Call of Duty’s message is clear: it (re)writes the thesis of the American Manifest Destiny — the belief that the U.S. is a “sacred space providentially selected” to embark on a “mission” to promote and defend democracy and American values throughout the world (Stephanson 1995). – Frédérick Gagnon
Socrates is a man. Man is mortal. Call of Duty: Blacks Op II is hegemonic. Yes, I’ve just made a claim that has become such a platitude I might as well be spouting the ideological counter-equivalent: “Support our troops.” However, there’s just no avoiding it; COD is the most hegemonic series ever committed to code. I make that assertion with as much justification as the game’s military gives the player for slaughtering everyone who doesn’t blindly follow Amurikan interests. If you don’t agree, then you’re either a 14 year old boy, or part of the Illuminati. The biggest question that Blacks Op II, or Blops II as it’s sometimes lovingly referred to, raised for me is one of success: Why is this out of all our technically impressive killing simulators the most popular? It’s not the best looking. It doesn’t have the best gameplay. It doesn’t have the best story. Obviously, the fast paced, baby bottom smooth 60 fps gunplay is the game’s siren call, but the performative make-believe seems equally important. Call of Duty is the veritable toy soldier fantasy of American boyhood realized through the virtual trappings of modern technology. Ultimately, Black Ops II’s overall appeal stems from the dressing up of questionable actions in the self-righteous military fantasy of America’s dominant ideologies.
Welcome to Africa:
The opening battle (something to do with the Angolan civil and South African Border wars in the 80s) perfectly captures the question that followed my floating gun attached to a camera for pretty much the whole game: Why are we killing these people? This question was always proceeded by a shrug of the shoulders and a “who knows” before returning to shooting indigenous fish-in-a-barrel. After hundreds of evil Marxists run at me in perfect waves of horizontal lines like they didn’t know the machine gun had been invented, the military leader of the rebels that America decided to support that day says something along the lines of, “You killed many people today! Haha, we all did.” The warlord’s response is quite appropriate because in the end that’s all that matters. Video games have been described as a box of problems to be solved. The puzzle here is placing a circle onto a moving object to deplete its predetermined number value to the point of deletion before the same occurs to you. In that sense, each death means one less problem. Hence, the general’s victorious smile and laughter. The goal of games and war aren’t so dissimilar. Winning is the only thing.
The general’s comment would work just as well if not better at the end of the game. The justifications are mostly presented as givens, like they’re Nazi’s that why, but in Blops it’s because terrorists and poor people. Besides some action movie style time and location text, the game never elucidates on what the hell is going. I had to look that up that stuff on the African civil war. Exposition is a risky endeavor when it threatens to, you know, facilitate pacing and understanding. I suppose this can be seen as realistic. Soldiers don’t ask questions. They just follow orders after all. If our tax dollars are putting you in body bags, there’s a perfectly good and moral reason for doing so. This unexamined approach to war fosters an instrumentalization of soldiers as tools for solving problems with guns. We experience this notion in the very playing of the game, just move from A to B and shoot anything that gets in your way. And by anything, I mostly mean people. Although you have to kill people in places and that usually means shooting up the ancient and irreplaceable ruins of a whole society for the good of America, which logically is for the good of everyone. Woods tells us sometime later that “What we did in Nicaragua was an accident. We don’t target civilians.” It’s true we usually don’t, but the death squads that were funded by America throughout the 1980s (a time of much international aid in the form of combat training and weapons) do.
“I wanted to see exotic Vietnam… the crown jewel of Southeast Asia. I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture… and kill them. I wanted to be the first kid on my block to get a confirmed kill!” – Private Joker from Full Metal Jacket
Male Adolescent Power Fantasies:
As I slogged through the greatest evils to Freedom that man has ever known, I couldn’t stop wondering how many young males join the military because COD and company cultivate the belief that they’re great soldiers. Popular fascination with the military hero can be attributed to the story that has been told so many times it wears a ghillie suit made of truth. Gagnon describes this story as the way in which COD promotes militarism through the “myth that state violence and the wars waged by the U.S. abroad are unavoidable.” Blops shows that war and state violence are not only unavoidable, but completely necessary and righteous. This makes killing in war (if you’re the good guys of course) the most justified of murders. Firing bullets into virtual brains couldn’t be made more satisfying. The player is participating in a process of civil service as necessary and integral to the functioning of society as delivering the mail. It also doesn’t hurt that soldier status comes with an express elevator to the top of the hero pedestal.
To endow the player with this heroic persona, the game must disseminate the ideological framework of what a young boy understands of American international policy; i.e. America is good, anyone who threatens that is bad. To their credit, Treyarch does complicate my slight oversimplification of the game’s political dynamics. However, playing through David Mason’s arc makes it quite clear that America may have bits of corruption, but in the end none of those questionable acts matter. Woods comments on the state of war in 2025, saying that it isn’t about ideology but about resources. Woods make the erroneous assumption that economics and ideology are always mutually exclusive.
The threat to America in 2025 begins with the villainous Menendez crippling the Chinese Stock Exchange, forcing our military out of its integral materials, “rare earth elements.” So America, who has to protect Freedom and stuff because some fortune 500 companies can’t continue to make billion dollar profits (sound familiar?) falls into a state of cold war. You can’t really say it’s a problem of strictly resources when the equipment reliant on “rare earth elements” is already manufactured and held in huge surplus. This need to escalate to the threat-of-war is inherently bound to capitalist ideologies. You can imagine that the embargo of the materials needed not only for the military industrial complex, but also cellphones and the like would throw the white collars into panic. Blops doesn’t want to or need to get into the social inner workings of its global tensions because that overly complicates who the true hero is, if there’s even one at all. Everyone is vying for power, all with the sincerity of an ex-oil magnate running for office in Texas. For the player, the question of who is right in their desires is undoubtedly a given. Playing Mason, the representative of honest American ideals (however complacent in the wrong doings of the state) is heroic and just.
Ironically (and it’s uncertain with how much self-awareness on Treyarch’s part), Menendez’s personal crusade seems the most rooted in justice. Shit, he even quotes one of the greatest minds of all time: “Einstein once said the economic anarchy of capitalism is the real source of evil.”
Menendez is using the global class tensions to his advantage mostly because American business left his sister horrifically burned. Hey, what would you do if someone lit your sister on fire? Menendez is citing “Why Socialism?” in which Einstein goes onto say that “The result of [the means of production being owned by individuals] is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society.” This power can be seen in the very motivations that produce the Cold War of 2025, a war to secure profits. Realistically, threat-of-war isn’t the only solution, but it is the easiest solution. Of course, there wouldn’t be a game without the movement towards war, but Blops II’s love affair with dominant ideologies doesn’t allow for even the mention of such possibilities. America could have had a billion person army if they spent less time worrying about how to secure spending trillions of dollars on state-of-the-art weaponry, and instead use those trillions of dollars airlifting care packages to needy countries.
In actuality, there’s not much difference between the American military and Menendez’s justifications. The call to war is predicated on selfishness veiled under the red herring of noble ideals. Some soldier says that Menendez has 2 billion followers and that they’ll “never believe their leader is a terrorist.” I’m sure the people of some far away land feel the same way about drone attacks.
“Given the linear gameplay of MW and MW2, the player is never allowed to adopt a different course of action than the one imposed by the creators and the fixed sequence of challenges they imagined.” – Gagnon
If fallacious politics and promoting global hegemony isn’t disconcerting for you, then maybe the fact that the game thinks you’re dumb will rile up your hammer and sickle. Blops II has way too many objective markers. The game doesn’t trust you, nor does it trust in its own level design. Exploration in this game usually means wait for a secondary objective marker to pop up and tell you to go there for extra gear. I suppose it’s silly to explore in the middle of a battlefield, but the sentiment is apparent. Gagnon’s analysis comments on the nature of linear games in general, but if we consider this linearity from the perspective of Bogostian “procedural rhetoric,” even the level design reinforces the notion that war is the only answer. This reading is afforded through the military fatigues that the game wears, coupling narrative ideology to all other game and aesthetic decisions.
Some of the most interesting and potentially innovative mechanics are thrown away like COD throws away soldiers. The wing suit, the climbing gloves/fulcrum toss, and the grapple all could have pushed the game in completely new directions. But alas those mechanics are expendable, an appropriate move for a game that promotes the idea that the ends justify the means.
There’s a moral choice systems, but it doesn’t do the game any favors as far as escaping being deemed playable hegemony. Exhibit A: Farid is an undercover agent assigned with infiltrating Menendez’s inner-circle. Farid is ordered to remain undercover no matter what happens. Naturally, it does happen. Farid/player is forced into position where he has the option to shoot Menendez or shoot his fellow solider, Harper. Blops II’s intention is to make you feel bad and conflicted about this, yet they seem to conveniently forget the moments leading up to this decision. Besides Harper being mostly an unlikable, Tapout wearing stereotypical bigot, there’s the fact that Farid/player has just killed dozens of American soldiers for the greater good. Not that the game gives you much of an option, as it seems near impossible to run through that area without killing a few American soldiers, which is part of the point. In the end, you and Farid have followed orders. What’s one more body for the sake of the country? A similar contradiction occurred early on in the game, when Hudson and the player open up a container full of decomposing human bodies. It’s meant to be horrific, but just as many fresh bodies if not more lay out on the boat. Bodies I placed there.
Bonus Round (representation):
In Blops II, we primarily take on the role of a generic straight white male. David Mason is the name and he is forcefully made interesting through some repressed traumatic memory attributed to resident Brown threat, Menendez. Even with dialogue, Mason is less enthralling than most silent protagonists of AAA games. He has to be in order to function as empty a container as possible for the player to fill up with projections of himself. Menendez is given the modern morality treatment of villains, in which enough redeeming qualities are present that you almost feel for him. When Menendez’s sister becomes human kindling you get to play some borderline offensive FPS representation of the hot tempered stereotype attributed to Latino males. You literally chop heads off with a machete, a weapon full of third world connotations, as Menendez’s unrestricted passions over take him.
But the latent racism doesn’t end there. The only Latino (and person of color) in the main squad, Salazar, turns out to be a traitor. Come on, Treyarch. You seriously have developed a game that has blatant racial tensions and leave us with the message that only white people are capable of preserving the social order. In actuality, it isn’t racism per se, as I’m sure Activision has made Treyarch well aware of the Latino presence on their multiplayer servers. What is occurring is a complete ignorance of racial representation, and the fact that how you portray people of different ethnicities, sexes, etc., actually has deep social implications.
Adding to the hegemonic stew is the fact that the technologically advance American military in Blops II spends the majority of its time in combating the poor and disenfranchised. Half the time I kept asking why the hell didn’t we just send drones or one of those crawling camouflaged refrigerators to do the job. Isn’t that what the whole conflict is about anyway, to keep manufacturing incredibly high-tech military equipment, so we don’t have to send actual men to die? These fights are just unfair. The enemies are using weaponry produced in the 1950s while we deploy remote controlled quadrotor machine guns that look like they’re made by Sharper Image. This is what it must have felt like for the Americans to fight the Native Americans.
I actually (somewhat surprisingly) quite enjoy the multiplayer. At its best, the tweaker pace creates a sort of meditative high interspersed with bumps of ego boost and dopamine as you triumph over another human being in a game of skill. But there’s also Gagnon’s analysis: “In short, Call of Duty trivializes violence and invites players to cherish and fetishize weapons by applying a simple equation: killing people = unlocking deadlier/“sexier” weapons = killing more people.” It seems to be in the nature of games to “trivialize and fetishize” whatever its subject (a challenge of any artistic representation), as games most popular and profitable purpose are to delight and entertain. The concern is never the cultural implications of the message, but the affective implication for the consumer. Treyarch’s number one duty is to entertain, a compliment to Activision’s number one of duty of Q4 profits.
Blops II , and like any fiction the ending concludes the thematic argument that’s being made. Since Blops II allows for a variety of finales, it’s apt for us to consider the “best” ending as representative of the game’s ultimate ideology. The conditions necessary for a happy ending are based on making decisions that coincide with the game’s ideological consciousness, determining what’s “good” or “bad.” The “best” ending is predicated on sparing Menendez, completing optional missions which save a hacker, and retraining yourself after shooting thousands of NPCs in the head to shoot someone in the leg. These choices fall in line with notions of patriotism, the “good,” following orders, honor, and a soldier’s sense of duty. In other words, Black Ops ties its bow with the buzzwords of a recruiting pamphlet. The game leaves us with propaganda like commentary on war. It continually undermines its own attempts at presenting the horrors of armed conflict, primarily glorifying and fetishizing militarism. This isn’t necessarily advocating a demonization of the military machine, but promoting a balanced perspective. After all, war isn’t a Michael Bay film. It would be nice to see future CODs at least use the term PTSD once, a much more real threat to our soldiers than some harebrained ploy to create a world uprising against America. Undoubtedly, Treyarch is simply trying to make a fun game. And they for the most part do. Treyarch, or Infinity Ward for that matter, are not developing blatant propaganda, but are participants in the larger exchange of the buying and selling of an American military mythos popularly perceived as truth.