Call Of Duty Makers Say Controversial Oliver North Helped Make Their Game More Authentic

Lt Col Oliver North is a polarising figure in American history and, we found out, earlier this month, an advisor on the next huge Call of Duty game, Black Ops II. North isn't your average video game consultant. He was one of the main actors in the Iran-Contra scandal that wracked America in the '80s.

North helped the US government sell weapons to Iran with the intent to free hostages, while transferring the money earned to back rebels in Nicaragua who were accused of human rights abuses. Both ends of the deals were suspect and potentially in violation of US law. North testified to Congress about the affair in widely-televised hearings that marked one of the worst moments of the popular Reagan administration. He was later convicted on charges related to the shredding of documents relevant to the scandal but never served time.

Since then, he rehabilitated his image, ran for Senate, wrote books and became a fixture on Conservative news shows and a favourite of the Republican party.

In early May, North appeared in a Black Ops II mini-documentary. In the documentary, he speculated about a dark future where America's most high tech weapons are used against us. He was, we reported, essentially shilling for the game. Some readers didn't mind. Others were irate, labelling him a traitor to the nation. One of our writers wrote an editorial lambasting North's involvement.

In late May, I got a chance to chat with Mark Lamia, the head of Treyarch, the studio that makes Black Ops II and consulted with North. What follows is, with some interruptions, our exchange on the matter, one I thought was illuminating enough to present in full, with minor edits made for clarity's sake:

(It's relevant to the exchange to note the set-up. Lamia and I sat across from each other backstage at an Activision showcase event. An Activision public relations rep sat nearby. Lt Col Hank Keirsey, who has served as military consultant for multiple Call of Duty games and who I have interviewed before, stood at the ready to the side, next to me.)

***

Kotaku: Let's talk about Oliver North. That was controversial when you guys used him in the roll-out. A lot of our readers and even some of our writers had strong reactions to him, felt he was a politicized figure and some of our readers were angry about his inclusion in the promotion. Did you guys expect it to be controversial to be using Oliver North as a consultant?

Lamia: "We're not trying to make a political statement with our game. We're trying to make a piece of art and entertainment."

Mark Lamia, head of Black Ops II development studio Treyarch: So, we used him for the game. When we create the fictions that we create, we do a bunch of research and try to talk to subject matter experts on it. And part of that research is reading and watching documentaries and movies and everything else. What can be a part of it is talking to people who've been through the experiences, people like Hank, and when you're talking about doing something in the ‘80s, black ops, when we were doing research in the conflicts that we were covering and everything else and some of our conflicts … in any event he rises to the top as someone who was probably, obviously the most well-known covert operations [person]. So it made sense for us from a game development point of view to spend the time and be able to talk to [him]. One of the things we do is we have these brushes with history in our Black Ops fiction. That's a signature, I think, to the way we create our historical fiction. We set you up with that. We put you in this place where it's, ‘OK, I'm in that part of history,' and we have sort of that fiction we weave right through. Part of doing that has been and is getting a first-hand account whether that was last time in Black Ops, when we were highlighting parts of Vietnam, meeting with someone who was a real S.O.G. who did black operations in Vietnam and in this case with Lt. Col Oliver North.

Kotaku: But he's a controversial figure. Some of our readers said explicitly they consider him a traitor.

Lt. Cl Hank Keirsey, military advisor for the game: Did they really?

Kotaku: Yes

Keirsey: I think it's because he's on Fox News. Probably. Do they know what he really did? I guess I'm out of line even coming into the interview, but the man was involved in a crux of history… [Note: Keirsey pauses as he is waved off by a public relations person and excuses himself]. He wants me out of there.

Lamia: So, you know we're not trying to make a political statement with our game. We're trying to make a piece of art and entertainment. … If you're trying to create that fiction, for us to have met with him as we're creating our fiction is totally appropriate.

Kotaku: I understand his relevance. The question was on whether you expected the controversy. Like I said some of our readers and at least one of our writers — you may have even read the piece that he wrote about it — considered Oliver North as somebody who sold weapons to the Iranians, who supported a distasteful regime in South America and said this guy is somebody I grew up watching testify in the ‘80s. I'm very uncomfortable about him. I don't agree with what he did. And in the past Call of Duty has used military advisers that have not drawn that kind of reaction from any of our readers. People had, just by default, respect for those leaders. So it feels like you guys, in working with him have taken a risk in how people respond. But, not a risk you guys felt was a barrier?

Activision spokesperson: Ultimately it was to lean on him for his experience and insight.

Lamia: "He rises to the top as someone who was probably, obviously the most well-known covert operations [person]. So it made sense for us from a game development point of view to spend the time and be able to talk to [him]."

Lamia: We chose to take on that late ‘80s time frame and when you think about that late ‘80s time frame… you know, we're not trying to put anyone on a pedestal. We're trying to create our fiction as game developers, as creators, choosing this person, somebody who has met with leaders, and has run black operations, and understands that was really valuable to have that sort of first-hand account from him. In terms of understanding that. Even down to people who he's met with in terms of understanding this is somebody who has sat at these tables. Let me give you an example. It doesn't have anything to do with the story fiction, per se, but deals with another game, if you're a character artist, and this person has met with someone you want to portray in your game, a historical figure…

Kotaku: ... you're going to talk to him.

Lamia: You can talk to him. That's if you're a character artist. You can say, ‘how did he look?' And if you're an animator, you can say, ‘how did he act?' And he can tell you. These are things you can't get very well from anywhere [else]. There's no source material I can get that's going to give me that kind of thing. And if you're an audio guy, you say, well how did he sound? You might say, ‘well if you don't know how is anybody else going to know?' But that's our form of art and entertainment.

Kotaku: That makes sense.

Lamia: We actually do that kind of stuff. That's an example that's just outside of it, but if you want to talk about an historical scenario that we want to set up, our Black Ops fictions is here's history, ours is the one you don't know about. It's helpful to have somebody who has first-hand accounts of those situations.

***

Shortly after this part of our conversation, as we were winding our discussion to other matters, such as the game's multiple endings and the advice of its other main consultant, future-weapons expert P.W. Singer, Lamia added an important distinction between the North-Singer documentary which had prompted our earlier North coverage and the game-making Lamia and I had just discussed. "That's not a game development piece," Lamia said of the video. "That's an advertising piece."

Top photo: AP Photo/J.Scott Applewhite


Comments

    There is a difference between using someone as a consultant, and using someone for advertising. I've known about the video for awhile, but have only just watched it. Absolutely despicable - I know how pathetic Activision has been the last couple of years, but this is a new low.

    I found it amusing how arrogant those in the documentary were - their sense of superiority oozed out of my screen. They seem to think that the U.S. has the greatest military on the planet - to a degree they are probably right, since they would rather take away funding from healthcare and education than cut their military budget. The thing that really irritates me though, is how they have the nerve to think that when they are invading 3rd world countries to steal their resources.

    Regarding the interview - the Activision Spokesperson sounds like a soulless creep. I hope the fancy house that his black heart paid for burns to the ground.

    I have no idea who this guy is.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrW3K6e8Ju0

      He brokered unsanctioned deals to sell US arms to Iran and then channel the profits to Nicaraguan rebels, with no authorization to do so and no approval or oversight. The only reason he wasn't court-martialed and imprisoned / excecuted as a traitor was that he confessed it to congress.

      There are literally dozens of people in the US who would be perfectly qualified to add 'realism' through their input to US black ops in the 80s, they're picking North entirely because he's a recognizable figure who is on TV in the US and has a certain mystique about him as a result of the fact that he basically committed high treason and got away with it. I personally think having him endorse anything, 'adding realism' or not, is highly unethical, he'll be getting paid a lot of money for his involvement.

      Personally I was pretty interested in the game. I liked Black Ops and the stuff that I've been hearing about it sounds really interesting. But I can't buy a game that North has been involved with in good conscience, and I think there will be a fair number of other people who feel the same, especially in the US.

    The overall story about Oliver North is this.
    While John F Kennedy was president and the Cuban Missile Crisis escalated due to Communist Russia setting up missiles in Cuba which could reach US soil.

    The military adviser General Lemnitzer proposed a False Flag operation to get the people to support a war against Cuba. This plan involved taking passenger planes with explosives and flying them remotely over Cuba then exploding them while over Cuba and blaming Cuba.
    Well John F Kennedy was so against this, he got rid of General Lemnitzer.
    This all came out in the 80's and it was like the Michael Jackson or OJ Simpson trial, it was constantly in the news.

    These False Terror attacks have happened throughout history.
    Nero burned Rome and blamed the Christians
    Hitler burned the Reichstag and blamed the Communists.
    and more recently we had London 777 Bombins, Madrid Bombing and 911.

    This is created to push laws to remove your freedom, to invade countries for oil and power.
    Nothing new.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CU6iTbErhnU
    http://whatreallyhappened.com/WRHARTICLES/northwoods.html

      glad there are other people out there that see the truth, especially with 911

        I think you've gone off on a strange tangent here buddy. What you're talking about is Operation Northwoods which, as far as I'm aware, didn't have anything to do with this Oliver North chap. Also the operation was proposed before the Cuban Missile Crisis and the information was released in the late 90s. Now I'm all for a good ol' conspiracy chat (though I don't think apocryphal claims about 911, etc, have any place on Kotaku - at least not in this article) but I just thought I'd set the facts straight. :)

      Sorry to burst your bubble but....

      Nero wasn't in Rome when it burned, he had nothing to do with it, he just capitalised on it.
      Hitler probably was behind the Reichstag fire, although no definitative proof came out one way or the other (The guy who actually set fire to it was a communist though)
      And those last ones are just pure bullshit and debunked many times.

      Also I like how you say that that's the story about Oliver North, and don't even mention him or the deal he was apart of.

        Oh yeah, also what he said ^ :p

    Congratulations "Activision Spokesperson" on ruining a possibly great interview.

    I would've loved to have heard what Keirsey was about to say. Shame the PR spin machine didn't want to let the interview get political. Cocks.

    Call of Duty...authentic...those words don't go together now.

    Medal of Honor on the other hand.

    Let the series die already! Even the masses of casual gamers are getting sick of how repetitive cod ha become.

    Hardly a 'polarizing figure'. The guy was a war criminal.

      Or a scapegoat. I guess that's what they mean by "polarizing figure".

    Talking of 'false flags'. This entire Affair is all a big marketing exercise. Concocting a media shitstorm around Call of Duty by hiring someone for no other reason than their controversial status in order for a great deal of free press. Why pick Oliver North, if not for the controversy factor, there are hundreds of more appropriate advisors you could hire for what I'm sure would be a fraction of what Activison has paid for the services of Mr North. Activision is performing a classic troll. North was never anything more than troll bait. And judging by the amount of exposure and the volume of passionate responses in this article alone it has certainly worked. Regardless of your opinion on North see this for what it is and DON'T FEED THE TROLLS.

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