There’s a uncomfortable irony in the Call of Duty series’ twin fascinations with the destruction of the United States and brainwashing. As wave after wave of faceless, under-equipped, foreign aggressors charge obligingly into range of your American-made machine gun, Predator drone or circling gunship, the action in both Black Ops and Ghosts is broken up with regular story hits that paint the brainwashing of Black Ops’ Mason and Ghosts’ Rorke as the ultimate horror – good, rational people reprogrammed to fight and kill for someone else’s ideology. Then the loading screen resolves and it’s straight back into your foxhole, ready to mow down another wave of America-hating foreigners. Ooh-rah.
Call of Duty first invaded the continental US in Modern Warfare 2. A US plot to partake in a civilian airport massacre goes awry (would you believe) and sparks a retaliatory invasion by a vengeful Russian military. The end goal of this invasion isn’t ever discussed. There’s no time: one minute America is innocently minding its own business, and the next, there are Russian fighter jets over I-95 and a tank column rolling over Times Square. Who cares what they want – the White House is on fire!
This is about as grounded as CoD’s repeated invasions of America get. Modern Warfare 2’s Russians have got a pretty solid grievance, what with a CIA plant strolling through a Moscow airport with a machine gun, spoiling everyone’s holiday plans. And Modern Warfare 3 makes a commendable effort to show that the invading forces aren’t representative of the Russian people as a whole – even going so far as to cast you fleetingly as a good-guy Russian secret service agent in the entourage of a Russian President on his way to Europe to negotiate a ceasefire.
Then something shifted with Black Ops 2. The series abandoned its multinational perspectives and presented instead a googly-eyed piece of US-centric paranoia about a special forces team scouring the world for a terrorist leader named Raul Menendez, who attacks the US with its own fleet of military drones as part of some dastardly quest for personal revenge. Los Angeles explodes, the President is attacked in her motorcade, and only through big guns, quadcopters and American pluck can all be put right again.
Now we have Ghosts, in which the US is once again pushed to the brink of destruction, this time when all of South America rises up and steals its orbital weapons platform. That marks two Call of Duty games in a row now in which the US has been attacked not just by the foreign hun, but a foreign hun so technologically and militarily inferior it has to steal America’s own weapons just to be considered a halfway credible threat. The barbarians are at the gate, but the gate’s so big they can’t even reach the wrought iron handles unless some careless American gate-fitter leaves a stepladder out.
It’s this unwavering and deluded portrayal of America as the underdog, the undeserving victim of unprovoked aggression, that makes these stories so uncomfortable. Say what you like about Black Ops 2’s Menendez or Ghosts’ Federation, but they weren’t the ones who built an army of killer drones, or launched a doomsday satellite into orbit. Another way to look at Black Ops 2 or Ghosts would be as stories of their respective, fictionalised Americas having their chickens coming home to roost. And then explode.
Of course, that perspective doesn’t get touched upon by the game’s swaggering jarheads and their shouty superiors, who see nothing wrong with pointing these weapons at other countries, so long as the other countries in question don’t have any of their own to point back. In keeping with that mindset, the goal of these games isn’t peace – it’s the restoration of the status quo, with America’s military dominance reasserted and its enemies utterly vanquished. That’s a disturbing message to propagate – the digital equivalent of the World War propaganda posters of caricatured, malevolent foreigners that can only be stopped by other caricatures of our brave, devoted men and women in uniform.
I don’t buy the argument that we shouldn’t expect a sophisticated story from a CoD game. Nor do I think there’s much mileage left in the ‘it’s only a game’ defence. Call of Duty is the biggest entertainment property in the world with a story and a message that reaches tens of millions of people at home and abroad. That carries with it a responsibility. The parts that make up Ghosts’ campaign – bobbing about in space, leaping across train carriages, dodging sharks – are all great fun in isolation. But taken in sum, Call of Duty is painting a steadily flatter, scarier and more propagandising picture for its players than we should be comfortable with.