a terrorist organisation. That made me really disturbed, and I wonder how many people joined in and started shooting civilians. Maybe they’re deranged, but that was a little moral twist that made you question what you were doing there…

“I’ve spent my life serving and protecting people and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go out there and shoot innocent civilians. There’s probably people out there that have been whacking people all their life that don’t have that moral switch and were completely comfortable with that level, but those that you hope would rise to positions of influence, I think you’d hope they would question and say, ‘I can’t do that. I can’t shoot people.’”

The issue is how one presents violence – how do developers give violence weight in a game in which the primary mechanic is shooting. In Call of Duty your only means of interaction with the game world is through your gun – by the time you complete Black Ops you may have shot and killed over 1000 enemy combatants. How do you give that violence meaning?

“I like the whole idea you’re getting at,” claims Hank. “I’d love it if, say, you shot a guy and a picture falls out of his pocket and it showed his wife and his kids.”

That would, believes Hank, create some sort of parallel between the way life is valued in a game, and the way life is valued on the battlefield.

“You’d get guys in World War II,” says Hank, “and they would shoot the Japanese like they were ants – because that was the way they were trained. But every once in a while they would find a body and they’d pick through it and find some pictures of his mother, his kids, his wife and they’d be like, wait a minute. This guy is not an ant at all, he’s human and he has a life.”

Hank often gets concerned with the portrayal of violence in games, but seems to be more troubled when he sees protagonists acting in a way he deems inappropriate on the battlefield.

“I remember one particular level I spoke to the Infinity Ward guys about,” begins Hank. “They were interrogating someone in a barn and the guy wasn’t giving any information and so the good guy walked over and just shot him!”

Hank’s referring to the moment in the original Modern Warfare, when Capt. Price interrogates then shoots a bound-up prisoner.

“I got on the phone and said, ‘what are you doing!’ I mean this is the guy that’s supposed to represent all the values that the gamers are supposed to aspire to – and you just had him cap the tied-up prisoner. But they wanted to stir up the whole moral issue, so they left it there. They left it on purpose. But it sure bothered me. I thought that we ought to represent what the good guys should do in these games.”

But is there space for a more sensitive, accurate portrayal of the war experience?

“I think there’s space,” claims Hank, “but whether or not it would sell is the key. Remember this is not a purely artistic exercise. In the end this is a business – but I’d like to think there’s definitely room for something like that.”


  • “You’d get guys in World War II,” says Hank, “and they would shoot the Japanese like they were ants – because that was the way they were trained. But every once in a while they would find a body and they’d pick through it and find some pictures of his mother, his kids, his wife and they’d be like, wait a minute. This guy is not an ant at all, he’s human and he has a life.”

    That’s what we need more of in shooters.

    A really interesting interview, very impressed with the questions and Hank’s thoughtfulness. Thanks for the article.

  • I didn’t find Price shooting that guy too odd.

    They weren’t going to take him with them… and he would have been another active combattant.
    Also, Price isn’t a Marine… he’s with the SAS, and their mindsets, training and objectives are very different.

    • At the time I remember thinking they were just going for that ‘Jack Bauer ends justifying the means’ kinda thing.

      I think Hank was a bit upset at the fact one of the main protagonists was shooting a guy while he was tied up.

      • What I think was the main concern for him is that, as part of the narrative, a protagonist is meant to be as virtuous and compassionate as he can be. The line is between the reality of getting the job done and helping your team, and the fantasy of a character you are supposed to aspire to.

        They left the scene in because the character is a regular soldier. Morality may come into question there but he is doing his job and maybe is also being affected by the battles he’s fought.

        Like in Brothers In Arms: HH where Baker starts seeing things. They are creating a psychological point of reference for the character.

  • Mark, gotta hand it to you for the string of fantastic interviews lately. They’ve been engaging and thought-provoking, and I’d like to thank you for them.

  • I like that he wants to make people think about what they’re doing. The situation he describes made me think about Heavy Rain. The one thing I could not do, not even to save the kid, was shoot that man.
    It makes you think about where you draw the line.

  • I agree with everything Mr Keirsey said, except the part about Capt/ Price being the “good guy”.
    In war, there’s no such thing as “good guys” or “bad guys”, there’s only the opposing sides of the conflict.
    I guess it’s a sign of the effect games are having on him, because his tale about the soldiers finding family photos and other items on the bodies of their foes shows he is aware of the fact even enemies are people fighting for a cause.
    The difference is it’s not yours.

    • As pointed out in the interview, most people would agree that in WW2, the Nazis were the “bad guys”, not just our opposing side in the conflict.

      • If Germany and it’s allies had won then it would have vindicated their actions, then Europe and America are evil for harbouring the Jew.
        Morally, I don’t believe what Hitler advocated was right, but that doesn’t mean history wouldn’t paint him as a crusader had they won.
        Whether an empire built on hate would last is another matter.
        Either way, at the face to face level, you have two men trained to kill eaqch other and question orders after the fight is over.

        • As you said, if “morally” you don’t think what Hitler advocated was right (which is big of you) then you are agreeing that the Nazi’s were the bad guys – no matter what German propaganda would have claimed if the evil bastards had won.

  • Just a damn good interview and a quality showcasing of gaming journalism. Kudos to you Mark – really, really appreciated. As other commenters have noted, totally engaging and thought-provoking.

  • Kotaku it would be most apperciated if u guys forward this to Grow up Australia and the G4C community’s, this is the type of stuff they need to help them push for the R18 rating

  • I think the prospect of playing the ‘bad guy’ in the context of a video games will become an important issue within the next few years, because so far, there haven’t actually been that many instances of that happening that I can think of. The main ones that do come to mind are generally approached in a comical way (Overlord, or Evil Genius, for example) that makes them socially acceptable, because they’re not ‘serious’. There are certainly anti-heroes (such as Kratos or leading characters from GTA) but these characters are still presented in a way that the player deems them acceptable and can sympathise with them.

    In fact, the only example I can think of off the top of my head is the No Russian scene from Modern Warfare 2. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that this was a good example, or that it was done for the right reasons, but it did give the player the opportunity to do something abhorrent, within a serious contest and without moral justification.

    It’s difficult, both in terms of implimentation and ethics, but I think it’s something that should be – needs to be – explored within an interactive medium, purely for the sake of narrative. It’s difficult to impliment because you’re asking the player to actually participate in something that conflicts with their own viewpoint, and thus won’t want to do, and it’s difficult ethically because the subject matter needs to be approached maturely (unlike MW2, where the objective as I see it was more to generate controversey and thus publicity). But at the same, it opens up a grand new scheme of narrative options for games. There are dozens of novels and films which are presented entirely from the perspective of someone entirely unlikable or immoral (e.g. Lolita, Perfume, Downfall), and at some point, this will be broached within an interactive context. Unfortunately it seems at this point there is no way it could be done and still be seen as socially ‘acceptable’ or at all marketable, but at some point I hope that both games as a medium and wider society will have the maturity to deal with it.

    • That was meant to be *context at the end of the second paragraph.

      Also I should probably add that I don’t think black and white ‘karma’ systems warrant being included in the category of being able to play the bad guy either, since the ‘bad’ option is often more self-serving than antagonistic, and since it’s the player’s descision to be ‘bad’ then it doesn’t pose the same moral quandries, or progress the narrative in same ways that I’m talking about here.

    • I’ve never thought of it from that perspective before. A video game presented from an ‘unethical’ (‘bad guy’) perspective would be as powerful as a film or book, perhaps even more so, because in gaming the player is an active participant rather than a complicit observer.

      You’re absolutely right that it’s necessary in the interest of narrative. Almost every game featuring an anti-hero either explains away their character’s faults (a lovable, murderous rogue) or otherwise excuse their actions as justifiable in context (war, for example). A video game from the perspective of a ‘bad guy’, without any justification or veneer of acceptability, would be both ground-breaking and controversial. It would suffer from huge problems of ethics and (especially) public opinion, but it would definitely make for a riveting experience.

      • I think a relatively close attempt is Kane & Lynch in that regard – a couple of amoral mercenaries dealing with the fallout from their violent pasts, one of them a self-medicating psychopath whose hallucinations at one stage cause the player to unwittingly massacre civilians before something clues them in (they all appear as cops and you don’t realise it until one of the folks fleeing past your pile of littered corpses has a cat head or somesuch.. or you look at the other player’s screen and wonder why the scene doesn’t match up)

        But part of the reason it was canned was because the protagonists were so unrelatable to the players. The flaws in gameplay would I suspect have been forgiven more for a typical space marine or action hero setting, though splitscreen co-op is the only way I think you can really *get* how it’s supposed to feel as an experience (most of the setpieces are very asymmetrical in the first game, not like the samey ‘you go left, I go right’ approach in Dog Days or Gears of War).

        Ultimately there is no high ground to gain in the game, either morally or functionally, as the best outcomes still involve being at least partially responsible for dead relatives and abandoned comrades and slaughtering innocents caught in the crossfire!

  • This is pretty interesting, thought-provoking stuff. On the one hand, he’s right, just like all the veterans are always right about the way they experience war conflicts. It is, for them, about the guy next to them in the fox hole or the Hummer.

    But is that the only story we’re allowed to tell? Are we incapable of taking a wider perspective, to see things from anyone’s perspective but the soldiers? That’s one of the biggest sleights-of-hand that has been pulled on the American public time and again: to oppose the war for political/social/moral reasons is to disregard the sacrifice and commitment of the individual soldiers sent there to fight. This simply isn’t true. I can do both. I can question the reasons people are being sent, and hope they make it back safely without suffering loss.

    And by the way, Nazis were a political party. Not everyone who served in the German military in the 40s belonged to the Nazi party in the same way that not all American soldiers were Republican when Bush sent them to Iraq. There’s a big difference between being German and being a Nazi.

  • Black ops is the best call of duty ever made and the trailer makes me want to get it so MUCH.

    ps3 online id

  • Hey all, slightly off topic but JB Brighton in Victoria is having a 20% of games, dvd and cd sale – one night only apparently (10 November). Not sure if other stores are doing it but I just picked up Black Ops for $63 – sweet

  • Mark,

    I have no interest in this game – BUT – I just wanted to say many of your recent interviews & articles have been *awesome*.

    Now, if only K-Au could just lose the ‘obvious sexy clickmagnet’ stories, and the “Capitals On Every Single Word” headlines…

  • I think part of the trick with making a game where you play the serious bad guy in a serious simulation would be to have an overarching narrator or somesuch to explain WHY the baddy is so bad.
    As wrong as it was Hitler wasn’t psychopathic (I believe, could be wrong) He honestly thought he was going to accomplish a greater good in the world via “the ends justifies the means” mentality.
    I am aware that there were horrors that occurred under his reign and he was both partially and fully responsible for them, but my point is that all evil people (unless they are me tally unstable) believe they are accomplishing something good by their actions.

  • I think BLOPS is absolute garbage. Nothing thought provoking. Nothing along the lines of what was discussed in the interview and these comments. I mean, I played half the game to a rock soundtrack, blasting limbs off with shotguns. It was ridiculous.

  • I remember in Heavy Rain, if you choose to shot some guy it then focuses on a picture of his kids.
    This genuinely made me feel bad, and if I ever play it again I probably wouldn’t choose to shoot him.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!