Call of Duty: Ghosts, or Burn Your Man Card

5 11 2013

Part of my job involves going through some 60-odd web sites daily, looking for ads placed by our competitors. This takes me to a lot of sites I’d never visit if it were up to me, like gossip sites and digital lad mags, along with a handful that aren’t entirely out of my areas of interest, like Cracked and a handful of game sites. It’s interesting to see the game sites, lad mags, and general pop culture destinations all running ads for the newest AAA blockbuster game, evidence of gaming’s growing normalcy. That was the case today – across the spectrum, there were tons of ads for the freshly released Call of Duty: Ghosts.

For at least one of the last few Call of Duty releases, they’ve done ads that put live actors into situations from the games. I think the first one was Sam Worthington and Jonah Hill in war-torn lower Manhattan for Modern Warfare 3. The idea was that they were soldiers, with Worthington being the hardened badass and Hill being the incompetent rookie. The combat they showed was distinctly game-like and the whole thing was played for comedy, and it didn’t bug me much. It was a dumb ad, but it wasn’t a big deal. Something similar was done for one of the Black Ops releases, with actors in over-the-top occupation-based costumes (like a guy dressed as a stereotypical baker – apron, hat, the whole nine) battling in a bombed-out factory setting. Again, it was live-action, but the silliness of the costumes kept things comfortably surreal. Now, though, they’ve taken the concept to a new level for the release of Ghosts, with an ad called “Epic Night Out.”

Things start off on the wrong foot with the use of the word “epic,” and it gets worse from there. From what I’ve gleaned from pre-release hype, the game’s plot centers on America after some sort of catastrophe that seems to involve both natural disasters and an invasion. The ad starts out in a devastated Las Vegas, presumably a setting from the game. Into the mix are thrown four live-action characters. These are not recognizable celebrities like Worthington and Hill. They are not overblown caricatures of recognizable professions. They seem chosen to represent average gamers – four guys in their 20s or 30s, decked out in military gear and brandishing assault rifles – with giant smiles on their faces. As they blast their way through an assortment of game locales, the shit-eating grins never diminish in the least. They’re real people enjoying the hell out of real guns. Their enemies are never really shown, aside from a helicopter they shoot down at a distance. It’s been the same in all of these live-action ads. You only see vehicles blown up, but anyone who has played the games knows they’re shooting at people.

It seems silly to be bothered by this. After all, isn’t this just a depiction of how I play the game? Don’t I joke and gloat about particularly well-executed kills? If shining a light on that kind of enjoyment and treating it as a positive is distasteful, is that just an indication that the behavior itself is problematic? In the single player game, the plot provides a reason and a motivation for the player’s actions. Yes, they rack up a ridiculous body count, but it’s in the service of what is understood to be a greater good. The fact that the plot has become such an afterthought in recent games makes this more difficult, but even in the thinnest plot, you’re implicitly told that your actions are justified and you’re part of something larger. Great games (Bioshock leaps to mind) even toy with that implicit agreement that the plot should make the player feel better about mass murder, giving the player an opportunity to think about the true nature of what they’ve just enjoyed. In multiplayer, there is none of that, and “Epic Night Out” pulls back the curtain on that. It’s just killing for fun.

I don’t believe that this leads directly to violence in the real world, and as a regular participant (and someone who plans to buy the game), it’s hypocritical of me to get indignant about it, but in today’s climate of frequent gun violence, this is all so much Glorification of the Gun. The multiplayer experience is all about piling up kills in order to get access to more guns and more accessories for those guns. It dovetails directly with imbecilic ad campaigns from gun companies, like the one for an AR-15-style rifle promising that buying one will let you “consider your man card reissued.” As that Cracked article points out, Medal of Honor Warfighter even featured in-game ads for the guns and military products featured in the game.

I’m in an awkward spot. I like playing these games. I like multiplayer, and I like laughing and celebrating the gunplay equivalent of a hard-won touchdown or a home run. I can tell the difference between a video game and the real world, and I can look at the marketing and the messages implied in the games with a critical eye. I worry, though, that there are plenty of people out there who can’t or won’t, who simply equate guns with fun. Again, I don’t think there’s a causal link between video games and gun violence, but I do worry that these things feed into the gun culture in America that makes it impossible to have a reasonable discussion about gun control. Guns often referred to as “assault rifles,” many of which are direct descendants of military hardware like the M-16, guns that many gun experts say are lousy for home defense, have become talismanic things, symbolic of freedom and manhood and even fun. Anyone who suggests that they’re dangerous and need to be treated as such is an enemy of those things. How can any rational discussion arise from that? And foolish ad campaigns like “Epic Night Out” help perpetuate that.

And yet, I’m going to buy the game. With each release, the Call of Duty series racks up more reasons I should vote with my dollars and skip the next outing (most of which are gameplay related, rather than societal-collapse-related), but I still end up buying the next one. There’s some hope that the new one is a bit more thoughtful, as it was penned (supposedly) by a screenwriter who has done excellent work about the tangled and confusing nature of combat in the modern world, but that’s undercut by a very stupid ad campaign. Even if the game itself is smart, so many people who play it will not be. I don’t mean for this to sound so elitist and condescending, but as there are a lot of stupid people in the world, and a lot of people play video games, it follows that a lot of stupid people play video games, and whether they recognize it or not, the experiences they have in those games have an impact on how they view the world. It’s troubling to think that this pastime I love so much is having a seriously detrimental effect on the world.

Or maybe I’m just thinking too much. You know what I need? An epic night out.

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