In a recent editorial for The Atlantic, D.B. Grady, a former paratrooper and veteran of Afghanistan, tears into the centerpiece ad of Activision’s Modern Warfare 3 campaign. If you haven’t seen it (and we’ve included both ads after the break) it builds on last year’s Black Ops ads by featuring actor Sam Worthington teaching Jonah Hill the tricks of the trade when it comes to armed combat in hellish battlegrounds around the world. Grady posits that the ads are creating a false image of what being a soldier means, but Grady is missing the point of the ad entirely: it’s whole-cloth fantasy.
Both of these ads, in fact the Black Ops spot moreso, are designed to show that the average joe is playing their military-themed shooters. From celebrities in their off-time to students and lawyers, the series’ success reaches across wide swaths of social strata. You don’t need to be a neurosurgeon to pick these games up and start killing dudes immediately. And even if you’re terrible at them, the amount of awards the game throws at you for doing stuff you’re supposed to and the rich production values keep winning people back. Like me. But someone like Grady sees this as some perverse advertisement for the armed forces. I have a ton of respect for our servicemen and women around the world, even if the conflicts they’re in are well past their expiration dates, and I see no reason in mentally destroying someone’s psyche through war-like experiences (or war itself) unless absolutely necessary, but c’mon Grady.
He mentions the franchise’s success and the fact that many vets own copies of this game, but they engage in it for the same reason that a retail worker in the midwest would: cathartic enjoyment. Sure, it’s the modern soldier you play as now, but five years ago, it was soldiers of World War II, and five years before that it was soldiers of fantastical conflicts in science fiction. The scene shifts all the time, but that it focuses on a time and place that we’re familiar with, and some intimate with, the tag line “There’s a Soldier in all of us” is not intended as a recruiting tool, it’s an egging-on to fill the boots of the hero of this conflict. I mean, for crying out loud: the conflict takes place in Manhattan, a place that couldn’t be breached by foreign troops to the epic scale depicted in the game for a thousand years.
It’s this same misguided viewpoint that allowed anti-gaming pundits like Jack Thompson to thrive. Obviously, if you can pick up a gun in a game, then the game endorses violent conflict, and in the case of the many school shootings that crashed over the media in the late 90s, was a profound influence on their violent mindset. While Grady’s complaint isn’t necessarily one of influence, but of tact, they’re both distortions of what video gaming stands to represent: entertainment. Grady would have a strong point if the game featured a huge ‘U.S. Army’ stamp at the end with a web site to find your local recruiter office so that you too can join this incredibly fun and obviously injury-free combat scenario, because that’s what war’s about.
But that’s not what it does at all.
Grady closes with an anecdote about the heroic actions of a wounded soldier in an incredible conflict. Soldiers do heroic things on a regular basis and they should be recognized. In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, you move your avatar through grungy environments and shoot people. In the spot above, Sam Worthington and Jonah Hill move through grungy environments and shoot people.
It’s not designed to depict heroism and glorify war, it’s designed to depict a game. Nothing more.