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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.