Modern Warfare 2 Breaks Unspoken Rule of Game Gore: Just Have Fun

Critics are furious over the violence of "Modern Warfare 2"—and one scene is causing all the problems.

Call of Duty

Yesterday saw the release of one of the most hotly anticipated video games in recent memory, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It's already been called an instant classic. And its extreme levels of violence in game are touching off controversy. Even gamers themselves are expressing dismay, saying the game borders "on snuff."

One scene in particular is causing the trouble: The game places you in the role of a terrorist, mowing down civilian bystanders. The set-up is that you're trying to infiltrate a band of Russian terrorists. To gain their trust, you've got to go on a killing spree at their leader's bidding. As your virtual commanding officer declares, "You don't know what it's already cost to put you next to him. It will cost you a piece of yourself. It'll cost nothing compared to everything you'll save." Destructoid has the video (WARNING):

Infinity Ward, the game-maker, is positioning this as a rich moral quandary, a conundrum perfectly suited to war-on-terror era about the ends justifying the means—in the context of the game, it's a question of whether extreme violence serves the main character's mission and the story as a whole. Causing mayhem on the unwitting is a staple of video games—just witness the Grand Theft Auto franchise. But there are some salient differences here.

As Destructoid points out, GTA is a full-on cartoon world, where the escapism from real life is an explicit part of the game. Part of the game's pleasure is knowing the rules but being able to break them in a fantasy land—in a perverse way that reinforces actual societal mores.

But Modern Warfare 2 is meant to come closer than any game has before to the real experience of war. One thing that stands out in MoWa2 are the characters' movements in the heat of battle—they're not just humanlike but militaristic, seemingly motion-captured rather than animated. And while all warfare games reward you for killing enemies—making gore fun and guilt-free—this one breaks that unspoken boundary, by making killing fraught with emotional conflict.

I'm all for ethical complexity in gaming; I don't have a grudge against video-game violence. But I don't buy Infinity Ward's stance. Several things undercut what they're claiming: For one, the mission ends when you're killed by the terrorists, who aren't fooled by your undercover ruse, even after you help them slaughter innocent travelers. The implication is: There wasn't really any point to getting worked up. Killing a few to save the many wouldn't have worked anyway, so don't worry about it. That was just an interesting detour. More ammo for critics who'd argue that the ultraviolence is egregious: MoWa2's makers let you skip the airport level, warning: "The following mission may be disturbing or offensive to some players. You may skip this mission at any time in the pause menu. [You will not be penalized in terms of Achievements or game completion.]"

And that totally nullifies the moral quandary: You don't see ripple effects from choosing to participate in the scene or not. It's neatly contained, and the repercussions are set. As a level that you can skip, supposedly due to its extreme violence, it becomes an irresistible marketing tool. (My prediction: Future copies won't have the scene including, touching off another round of publicity and eBay auctions for the "uncut" version.)

Finally, what really makes Modern Warfare 2 is slow, steady accumulation of blood and guts. Here, for example, is a scene where the person sitting next to you gets his brains spread across a car dashboard:

Some say video games are simply replicating what Hollywood does all the time. But a movie last two hours, while you might play a game for hundreds. And you're the main character. The finger you'd use to pluck buttery popcorn from a bucket is literally on the trigger. Infinity Ward is already saying that video games haven't been proven to cause violence. Still, game designers are now using original war reporting in their work. The lines between virtual and real are fading quick. The eternal question is, Won't those lines disappear altogether, at least for some?

Activision did deftly handle one other potential spark of controversy: the game's release date, just a day before Veteran's Day. The company's Call of Duty Endowment (CODE) is donating $1 million to help veterans find employment, with the first donation of $125,000 going to the Paralyzed Veterans of America to help open a vocational rehabilitation center.

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  • Mario Sal

    I love playing first person shooter games because I get to use the models of my favorite airsoft guns.  Not the same as the real thing, but just as good on a rainy day, or 3 in the morning when the neighbors are asleep.  I go to this link because I can find airsoft copies of the guns from my favorite games:

  • vic ral

    I respect honest comments and from someone who has seen it real and personal is more moving. However it does not take away from the visual and coordination skills necessary to play this game. I liked both scenarios. For those who do not know the slums of South America make South Central LA look like Disneyland. There are vicious people in the world. What was there to learn? Plenty! When such things occur play dead! That gives you a chance to survive. AS far as PTSD. We have known for decades the kind of make up that can come out of this ok and who cannot. Those who are least effected are not such "nice" people. In a political action they are a liability.
    But this is a game you walk away after playing.

  • Kenn Klick

    My concern is as follows:
    We have service men and women returning from war zones with PTSD that takes years of counseling and coping in order to function again in today's society. We just had an incident at Fort Hood involving a psychiatrist that was there to help them turn on them. We have people exposing themselves to experiences that they would not have unless they were in the military within a warzone who then turn off the game and go on with daily life and no one is the wiser. They have no mental health support to measure they stress or impact of this images and experiences. Everyone handles stress and copes in their own way.

    The point is that the individual at risk in the military has support and even then things go wrong. What about the upset worker who after playing this game begins to believe in the viability of his virtual actions as a solution to his real life problems?

    The reason for my concern is this:

    Olympic hopefuls to everyday people use visualization techniques before their competitions or daily challenges to enhance their performance to accomplish their goals. What is there to say about a immersible game (that's repeatable) who's only difference is between sitting and pushing buttons to running and pulling triggers? Studies of runners visualizing competing from the blocks to the finish line had the exact same brain activity sitting and visualizing it as when they were actually running the race.

    I'm not about denying anyone's expression or experience. I like the ancient idea of the world as a theater for the soul to have the opportunity to take on the full experience this world has to offer. The Greeks created the theater as an emotional calisthenics to balance they're physical exercise; to live a life and experience something you wouldn't and learn from it. What is there to learn from this?

  • Tom F

    Also, it should be noted that I don't support this level (Forgot to mention that in the last post). I don't even own the game, nor do I intend to.

  • Tom F

    This is stupid, alot of you want to go on about how Violence is changing our society in a bad way and that game companies should be prevented from making violent games? I say you are taking us in the wrong direction pushing blame on to a company, why don't parents do their jobs?

    Parents need to start doing their jobs, and teaching their kids what they need to know. I play violent video games (Fallout 3/Borderlands/CoD4/GTA IV...etc) and I have no thoughts of doing violence.

    @Greg Steggerda: I thank you for being in the service, and respect you for it. However, saying that a game like this is appealing to the "lowest denominator" is just false. People who play games JUST for the gore, sure. I don't play games for the Gore, I play games because I either like to mod them, like the storyline, or like the Co-Op play with friends. A lot of people do the same.

    @Hazel Wagner: Stupid idea. The "Oh the game influenced me to think like that" is false, and it's just a scapegoat. The problem isn't violent video games, it's people playing them who shouldn't be playing them (Due to a mental handicap or they aren't mature enough). Again, parents need to start doing their jobs.

  • G Irish

    I disagree with letting GTA off the hook because it's cartoon-ish violence. In GTA killing innocent bystanders is part and parcel of the game. Players even get money for killing innocents. Players can use prostitutes and kill them to recover their money. I think GTA is a lot more cavalier about violence than anything in the COD series.

    As for the scene in MW2, I think the point is that it is an uncomfortable scene and the consequence of it is that it starts World War III. The idea actually reminds me a bit of "false flag" operations that have occurred a couple of times in military history where some group stages a terrorist attack against their own country in order to provide the rationale for a war. The CIA had engineered such a plot to start a war in the 60's against Cuba.

    I think the violence in our culture in general could stand to be toned down but I think it's unfair to focus only on videogames while giving TV and movies a free pass. If we want to really look at violence in popular culture all media have to be considered.

    That said, I think it would be absurd to blame (or hold responsible) any movie company or game developer for violence. At the end of the day each person is responsible for their actions, violent game or not. In the case of children, parents are responsible for teaching them right from wrong not entertainment.

  • Meredith Obendorfer

    Blah, blah, blah. There is no ethical subtly to this game. The fact remains that video game characters don't have mothers, they don't have friends, they don't have people whose lives would be inextricably changed forever if they were killed. And yet, we continue to allow the line between fantasy and reality to become more and more blurred... until we find we're trying a 15 year-old as an adult for killing someone who looked at him the wrong because he didn't understand that yes, when you pull a trigger, someone's life could end, despite all the "not for children" warnings (you think similar warnings on cigarette packs stop teenagers from smoking?...uh, no).

    And yet, it AMAZES me that yes, Hollywood shows this kind of violence, but yet America throws a FIT if we see Janet Jackson's boob on TV or some other sexual content portrayed. Kind of absurd to think of creating a video game and putting it on the mass market with the same kind of sexual content that Modern Warfare has violent content.

    It's clear now, we've created a society of, well, violent prudes...thinking of our settlers, I'd say we haven't evolved at all in the last 200 some odd years.

    Oh, and that bit about donating $1 million to CODE... hats off for this act, but I can't help but draw the parallel that it's just like a cigarette company donating to the American Cancer Society.

  • Hazel Wagner

    Game companies with violent themes ought to be tried along with anyone who mimics something they see and causes destruction, death, or injury, or even attempts it. That might make them think twice before putting out these violent games.

  • Greg Steggerda

    Sorry, IW, I'm not buying it, and I'm not buying most of these posts either. I used to play a lot of shooters -- the entire Medal of Honor series, Call of Duty 1 and 2, but gave them up when they went beyond reality. I also proudly wore the uniform of the US Army for 25 years. First point: so called "realistic" movie and game violence isn't. More blood leaks than splatters, and the amount of force needed to splatter is hard to generate. When people get shot with conventional arms and ammo they drop like potato sacks, they don't do backflips or fly through the air. Second, the desire our society has to see/hear all the gore without also smelling/feeling/tasting it demonstrates something not entirely healthy. If you think the war experience in some way has value, go get the real thing in its entirety, and take the pain, terror, and exhausting physical and mental exertion that goes with it. If what you really want is to get a charge out of blood spatter you cause by moving your thumb as you sit on your couch, maybe you ought to think about that. I don't see anything socially redeeming about the ability to indulge in sensationalized gore at no cost to yourself, in blood, sweat or tears. Those kinds of juvenilve fantasies are not going to take your life in any direction you'll be happy with in the end. Yeah, yeah, I hear the gamers melting their keyboards calling me names -- I live with two and used to be one so I know what the names are too -- and that's OK. Just take a few seconds and ask yourself why you'd even want to play this scene. IW is appealing to the lowest denominator. If it appeals to you, well . . .

  • Norbert Jakubke

    The freedom of expression basically says that if I play "Modern Warfare 2", airport slaughter or not, I basically tell the world that not only do I enjoy killing a few people, in a virtual world of course, but I'm a complete moron bordering on a psychotic. And that's assuming that I'm 21 years old and can make mature informed adult decisions. Now let me ask you if you ever think about a 12 year old who has a parent like the one described and doesn't really give a dam what his kid is doing. Now that, virtually or not, is a crime. Who are we kidding. This kind of gaming is taking a portion of our society and flushing them down the toilet.

  • Sean Masters

    The entire point of the Modern Warfare 2 plot is that the concept of "the ends justifying the means" is never as simple and straightforward as we think it to be. While Mr/s Macaroni up there could have done without the personal attack, the slippery slope argument is still valid.

    I don't buy that IW put in a "skip scene" allowance as some sort of acceptance that the scene is meaningless. They more likely put it in because their lawyers (likely) told them that the content was pushing into the realm of real moral quandary and away from sheer entertainment, and so they'd better cover their rear ends against the oncoming media poo-storm - especially given the sheer number of people who still fail to comprehend that video game violence does not translate to real-life violence (and has never been factually proven otherwise by a non-biased group).

  • Cliff Kuang

    @Elbow: Puh-leeze. Thanks for the lecture on ethical subtly. If the theme really is consistent, there's a value in that. But what's the real value of the slaughter scene itself, if it doesn't change or influence the message followed by the rest of the game? Next time, don't hide behind an alias to lob personal attacks.

  • Elbow Macaroni

    The author misses the point of the scene. The killing is "justified" by the countless lives that the player will save by infiltrating the terrorist organization. This justification in refuted by the rest of the game, which portrays a war against America because of this act. The message is not that killing of civilians can be justified (which sickly seems to be something you wanted IW to say...?) but that ends justifying the means is a slippery slope when the ends are not always known. It is a poignant and nuanced message, which is clearly beyond your grasp.

  • Tyler Gray

    I, like Cliff and Kevin, fully support the artistic choice of Infinity to put objectionable material in their games. Yeah, I think it probably has a desensitizing effect, which is why I wouldn't play or let me kids play. But people should decide for themselves. The problem I have is the rationalization by Infinity Ward. If you're going to make the artistic choice, then make it and stick to it. Don't hedge by offering players a choice to skip the scene. That's just admitting that it's extraneous, that the violence therein is egregious, that it's not essential to the plot or vision of the game. If they don't want to see the scene, they won't play the game. Like Cliff pointed out, you're still going to be exposed to another scene where your driver's head gets blown up like a watermelon at a Gallagher concert.

  • Kevin Ohannessian

    It is a mature game and the question isn't if the violence is appropriate. The discussion is whether that specific kind of violence was handled well. Infinity Ward was making an artistic choice to include a terrorist scene. But did they execute the terrorist scene in a tasteful, artistic, and effective manner? The first two can be debated, but the fact that there is this emotional reaction to it shows that it was effective in touching people and creating a discussion about such violence.