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Playing Call of Duty in Baghdad

Richard Weiss | 5 Nov 2013 09:00
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He was a civilian - a humanitarian, no less, on contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development. He was a victim of the violent game of cat-and-mouse that modern warfare had become; but in Modern Warfare, there are no civilians, and every fight is survivable, with a little patience and infinite second chances.

Even Spec Ops: The Line, an ostensibly cerebral shooter, failed to be anything more than fun. Spec Ops attacked me as a consumer of war-entertainment, shooting taunts like "Are you having fun yet?" across loading screens. Was I? Maybe. The action was serviceable. The chief set piece, a sandstorm-ravaged Dubai, was appealing in its decadence and destruction. I was intrigued by the notion that I should feel guilty for drinking down the spectacle, but ultimately confused when the game kept serving it up.

I found civilians in Spec Ops, but only as props in scripted good/evil decision moments. In the game's darkest moment, when the player finally crosses "The Line," the bystanders are little more than bowling pins. Knocking them down even earns the player an achievement, which cheerily blips onto the screen.

I found civilians in Spec Ops, but only as props.

Spec Ops direly wanted to make a statement, something akin to the pitch-black moral of Far Cry 2: war is hell, and everyone's the bad guy. But underneath the gloomy moralizing, the game said: war is fun, and everyone gets an achievement. Spec Ops was little more than Call of Duty glitz dressed up as pedagogy.

I would still play shooters, but it would cease to mean anything, even as pure, sugary entertainment. It became a series of disconnected symbols and tropes. A series of misconceptions. It stopped being entertaining. It stopped being fun.

It seems fitting that Call of Duty: Ghosts, the franchise's latest permutation, leaves the desert behind for speculative fiction. In this particular war story, a hijacked orbital weapon turns on America, smashing all modern infrastructure and plunging the erstwhile superpower into a dark age. The Ghosts, gun-toting knights-errant of the apocalypse, seek to restore America to its former glory.

It couldn't be a more perfect metaphor. We're a long way from Shock and Awe, when the myth of American military omnipotence - not that we have the best military in the world, which we do, but that it's capable of defeating any enemy, which it can't - launched us into war on the flimsiest of pretenses. Contrast Ghosts with Command and Conquer: Generals, a Real-Time Strategy game released just months before the 2003 invasion. In Generals, the armies of the United States deploy drones, orbital lasers, and supersonic bombers capable of shrieking past enemy air defenses. They are technologically superior, and overwhelming in their firepower.

It stopped being entertaining. It stopped being fun.

In Ghosts, they can't even defend their own borders.

We're now a lesser superpower than we were in 2003. Our economy is wounded. Our elected leaders are bitterly divided. Our nine-year war in Iraq failed to produce a stable, prosperous democracy. Even before the U.S. troop withdrawal in December 2011, America moved on, forgetting Iraq like a bad dream.

As did Call of Duty. Since the seventh game, Black Ops, the series has opted for more exotic locales - Vietnam, Rio de Janiero, Hong Kong, Havana, anything but the Mesopotamian stand-ins. They're more like the action movies they always were, and less like the places I work.

I'm still in the desert. I won't say where. But on my lazier weekends, I find myself playing Civilization V. I build nations. I grow culture. I win with peace, if I so choose. And when I quit to desktop, I don't hear the voice of a shell-shocked man telling me, a spectator to suffering, that he's going on vacation.

Richard Weiss worked for the U.S. government in Baghdad from February 2011 to December 2012. He currently works in post-conflict international development.

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