Internal Warfare

The mainstream press doesn't care for any "controversy" in this year's Call of Duty; so why are gamers themselves so riled about it?

The launch of a new Call of Duty game has been cemented into the industry's calendar as the focal point of the pre-Christmas season. So significant are the launch weekend sales of Activision's pillar franchise that they have come to be seen as a barometer for the health of the games business as a whole - not a fair or accurate assessment to make, but one which is simply too tempting for the mainstream media to drop.

As such, the reporting of the launch of Modern Warfare 3 has focused heavily on sales of the game - which have been stellar, outstripping the launch sales of its predecessor and promising to become one of the biggest drivers of entertainment retail sales in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It's tempting to roll our eyes a little as the mainstream press once again breathlessly reports the long-established fact that rather a lot of people play video games now, but it doesn't exactly do any harm to have it reaffirmed in headlines.

There's always a secondary story to accompany the launch of a Call of Duty game, though - one which often bubbles away in the background long after the headlines about sales figures and pictures of Z-list celebrities at launch parties have faded from media consciousness. Call of Duty is a game about war, terrorism and shooting a whole lot of people; it's always accompanied by some kind of controversy.

The harshest critics of No Russian were not those outside games, they were those within games.

That peaked, of course, with No Russian - the now infamous level in Modern Warfare 2 which placed the player, as a covert operative infiltrating a terrorist group, at the heart of an attack on civilians in an airport. I suspect that No Russian may eventually be remembered as the last great moral outrage against video games; even at that, the reaction it provoked was very tame compared to the panics of previous years. Outside of the deeply socially conservative "usual suspects", most media outlets ran the story at low prominence and gave plenty of voice to supportive viewpoints as well as outraged rent-a-quotes.

This year's iteration of the franchise sees terrorist attacks and running battles extended across various famous cities around the world (including London), arguably extending the potential for controversy even further. As if on schedule, a video which was tagged as being the touchpaper for this year's firestorm of controversy appeared on the Internet a few days prior to the launch of the game - a cutscene showing a terrorist attack on Westminster through the perspective of a tourist's video of his wife and child being caught in the blast.

Reaction to the video from gamers and more specifically from specialist game writers and commentators was instant and visceral. Few seemed willing to defend the inclusion of the scene - plenty were ready to condemn it as being a cynical and exploitative attempt to build publicity for the game by courting controversy. The prevailing attitude can be summed up as simply "oh, here we go again" - a reflexive battening down of the hatches ahead of yet another battering from the socially conservative wing of the press.

Unbatten the hatches and fold the storm shutters away. Poke your heads out of your bomb shelters and look around - there's no controversy. Nobody outside the games business itself actually cares, or is particularly shocked or horrified. In fact, coverage of the launch of Modern Warfare 3 in London's city newspapers (the morning's Metro and evening's Evening Standard) did mention that the city's tube network and landmarks feature in the game - but the tone was distinctly more "hey, it's got our city in it!" rather than "sick game brings horror to London's streets". It's worth noting in this context that Metro in particular isn't exactly a pillar of the liberal press, being a freesheet which belongs to the same stable as the notorious Daily Mail, from which it draws most of its editorial focus.


In short, the response of gamers and gaming insiders to this "controversial" scene has been significantly more reactionary than that of the mainstream press. This seems ridiculous, but it's a situation which has actually been building for some time. In recent years, a peculiar transition has taken place - from a knee-jerk defence of everything violent which the industry did, even when it was in pretty poor taste, to a knee-jerk accusation of cynical exploitation in the same circumstance. (It's worth noting, though, that there's still a strong knee-jerk defence response at work too - it's just that now it's applied to issues of race and gender rather than violent content.)

The harshest critics of No Russian were not those outside games, they were those within games, and the same has been broadly true of every other controversy around violent content in the past few years. There's a peculiar psychology to this; perhaps the reaction is best explained as being natural for people who are tired of defending their hobby or their livelihood to friends and relatives, and who feel that scenes like this undermine their arguments. It's a reaction divorced from the reality of broader media, where much more violent content is routinely used as a scene-setting device in movies or TV shows that are every bit as dumb and exploitative as the most daft action game, without raising an eyebrow from the mainstream press.

Modern Warfare 3's tourist scene is quite a different beast to No Russian, of course. For a start, it's non-interactive - pure scene setting, in which you're watching people get killed by your terrorist enemies rather than participating in the attack yourself. A few years ago, that wouldn't have stopped the press from branding MW3 a sick game in which you kill children, and to hell with accuracy, but attitudes and press focus have moved on.

I sometimes wonder, though, if it's the very scene-setting nature of these controversial episodes which really gall some of the harsh critics within the gaming world. There's still a hardcore cadre out there of people who fundamentally object to the idea of videogames as a storytelling medium - a group who feel that games should purely be rule-based skill entertainment, and that narrative should be nothing other than a light dab of glue to hold together that framework. In the complaints from gamers and games writers about controversial scenes, I sense a hint of the same attitude which leads people to come out with daft, embittered lines like "if you want a story, read a book".

The reality, of course, is that when we talk about games like Modern Warfare, we're not talking about particularly great stories. No Russian and the tourist scene in MW3 don't justify themselves by being crux points in great works of literature. They don't need to, though; they function perfectly well as scene setting in daft action games.

Why do gamers themselves feel the need to hold games to a higher standard?

Did anyone react with anything more than a snort of derision when the last Rambo movie set its scene with the heavy handed on-screen massacre of peaceful villagers, or the painfully clunky "revelation" that the commander of the enemy forces was a nasty paedophile? There wasn't the slightest outcry, just as there hasn't been to similar techniques in countless other action movies of recent years. They're just part of the framework of how action movies work, a narrative device that tells you why you're about to watch half an hour of stylishly choreographed killing. Or half an hour of Sylvester Stallone sweating copiously and lumbering ponderously around a scene with a bow and arrow, if that's more your thing.

Why, then, do gamers themselves feel the need to hold games to a higher standard? Have we simply been so burned by controversies past that we feel the need to be the first to jerk our knees, to get in there first before the Daily Mail does it for us? Do we feel that our hobby is being "polluted" by this kind of narrative device in some way? Are we really going to demand that action games must be works of literary intelligence, while action movies or TV series are allowed to be nothing other than dumb fun?


It's good that gamers and the games media can think critically about the medium, of course - it's a vital step in the development of videogames as part of the tapestry of media. Yet that's not quite what's happening here. The debate over violence in videogames should happen in the context of a broader development of an awareness of how games tell their stories, set up their scenes, engage their players, and tackle (or miserably fail to tackle) the social issues they run into into the process. That's a discussion and an awareness that will yield interesting answers and eventually deliver better games, just as the analytical approach to TV and film has, over the years, created a body of learning and understanding that enables modern creatives to knowingly challenge and undermine the rules and hence, the expectations of their audiences.

That's a process that needs to happen, and one that is happening all too slowly. But let's not kid ourselves - doing the knee-jerk work of the Daily Mail for them isn't a step in the right direction. We should broaden the debate around videogames and their content, but that should come hand in hand with a solid defence of the medium's right to exploit the same tools and ideas which film, TV and other media have been using without comment for years. The irony, right now, is that we probably wouldn't even need that defence if the medium wasn't under attack from within.

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Latest comments (13)

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago
If you want to know the state of the media and gaming industry alike, then look no further than the documentary "American Grindhouse". What this part of the movie industry did between the 50ies and 70ies is bit by bit how mass media work today, especially games. The question is not whether games are art or kitsch, it is how deep into the grindhouse pool they are.

Inclusion of questionable material for the sake of creating a $0 viral ad campaign based on public outrage.

If that does not describe, news television, video games and grindhouse movies alike, nothing will.
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Whilst a good piece, I think we should use an analagous press akin to the Daily Mail.

Normally, one would expect the Daily Mail of writing up about UFOs, and other stimulating views of immigration, sex trafficing and what not. Thus, like the boy that cried wolf too many times, the Daily mail might have found itself a easy target for doom mongering, sensationalist headlines and fringe science...
With regards to games, they've been good so far, without any ultra radicalist views on violent games (yet).

In fact (to support your article), I dont recall seeing ANY negative views about MW3 in the various tabloids eg. daily mail, sun or metro recently.

A search online shows a reasonably objective review of MW3
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And perhaps a humourous piece about french crooks stealing 600k worth of MW3 goods
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IF we can perhaps tar some other sensationalist press report that reflect these views about the strong emotional response to MW3s scenes of violence and terrorism, that would be great!
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters6 years ago
I don't think it's the "what" is in the game rather than the "how" it was implemented. The tourist scene in MW3 to me felt cheap and predictable, like its only purpose was to stir things up. The fact that the media paid no real attention to it didn't make it feel any more justified. Any "shock" was for me nullified that it was blatantly obvious what was going to happen the instant it faded in, yet they made it wait for player input, so the player's standing there in a supposedly "interactive" game but knowing full well the only choice they have is to trigger the event that they'd actually prefer to prevent, or stand there forever and never progress in the game. I do find it annoying to constantly have to defend games against people outside the industry, and I don't believe games should have to stop doing what they do because of it, but these scenes seem to exist with the only purpose of courting controversy. I could be wrong, the writers might feel they created something genuinely emotionally moving that richly enhanced the story.
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Tommy Thompson Studying Artificial Intelligence (PhD), University of Strathclyde6 years ago
Could it be argued that gamers outcry towards the scene in MW3 has nothing to do with mainstream press? While many detractors would paint a picture of dim-witted and socially awkward niche community - an image that many an Xbox Live user gives credence - gamers are for the most part adult and mature people. Is it wrong that people simply point out that, regardless of what the mainstream press thinks, this is wrong?

I have not purchased MW3 yet, Activision has exhausted the series to a point where my interest is diminished, but I have seen the controversial scene in London. Personally I do not see the benefit this provides to the game. It even lacks the one reason that justified 'No Russian' in that it is not intrinsic to the plot (if I am wrong here someone please correct me). Each MW has included one of these scenes and to date the only one which arguably was relevant and enhanced the story was the nuclear detonation scene in 'Shock and Awe' from the original Modern Warfare.

The last two scenes are crass and exploitative; an attempt to evoke an emotional response to the elements taking place in the game. One could argue it is to remind you of the sanctity of human life, which ironically is lost in a game marketed as world war 3. Sadly it's a little late for that. The entire CoD series is built from the ground up to simulate the Rambo style. I feel the developers involved do not understand how to convey these emotions effectively, whereas developers such as BioWare and Valve are more proficient in this area.

Personally I don't want this crass content showing up in my games. I turn away from movies and TV shows that make these same choices. Yes there may be a market for this content, like there is for Human Centipede 2, or the juvenile and putrid sexualisation and humour of Michael Bay's Transformers, but it doesn't appeal to everyone. Core gamers are a vocal bunch and will be happy to dump their opinions - informed or otherwise - on their keyboards (the irony doesn't escape me). One need only look at the MW3 controversy, or even the user reviews for MW3 on metacritic.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago

it is only predictable, because it tries to minimize the impact on the player. Father and child are two characters with whom the player has not bonded as deeply as with his main character(s). The game does not try to rip something from the player's heart he holds dear, but instead tries to provoke a conditioned reflex with the help of two utterly unimportant characters. That will never work and has never worked int he past, else George Lucas would have been branded a child-killer when his movie blew up a planet.

CoD's story is told from multiple first person perspectives, much in the same way as George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones. But when the dying begins CoD gets timid, showing us people we do not care about, e.g. some astronaut, while George Martin tramples all over your feelings with no regard for anybody.
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Graham Simpson Tea boy, Collins Stewart6 years ago
TBH. I was more disturbed when Ghost was executed than the Russian scene in MW2. That's how you shock people. Build a hero up who has been at your side for 5 hours and then kill him off shockingly.
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William Usher Assistant Editor, Cinema Blend6 years ago
I completely agree with Graham and Klaus.

Most shocking moment for me out of any of the Modern Warfare games has been the death of Ghost. Just because he was such a cool character. Everyone else left me saying "meh".

The Rambo allusion is also spot on because that's basically what this game is, and many 12 year olds have been introduced to the term because of Call of Duty and not necessairly the First Blood movies. So when they toss in scenes of coercive emotional reactionism, most people who are still in "Rambo" mode don't care and most people who don't care about the Rambo stuff are shocked the developers would try and instigate an emotional reaction during the midst of the non-stop action. In other words, these kind of things reek of publicity craving.

But as far as Activision is concerned, so long as these cheap story-ploys result in sales one way or another, I don't think they give two bat spits about it.
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Julian Cram Producer 6 years ago
@Tommy T
an attempt to evoke an emotional response to the elements taking place in the game

And what's wrong with that? Should games not appeal to emotion?

Or is it the way it evokes emotion which annoys you?

It might be a cheap way to evoke emotion, but can you honestly come up with a better way without referring to something which has already been done, yourself?
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago
There are lots of low quality strategies to get an emotion from the audience.

Be it U.S. presidents being killed, or nukes dropped on Mekka, there are plot twists able to solicit an emotional response, purely by hurting religious or quasi religious feelings. The emotion is there, but not due to events within the story, but because negative interference between narration and personal values. Just because you can do "Roman Pagan - the Video Game" and drive nails into Jesus with Kinect gestures, does not mean you should.

Kim Bauer Effect:
The viewer is put into the perspective of an all-knowing narrator and then forced to watch a character do the dumbest thing possible in the given situation. Cheap way to mine for an emotion, but not something you tend to remember favorably. Often people in charge, or giving orders, are portrayed as a Kim Bauer, e.g. Presidents in 24.

Sex and Violence
Sex only works in the U.S., violence works less and less in Europe, but it still remains a cheap trick. Interestingly enough, CoD did not go the cheap route on this one, the black and white bombing run had an impact not because it was violent, but because it showed war being a video game inside a video game.
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Gregory Hommel writer 6 years ago
None of this should even be in discussion here. The issue, in my opinion, is that video games are still widely percieved as toys for children. Only by people who don't play them, of course, but that is still a big number. If cartoons, board games or boy scouts evolved into an ultra-violent hyper-realistic experience we would expect an even stronger reaction. All this talk of media coverage or the debate about games being art are useless in understanding this situation. As time marches on more people will see that video games are a medium that has grown up with its audience and the age appropriate sections of the market will be better defined. Too many parents believe that a PS3 or Xbox 360 are toys themselves, therefore any software associated with them must also be a child's play thing.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago
In the end, it boils down to dopamine and the sensory input you are conditioned to release it. You can layer as many fancy words and concepts on top of it, it still does not change a thing. If one "thing" can cause the release of dopamine in one person and the propagation of its existence in another person, it does its jobs as intended and stays alive. If not, it dies, just as if it was a flower with no soil to grow on.
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My problem with the camcorder scene is that, dramatically, it's cheesy and unneccesary. Using a child to heighten the tragedy is as cheap as it gets. We should probably be thankful it didn't end on a close up of a discarded teddy bear in the rubble. It's bad writing in movies, and it's bad writing in games (and, for what it's worth, I called Rambo out for the same thing when I reviewed that on DVD).

Mostly, though, I think it's an incredibly poor use of first-person perspective, something the Call of Duty series has usually used very cleverly. The radiation scene in Modern Warfare works because player and character are having the same thought: "I'm not going to make it". Even No Russian in Modern Warfare 2, as grotesque as it was, pulled the same trick. When you're thinking "I don't want to do this, can I get away with not shooting anybody?" then you're completely "in character".

In Modern Warfare 3, it doesn't work. At all. Because, as gamers, we know what's coming. We know what's in the van when it pulls up. We have knowledge that the faceless father can't possibly know. And by triggering the explosion only when we move forwards, it uses player agency in completely the wrong way. We're thinking "Shit, it's waiting for me to move forward so the van will explode and it's not going to carry on until I do it so I suppose I should get on with it" which, all things considered, is probably not what an innocent tourist would be thinking as he filmed his wife and daughter on holiday.

That's not interactive narrative and it's not immersion. It's the complete opposite, like switching the lights on halfway through a funfair ghost train, exposing all the wires and rails.
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Matt Roberts Player Support Representative, Club Penguin6 years ago
@ Dan

I respectfully disagree with much of what you said!

It seems people have a bit of a habit with focusing on 'the child' when it comes to their (admittedly tricky) integration into certain video game scenarios - see also the Dead Island trailer.

I guess it's a matter of personal perspective, but in both the MW3 and DI instances, I did not see the child as the overbearing point - and did not find their inclusion to be gratuitous. I saw the family unit as the focal point, and not any one specific individual within it. Wouldn't the MW3 sequence have been worth less without the child in the scene? It's an ugly truth that these things may happen with children around, and bottling that fact for the sake of dodging controversy is not moving the industry anywhere - as well as being insulting to the adult audience games such as this are aimed at.

Of course, I respect that other people have a different point of view - perhaps if I was a father myself, I may as well. But, like others have commented here and elsewhere, it's hardly unique to include children in scenes such as this across different mediums.

There are certainly lines that I do not believe should be crossed, and a certain amount of tact should be employed, but the 'victims' disappear in a flash - there's no graphic content here. Even the DI trailer was relatively tame, especially considering the genre and scenario.

I also feel that this is excellent use of the first person perspective - and, indeed, I find it refreshing to see the technique used in a different way.

It is exactly what it is - a perspective - but we're so used to looking through it and being the one in control, to be driving the action forward. I see no harm in using the perspective to simply give another angle on proceedings, simply a second view of events.

In this instance, we're forewarned of the event - we've seen the truck, we know what's in it and we know it's unaccounted for. This makes the impact of seeing it pull up even more emotive - you're moving toward the inevitable.

Knowing that the father figure did not have this information was part of the point of the scene. In a game where you're absolutely assaulted with the fury of the combat around you, but are able to charge confidently through like a one man invincible army, this scene really brings back the impact that these events are having on regular, innocent people - caught completely unaware in the middle of something huge.

As far as being forced to take those forward steps myself, knowing what would happen, it was a sombre moment, full of trepidation. I likened it at the time, to being forced to push forward in a horror game (a particular moment in the original Condemned sprang to mind). Here I was, not wanting to move ahead but knowing I had to to push the experience on. In Condemned I did not know exactly what was coming up, but I knew it wouldn't be good, and I found the experiences to elicit similar feelings. I certainly didn't find it to be to the detriment of the game, at all.

Another parallel would perhaps be a flashback sequence in a game or film - where you already know the sequence of events, and perhaps are dreading having to see them played out. But it doesn't make the experience any less engaging. For me, at least.

The Call Of Duty games have always been a rollercoaster experience where you're led by the nose. Given a chance to step back from the gung ho action and see the, potentially very real, consequences of these events was a welcome and considered addition, I thought.

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