Recently I went out with someone and ended up talking about Call of Duty. She told me she had a grievance against the franchise, and her points feel particularly relevant on Veteran’s Day.
One of the benefits of starting Intelligame is that I spend a lot more time than I used to talking to people about video games aside from “what’s your favorite game?” I’ve gotten questions about GamerGate, the role of journalists in the gaming PR cycle, violence in video games, and tons of other subjects I feel are critical to the genre’s development. Conversations like these are part of what make this job so fulfilling.
We were sitting at a local burger joint chatting after dinner when we she asked me for details about Intelligame and the site’s purpose. I told her that I wanted to inform people about how games have changed over the years, how there are deeper storylines and character development in many regards, and that I wanted people to appreciate the depth that all kinds of games have to offer. To reinforce my claim, I started talking about the Call of Duty franchise and the reputation they’d gotten for being video game versions of Michael Bay films: all flash and explosions, but no substance. I then brought up Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, a game where the single-player campaign basically asks: what if Google and Blackwater had a baby? Breaking the analogy down, I’d felt pretty good about my response and reasoning.
She smiled, she understood what I was saying. And then she said, “So, here’s my problem with Call of Duty…”
Today is Veteran’s Day in the US, a day where people take time to thank those who’ve served in the military for their service. American flags hang on front porches, restaurants give free meals to people in uniform, and most of the political bullshitting goes away for roughly 24 hours as politicians find one thing to agree on: thanking the people who’ve fought and sacrificed to preserve the country and the freedoms we have today. Ideally, the rest of the people in America do that thanking, too.
When Veteran’s Day is over, everything changes. Flags get tucked back into closets, free meals vanish, and politics returns to business-as-usual while Congress uses “veterans” as political talking points to stab their opponents with. Meanwhile, veterans themselves still deal with the issues they’ve encountered since the return home: post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions to drugs, addictions to combat and conflict, unemployment, physiological dismemberment, night terrors…the list goes on. Sometimes those issues lead to divorce, estrangement from family, homelessness…even suicide. For many veterans, the battlefield of war isn’t limited by any nation’s borders.
She said her issue with Call of Duty was that it didn’t show soldiers post-conflict; it glorified war and combat, but didn’t show the long-reaching consequences for the soldiers themselves. She’d worked with veterans in the past, heard their stories after returning from places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and heard them talk about how unprepared they were for the experience of real combat. She said some of these people would tell her about how they’d played Call of Duty when they were younger and imagined they had some kind of idea what it would be like to be “over there,” to get in to firefights, to pull real triggers while looking through real scopes of real guns pointed at real people. It was the first time I’d ever seen someone break into tears while talking about a video game, but then, we weren’t talking about video games anymore.
In the game space, those of us who play violent video games seem to be quick to reactively defend them when they seem to be under attack. We prepare our rhetoric, stock up on scientific ammunition from studies that dispel links between playing video games and violent behavior, reload with personal anecdotes about how long we’ve played violent games and never been violent ourselves.
I realized that my first instinct was to deny that anyone could think the over-the-top nature of the Call of Duty games would be like reality. Then I realized that the instinct of people comfortable with the status quo is to deny the existence of situations outside of that belief set. Pretend the system is fine. This head-in-the-sand mentality perpetuates many of the issues facing game culture and development, including discrimination against and under-representation of women and minorities. It could also lead to ignoring the issues of veterans.
This was her experience, by extension the experience of actual soldiers who’d fired real guns at real people, who didn’t have the luxury of respawning when they forgot to check corners, who couldn’t simply hide behind a box for a few seconds and return to the firefight good as new after being shot. These were people who couldn’t power off the game after they started playing, possibly ever.
In America, we have a war-time culture. We value our peace, but we’ll proudly fight any and all opponents to protect it. And we glorify that fight in virtually every form of media we have to offer. Humanity has idealized and romanticized soldiers’ combat since before the Iliad, and gaming continues that trend. We’ve had countless games, real-time and turn-based strategy, first-person and third-person shooters, paint idealized pictures of war and combat for us as we grip our controllers. And, as individuals, players love the idea they could acquire the Mystique of the Great Hero Soldier: the one person who turns the tide of battle and kills massive numbers of enemies while protecting the home country and fellow soldiers.
“There’s a soldier in all of us.” It’s the tagline the Call of Duty franchise has used since the original CoD: Black Ops, and the advertising for Call of Duty: Black Ops III stays true-to-form. There are a couple Critical Commons essays on the original commercial, but the essence is the same: shoot things, blow them up. Vanquish foes. Be a hero. Feel fulfilled. And anyone can do it. Interestingly, Black Ops III seems to advertise the campaign for most of the commercial until right near the end: “Kevin” fights off multiple robots instead of fighting other human players, destroying them utilizing various cybernetic augments available in the game. Given, the entire series of commercials never shows people actually shooting at other people, but that’s besides the point.
Or maybe it’s not.
It’s been almost 3.5 years since the release of 2K-published third-person shooter Spec Ops: The Line, one of the most impactful games I’ve played when thinking about war and the effects of combat. Set in Dubai, you play Captain Martin Walker as you lead a squad of yourself and two others across the city as it’s ravaged by a record-breaking dust storm while hunting for a disavowed American Colonel. Though it starts off formulaic, eventually the tolls of combat and fatigue wear on you and your squad. The team is battered by dust, bloodied with firefights, and the consequences of your kills and choices come back to haunt you. This isn’t a story of glorification, or even of right and wrong: it’s a story of action and reaction, of cause and effect.
My review of Black Ops III is still in progress, but my hope is that its conclusion will give us reason for pause along the same lines. The player character (who is unnamed, but can be either male or female for the first time in franchise history) is cybernetically-augmented after being nearly killed in combat, and is trained to be THE soldier. Ruthless efficiency is the name of the game, and the character performs some pretty heinous acts in the name of completing the mission, sometimes adding rather dark humor to the act. Frankly, some of it left me feeling a bit dirty. Treyarch’s Black Ops titles have traditionally been better at showcasing the struggle of the soldier and the effects of war on the individual than Infinity Ward’s Modern/Advanced Warfare series, so my hope is that these themes will get resolved in the end of the campaign.
When she finished telling me story at the burger joint, I admitted that she was right; there’s a lot of representation of combat in gaming, but not nearly as much of the consequences that you go through when you’re lucky enough to survive to the end of the mission. Unlike Modern Warfare 1, 2, and 3, most military shooters today are based in the past or the future, but that doesn’t detract from the point that games about soldiers make us think about the military. I couldn’t think of any representations of soldiers in life after service in gaming at the time, though now I think about David Madsen in Square Enix’s Life is Strange, the game about Max Caulfield’s attempt to save her town of Arcadia Bay and her best friend, Chloe.
David is initially portrayed as just the local patrolman at Blackwell Academy obsessed with setting up surveillance equipment at the school, and is portrayed as a conservative alarmist in the first episode. The later episodes reveal that David was in the military and is dealing with the effects of the time he spent while deployed. As we get to know him through the game we learn he’s Chloe’s stepfather, husband to Chloe’s mother, Joyce, and dealing with filling the shoes of a father who died in a terrible accident years ago. He’s rough around the edges, but he shows his desire to protect the people around him by whatever means necessary, and the compassion in his character is revealed as the game reaches its climax. None of the individual component parts make up his whole, but they’re all factors in the full person David becomes after his service.
Kevin Tillman, my uncle, retired as an Airborne Ranger Medic from the Army last year after almost 30 years of service. Reaching the rank of Master Sergeant, he served in various locations around the world including South Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and was placed in charge of bases. He’s done things he can’t tell anyone about.
After retiring, he completed an internship and secured a job with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Now he’s tracking down cyber criminals and child pornographers. He’s still doing things he can’t tell anyone about.
For those of you who don’t know, though: my uncle is also an exceptionally talented chef. He’s a stand-up comic. He’s an author and a reader. He’s the dad of five children, each of which are on their way to success in varying fields. He’s a twin brother. He’s a devout Christian. He’s the son of James Tillman, a man who was also a medic, served in the Korean War, and changed the lives of his family and community when he returned through dedicated service in various forms. These things he can tell you about.
My mother, sister, and I drove out to New Jersey from northern Illinois to see his retirement. That was 28+ hours of travel round-trip, but we heard him speak some about his experiences while surrounded by his peers at the ceremony. Friends and comrades spoke of his accomplishments, and they shared moments in ways that only made sense to them as fellow soldiers. 28+ hours was hardly a price to pay to for the privilege of witnessing those moments.
I know I speak for my entire family when I say that we’re incredibly proud of him and the work that he’s done. We’re incredibly thankful not only for his service, but that he was able to come back to us afterwards. His life is filled with tons of component pieces, all of which we appreciate, but only some we’ll be lucky enough to know about. His life is part of his job, but his job is not his life. Frequently we forget this in our own lives, but sometimes it’s even harder to remember that soldiers are people aside from their service as well.
As far as gaming as an industry is concerned, I hope that more of our veterans come in to the game space and create experiences that round out our understanding of what it’s like to be in their shoes, even if we’ll never truly know. Franchises like Call of Duty and Battlefield are growing in maturity, but they’re still only one part of the puzzle: veterans can offer great commentary on games (like this article about David Madsen written by a veteran), and I think there could be some truly great experiences and commentary that come from games created by veterans, even if they’re not working on games about the military. And let’s not forget the effect that games can have on soldiers through organizations like Operation Supply Drop and Stack Up which supply soldiers with donated games and gaming equipment.
That said, this post isn’t a condemnation of militaristic video games. This post is neither a indictment of Call of Duty nor of our military. This is an acknowledgment of the depth and complication of the relationship we as a society have with our soldiers. Yes, we thank them for their service on Veteran’s Day, but every other day of the year our veterans are still out there, a part of our world with their own stories to tell and even more contributions to make. By acknowledging the experiences that veterans go through away from the physical battlefield, both their struggles and their successes, we create a world where we both honor soldiers and improve the world they protect.
Veterans, thank you for your service. To all my friends and family who are serving and have served, thank you for your time, experience, and lessons. Uncle Kevin, thank you so much all you’ve done as a soldier, as a civilian, and as part of our family. And to everyone, Happy Veteran’s Day.