activism, video games

Call of Duty and Left Correctives to Narratives

Richard Falk’s “Viewing American Sniper” was a recent and fantastic review on ZNet. However, it points out a broader concern: Movies are not the only arena for cultural criticism for the Left anymore. Video games have received some critical commentary by those on the Left, but generally speaking that commentary has been mired in a traditionalist analysis that ignores the actual experience of playing the games.

I invite you to watch the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare trailer, featuring the stellar talent of Kevin Spacey who as always makes a fantastically Machiavellian villain. Though this trailer is nine months old, the release of the game was only on November 4th. The hype cycle for video games in the AAA market (the games that have development budgets comparable to major motion pictures) becomes year-round.

In the trailer, Spacey’s character offers a worldview that is essentially consistent with the modern mainstream American representation of the world. He says, most saliently, “Democracy? Democracy is not what these people need; hell, it’s not even what they want. America’s been trying to install democracies in nations for a century and it hasn’t worked one time. These countries don’t have the most basic building blocks to support a democracy!”

Now, to be clear: Spacey’s character is a villain. And the cliches of the big war video games like Battlefield and Call of Duty are actually somewhat liberal-leaning, even with the xenophobia inherent to these games which assume the inherent righteousness of American soldiers even as their leaders may be corrupt, involved in destructive shadow games or incompetent. These games make private military contractors and big corporations into the bad guys.

But this statement by Spacey’s character indicates a worldview. It indicates a worldview that liberal-minded people may quite well understand. Because the Left has failed to educate them.

We have failed to tell people that America virtually never actually tries to install any kind of democracy, but actually creates corporate plutocracies that are beholden to US interests. We have failed to remind people that the United States has frequently intervened to overthrow democracies and replace them with dictatorships.

We have failed to educate Americans and Westerners on the fact that there are millions of people in the Third World thirsty enough for real change and democracy that they were willing to revolt in ways many Americans would not be capable of, and have been willing to wait in long lines in serious danger to vote as many Iraqis have done repeatedly.

The irony is that this game was developed and made much after the Arab Spring showed that millions of people in the Middle East are perfectly ready for democracy on their own terms.

So Spacey’s worldview is villainous to most, but it seems nuanced enough. Interesting enough. Valid enough. Even though it’s actually gibberish, plenty of people are willing to accept the basic assumptions that he uses to reach the nightmarish conclusions he does in the game’s story.

But there’s a silver lining to this.

Both movies and video games today are filled with stories about corporate villains and corrupt politicians. It’s almost a cliché in the 2010s to have a story with a private military corporation being up to no good. Resident Evil’s Umbrella corporation has been a satire for almost two decades of the ruthlessness of corporate practices. And games like Spec Ops are actually willing to show the brutality of American occupation for what it is and challenge the narrative of Western military righteousness.

There’s a narrative out there that is being told even as the Left is not participating in it. With some rare luminaries like Anita Sarkeesian as exceptions, we’re not even fighting a major cultural battle. And unlike the battle to try to make movies more humane and less propagandistic, it’s a battle that is possibly winnable even in the fairly short-term. Video games are being consumed by young people and made by young people. Sure, the art form will become conservative just as movies have. But there is a window to take advantage of.

Right now, there are minds that are hungry for another worldview. Call of Duty games do show that a lot of people want to participate in a simplistic and heroic narrative where violence solves problems. But Modern Warfare also shows that there is a cynicism about the mainstream narrative that would only need a brief critical corrective to adjust.

It can be harder to critically review a video game than a movie. It can require the commitment of five, ten, fifteen, even twenty hours for even a relatively short game. I can understand the reticence to really engage with video games. But it’s something we’ll have to do to succeed.