As I’ve said before, I worked in a middle school last year and I always amused the kids when I mentioned that I played video games. They would always do a bit of a double-take, not quite believing until I gave them details, and then they would demand to know my high score was and all sorts of other details. Anyway, there were two games (beyond Pokémon, which is in another category altogether) that seemed the most popular — Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. A few kids broke away from the herd and would play more obscure gamess, but GTA and Call of Duty (Black Ops and Modern Warfare) were the common experiences. Grand Theft Auto’s probably a topic for another day, but I want to talk a little about Call of Duty and some of the problems I have with it — especially when young players enjoy it.
Now, Call of Duty has a sort of twofold bad reputation. A lot of gamers dislike it because it’s extremely popular and yet has extremely bland, uninteresting gameplay based more on spectacle than fun and that the multiplayer is based more on luck than skill or strategy. But it’s also taken a lot of flack by people who hate its story — pointing out that it’s jingoistic, militaristic, stupid and silly. From what I’ve seen, both critiques have a lot of merit. The multiplayer features lots of fancy high-tech weapons that are all interchangeable and kill everybody in two seconds (the zombies mode is fun at least). The story, with Russia/some Nicaraguan guy invading America also seems stupid. The Call of Duty games are being derided as games for kids, because of their simplistic play style and silly stories and my time at Rosa Parks has shown me that there is some truth to that.
That leads to another claim — one often repeated by moralists and social critics. “These video games corrupting our youth!” I don’t want to make that claim, because it’s awful and dumb — but I will make another claim. There is an effect of the atmosphere conjured up by Call of Duty on my students and it’s not, in my opinion, a good one. Here’s what I mean: one of the activities we had a while ago was a choose-your-own career and research it kind of thing. It was a dumb assignment (most middle schoolers have no idea what they want to do — I certainly didn’t) but a lot of the boys chose the military. I talked to one kid, an avid Call of Duty player, about why he wanted to be a Marine sniper and if he thought about the consequences of taking a rifle and putting bullets into other people. He explained to me that he would be killing ‘bad guys,’ so it was okay. If you’re at all like me, you’ll find that more than a little disheartening.
So is Call of Duty to blame for that? The Red Cross, after all, speculated about whether or not Call of Duty was harmful by showing war crimes without the war criminals facing consequences — and there is that moralists’ theory that “those darn video games are corrupting our youth!” Personally, I think there are far greater forces than Call of Duty to blame for my student’s attitude. My school is in a poor area, with 100% free and reduced lunch. It’s students are mostly minorities — and because of their poverty and race, they’re more likely than rich, white folks to serve in the military. In fact, a lot of my students did have older brothers or cousins serving in the military, so it was a familiar and natural career for them. And Call of Duty? It adds to that atmosphere. I doubt any kid would be dumb enough to think that it’s a realistic portrayal of a battlefield, but Call of Duty still familiarizes its players with modern weapons and conflicts. And it does all that in a virtual world where violence does not have consequences.
See, I don’t know if Call of Duty glorifies war or not but –with bloodless combat and its cool explosions — it removes the negative emotions, the revulsion, the guilt, the confusion and the fear, that accompany combat. It leads to situations where you have students being experts on the different kinds of guns, but have no idea of the horrifying things those weapons can do to a human body.
This isn’t the case for all video games. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Spec Ops: The Line, which I played recently. Spec Ops subverts the ‘consequence-free war’ of Call of Duty. It’s characters, sent into a sandstorm -blasted Dubai after a missing group of soldiers in a reenactment of Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now, find their consciences, sanity and souls rebelling against what they do. At one point (spoilers incoming, by the way), you use thermite charges (some horrific kind of super-Napalm) and see what you think is enemy clusters of troops. You drop the thermite and then head down to find out that you just roasted a bunch of civilians and you have to walk past their charred corpses and let the guilt seep in. The characters (and you the player) try and rationalize it, but in the end, they can’t and they still have to keep going. The game’s climax, which offers you a chance to finally stop fighting or to go seeking death, is a cold condemnation of war’s effects. There’s even a part where the enemy taunts you for enjoying war like it was a video game. All in all, it is a very effective and harrowing piece of work — and its everything Call of Duty is not.
Would playing Spec Ops change the viewpoints of some of my students? I don’t know. But I remember playing the first Call of Duty when I was in middle school and how the part that sticks with me to this day is the opening of the Stalingrad level (shamelessly stolen from Enemy of the Gates). You’re a conscript arriving in a bombed out city and there’s not enough rifles to go around, so you get a clip of ammunition and are told to find a rifle from a dead comrade. Then the commissars tell you to charge the Nazi ranks and, in case you were thinking of not rushing in for potential suicide, they start shooting at you as well. The feelings that are summoned from this level? Sheer terror and marked revulsion to the bureaucratic nonsense accompanying slaughter in a modern conflict.
The original Call of Duty is based in the apocalyptic horror of WWII, of course, but I’m sure that recent conflicts offer plenty of chances for similar experiences which modern Call of Duty games, like Spec Ops: The Line, could play with. The next Call of Duty installment, Call of Duty: Ghosts, seems to feature a more somber tone, along with a furry dog companion, so maybe it’s a change in the right direction. In the meantime, I’ll urge students to play Team Fortress 2 instead. I’m pretty sure that none of them will try rocket-jumping.