I had planned to acquire Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for Christmas, while giving the game to my father-in-law and brother-in-law as Christmas presents so we could all play together. This game was a no-brainer, and has been for about a year. This week, though, I had second thoughts.

Earlier this week, a video was leaked onto the internet which purported to be a segment of the single-player campaign mode of the upcoming video game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. In the video, the player was thrust in the middle of a terrorist attack at LAX airport – except that rather than playing as one of the victims or one of the authorities trying to stop the attack, the player is thrust into the action looking through the eyes of one of the terrorists himself. Our first act as a terrorist? Step up to a group of innocent bystanders, and open fire.

The scene (which is optional, and can be skipped after fair warning) is dramatically disturbing, even having watched it through the blurriness of the leaked video. As I watched the terrorists open fire, I felt sick. It only gets more disturbing as the player runs through the airport taking out civilian after civilian, some of which seem to be attempting to help others or drag bodies out of the way. Let’s be clear: developer Infinity Ward didn’t flinch from depicting the reality of a terrorist attack.

There are a number of ways they could have made this situation more acceptable. They could have simply forced us to watch the attack, rather than interact with it and help it happen. They could have written in a terrorist attack that was easier on our psyche: a huge explosion that only implies hundreds of civilian deaths. Or, of course, they could have written the whole calamity out of the script altogether.

All of these things would have alleviated the immediate problem as it now stands: people see what now resides in the game and gasp in horror. If the video were of a cut-scene in which we watch the terrorists do their thing, popular reaction would have been little more than apathy. On the other hand, if they had allowed the terrorist attack to take on a more digestible, anonymous and explosive form the primary response would have been something along the lines of “awesome!” I don’t know about you, but when I’m considering the possibility of a terrorist attack on American soil and the deaths of innocent citizens, I want my response (and that of others) to be something other than “awesome!” or apathy.

A proper reaction to a work of art or entertainment is often the result of truthfulness in that particular artifact. As I’ve pointed out before, truthfulness matters, even (and especially) when it comes to popular culture. It’s hard to make a case for Modern Warfare 2 without seeing the terrorist scene in the context of the larger game, but it’s also misguided to condemn the scene outright, making claims that such subject matter ought not to be addressed in a video game, or that playing the game would encourage the player to run out and carry out similar acts. Video games have become a legitimate medium for artistic expression, however stunted by various economic and pragmatic boundaries it may be. As such, it’s time to stop treating them as kid’s playthings. In fact, this game in particular had already acquired a rating that makes it clear: this game is for adults.

Furthermore, the game’s precursor was a surprisingly sober experience at times. While there were a number of “awesome!” moments, they were always, well, awesome moments. But the game was also chock full of tragedy and sobering stakes. In a stroke of genius, the developer even addressed the common problem of what “infinite lives” does to our understanding of a situation. Knowing that the ability to come back to life over and over again would make a situation (in this case, war) seem trivial, they followed up every death with a black screen containing only a thoughtful quote about the nature of war: it’s dangers, costs, and importance. Modern Warfare is no War and Peace, but it is underrated in its artfulness.

Nonetheless, there are practical realities to think about, and we would be remiss if we wrote them off for the sake of artistic purity. There are those who are simply too close in time and/or proximity to the realities portrayed here to keep their composure long enough to play through them. There are also those who are simply too young or immature to see this reality for what it is: horrific and reprehensible. Those players should stay away or be kept away from this game, either by themselves, those who love them or by the ESRB’s “Mature” rating and the video game store’s refusal to sell it to them.

I still get a sinking feeling in my stomach, not just when watching the video, but when thinking of those theoretical emotionally stunted teenagers, playing that one scene over and over because it’s “just so fun.” Nonetheless, it’s crucial to remember that they’re corrupting the game, not the other way around. Those emotionally stunted individuals will find anything to pour their dysfunctions into, but it doesn’t put any of those things at fault.

Playing Modern Warfare 2 is no longer the no-brainer it once was. Gamers everywhere are now forced to back up and think deeply and in unison about the purpose and place of a game like this. My hope is that we think just as deeply in the midst of the action, with the bullets flying – especially when they’re flying at LAX.


  1. Wow… I haven’t seen the video, but I’ve got boys in my youth group, so I’m sure I’ll see that scene at some point. I agree with you wholeheartedly, and appreciate you speaking out as a Christian who believes that we should thoughtfully engage culture instead of running from it with our arms flailing.

    I think your point about who should (be allowed to) play this game is particularly salient, too. Back when I had an XBox 360, I had the first Modern Warfare. I remember how horrifying the initial scene in the storyline was – watching passively from the perspective of a political prisoner as you are driven to your execution, unable to do anything other than look around at all the death and mayhem around you; watching one of the bad guys cock a pistol, point it at your head, and pull the trigger. I thought it was gripping, raw, shocking, and real. It made a statement to me about the world and the type of mentality it takes to show that kind of brutality. My students thought it was boring because it was 3-4 minutes of video game that they didn’t get to shoot anybody.

    I hope and pray that more parents will begin fulfilling their role as spiritual leaders for their kids and either protect young minds from this kind of media, or (maybe better) take the time to experience it with their kids and talk through the issues.

  2. I think it salient to point out that from everything that’s been said, it appears that the player character doesn’t play as a terrorist. You don’t get to play as a terrorist. Instead, you apparently play as a CIA infiltrator into a terrorist cell. So you play as a good guy, undercover, killing good guys in order to maintain your cover and defeat, at day’s end, the bad guys.

    This is important because it increases the story-value of the scene dramatically. It raises questions of the ethic of “modern warfare,” of collateral damage (e.g., civilians killed in order to preserve an opportunity to more greatly damage an enemy), etc. It really turns the story-mechanism of the game into something valuable and worthwhile.

    Still, at the end of the day, those civilians aren’t people. They’re computer-generated AIs with some sort of ragdoll physic attached. For some people, especially non-gamers, that’s connected so tenuously that they might as well be real people. But for many of us, the connection is always evident and we never don’t feel as though we are playing a game.

  3. Joseph, that first scene startled me when I first played the game. I truly expected Call of Duty to be a bit more light, but they set the stage quite nicely there. Thanks for providing the examples of how you vs. your youth reacted to the scene. The parents role here is SO important, and I don’t mean they all need to call their senators. They need to tell their kids NO, even when it’s freaking Call of Duty and it’s ALL they want for Christmas.

    The Dane, good point about the new dimension added on to the story in light of that little detail. I knew about that, but was trying to cram a LOT of facts into a little blog post and just didn’t want to try and fit it in. But yeah, it’s relevant, and it speaks to the complexity of the story – and actually makes me pretty excited about it.

    As for pointing out that the computer images aren’t people: I certainly can’t argue with the statement, but it’s important to realize that those computer generated images represent ideas and concepts that actually mean things. So when you aim a representation of a gun and shoot a representation of a bullet into a representation of a human head… well, that’s still a representation of something pretty awful.

  4. @Rich: So is crushing a turtle by stomping on it.

    The key to understanding the affect of this is always going to hinge on each individual’s reaction to the representation. You clearly invest more verisimilitude into the representation than I do. When I aim a representation of a gun and shoot a representation of a bullet into a representation of a human head, there’s no connection to an analogous real-life situation. If my wife did the same, there would be. And when you do the same, there seems to be at least some connection.

    We all approach these things differently and each case needs to be approached on its own terms.

  5. @TheDane: Well, obviously crushing a cartoon turtle is a little different than shooting realistically designed people in the head. But yeah, you’re right. It’s about the individual reaction, which is basically subjective. BUT, it’s also something the designer has some control. This is why Miyamoto hates violent shooting games but feels just fine about Mario going around committing Koopa Troopa genocide. Because it’s cartoony, harmless killing.

  6. Your (and Miyamoto’s) argument is that it’s okay because the player/viewer experiences a distancing from the reality of his actions, so much so that the player is not held culpable for even the idea of crushing turtles with well-timed stomps. My argument is identical.

    Well, save for the fact that I acknowledge that the degree of distancing, while facilitated by the kind of game, is most basically a function of the degree to which individual players identify the fantasy with the reality.

    Back in the day, Bugs Bunny and the Three Stooges came under attack for their violence and the “fact” that they would prompt their young viewership into like action. We argue, But they’re too cartoony. No one would take them seriously. But apparently some children did and hoped to mimmick the roles these fictionalizations played out. Of course, not all children did. The one’s who could tell reality from fantasy didn’t.

    I can see an argument made that as a game approaches reality we should seek to become more aware of its unreality. But to leave it at the game being a representation of something awful is not a robust enough response since, as I pointed out, so is Super Mario Bros.

  7. Obviously parents need to control what their kids play. I think you could make the argument that “experiencing horror” at this terrorist sequence is a valuable experience if it causes you to value life more, or to be more aware of atrocities in the world. But I can understand opposition to that argument as well.

    Either way, this is NOT a kids game. I think most “Gamer” dads would understand that and take precautions (assuming they are good at being a dad). The problem is that I think that many parents, especially those that don’t play modern video games, still take the Game in Video Games too literally. I hope this will change as gaming becomes more prevalent among adults.

    For parents, it is easier to monitor movies. More parents watch movies than play games, so they are familiar with the territory. But parents that don’t play games will have to make an extra effort to be familiar enough with what their kids are playing.

  8. While I’m personally not a fan of ratings boards, I think the ESRB generally does a better job at rating games than the MPAA does at rating movies. I think that parents can generally get a good idea about game content by looking at this immediately available piece of information.

    (Incidentally, while playing the E-rated Sid Meier’s Railroads!, I was struck by the fact that the game promotes ruthless capitalist acumen. Not only do you compete with other rail barons, but the only way to actual success is to destroy their plans own for success. When you do so, you are treated to a fullscreen freeze frame of your opponent wallowing in despair. Is this what we want to teach our children? To hope for the the failure of others? Is that innocuous just because it doesn’t include decapitations or innuendo or words that kids use regularly on the playground in elementary school?)

    That Modern Warfare 2 is rated M should tell every parents something about the game’s content. Though the fact that it’s apparently earned Most-Wanted Game status for tweens says something else.

    Amusingly, Australian authorites, like usual, are missing the point:

    The consequences of terrorism are just abhorrent in our community and yet here we are with a product that’s meant to be passed off as a leisure time activity, actually promoting what most world leaders speak out publicly against.

    As if Activism would be legally allowed to “promote” terrorism.

  9. The Dane, I love your point about (most boring game in the world) Sid Meier’s Railroads. That’s stuff we should at least be aware of.

    On the issue of tweens most-wanting MW2, that’s another example of a trend I find MOST disturbing: kids in our culture not only gravitate toward innapropriate material, but it’s often marketed to them and parents don’t even care. I must say, though, it’s a lot better of a situation in the gaming industry than in the film, tv, and music industries. At least game publishers are somewhat wary about blatantly marketing their wares to teens. On the other hand, maybe they don’t have to since most of the industry IS teenagers and young kids.

  10. The more I think about this the more I think it is the right decision in the context of the game, although I probably won’t buy the game at all. I put down MW1 during the C-130 gunship level. Having seen the actual video footage that level was lifted from and being absolutly horrified, I just couldn’t enjoy the game after that. Perhaps that was the point, and if so, it was effective. I was put into a cold sweat, struck by the terrible reality of death raining down from the sky upon those scrambling, glowing shapes that were human(albeit terrorists.)

    Ironically, in my job in the air force reserve I’ve actually loaded ammunition onto planes that then go on bombing runs on terrorist cells, so I understand the necessity of death, dismemberment and wanton destruction in war better than most, but if anything that means I enjoy its simulation even less.

  11. Really good thoughts, Johnny. One thing these games do is give people like me a chance to understand what those sorts of horrible situations might be like. I found that scene disturbing as well, but I also felt like I was a better person for having played it. Sometimes, experiencing something for yourself can be a door to empathy and understanding.

  12. I think the really hard part is reconciling something somewhat serious(ie. a complex presentation on the horrors and necessity of war) with something that is inherently escapist(the multiplayer deathmatches of the same game). That’s where it breaks down for me. The game shows you something serious, then expects you to forget it as your frag your friends willy-nilly.

  13. You’re right-on there, that’s an issue I’ve been thinking through as well. Though, I do appreciate that the game seems to treat these two things as seperate entities. Did you ever notice how single-player and multiplayer have two completely different title screens? For them, and for us, multiplayer is almost a completely different game from the campaign.

    And when I play multiplayer, I’ve had two distinct mindsets at various times. Sometimes, I feel as though I’m in a competitive sport, with the soldiers as mere icons, rather than actual serious concepts. I think this is just fine. Other times, I allow myself to appreciate the experience of being a part of a military team, and what that must be like. Both instances I find to be valuable.

  14. This scene actually takes place at an airport in Russia, if that makes any difference.

    I think Infinity Ward has succeeded with making their point. This game travels far beyond your typical shooter. This game depicts the reality of war in a tragic, artistic, and true fashion. This scene is NOT intended for those who can’t handle it or for those who are too immature to process the meaning behind it.

    Parents, this one’s on you. It has a rating for a reason. It’s sad, terrifying, horrific, and leaves you feeling sick to the stomach. You can shoot innocent civilians, or simply walk through it while the other terrorist do the killing. I shot them because it was implied in briefing that sacrifices would have to be made for the greater good.

    If you play it, you’ll learn the meaning behind this scene by seeing what unfolds after. There are some major things to take away from it. Terrorism is of ultimate evil. It is not funny, nor is it to be taken lightly. The threat is real to anyone, any place. Furthermore, sacrificing innocent lives for the greater good can cause a reaction far beyond what you had intended.

    If you or your kids can’t read into what it’s really about, stay away. I hate to think of some kid laughing their way through the airport in Columbine style.

  15. I really appricate you putting this up because so many times people automaticly accuse video games(or other mediums in general) of the problems happening with things but its also right that there are those emmotionally stunted individuals like you said who shouldnt play this game who i am around those types of individuals quite often and they are all getting this game just because its “awesome”. Which in my mind somewhat disgusts me because sure it is a game but theres a point at which you have to see it as more than just something fun and as something which addresses a serious issue. So i thank you for writting this.

  16. You are taking this way out of proportion. What you don’t understand is that you aren’t being forced to kill the civillians, you have a choice to fire your gun or not and that is where you are being mistaken. I bet that when put in the scenario of the game you would go about on that mission shooting everyone you saw moving on that level without even thinking. If you must make such a big deal about it, then just don’t shoot of skip the level over all. Run around and look at the terminal but don’t engage in what your other “team mates” are doing. This is just a simulation. Nothing more. Nothing less. A game designed for entertainment to simulate the possibilites and unfortunate truths that can arise on any given day at any time. You as a christian should know and understand that the world we live in is so f*cked that a thing like this could happen. Infinity Ward is just putting it in perspective since hardly any other developer would. This game set to take place in the “not so distant future”, our world is spiralling down and it will all end soon due to our actions and our mistakes. And one more thing, the Terminal level takes place in Moscow, at a fictional airport called “Zakhaev International Airport”, not LAX.

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