‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,’ With Its Waterboarding and Child Killers, Is Controversial as Hell
The latest edition of “Call of Duty” is problematic, to say the least.
Imagine you’re a video-game developer. You’ve put your character, Farah Karim, a freedom fighter in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Urzikstan, under the capture of Roman Barkov, a Russian general with no qualms about committing war crimes on any scale. For the past ten days, the general has refused your character food or drink—but on this day, he tells them that he’s going to give them a drink, and leads them out of their cell…to be waterboarded. Now, you have some important choices to make: How do they experience it? Is it a non-playable cut scene? How graphic is it? Do you really show the suffering, or does the screen go black and they just hear the gurgles and maybe feel intense vibration in the controller? Or is it a mini-game, using unique mechanics that are found nowhere else in the experience? Do you gamify being waterboarded?
Well, if you’re Infinity Ward, creators of the Call of Duty franchise and developers of its latest entry, Modern Warfare, the answer to that last question is a resounding yes. And that sure is a choice.
It’s been a strange few years for Call of Duty. While the franchise is still a juggernaut that brings in hundreds of millions of dollars each year, it has fallen hard from a high that saw it surpass $1 billion in global sales on day one for 2013’s Call of Duty: Ghosts, and its cultural relevance has fallen with it.
The series, which launched all the way back in 2003, really came to prominence with 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, which eschewed its predecessors’ World War II setting and brought the action to the present day while also redefining the way online shooters were designed. From there, things got totally wild: by the time 2016’s Infinite Warfare came around, the series had gone full-on space opera. And it massively underperformed expectations.
Since then, they’ve been throwing spaghetti at the wall. In 2017, the series went back to World War II with a mediocre entry that was made awful by its decision (in 2017) to “very fine people on both sides” Nazis. Last year, things took a hard left as the series dropped the narrative entirely to join the battle royale craze that Fortnite had brought to the mainstream. While Black Ops 4 was an enjoyable take on the genre, it has since been outshined by Apex Legends, developed by Respawn Entertainment, made up of the former heads of Infinity Ward.
It seemed like no one had any clear vision for the future of Call of Duty, and so it’s perhaps inevitable that they would again look to the past. But not as far back as World War II. No, in 2019, we get a new game that shares its name with the 2007 game that defined a generation. This is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Again.
But the world is very different today than it was 12 years ago, and though it remains hugely bombastic, it feels far more grounded in today’s world. There may be no Urzikstan, but plenty of moments feel like they were ripped from the headlines—albeit without anyone having read the articles beneath them.
Urzikstan is under the control of Barkov, who is cartoonishly evil in the way he metes out justice, which he does using Russian soldiers as well as his ties to Al-Qatala, the game’s Al-Qaeda analog. The game begins with a suicide bombing in London. You then jump to control a CIA operative trying to capture Barkov’s chemical weapons, since he has apparently used them on civilians. You fight alongside Urzikstani rebels like Farah Karim, who wants to reclaim her country from the dictatorship. All of this is explicitly a proxy war.
There’s a lot going on.
It’s much timelier in 2019 than it was in 2007 that Modern Warfare’s Big Baddie is Russian. But now the lines have become blurred when it comes to the so-called “War on Terror.” Heck, a moment where a U.S. officer tells Farah that her group has been labeled terrorists and are now enemies of America despite having been their allies throughout the conflict feels uncomfortably reminiscent of this country’s recent abandonment of the Kurds in Syria.
While developers from big-game studios like Infinity Ward claim that they and their products are apolitical, of course that is nonsense. Everything is political, especially when it’s centered around geopolitical conflict. And Modern Warfare has a very clear point of view.
There’s a moment fairly early on in London, just after the suicide bombing. Al-Qatala soldiers are swarming Piccadilly Circus. On the second floor of a shopping center are hostages, one of whom has been strapped into a suicide vest. Captain Price, one of a handful of returning characters across this rebooted timeline, rushes to him, sees that there are only a couple of seconds left on the timer, and throws him over the railing as he screams for his life. The explosion knocks everyone down, but only the hostage is killed.
It felt like a moment ripe for an intro-to-ethics course. You see a lot of civilians die in Modern Warfare; generally speaking, you get a game over if you shoot any yourself, but you’re under no obligation to save them if you have the option, and oftentimes the game wants you to know that you absolutely cannot. The most notable example takes place in an American embassy, which is stormed by Al-Qatala. (The whole thing is clearly meant to evoke Benghazi, as soldiers/protestors break in and cause chaos and death—including that of the ambassador.)
In the mission, you’re supposed to extract an Al-Qatala leader who was captured earlier. You walk by the windowed entryway filled with angry, gun-toting men. In front is “The Butcher,” an Al-Qatala enforcer. He stands before the security doors and shouts to your team: if you don’t open up, he’ll kill civilians. There’s a man and his son there. He shoots the man in the head. The child cries, and The Butcher grabs him. The child wrenches himself free and runs into smoke. A shot is fired. (The decision to effectively censor this moment and this moment only is fascinating.)
Throughout The Butcher’s monologue and executions, there is a button prompt that allows you to open that door. On my first attempt, I did so immediately, which resulted in my immediate death. There is actually no choice: they have to die for the good of the mission. You can look away from it, sure, but you can’t close your ears.
And that’s war, right? The whole idea is that a small number of people dying is necessary to ensure the health and safety of more people. This is also the driving idea behind most big-budget video games, where a line like “We don’t stand a chance in hell with these rules of engagement” is the starting point for action design. But those games rarely remind the player of the civilian element. When you are watching people who are not bad guys get killed, and participating in their deaths by actively doing nothing, it’s much more visceral and impactful. You can’t ignore what you’re seeing.
But those moments of power are inevitably undermined by the fact that this is a video game first—one with rollercoaster aspirations. It wants to take you on a thrill ride through burning tunnels and exploded rubble. You fly planes holding C-4 into enemy combatants and target helicopters for drone strikes. You briefly take on the role of a child who must bring down a burly Russian soldier using an absurd number of screwdrivers you find just lying around your house.
You predict the movement of the water being poured onto the towel over your mouth so you can try to avoid it and catch a breath.
In every case where the seemingly realistic depictions of the ravages of war is weighed against the game’s need to be “fun,” that need takes priority. There’s this disconnect between the seriousness of the imagery and the gameiness of the play that ultimately downplays how horrible the atrocities it wants to depict are. So, what’s the point of depicting them at all? If all Infinity Ward wanted to do was generate hot takes, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare will do that marvelously. But if they were hoping to make an experience that forces the player to grapple with the tough decisions it sometimes asks them to make or really consider the horror of it all, sadly, this ain’t it, chief.