Modern Warfare 2: The Most Right-Wing Game of the DecadeBy brian longtin • Dec 3rd, 2009 • Category: playing • Popularity: 100%
What Modern Warfare 2 does as a game makes it a must-buy. But what it says, and how it says it, is a much more fascinating question.
Modern Warfare 2 earns the title of fastest-selling game of all time. The team at Infinity Ward are among the most skilled action-game makers in the business, and their latest shooter is on par with any Hollywood blockbuster in terms of epic scale and moment-to-moment thrills. On the technical side, controlling your character is fluid and flawless in a way few games can match, and the presentation overall is stellar.
Then add to that a multi-player environment whose wealth of game types and unlockable rewards will keep players coming back for weeks and months to come. A mode that’s so good, in fact, that it’s the primary reason millions rushed out to buy the game; earning experience points to help trick out your soldier is so addictively fun it justifies a purchase all on its own. Taken together, in terms of both quality and quantity, the entertainment value of this disc easily exceeds what gamers get in an average sixty dollar package.
In essence, what this game does makes it a must-buy. But what this game says, and how it says it, is a much more fascinating question. Especially considering the record-breaking number of people playing it as we speak, possibly mindless to the messages it’s sending. [Full spoilers ahead, naturally.]
Most games are pretty apolitical, dealing with broad character dramas if they go so far as to bother with story at all. No one would accuse Street Fighter of being about international relations as much as learning how to hadoken, or insist that Gears of War is about xenophobia as much as the joys of a gun with a chainsaw attached. Action games in particular mostly follow the good vs evil, human vs monster, America vs ‘ambiguous foreign terrorists’ model. Why over-think it when shooting stuff is just so much fun?
But over the course of Modern Warfare 2, a sneaking suspicion crept in that I was playing a distinctly Red State kind of a game. The moment that tipped its hand most shamelessly came in a briefing sequence while loading up the mission “Loose Ends”, near the end of the game. General Shepard, who directs your missions throughout by voicing over flashy wire-frame animations, makes a very pointed statement without a trace of irony: “Despite what the world may say, we are not savages. We don’t kill civilians. We use precision.”
The line is laughable for it’s standoffishness (Fuck what the rest of the world thinks… U! S! A!), as well as its patent falseness (only 828 in Afghanistan just last year is practically zero, right?). Even worse, it’s growled at you by a character who you later discover was in league with the terrorists all along, and whose goal is to orchestrate full-scale war to procure limitless military power for himself. The secret machinations and bald-faced double-speak are positively Cheney-esque. All that’s missing is a seat on the board of some military supply corporation.
But hey, it turns out that guy was the villain, so his crazy plans are what you’re fighting against, right? Does that mean that in the end, the underlying message of MW2 is about the necessity of taking down the hawkish and power-hungry? Not exactly.
Let’s look at a few key scenes. Though the infamous “No Russian” airport level has received plenty of coverage for taking you on a civilian killing spree (another reason for a quizzical pause when you hear the “We’re not savages” line), what’s sometimes glossed over is that at the end of the mission, you’re gunned down because the terrorists know you’re a plant. Their plan all along was to set you up as a patsy. Not only are the terrorists always one step ahead, but it’s because (gasp!) they’re colluding with Americans — a familiar justification for things like the Patriot Act. A few levels later, full scale war breaks out on American soil, bringing the most paranoid of neoconservative fears to life in vivid detail, down to a full frontal assault on the lawn of the White House.
Meanwhile, the heroes of the game learn a few key lessons: trust no one, especially the government. And when it comes to defending those nebulous things like ‘Freedom’ or ‘the American Way’, the ends justify the means. It’s okay that an undercover US operative joined in a rampage targeting innocents; he had a mission. It makes sense when Price launches a nuke into the atmosphere over DC, wiping out their electrical grid as well as decimating the international space station; someone has to make these sacrifices, or America will fall. Even better when that someone is a military man who’s “gone rogue”. Sound familiar? That’s the war cry of a real American hero.
It all brings us back, as conservatives are wont to do, to a simpler time. To a type of warfare that’s not so modern at all: where you shoot first and ask questions later, and when a scheming Russia is the unequivocally evil giant bent on our destruction (Russia? Really? It must be too challenging to make a blockbuster story around isolated terror cells. Welcome back to the Nixon era!). It makes for high drama, but it also misses the opportunity gained by setting a war story in the present. The chance to tackle the dilemmas faced by our actual modern military, whose enemies are no longer armies, is largely squandered.
Only it doesn’t fall back on entirely apolitical tropes either. What makes Modern Warfare 2 such a politically charged experience is that it both lays out the nightmare scenarios that right-wing ideologues are always harping about, and at the same time lets its players fulfill the good ol’ boy fantasy of being the gun-toting freedom fighter who saves us from the brink.
So does any of this make the game any less fun? Of course not. A little less grounded in reality, sure, but still a hell of a roller-coaster ride.
Then what does it mean?
Maybe that a red-blooded game might have a better shot at full mainstream success than one that targets the traditional ‘gamer’ set. The computer types, the comic book types. The programmers and readers. Dare we say the intellectuals, or even liberals?
It might not be all that crazy to think so. Contrast Modern Warfare with its polar opposite, the Metal Gear franchise, and specifically last year’s MGS4. The latest chapter of Solid Snake’s story details the horrors of private military corporations wresting control from national interests, and its mechanics encourage you to play through as much as possible without killing anyone. You use your wits instead of your bullets. It’s heavy on dialogue and philosophy, and suggests tiptoeing through war instead of raining down fire. Its emphasis is on people and characters and the human cost of conflict. Not to mention the simple difference that you see your vulnerable, overwhelmed character on screen at all times, where in MW2 you literally see the world down the barrel of a gun. Though it’s no surprise that the simpler, more straight-forward, more gung-ho game is the one that sets sales records, the corresponding political overtones seem too convenient to be accidental.
In late October, a certain pre-launch video received its own groundswell of coverage. In it, a sports star called people pussies, and it ended with a title card for a fictional organization with an insensitive acronym: “Fight Against Grenade Spam”. People rightly cried foul for Infinity Ward’s decision to play into the ugly behavior associated with online players. Though the video was pulled soon after, an interview around the same time quoted an Infinity Ward staffer as saying, ““Not only do we know the game but we know the gamer. We know what to expect from them and what they expect from us.”
Certainly he was speaking in part about the way the game works, in terms of the features and options people prefer to make playing as enjoyable as possible. But the bigger implication may have been that they also know fully well who plays these games most: small-town America. Red State America. And if they know their audience as well as they say, it should be no surprise that the game’s underlying politics play into their fans’ expectations in that arena as well.
Five years ago, Modern Warfare might not have gotten away with a present-day war taking place in the corridors of the White House. But at a time where middle America is frustrated and maybe even a little frightened of where the government is headed, the idea of blowing it all up and starting fresh isn’t scary, it’s exciting. And for the ‘elitist’ crowd (those big city intellectuals, or heaven forbid critics in the media) who see the whole thing as a farcical military fantasy that’s just a fun way to blow off steam: brace yourselves. Along with the mainstream acceptance of a maturing medium come some drawbacks we my not have considered. In the not too distant future, games may no longer be a victim of the culture war, but one of its weapons.