For those who play computer games the furore over the latest Call of Duty title is an all too predictable and depressingly familiar controversy. At least once every year a politician – normally one who has never picked up an Xbox controller in their life – howls with outrage and righteous indignation at the latest software release to have upset the moral brigade. This year it is the turn of Call of Duty – Modern Warfare 2 to get a public pummelling from Keith Vaz.
The game has only been available to the public since 12.01 this morning but that didn’t stop Mr Vaz earlier this week storming about how “absolutely shocked” he was by the violence in the game. That tens of equally violent games have been released this year without a peep from Mr Vaz was immaterial. (Equally I didn’t hear Mr Vaz getting worked up about Quentin Tarantino’s latest blood soaked creation Inglorious Basterds – but then banging on about violence in films is so last decade).
Modern Warfare 2 is the most anticipated release of the year, with 2.8million pre-orders in the US alone and the UK’s first West End premier for a computer game. It is almost certainly going to outperform any cinema release over the next month in sales. If you want to grab the headlines, this is release to have a pop at.
So what is everyone getting so upset about? During the third level of the game you play an undercover CIA agent who has infiltrated a group of fictional Russian ultra-nationalist terrorists. They take over an airport in Moscow and begin gunning down civilians. As an undercover agent you can either join their massacre or wait it out. Either way, later in the game, you will have to break your cover and fight the bad guys. Just like in Hollywood films (and unlike real life), games where the bad guys win are almost unheard of.
The Call of Duty franchise has always been about war so it is unavoidably violent because war is violent. In previous incarnations, gamers have stormed the beaches of Normandy, battled on the black sands of Iwo Jima, led helicopter assaults on anonymous Middle Eastern cities and desperately fought off the German Sixth Army in the hellish surroundings of Stalingrad.
War is war and men (it usually tends to me men) simply love playing war games on their computers as much as they did with their friends in school or with their mates on a paintball field.
But until now one mainstay of war has been noticeably missing from the Call of Duty franchise and that is civilians. Civilian casualties are almost always higher than military and yet computer game developers have tended to shy away from including them, in the same way our politicians are always keen to play down the sad fact that civilians die in their wars (we still don’t “do” civilian body counts in Iraq or Afghanistan, remember).
This game also brings in the exciting, terrifying and merciless element of 21st century terrorism – that in this day and age political groups will mercilessly kill civilians for their own political ends. Critics might argue that gunning down civilians in an airport is needlessly wanton. I would argue the developers have contemporised their creation to make it reflect the nature of so-called modern day asymmetric warfare. Once you’ve watched the nationalists do their work, believe me, you’ll be pretty much aching to bring them down in later levels.
But the most important element of this game is that you, the player, can chose whether you want to take part in the massacre. Recognising that the level would be controversial the game’s developers allow squeamish or easily offended players to opt out of playing it. The BBFC has also put an 18 rating on the game so technically kids shouldn’t get their hand on a copy although, as we all know, they inevitably will. But that’s not the fault of the gaming industry. That is the Government’s remit.
Critics of the gaming industry often have an incredibly uniformed opinion of just how creative and complex the industry is. They tend to see it as run by a bunch of spotty software developers revelling in the creation of more and more violent games. But if anything games are getting much more morally complex, forcing players to think about their actions and their consequences – the Fable series is probably the most developed of this genre.
If anything the Call of Duty franchise is also increasingly forcing players to look at the role of a soldier as something that is deeply morally ambiguous.
The last Call of Duty release, World at War, was based in the Second World War and part of it followed a Russian soldier as he desperately tried to stave off the Nazi invasion of Russia and the siege of Stalingrad.
A few levels later the tide has turned and it is you, the Russian soldier, who marches triumphantly towards Germany with Berlin in your sites. As the levels progress the Russian units become increasingly bloodthirsty and morally corrupt.
Throughout one level you see Russian conscripts act with increasing brutality and at one point you are ordered by your commanding officer to gun down some German soldiers that have been taken prisoner.
Once again, as a player, it is your choice as to whether you take that decision (if you refuse, your colleagues will gun them down anyway and then tell you that you are a coward for not doing so). When I played these levels I found those moments very powerful. The computer game was reminding me of historical fact - that the Red Army' (our allies) were often shockingly brutal as they marched into Germany and that there often little that is victorious in victory.