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On playing the role of a terrorist in Modern Warfare 2 video game

(Beware of spoilers and graphic imagery. Video not suitable for minors).

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 may be the best-selling video game in history, but it will also go down as one of the most controversial because of a scene in which players can participate as terrorists in a civilian massacre.

The player has to choose what do do in this massacre, and there is no way to emerge unstained. I have a particular distaste for killing civilians in games, since I lost a brother to gun violence. If anybody should have a hard time accepting this game, it’s me. But I don’t agree with the outraged critics who have panned this game as dangerous cultural pollution, and here’s why I think you can play this game with a good conscience.

The game comes two years after the original modern Call of Duty: Warfare 2 became the biggest video game of the year. And since it sold more than 4.7 million units in the U.S. and U.K. alone when it launched Tuesday. It’s an intense first-person shooter that puts you in the role of soldiers in the front lines fighting modern terrorism.

But media pundits have slammed the game because it also gives you the chance to feel like what would happen if you attacked civilians in a mass slaughter at an airport. I played that scene this week, and it clearly crosses the line of what has been acceptable in video games to date. The game does give you the option of skipping a potentially offensive scene at the beginning, though, inelegantly, it doesn’t tell you what that scene is.

terror 2In the controversial scene, you are an undercover CIA operative working inside a group of Russian terrorists. They walk into an airport security entrance and start spraying bullets at the crowd. The civilians start screaming, and within seconds, they are all on the floor in pools of blood. The terrorists calmly walk through the airport, killing airport security cops and mowing down fleeing civilians. The scene isn’t a trivial addition, by the way. It’s central to the plot.

I played my role. I tried to shoot Makarov, the terrorist leader, but he is invincible. You don’t have the option of being the good guy who disrupts the attack. But you can join in the attack, shooting your machine gun at the civilians as they run or crawl away. Or you can just walk along, not firing. But if you’re trying not to blow your cover as an undercover operative, it’s pretty unrealistic to not fire.

I did. I fired at the cops trying to stop the madness. I fired at the wounded man trying to crawl to safety. I chose to let the other terrorists do most of the shooting, but I still had blood on my hands. To people unaccustomed to shooter games, the sudden controversy may be hard to understand. After all, aren’t first-person shooter games all about gunning people down and enjoying the bloody graphics? Yes, they are. But without exception, every shooter game I’ve come across has given players the chance to play the hero. You’re fighting the Nazis, you’re saving the world from invading aliens, and your job may be bloody, but you’re with the good guys. Modern Warfare 2 is a rare game where, even if you are playing on the “good” side, you are forced to kill the good guys.

Again, that may not sound like much of a difference to people who condemn any kind of bloody game play no matter what side you’re on. But to us players, it can make a big difference. I talked about this in a documentary film, Spencer Halpin’s Moral Kombat, which I saw this week for the first time on a big screen at a private screening. Moral Kombat is about the history of video game violence and the opposing arguments about it. I am in the film because my own brother was a victim of gun violence. Sixteen years ago this week, he was gunned down at his doorstep. Some gang members were after someone who lived next door to my brother and they went to the wrong house and then fired at the guy who opened the door. It was a case of mistaken identity.

I bring this up because it relates to how I view Modern Warfare 2. In the film, I described how my brother’s murder affected my views on violence. For a time, I couldn’t stand the sound of gunfire, in games or on reality TV shows like Cops. There are many people like this, I believe, who would never touch a game like Modern Warfare 2. After my brother was shot, I didn’t play games for a long time. But I slowly returned, starting with military strategy games. I eventually started playing first-person shooter games again, where you see the action from the shooter’s point of view. It was a process of desensitization, of forgetting, of brainwashing myself.

I never liked playing the bad guys, such as the Nazis in World War II, but I could play the role of someone who saved innocent people. It didn’t matter how many people I slaughtered as long as they deserved it. I felt that games like Grand Theft Auto, where there was no chance to be good, crossed the line. I didn’t want to play them. I felt that developers who made such games were wasting their creative talents. I mentioned in the film that the Kurt Vonnegut novel, Mother Night, had a fitting moral. That novel, about a double agent in World War II, was about how a spy did his cover role as a Nazi propagandist too well. The moral was, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” My extension to that was, “You are what you play.”

Under that kind of thinking, developers should restrict themselves and stay away from scenes like the Modern Warfare 2 airport slaughter. First Amendment absolutists would argue that those developers have the right to creative freedom and should be able to make any game they want. Although I am a member of the press, I am not as absolutist about the First Amendment as I might be. My views are case specific.

Now, a few years after the interview for the film, I have changed my mind about never playing the bad guy. I think it is wonderful that Modern Warfare 2 makes you stop and think about morality. At the same time, I no longer believe that you should overthink what you do in games. For most of us, games are a fantasy world, where you can do things you would never do in real life. If you can accept and understand that, then there is no moral obligation to behave well in games. There was a time when the real and the fantasy were hard for me to separate. Now, I know the difference. I acknowledge that this is probably not true for everyone.

I now believe that developers should have the right to create edgy stuff, particularly if it makes you think. While the terrorist scene has produced a lot of knee-jerk outrage, I think that it is fitting to point out the extremes of moral ambiguity in our world. This is a departure from what I said in the Moral Kombat film because, I think, I have adopted a more open mind. We need edgy entertainment to explore who we really are. Some content will cross the line of what is acceptable. But not all entertainment should be completely safe. Perhaps you should have some kind of guilty conscience if you play bad characters in games. But I am not here to rob you of the joy of playing games. If you have thought about it and are making an informed choice, you should be allowed to play those bad characters, if only to understand what it’s like to be on the other side. And that is why I think it is OK, in the strict context of what I’m talking about here, to play the terrorist role.

Just for the record, Infinity Ward may be the only game company that could get away with a scene like this and be able to deflect the ensuing firestorm of criticism. In past Call of Duty games, Infinity Ward faithfully chronicled soldiers’ experiences in war, and Infinity Ward owner Activision Blizzard has donated $1 million for a veteran’s charity from sales proceeds. The company’s games have consistently been respectful of the sacrifices soldiers make. The rest of this game drives home that point again and again.


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