The Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 controversy: a reality check

The latest media furore about videogames has centred on Modern Warfare 2. But can we not just get a grip?

In common with virtually all of those railing against Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in the news at the moment, I haven’t played the apparently offending section of the game that’s causing such controversy. I haven’t even seen the leaked, out of context YouTube footage that’s doing the rounds, because I believe if you take anything of that ilk out of said context, then your thinking and reaction to it becomes instantly skewed. But unlike many of those critics, I’m actually going to level with you and admit this up front, rather than react to said clip, or to what a tabloid newspaper tells me to think about it, or what some rentaquote MP has to say.

So then. Isn’t it about time some people got a grip?

This morning, I’ve awoken to a radio station telling me all about this game where you play a terrorist shooting down innocent civilians. It took me a matter of minutes to confirm that the truth of that statement is that you play an undercover agent who has infiltrated said terrorists, and is looking to bring them down. But that doesn’t make for as good a headline, and it doesn’t allow you to drag in a variety of talking heads to condemn this no-doubt “sick” game. Nor does it seem to bother some of those ranting on that the footage concerned, that most seem to be basing their views on, was leaked last week.

Here’s a flavour of some of the other reaction over the last day or two:

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“Outrage as new video game lets players kill civilians in terror attacks”

“Modern Warfare 2 accused of promoting terrorism”

“New game lets players massacre civilians”

Shall we all just play Tetris, then? Or can we accept that there is a market for grown-up videogames, that are labelled with an 18 certificate, that challenge us in terms of their storytelling, their visuals and their drive? Are we allowed that? Without coming up with hysterical and, at times, nonsensical headlines?

Seriously: you can open up a book and read such a story. You can sit through episodes of 24 and watch TV dramas that cover similar ground. You can do the same with movies. But when a videogame dares to do it? A videogame? The shutters are down in double quick time.

Because videogames aren’t allowed, according to many in the mass media, to confront such issues, or introduce challenging storytelling of this ilk. That’s not how the world should be. Videogames should have stayed back in the days when we used to guide a yellow blob around mazes to eat up tablets. After all, because videogames are more interactive than being sat on the sofa and watching reality TV for hours at a time, that’s going to wave some sort of magic wand, break down our defences and convert us all overnight into terrorists.

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That’s what games do, don’t they? Heck, if we were to believe every tabloid tale of the influence of videogames, we’d all be out every night beating innocent bystanders to shit.

But let’s have a reality check. The vast majority of us who play games just want to play games. And surely it’s right and proper that games do explore differing narratives, do touch on complex subjects, and do go into ground that may not be comfortable. Every other form of media does that, and rightly so. That shouldn’t be a blank canvas to deliberately go out and make deliberately vile and unpleasant games, but that’s never been what the actually really respectful Call Of Duty franchise has been about.

If there was any hint that the team working at Infinity Ward, whose World War II games I always thought got across far more the horrors of war than playing Commando in the 1980s, were glamourising terrorism through the game, I’d happily stand in line to condemn them myself. It’s a deathly serious subject, and one that doesn’t deserve trivialising. Yet, as another gaming witch hunt kicks into gear, once more we find ourselves in a world condemning something for trying to be realistic in its depiction of real events. After all, isn’t it right in a game that when a bullet flies, it should have an impact, and that impact should be put across with definite visuals and – crucially – realistic sound? If we’re to be morally responsible about such things, then surely showing the real world impact of a bullet, for example, is a good thing? That’s not glamourising. That’s just showing people facts.

Yet facts are scary things. And with Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 the fact is that the game does confront an issue. It does tell a story about fighting terrorism, that also accepts that the very fight that many soldiers across the world are bravely battling for is not black and white. It’s not a case of knocking on the door, shooting, and walking away job done. Modern Warfare 2’s narrative, whether you like that or not, addresses this. Reality isn’t nice. You could argue even that Activision has even copped out by allowing the controversial segment of the game to be skippable.

Sadly, once this particular witch-hunt has died down, it’s just a matter of time until the next game comes along to move into the crosshairs on an increasingly hysterical tabloid media. In the case of Modern Warfare 2, most people with brain cells running into the plural accept that, just because there’s a segment such as the one described in the game, it’s not going to get people signing up for terrorism, nor is it going to desensitise people to genuine real world horrors and atrocities. Is it making entertainment out of terrorism? Or is it confronting and presenting an issue? The answer may well be all of the above to an extent, but I can’t call that, as I’ve not played that segment of the game. I do, however, believe that it is a duty of entertainment media to deal with real life issues, however frightened that might make people who have 1000 words to write before their copy deadline hits.

And finally, as for the nonsense that children will be playing this game, and isn’t that terrible? Well, yes it is. But then – what’s that on the box? In the UK, there’s a certificate that clearly states that the game is for 18-year-olds. It’s hardly Activision’s fault if bad parents let 12-year-old kids near the game, is it? But then, once more, it’s far easier to pin that on the game makers than it is to deal with a genuine, underlying real world issue.

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You could argue that that’s a bit of an underlying theme here…

Get Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 from just £32 at the Den of Geek/Amazon Store: