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.