Modern Warfare’s regressive politics

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (MW) has the look and mechanics of a modern AAA game from 2019. So why does its politics (or lack thereof) feel like a relic from decades earlier?

MW developer Infinity Ward invites this questioning given how hard they pushed realism as both a selling point and a differentiator from previous Call of Duty games. Its first press event earlier this year had presentations on the game’s authenticity and moral complexity. The official marketing boasts how the game “engulfs fans in an incredibly raw, gritty, provocative narrative.”

Infinity Ward also made the “Clean House” mission from the campaign a centerpiece demo of their preview event. Now having played the campaign, I understand why; the audio and visual design is uncomfortable and tense in a way that stands out from the rest of the campaign, not to mention other first-person shooters. The mission centers on a British SAS team that raids a building housing terrorists at night. You assume the role of one of the SAS agents, bursting through doors and making split-second decisions to “clear” threats with civilians thrown into the mix. Given your usage of night goggles, the mission has an eerie visual palette of stark greens and blacks.

In practice however, the dividing line between friend or foe is simplistic. The enemies you’re tasked to shoot immediately take hostages at gunpoint or start firing assault weapons in your general direction. The good guys don’t, and if you shoot at them, you’re usually forced to retry the mission. In one silly example, an originally “innocent” woman reaches for an AK47 slightly out of arm’s length; one second earlier, you can’t shoot. The next, fire away. The game makes a feigned attempt at ambiguity near the close of the mission where you shoot at somebody diving for an unknown object in the darkness. Sure enough, seconds after she’s dead, closer inspection turns out that she was reaching for a bomb detonator.

MW’s moral bluntness extends beyond “Clean House.” In another mission, you have to plant a bomb on a guarded chopper. The guards are armed, and it’s made clear shooting them in the back is the only practical way to avoid failure. During a hostage rescue, you find one diplomat with a suicide bomb strapped to their chest. An allied officer proceeds to throw the hostage off a ledge so they can blow up without harming others. It’s a shocking action to witness in the moment. However, it’s conveniently in response to a bomb that is seemingly impossible to diffuse (the vest has several padlocks) and goes off in a few seconds (as noted with a smartphone countdown easily readable by the player).

Later on, you take control of a character gasping for air during a waterboarding session. Ethics of turning torture into a mini game aside, it does unquestionably personalize the experience in a way that’s unpleasant. But when it comes to commentary on torture itself, the scene takes place in a fictitious country (“Urzikstan”) under the guise of an over the top, clearly evil rogue offshoot of Russian forces.

What all these “gritty” events have in common is a complete lack of moral ambiguity. There’s some dirty work to do here, MW says, but military action is justified in every instance. Never once during the campaign do allied forces make a severe mistake, nor do they ever take their propensity for violence too far. MW does address bloodshed obliquely with a “collateral damage assessment” grade for civilians or allied forces that die each mission. However, it’s a score that feels like an afterthought, little more than an offhand reference in tiny letters on the campaign mission screen. Interviews with Infinity Ward in early June implied the collateral damage grade changes how characters interact with the player. However, at least in my playthrough, I didn’t discern any meaningful gameplay changes even with several low collateral damage grades.

It’s a bummer because the capacity to show genuine messiness, primarily via the player’s own actions, could be amazingly powerful. Imagine you make a split-second decision during a night raid that ends up killing an innocent bystander. Or an attempt to defuse a dirty bomb that fails. Or a waterboarding attempt by allied forces to extract critical information from a combatant that doesn’t have any. If that’s too risky for Infinity Ward or Activision to handle, there’s a way to offset some of this ambiguity to other allied NPCs. Even an offhand remark to past controversies could deliver an impact. For instance, instead of construing the “Highway of Death” as a fictitious war crime from the Russians, imagine referencing the real life Highway of Death as a cautionary tale for military aggression.

I grant that these ideas sound unrealistic at a glance for MW. Conventional wisdom dictates that blockbuster AAA games are risk-averse to keep sales flowing. But unlike virtually any other AAA game selling today, MW strives for “ripped from the headlines” verisimilitude. It traffics with real guns given slavish attention to detail, mostly real life locations, and call outs to real allied forces. Furthermore, this Call of Duty doubles down on the trappings of “gritty” realism as a marketing bullet point. But the moment MW might make any implied statement towards anything resembling a political stance the game backs away.

Perhaps I shouldn’t expect anything more exceptional from the Call of Duty series. It’s always been the same Bruckenheimer-esque thrill ride under the guise of military realism from the original 2007 MW through to today’s 2019 reboot. Nor is MW alone on embracing an “apolitical” perspective. But other art forms — from music to film and TV — have evolved with the times. Many aren’t afraid to engage in political commentary that may divide audiences but still enjoy critical, mainstream attention. And an increasing number of games, especially from smaller studios (e.g., Disco Elysium, Wolfenstein II, The Outer Worlds) embrace political commentary more openly. If the rest of the media is evolving, it’s time for Call of Duty to grow up as well.