Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Modern Warfare is a Comforting Lie

Robert Rath | 27 Jun 2013 12:00
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Modern Warfare is the most disingenuous title in gaming. Coming from a franchise based on historical events and constantly striving to create a world of photorealistic detail, it implicitly argues that the franchise is a reflection of current conflicts. It's not. Neither is Battlefield. Neither was Medal of Honor, though that franchise has packed its luggage and called a cab. All these games about modern conflict present a fantasy version of the War on Terror that's easier to swallow than the reality - and there's a danger these depictions may shape how we perceive the real wars going on right now.

Let me ask you a question: how many times in military shooters have you been hit by an IED? Probably not many. Getting blown up by hidden explosives while driving down the road isn't a "fun" form of warfare like a firefight or picking targets from a gunship, so it gets cut out of most games. Games might tout their realism - their partnership with military personnel, detailed firearms and missions in "real" locations - but they ignore IEDs because they don't make for good gameplay and ruin the player's sense of empowerment. Even in cutscenes where an explosion throws the player from a vehicle, an RPG is generally the culprit. Looks better visually. Strikes players as more "fair." And yet, IEDs are one of the most prominent hallmarks of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a symptom of videogames continuing to appropriate the War on Terror for games while simultaneously excising many of the negative aspects of the conflict. Apart from Spec Ops: The Line, the genre rarely requires the player to differentiate between soldiers and civilians, or face the collateral damage their operation creates, or the toll repeated trauma can take on members of the military. Neither do most games have you work with the local population or security forces in any meaningful capacity. In doing so they've created a mirror world where foreign cities are ghost towns filled with the enemy, military force is always justified and soldiers are little more than hard-bitten stereotypes (in reality, many enter the military as a form of public service, and are interested in rebuilding a country as much as destroying it). There's nothing inherently wrong with a few games like this - I like action-packed war games as much as the next player - but the problem is that this describes nearly all games in the genre. Instead of exploring and teaching players about what's really going on, games have opted to borrow the imagery while ignoring the substance. It's gone past trope and entered the realm of societal self-delusion.

Because we're unwilling to face up to the consequences of our real conflicts, we're creating fake ones. The Modern Warfare series, despite its name, is actually a near-future conflict series - 2007's Call of Duty 4 was set in the then-distant year of 2011, and its sequels take place in 2016 and 2017. Instead of using this conceit as a way to examine the current war, though, developers make games that simply reinforce our prejudices. Most games still deal with terrorism and the fear of terrorism, but switch the opponents to an enemy more "matched" to the U.S. technologically. Modern Warfare tends to favor future wars with Russian ultranationalists that use Middle Easterners as pawns. Battlefield 3 went with rogue Russian special operators partnering with a fictional Iranian insurgent group. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier picked rogue Russian commandos as well.

Look, U.S.-Russian relations have been on the rocks recently. They don't like the idea of us building a missile shield in Europe, we're nervous about their nuclear stockpile, Putin's not giving Snowden back and both of us want to be the one calling the shots in Eastern Europe; but there's a major difference between a policy rival and an enemy nation. Russia has a lot of problems including clandestine authoritarianism and a penchant for backing nasty leaders like the Kim regime and Bashar al-Assad in order to oppose U.S. interests, but that isn't the whole of the Russian-American relationship. Yes, we spy on each other and occasionally take provocative military actions, but we also work with Russia all the time on issues like nuclear security and even hold joint military exercises. This is similar to our relationship with China (minus the joint exercises) but let's be honest, China is too big a market for games to alienate. As a result, we're creating an incorrect impression that Russia is our enemy and that some future conflict with them is inevitable - that's just not true, and it's dangerous to keep hammering that idea into the public consciousness. Could we fight a war with Russia in ten to twenty years? Sure we could, but it's hardly a foregone conclusion.

Another problem is that we're solely focused on the Western experience of modern conflict. Americans and Europeans aren't the sole force fighting against terrorism, and most often we're not even on the front line. If Activision had any courage, Modern Warfare 4 would be about Syrian rebels fighting and dying while waiting for empty promises of Western aid. That's modern warfare. The Arab Spring and various uprisings in the Middle East - some secular democratic, some Islamist, and many a mixture - are as much a part of the modern story of the War on Terror as Special Forces raids and drones. Where are those stories? Games love to invent narratives like Modern Warfare 2 and Homefront where America spontaneously becomes the underdog, but they're loath to take on conflicts that are actually being fought against overwhelming tyranny. Whether through fear of controversy or the sales consequences of making a war game with a nonwhite, non-American protagonist, we're missing out on what could be an interesting shift in perspective.

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