Whether or not developers acknowledge it, politics and video games are deeply intertwined — for better or worse.
The title of the mission, “No Russian,” rolls on my screen. I hold my breath while listening to the instructions given by Makharov, a Russian ultra-nationalist, who I am supposed to follow. I hold my disguise the right way and from our familiar contact, nothing seems to reveal the fact that I am not Russian, but rather an American working for the CIA. Just as the lift is about to open, Makharov orders us to refrain from speaking Russian and gives us the instructions to open fire as we please. I am moving slowly through Zakhaev Airport in Moscow, Russia, carrying an M240 machine-gun in my hand as I kill everyone that comes my way. Usually, my movements in this game are faster, but due to the intensity of the civilian killings, I walk slowly and glance attentively at everything that collapses in my face. I could decide not to shoot and just let my crewmates do all the dirty work for me, but regardless of my decision, the mission punches me deeply in the stomach.
“No Russian” is one of the most controversial missions of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, a first-person shooter video game developed by Infinity Ward and published by Activision. Just before its launch in 2009, the game was discussed in the UK Parliament where Labour MP Keith Vaz said it contained “scenes of brutality”; the manufacturers had to place warnings within the game and indicate how to skip certain parts. Despite the MP’s comment, in its first five days of sales, the game’s revenue surpassed $550 million worldwide. After a successful launch, then-CEO of Activision called the game the largest entertainment launch in history and a pop culture phenomenon.
With every sale of the game, its narrative was being taken deeper into the houses of people from all around the world who were able to step into the shoes of a CIA-FSB double agent tasked with massacring an airport. With every playthrough of No Russian, people were ready to enjoy killing virtual enemies and civilians in a distant country. The mission blends the visceral horror of a mass shooting with the implication that the player is acting in service of a greater good. It seems like a jab at the dubious ethics of countless American intelligence missions.
No Russian is a go-to reference for the denial of political messaging in first person shooters. It focuses on a clear Cold-War type of scenario where the good guys are the Westerners and the bad guys are Russians. You play as an American agent tasked with infiltrating a terrorist group and capturing its leader, Makharov, to put an end to the war. Despite the strong political topics present in the mission – militarism, anti-terrorism, Eastern-Western conflict, capitalism versus communism – the game’s developers refuse to acknowledge any political narrative or agenda. The game’s PR manager in France told FRANCE24 in an interview that they “consider video games as a piece of work and producers don’t want to comment on subjective choices.”
This kind of blatant denial is rampant across similar games as well. The Division, a game depicting a future civil war taking place in Washington D.C., was described by its creative director, Terry Spier, as not being a political game even though the plot involves taking up arms against a corrupt government. Terry refused to regard the campaign as a political story, saying instead that the game is meant to let players “explore a new city.” Terry’s refusal to acknowledge the game’s political overtones shifts the politicization of the game onto the player or observers so as not to offend potential customers, stripping any responsibility away from its creators.
Hiding behind “subjective choice” is an easy way to avoid investigating the actual implications of creating a military video game. If you claim that there are no politics at play, then how do you justify American and British troops fighting against Russian and Middle Eastern ones where the latter group always surfaces as the bad guys? How do you justify that the civilian killings enacted by the players are all non-Americans?
Depicting people from certain countries as enemies makes it easier for us to justify killing them and makes it a somehow enjoyable experience. The Control Room, a documentary investigating the portrayal of the War in Iraq by Al Jazeera, explains how unfamiliar and traumatic it can be for Americans to see their fellow soldiers dead. By looking at the reporting of Al Jazeera, and putting in the political context after 9/11, the documentary aims at deconstructing how certain wars are easier to wage and tolerate by the American public. In contrast, the image of Arabs being killed or of a foreign city being bombed does not have the same emotional impact since they are already imagined as being the enemy and as distant from the domestic context. The feeling of distance that exists between us, the good guys, and them, the enemies, makes the effect less heavy on the player because the killing can be seen as justified and necessary.
Militarism, the division of the world into good and bad military actors, and killing people in countries we have heard only war stories about seem to be the new normal in video games and accepted as apolitical messages. The only aspect we are missing is that the “apolitical” status quo is indeed political, promoting certain ideas to the gamers without questioning them further. Brandon Morse writes for The Federalist that video games fuel mainstream American conservative ideals by exposing the players to ideals of sacrifice for one’s country, a sense of duty and military supremacy.
Despite the clear political discourse present in a game such as Call of Duty, there have always been battles to keep political discussion out of video games. Keeping politics outside of video games is a backlash, in part, against increased diversity and representation of underrepresented groups in video games. Trying to push for an alternative fictional narrative and experiment with a wide range of ideas such as having a disabled woman as the lead protagonist in World War II was seen as outrageous. The example of Battlefield 5 proves that when a video game developer places a female character on the cover of a game about World War II, for example, people will question the historical accuracy of those efforts. They will go into detail to recount battles that were fought, trying to understand how present women were in those and what was their role. Some have gone to lengths to condemn the political agenda of the game, completely ignoring how Battlefield keeps promoting an individualised, romantic version of war, instead focusing only on the presence of a disable woman on the cover. It was regarded by some as being a naked ideological mission that cheapens the experience.
The controversy of Battlefield 5 took over major gaming publications who commented on it and tried to understand what the choice of putting a disabled woman in the game meant. The senior editor of Kotaku, Luke Plunkett, has criticised the simplistic approach of people trying to look for faults in having a fictional character, on the face of a fictional game that uses such a distorted view of World War II. He has condemned the hypocrisy of trying to look for historical accuracy in gender, race and other identity traits, while completely ignoring how the game promotes a very unrealistic version of war, which does not take into account its emotional damage. Even the executive producer of DICE—the company responsible for producing the game—has said that “we will always put fun over authentic.”
Luke Plunkett also addressed the fact that if games were actually historically accurate about the warfare experience, they wouldn’t produce the same level of enjoyment. For example, Spec Ops: The Line, a game that tries to address the moral choices and the lack of enjoyability of war, leaves the player with a dark feeling like a punch in the stomach. Expecting to follow a similar pattern in which they will be playing as the good guy, saving the world, they are instead faced with mass killing and the emotional implications it has upon the player. This was seen as an act of denying the player the usual pleasure of play associated with first person shooters.
Addressing political issues in games does not always have to be a displeasing act denied by the developers and spun as a subjective choice by the audience. There have been multiple video games coming out addressing extremely political issues, such as Spec Ops: The Line, Papers; Please, Fallout: New Vegas and many others.
Video game makers should not run away from politics due to a fear that the moment they acknowledge the politics present at play in a video game—in its creation, distribution and enjoyment—they will lose their audience. The audience is already aware of the politics present in the video games and the fact that there are voices that call for politics to be left out of them should offer us the mission of showing those how they are inherently political.
At the end of the day, video games represent the political or ideological beliefs of a particular time and place; they not only reflect ideology but also reproduce it. They are not exempt from society, from scrutiny, from the workers’ struggles, or from their creators’ own feelings towards certain events that are happening around them. There is no apolitical start when developing or envisioning a game. The choices of having people that resemble stereotypical middle easterners as terrorists should not be regarded as simple aesthetics, but rather as a political decision. Recreating the Cold-War scenario of West vs the East is not just an innocent marketing scheme, but a way of shaping the political compass of gamers by demonstrating who are the good guys and the bad guys in the world.
There is a lot of space for improvement and further analysis when discussing video games, and we should not be afraid to ask questions that might seem uncomfortable in the beginning. Rather than tacitly accepting military presence in games as an enjoyment, we should critically question it. Why are we told that it is fun to kill Russians? What is apolitical about rebelling against a corrupt government? Why should I look for historical accuracy in a fictional game that has no mission of being an exact depiction of an event?
Those questions are just the starting point and we should make an active process out of the criticism of video games. It should not be left only to the journalists and academics, but rather incorporated as a habitual characteristic. The next time we embark on a mission killing civilians in a faraway country, we should consider games’ impacts upon society at large.
We must break once and for all from the discourse that isolates video games and regards them in a void removed altogether from political ideology. Only by breaking with this discourse will we be able to fully assess the impact of video games on our children, on ourselves, and on our society.