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8th July 2021

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The media cares more for Call of Duty's sales figures than its violence - which marks the end of a very different war

Activision's annual update to the Call of Duty franchise appeared this week, a videogame launch event which managed to generate the kind of media coverage normally reserved for top-ranked Hollywood movies.

The games industry has always suffered from a lack of star power at its launches, the assorted celebs enticed to come to slightly tacky launch events by the promise of swag and booze being no match for the red carpet appearance of a Hollywood A-lister with a genuine connection to the movie itself. Call of Duty, however, has achieved the rare status of being a videogame franchise with enough of its own star power to draw out the mainstream media.

Much of that, of course, comes from the game's extraordinary sales figures. Success breeds success, and success on the scale of Call of Duty comes with its fair share of interest from the wider world. Certainly, some of that interest may come in the form of patronising reports making thinly veiled (or occasionally entirely unveiled) implications about "silly boys and their games" with a knowing wink, but even so - the coverage can't help but make the scale and reach of gaming as a pastime evident to an ever-growing audience.

Some of the fascination with Call of Duty, however, springs from a more worrying source. It can't escape the notice of more astute observers that Activision's franchise commands vastly more widespread coverage than a fair few games which enjoy similar if not better sales figures. The key difference, of course, is that Call of Duty ticks one of the boxes most beloved of the mainstream media - videogame violence.

I remain a strong proponent of the kind of creative freedom which allowed the inclusion of the now infamous No Russian scene in last year's Modern Warfare 2. Even if it occurred in the context of a pretty fundamentally silly narrative and some fairly infantile storytelling, this is no more than could be said for the likes of TV series like 24 or any number of action movies - and I don't think anyone wants to see a society where we censor media based on subjective judgements of narrative quality.

However, regardless of your views on No Russian, there's no question but that it dropped a golden egg into the lap of conservative-minded editors in media the world over. The (entirely out of context) notion of killing prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto had lost its currency as a shocking videogame story over years of repetition - here, now, was a brand new outrage, one which helpfully combined the slaughter of innocent civilians with the terribly trendy threat of airport terrorism. Hold the front page!

It might be reasonable, then, to expect that some of the anticipation for this year's Call of Duty has been founded not just on the amazing sales of the franchise to date, but on the hopes of a fresh controversy. It's tempting to imagine the press waiting with bated breath to see what fresh outrage the game's developers might have cooked up this time.

Yet I don't think that that's been the case. If anything, I've been struck by how muted and moderate the approach to Call of Duty: Black Ops has been from the mainstream media. There's talk of the sales figures, a little discussion around the political controversy concerning Cuba, and the occasional vague talk around the violence - but frankly, the will to paint this game as some kind of monstrous murder-simulator seems to have dissipated almost entirely.

Is this because unlike Infinity Ward, this year's custodians at Treyarch simply haven't done anything remotely as controversial as No Russian? Unlikely - the mainstream media couldn't possibly have known that in advance, and bluntly, it's unlikely that Activision would have done anything to dissuade them of the idea that this game would be hugely controversial.

Rather, I suspect it's the case that the "outcry" over Modern Warfare 2 represented something of a last gasp for videogame violence stories in the mainstream media - at least in the UK, but also to some degree in other territories. At the time, the ignorance and bias in the media's reporting of Modern Warfare 2 felt deeply frustrating - but looking back with the benefit of a year's hindsight, it's apparent that the people who were most frustrated of all were probably the editors who okayed coverage of the controversy.

Five years ago, that kind of content should have provoked some kind of response from the public. It should have lit a touchpaper, creating a rolling news story which gathered momentum as it went forward - one piece of coverage leading on to the next, with pundits, politicians and the occasional beleaguered defender of the industry all weighing in to keep the story moving forward.

This is how the news works in the era of 24 hour news channels, of the web, of daily newspapers with more pages than ever to fill and fewer staff than ever to do the filling. Controversies are meant to snowball, filling plenty of space as they do so, giving you an opportunity to cheaply and easily fill column inches or airtime by turning the story around to report on the growing controversy rather than on the original issue itself.

Five years ago, Modern Warfare 2 would have created such a controversy. Ten years ago, it would have been a fireball, burning brightly enough to hit the major news bulletins, parliamentary debates, newspaper letter pages, popular chat shows - the whole nine yards. It would have become a meme, in due course, with people who don't know the first thing about videogames sagely quoting the phrase "No Russian" just as today they cite GTA's prostitute murders as definitive proof of the medium's debased nature.

Twelve months ago, nothing of the sort occurred. For all that we were frustrated and annoyed by the media's handling of Modern Warfare 2, the reality is that the controversy they hoped to spark sputtered and died. The hottest debate over the No Russian scene came in the specialist press, not the mainstream media, where the reality was that despite the best efforts of various writers and commissioning editors, the story earned little more than some ill-researched fiery tabloid newspaper pieces and a couple of extremely dull and one-sided "debates" on non-primetime radio or television chat shows.

It was, frankly, hardly the firestorm of outrage for which the news media might have hoped, and it was defused even further by the fact that large swathes of the media turned their nose up at the story entirely, choosing either to ignore it and simply report Modern Warfare 2's success, or to run pieces supporting videogames' right to explore adult themes.

It's in this light that we must view last year's controversy - not as a blow to videogames, but rather as a sucker punch to the idea that videogame violence makes for a cheap and easy controversy for the lazy tabloid hack or rolling news channel editor. In this light, is it any wonder that nobody seems particularly keen to root out controversy over Black Ops? So loathe are the tabloid press to waste their time this time out, in fact, that even Cuba's rather odd condemnation of the game has been reported in a joking, "well fancy that!" tone instead of with the fire and brimstone that would have accompanied such a story a few scant years ago.

The progress of California's violent videogames bill to the US Supreme Court suggests that the debate over the content of videogames is not entirely over, but the tame, placid response of the media to history's biggest entertainment loss being a game with a bodycount to rival Rambo's worst wartime flashbacks reveals the truth. There's still mopping up to be done, but unlike Call of Duty's never-ending conflicts, the "war" over violent videogames is over. We won.

Celebrating employer excellence in the video games industry

8th July 2021

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Latest comments (6)

Jonathan Cooper Animator, Naughty Dog10 years ago
Great piece.
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Jason Stewart Associate Producer, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe10 years ago
"No Russian" last year, was "No Taliban" this year surely.
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Andy Payne Chair/founder, AppyNation10 years ago
Wise words. Well said Rob.
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Chris Hunter-Brown IT / Games specialist, BBFC10 years ago
Great piece as always, though I'm in two minds whether I agree with it or not.

It was a common refrain a few years ago that as gamers grew up and took up positions of influence in society that society's attitude to games would change. Much like it did with say Rock n' Roll. Comforting as that was, the difference for me is that games have up until this point been driven much more by technology. For all the advances in CG over the last two decades, the technology hasn't enabled film makers to make a "video nasty" on a whole new level. Games in theory are different, you couldn't make "No Russian" at anything close to the fidelity 10 years ago.

On the other hand, social games and the Wii if anything demonstrate that games are moving away from the technology arms race. Graphically I think we're definitely at a point of diminishing returns (where can it go other than more frequent 1080p60 and better shaders?). However, other areas we're barely scratching the surface of AI, sensors like Kinnect and the potential of a ubiquitous network and social connectivity.

We've certainly won in the sense that the "GTA: Rothbury" story attracted nothing but ridicule, but keeping tabs on Gamers Voice, there has still been a steady trickle of daft stories over the year. From Eamon Holmes to "No Taliban". As some of the traditional media giants get more desperate, they'll fight dirtier.

But going back to technology, I think there is less room for letting our guard down. I can still easily imagine a moral panic about "holodeck GTA" in 50 years. More feasibly, say somebody adapted the Milo tech to make an interactive treatment of Stockholm syndrome. Very few games have gotten anywhere near tackling such taboo/extreme subjects but such a game would make a lot of people uncomfortable, let alone desperate tabloids.

If games are to become what we want of course, then they have to be able to tackle a breadth of subjects and as you rightly point out, winning is having the same rights to tackle any subject that a film or book would do today. I'd just be cautious that newer technology will allow us to create games you can't conceive of today and perhaps ways of them being attacked we can't conceive of either.

Time for the pub on that cheery note!
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Tony Johns10 years ago
I saw the game being played by a friend of mine at university just a few days ago after I finished my final exams of the year, and it seemed that the storyline was going into the mind of an american soldier who was recalling past events in his life fighting the solviets (including an opening interview with then president John F Kennedy) that might have been an opening that made those in the mainstream media who accturely cared to watch the opening scenes to think..."Hey...this is really good storytelling....we will lay off the violence issue for now considering they took real care about our american patrionage and history of the cold war"

Well that is what gave me that impression.

Also with all that talk about playing as the Taliban, I think that was blown out of proportion considering that the game takes place at events where Americans were fighting against Communism around the world, including in Afganastan where it turned out that the Americans were HELPING the Taliban to fight against the Solviet Union in the 80's.

Thus....where the whole idea of playing as the taliban got mixed up for something that could have been about today's warfare.
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Great read. And I hope you are correct. As has been the case with most entertainement mediums games has had its time as "The Devils Tool". It goes in cycles thou. Both books and music have had its recurring ban and controversy periods. (Play the record backwards and you will hear Belzebub..really, you sure?).
The same with movies off course. Does that mean that Videogames is now a matured entertainement product?

Great timing on the Kinect and Move launches :)
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