Modern Warfare 2: The Most Right-Wing Game of the Decade

By 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.

No, it's not ID4.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.”

I pledge allegiance...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.

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brian longtin can't help but wonder if that scene where you shoot up the WWII Memorial is a subtle jab at the other team who made the last, non-modern Call of Duty game.
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15 Responses »

  1. >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?

    I’m a republican gamer. There goes your little theory.

  2. I had the same thoughts regarding the political sway of this game while playing it. I think its entirely a brilliant marketing strategy. Most gamers will buy this game simply because its a good game, while most hardcore liberals probably wouldn’t be looking for a run and gun game in the first place, unless they’re already into that sort of scene.

    So, they appealed to a market that would easily buy into a run and gun based game, even if they’re not avid gamers– Republicans.

    Its a frightening thought that games could be used as political weaponry, but I get the feeling that that’s been tried and failed with America’s Army already. So I disagree with your last point– although games could be used as political weapons, in theory, i doubt they would really have any impact.

    Because, in the end, the people really trying to sway the political thoughts of the American public are not game designers or businessmen, let alone Bobby Kotick.

  3. “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.”

    This is why I get annoyed when people read into video games too much. You can’t take any gameplay mechanic and pretend there’s some deeper meaning lying behind it. The developers don’t go, OH YES WE NEED TO SHOW PEOPLE HOW VULNERABLE SNAKE IS SO WE CAN MAKE A COMMENT ON DICKETY DOO.

    They go, “put it in third person so the player will be more aware of their surroundings” because it’s a goddamn SNEAKING game.

    Also you clearly didn’t play the game all the way through, because General Shepherd is revealed to be the antagonist and the game turns his irony-deficient right-wing bullshit into the entire catalyst for the conflict. SPOILERS: Shepherd’s desire for a return to militaristic America is why the Russians are invading, he worked with Makarov and masterminded the whole spiel.

    Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2 has always satirised the AMERICA HOO-AH thing, with the Americans being nuked in COD4 and then getting the shit kicked out of them on their own turf in MW2 and both times it took the Brits to save the day.

  4. To be honest, I saw the opposite of this reviewer. The game does seem on the surface to be very right-wing, but underneath it does seem to be actually attacking that viewpoint. Yes, the Russians invade, but the ultimate villain is actually the US general.

    In the first one as well as this one, most of the actions of the protagonists are very morally questionable, almost as much as the evildoers they’re facing. Not to mention how both games condemn the unilateral nature of US foreign policy. Even in one of the trailers the villain Makarov says something along the lines of “you have spilled blood all over the world and you don’t hear the suffering, but you will”, and then shows the US being attacked. Isn’t that a pretty clear condemnation of our invasions and sanctions and dirty wars?

  5. this is the stupidest thing i have ever read. this is what people think of when they think of the typical whiny liberal. the American who was in the airport undercover was told to aim high and not kill anybody. Russia invaded America b/c of the terrorist at the airport killed the American undercover there. the mission where the general killed the guy (who was s.a.s. not an American) was way after russia invaded. and the guy who shot the nuke, who was also British, shot it to create a emp blast to help the Americans fight the Russians. play the game before u come up with crazy right wing stories that people will read and who didn’t play the game or are to stupid to understand the story will believe.

  6. Ridiculous. Plenty of liberals play video games. Hell, they pioneered them. Hardcore Conservatives to THIS DAY speak out against violent video games.

  7. Hi Brian -

    I thought this was, for the most part, an interesting and thoughtful post. Certainly, you may want to be a bit more gentle with some of the later bits, as they do seem to paint in awfully broad strokes about “Small-town America. Red State America” gamers, distracting readers and commenters from your well-written and -reasoned first two sections.

    I absolutely agree that the game is coming from a place on the far-right side of the spectrum. Can one honestly, and with clear-eyes, argue that Modern Warfare 2 is in any way anti-war? No, I think not. That argument could be maintained by a particularly deft debater, but it would require some awfully slick reinterpretation of the game’s content. (Side note: That line about “We don’t kill civilians, We use precision” stuck in my craw, as well. Gross me out!)

    I also think that contrasting MW2 with MGS4 is absolutely brilliant, and presents a comparison that I’m surprised not have read more of (or thought of myself). Perhaps it’s because I just got a PS3 and am therefore playing MGS4 for the first time, but I believe that, although I haven’t finished, that game presents a truly ambiguous, wonderfully deep, and staunchly anti-war statement. From the horrible and wonderfully ripe-for-metaphor side-effects of the PMC’s nanomachines to the frank discussion of PTSD, most shockingly and hauntingly rendered by the true nature of the Beauty & Beast Unit that you must fight… all those narrative elements feathering beautifully with gameplay that, as you point out, is as much about avoiding conflict as it is about instigating it… THAT is an anti-war war game.

    Your closing sentence is both cleverly constructed and wonderfully true - while we weren’t looking, games really HAVE begun a shift from being the subjects of the culture war to weapons in it. Which, when you think about it, isn’t that different from the B&Bs in MGS4… victims of war who became fighting machines themselves. But ha, I totally digress.

    I guess I just wanted to say that I appreciated this post. But seriously, careful with the red-state generalizations - you’re talking about something really interesting here, and there is no faster way to kill discussion than to begin throwing around data-free assertions about the gaming habits and desires of rural or conservative voters.

    Your own personal take on the game, however, is really compelling. Good stuff.

  8. Honestly, I have to say that the replies on this page make more sense and are closer to the truth than the actual article.

    For one thing, in both Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2, the character through which most of the story is played is (or was) part of the British SAS. In Modern Warfare 2, you play as both a British member of an international task force (which, admittedly, is full of Americans, but also Canadians, Australians and Europeans), before taking on the role of former-SAS Captain “Soap”. And once you become “Soap” again, you kill an American Lieutenant-General.

    Now, I’m not going to argue on the behalf of Modern Warfare 2’s story. It had entire portions of the story removed and it required a good deal of interpretation on the part of the player (for example, Shephard’s betrayal… the player, even after the game, probably doesn’t know why he did it). In particular, it wasn’t even made particularly clear to the player why Captain Price launched a nuke at America (or if it was even him the pushed the button). As well, I would much have preferred Prisoner 627 in the Gulag to have turned out to be Sgt. Kamarov (the Russian in the first game who lead the Loyalists who fought beside you against the Ultranationalist bad guys), and for Captain Price to have gone the route of Rambo in Rambo 4 (i.e., going into retirement somewhere, and only emerging to kick the ass of anybody, from any country, that he deemed the ‘bad guy’).

    Modern Warfare 2’s story, even when carefully viewed multiple times, is fully open to interpretation. I think that’s one of the reasons why so many people buy it, though it does take away a lot of the story’s ‘make sense’ factor, and thus hurts the game in the long run. Still, this is the first game I have played in which you not only killed Americans, but that you played AS Americans… and were betrayed, again, by Americans. All the while still retaining a multinational flavor.

    But Russia’s invasion of America is something that is actually explained quite well. You, the player, have killed (or were a part of a group that killed) many, many Russian civilians. The Ultranationalist Russians having won out (politically, mind you; they simply won more votes and a larger percentage of the power), and the American-backed Loyalists no longer in power, Russia would naturally want to go to war (hell, wouldn’t America go to war if a single Russian thought to be connected to the Russian government was thought to be responsible for American deaths?). And war they do go to, leading to an over-the-top, regrettably under-explained battle for Washington D.C.

    And what’s more, the article has made an uncalled-for jab at Gears of War. Of that franchise I will admit to being a biased fanboy; next time, please refrain from using ‘xenophobia’ as the joke, and remember that more than anything else GoW is about giant guns and bulky soldiers and… wait, hold on. I meant to say ‘the fall of humanity’s civilizations and…’, aw forget it, giant guns and bulky soldiers.

    More about MW2.

    Time and time again, Shephard hints as to his motives. He drops these hints in the cutscenes and debriefings, often foreshadowing his actions and explaining his motives. “Now is the time for heroes” he says at one point, “for legends.” Which suddenly makes the player stop and think ‘wait, if that’s so then why are we playing all the lowly grunts and work-dogs of the army?’ Shephard paints a picture that the player often fails to see, but becomes painfully obvious when they suddenly realize that his motives are fulfilled when he is granted a blank check, and when they begin to wonder how Makarov knew you were a mole, why Shephard betrayed “Roach” and “Ghost” before burning the evidence that was their bodies (it would be him, and only him, that would be responsible for bringing down Makarov).

    My money on Modern Warfare 3 will be that we will experience two entirely different tales; one of being the hunted ‘terrorist’, and one of being the American soldier fighting Russia when everybody is backing Russia (and for good reason, after what Shephard has gone and done for us). In this story, Russia was hurt, and in turn America was hurt. “Ghost” even says about the Russians that “nobody will blame them”, and he makes a point. A terrorist attack leaving hundreds dead, with the only evidence leading everyone to believe that it was Americans who were responsible, and it’s even suggested that Shephard started the war for personal gain??

    Very, very open to interpretation. And honestly, all I’m seeing is a tale that Infinity Ward wants to tell that is one of all the faces of war, and very much its human cost as well as being the BAMF who gets to kill bad guys. But whatever.

    Long, unwieldly rant over.

  9. One thing I forgot to mention and immediately regretted. Shephard and Price claim that history is ‘written by the victor’, though Price angrily scoffs that ‘history is filled with liars’.

    This communicates another underlying theme of part of MW2’s campaign. That history is often written by the bad guys who did bad things, and painted themselves the good things. And in this case it’s America (and Russia, being that the bad guy from the first game is now Russia’s new national hero, but this seems to only balance things out).

    Again, all interpretation. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? You’re killing the guy who’s going to leave your impression on history as ‘the people responsible for millions of deaths and for untold destruction’, and he, the one really responsible, would be the man who brought America to domination over everybody else. Obviously, he’s a bad guy for that reason. And for being a bad guy, he sure demonstrates a lot of red-state tendencies and southern “badass war-hero” traits, doesn’t he?

    As a side note, I’m proud to be a Conservative, and a Republican Christian for that matter. Just thought I’d point that out.

  10. Hmm. Leaving aside issues of the “truth,” I gotta say, I remain unconvinced. One of the hardest things about discussing the story elements of MW2 is that they occupy such a minuscule percentage of the game compared with the gameplay itself. Games like Far Cry 2, Fallout 3 and MGS4 have much more to say about war than MW2, and they say those things coherently, and through their actual gameplay (especially Far Cry 2).

    To say that MW2 makes its statements about war during its loading screens is to ignore the statements that it makes with the bulk of its gameplay - gameplay that presents war with no (shown) civilian casualties, no soldier PTSD or real feeling of loss when an anonymous brother-in-arms is shot, torture in the field necessitated by a ticking-time-bomb scenario, and a nuke detonated over US soil in the interests of the greater good.

    I should note that the sake of focus, I am leaving the utterly incoherent “No Russian” mission out - just like IW gives me the option to do in the game. But I suggest checking out Tom Bissell’s post, “It’s a Massacre!” on Crispy Gamer, since I pretty much totally agree with what he says about it, and its narrative worthlessness, there.

    Muttered voice-overs notwithstanding, I don’t buy any of MW2’s gameplay as anti-war, and, getting back to Brian’s thesis in this article, I also have a hard time seeing it as anything but pretty far to the right side of the political spectrum. (Though I’ll admit, that seems like a needlessly provocative place to take it. Pro- and Anti-War might be better, just so that our various pavlovian red- or blue-state response mechanisms don’t cloud the issue :-).

    I think that Infinity Ward opened the door to this by being deliberately provocative themselves - as Bissell points out, it’s easy to confuse thought-provoking for mere provocation.

    I suspect that the fellows at IW are simply better at (and more interested in) designing well-balanced multiplayer maps and super-fun shooting galleries than they are at making coherent statements about the nature of war in the 21st century.

    But if we ARE going to try to parse their meaning, I suggest that we look to the game itself, and not merely the loading screen voice-overs.

  11. Thanks (most of you) for the thoughtful responses to the article.

    Kirk - I specifically framed it as right-wing as opposed to pro-war, because I think one could easily interpret the game as anti-war, considering the traumatic and awful things the players-as-soldiers have to go through. One would have to be pretty bloodthirsty to play through this game and come out the other side thinking life on the front lines is anything but shocking and awful. There are moments of triumph but at what cost?

    What I was more interested in exploring is how so many of the game’s scenarios play into the supposed fears of the far-right (what has recently come to be known as the ‘teabagger’ movement), and their inflated sense of danger to ‘the American Way’. Terrorists being able to orchestrate full-scale wars between nations as opposed to isolated acts of martyrdom. Attacks on American soil if we don’t give the military carte blanche. And especially recently, distrust of the government itself. Though there are nuances in the game (if you look really hard) that could be open to interpretation, the broad strokes of the game are painted with a decidedly right-wing brush.

    On the other hand…

    Wisdom Thumbs - I don’t necessarily disagree with anything you said either. But you’ve obviously taken a very considered look at the minutiae of the game — more so than a lot of players will. (And, it should be noted, than the game makes itself easy to comprehend with a single play-through.)

    I too totally recognize the fact (in the article above) that the hawkish military American turns out to be the bad guy, which could suggest that the game is anti-war, but that’s a hard argument to make when you’re spending 6 hours firing guns at people. Instead, the game seems very specifically to favor the lone agents of good taking up arms against any forces of tyranny, whether at home or abroad, which could be seen as simply the classic hero-story of any game. But, put in the context of where the action takes place (our own capitol), and some of the specific events (being out-smarted by terrorists and double-crossed by our own government), the overarching feeling seems to me very close to the sentiments of the very-far-right specific to our political climate in the last year.

    PS: To those who suggested I didn’t finish the game, I would suggest you could only say that if you didn’t read the full article… haha.

  12. Also to Kirk - Thanks for elaborating on the MGS4 comparison. I wish I could have expanded on that point more myself, but having played the game over 9 months ago I missed some of the great connections you made.

  13. The American military are NOT savages, they DO use precision, and they make every effort to not kill civilians short of sacrificing there own lives. That is the truth! That is the reality whether you like it or not. If you dont, then go to hell.

  14. [...] It’s a shame, then, that the average consumer must wait days, weeks or months to read analysis at some of the more thoughtful gaming blogs, few of which get prerelease copies of these games as the more mainstream review sites do. For instance, when Modern Warfare 2’s formal reviews reached critical mass, it ended up with a Metascore of 94 with the lowest score being a 78. In general, game critics loved Modern Warfare 2. Because of these rave reviews, most of us bought the game. Weeks later, however, bloggers began to express various concerns about the ideas, the message, and the implicit political implications of such a game. [...]

  15. Most right-wing nutters are FPS enthusiasts. You know, the whole “gun-nut” thing. Plus, killing totalitarian whores never gets old. In most games, the bad guys are totalitarian collectivist Philistines of some stripe (commy, Nazi, street thug, raghead, degenerate pedophile, you name it). This was true even back in the day. In the NES game ‘Strider’, you kill commies in Kazakh (it takes place in the future as extrapolated from the ’80s, so Kazakh was not yet Kazakhstan at the time the game was made and was still under the Soviet umbrella). ‘Strider’ for the Genesis, as well as the arcade version, also featured the exterminance of commies.

    There’s something about depressing Pripyat-style tenement blocks (which are all the rage in China) that creates an ambience of foreboding oppression. ‘Half-Life 2′ utilizes this motif. Set in City 17, which is modeled after various former Warsaw Pact countries (Ukraine, Estonia, etc.), and its surrounding environs, the theme is anti-totalitarian and anti-collectivist. Monsters and aliens are sort of an environmental hazard. The real enemy is government (as per typical). Specifically, government in the form of alien internationalism (xeno-invaders). In this case, humanity as a whole would represent the spirit of Nationalism. The Combine don’t call themselves “the Combine.” They refer to their regime as “the Universal Union.” If you ask me, that sounds like a cross between the UN and the European Union. The Borg-like ubercollectivist nature of the Combine is a perfect metaphor for the UN, and the EU even moreso.

    Another gem from the ’80s is ‘Bionic Commando’ (specifically, the NES game). You play as a specially trained Federation commando of the Double Force Battalion who looks like a cross between Michael Biehn and Walter Kovacs (imagine Kyle Reese with red hair). The enemies are Nazis (aka “the Badds”). It takes place in an alternate 1980s and follows an alternate history storyline which I find intriguing. Much more original than the remake and the sequel which are both set in the 2030s. There are rumors of a ‘Bionic Commando’ movie. They’d better not screw it up. And Uwe Boll should not be allowed anywhere near the project. That would be ironic considering he’s been called a “cinematic Hitler” (by none other than The Spoony One). Maybe he could play Hitler in the movie. Then we could all watch with delight as his head explodes in slow motion.

    ~Iggy Hazard (The E.V.I.L. Republican Gamer) }:-D

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