Critical Intel

Modern Warfare is a Comforting Lie


Modern Warfare is the most disingenuous title in gaming. Coming from a franchise based on historical events and constantly striving to create a world of photorealistic detail, it implicitly argues that the franchise is a reflection of current conflicts. It’s not. Neither is Battlefield. Neither was Medal of Honor, though that franchise has packed its luggage and called a cab. All these games about modern conflict present a fantasy version of the War on Terror that’s easier to swallow than the reality – and there’s a danger these depictions may shape how we perceive the real wars going on right now.

Let me ask you a question: how many times in military shooters have you been hit by an IED? Probably not many. Getting blown up by hidden explosives while driving down the road isn’t a “fun” form of warfare like a firefight or picking targets from a gunship, so it gets cut out of most games. Games might tout their realism – their partnership with military personnel, detailed firearms and missions in “real” locations – but they ignore IEDs because they don’t make for good gameplay and ruin the player’s sense of empowerment. Even in cutscenes where an explosion throws the player from a vehicle, an RPG is generally the culprit. Looks better visually. Strikes players as more “fair.” And yet, IEDs are one of the most prominent hallmarks of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a symptom of videogames continuing to appropriate the War on Terror for games while simultaneously excising many of the negative aspects of the conflict. Apart from Spec Ops: The Line, the genre rarely requires the player to differentiate between soldiers and civilians, or face the collateral damage their operation creates, or the toll repeated trauma can take on members of the military. Neither do most games have you work with the local population or security forces in any meaningful capacity. In doing so they’ve created a mirror world where foreign cities are ghost towns filled with the enemy, military force is always justified and soldiers are little more than hard-bitten stereotypes (in reality, many enter the military as a form of public service, and are interested in rebuilding a country as much as destroying it). There’s nothing inherently wrong with a few games like this – I like action-packed war games as much as the next player – but the problem is that this describes nearly all games in the genre. Instead of exploring and teaching players about what’s really going on, games have opted to borrow the imagery while ignoring the substance. It’s gone past trope and entered the realm of societal self-delusion.

Because we’re unwilling to face up to the consequences of our real conflicts, we’re creating fake ones. The Modern Warfare series, despite its name, is actually a near-future conflict series – 2007’s Call of Duty 4 was set in the then-distant year of 2011, and its sequels take place in 2016 and 2017. Instead of using this conceit as a way to examine the current war, though, developers make games that simply reinforce our prejudices. Most games still deal with terrorism and the fear of terrorism, but switch the opponents to an enemy more “matched” to the U.S. technologically. Modern Warfare tends to favor future wars with Russian ultranationalists that use Middle Easterners as pawns. Battlefield 3 went with rogue Russian special operators partnering with a fictional Iranian insurgent group. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier picked rogue Russian commandos as well.

Look, U.S.-Russian relations have been on the rocks recently. They don’t like the idea of us building a missile shield in Europe, we’re nervous about their nuclear stockpile, Putin’s not giving Snowden back and both of us want to be the one calling the shots in Eastern Europe; but there’s a major difference between a policy rival and an enemy nation. Russia has a lot of problems including clandestine authoritarianism and a penchant for backing nasty leaders like the Kim regime and Bashar al-Assad in order to oppose U.S. interests, but that isn’t the whole of the Russian-American relationship. Yes, we spy on each other and occasionally take provocative military actions, but we also work with Russia all the time on issues like nuclear security and even hold joint military exercises. This is similar to our relationship with China (minus the joint exercises) but let’s be honest, China is too big a market for games to alienate. As a result, we’re creating an incorrect impression that Russia is our enemy and that some future conflict with them is inevitable – that’s just not true, and it’s dangerous to keep hammering that idea into the public consciousness. Could we fight a war with Russia in ten to twenty years? Sure we could, but it’s hardly a foregone conclusion.

Another problem is that we’re solely focused on the Western experience of modern conflict. Americans and Europeans aren’t the sole force fighting against terrorism, and most often we’re not even on the front line. If Activision had any courage, Modern Warfare 4 would be about Syrian rebels fighting and dying while waiting for empty promises of Western aid. That’s modern warfare. The Arab Spring and various uprisings in the Middle East – some secular democratic, some Islamist, and many a mixture – are as much a part of the modern story of the War on Terror as Special Forces raids and drones. Where are those stories? Games love to invent narratives like Modern Warfare 2 and Homefront where America spontaneously becomes the underdog, but they’re loath to take on conflicts that are actually being fought against overwhelming tyranny. Whether through fear of controversy or the sales consequences of making a war game with a nonwhite, non-American protagonist, we’re missing out on what could be an interesting shift in perspective.

Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified Screen 04

One of the greatest things about videogames is that they allow a player to digitally become another person. We see what they see. We face their problems make hard decisions. You can become a person of a different race, nationality, gender or political affiliation and better understand their life and choices. The ignored potential of this tool is enormous. Instead of looking at the Syrian conflict through cable news, we could be on the ground, seeing how small bands of fighters with popular support can challenge Bashar al-Assad’s better trained and equipped forces. We could better understand how groups of competing political factions, some hostile to the U.S. and some not, wind up banding together out of necessity. Players could get the sense that the cooperation between Islamists and secularists may only last until the rebels win, whereupon the various factions could easily fall to infighting. You like grim and gritty? You like “adult” plotlines? You like intrigue and betrayal and desperate post-apocalyptic settings? Then brother, have I got the conflict for you.

I’ve always held that FPSs can actually teach a lot through tangential learning. While players may not pick up Call of Duty to learn about World War II, they at least get an introduction to Stalingrad, for example, or the Battle of Peleliu. I’d wager that before the Black Ops series, most young Americans had never heard of the Bay of Pigs or the U.S. invasion of Panama. Planting seeds of real information in entertainment can yield big results down the road. No joke: I write about history because I watched Indiana Jones as a kid. When I was nine I decided I wanted to be like Indiana Jones, so I started reading all the ancient history I could find. At some point, it hooked me. I stopped reading history to be like Indy and started reading history because it was fascinating. That led to a history major, research overseas, and eventually starting a column where I sometimes discuss history in games – all of that because I saw Harrison Ford fistfight Nazis on top of a tank. Games can do that, but not just with time periods. They can interest us in new countries and cultures as well.

The problem with how games depict other countries right now, though, is that they’re so interchangeable. In modern shooters, you barely get the sense of a place and its people before you plunge into another warzone in a hurried rush, usually during some disaster like a flood or sandstorm. Were this intentional, it would be a biting meta-commentary on U.S. interventionism, but instead it just comes off as turning third-world misery into first-rate entertainment. Do something about a place. Say something about a place. There’s so much potential to let us see with different eyes, we just need to step out of our comfort zone and risk a little controversy. Let us walk into Iraq in the boots of the Kurdish Peshmerga, hunt Gadhafi as part of the Libyan rebellion or be part of a Peruvian unit squaring off against Shining Path. We’ve seen war from the American perspective, it’s time to see something different.

However, possibly the most glaring issue with modern games about war is their fetishistic use of technology. While it’s true that technology makes up a large part of the U.S. armed forces and it’s an integral part of how industrialized countries wage war, its usefulness is extremely over-emphasized in games, and it creates the dangerous impression that superior technology wins wars – it doesn’t. The United States has the most technologically advanced military in the history of the world, with trillions of dollars invested in computer guidance systems, cyber warfare, advanced rifle optics, body armor, nuclear submarines and pretty much everything you could possibly imagine to give us a winning edge. Despite this, we haven’t decisively and permanently won a major conflict since World War II. Korea was a stalemate. Vietnam was a loss. Iraq and Afghanistan, though we’ve made some accomplishments, can hardly be termed unqualified successes.

Really, the most decisive wins were the small wars of the 1980s and 1990s like Panama, Kosovo and Desert Storm. Notably, all of these were quick in-and-out affairs with limited objectives, and now we see the wisdom of that strategy. This is not to disparage the U.S. military in any way – they’re the best in the world and have tried their hardest in every conflict I’ve mentioned – but we’ve entered an era of world politics that makes it very difficult to unambiguously win a conflict. Because nuclear-armed states don’t want to engage each other directly, they instead engage in grinding proxy wars and counterinsurgencies. These aren’t the kinds of wars we fought in World War I or II where you can simply force an unconditional surrender then rebuild with a cooperative but defeated foe, you have to deal with sectarian bloodshed, the threat of civil war and non-functioning or corrupt governments. As a result it’s very, very difficult to achieve strategic goals, and nearly impossible to walk away clean – even if you’ve got the best military hardware ever invented.

You cannot win a war by force of technology. It can help, but “Superior Technology” exists way down on the Great Big List of Things You Need to Win a War. It’s probably somewhere around #20, well below “Adequate Supply Lines,” and “Clear Objective,” and far, far below “Local Acquiescence” and “Political Will.” But those things are difficult to portray in a game, it’s easier to simply have players level up and unlock a new set of body armor or a better scope to make them more effective – and in the context of the game, it does. But war isn’t a round of team deathmatch -if it were, we would’ve won Vietnam hands-down. In reality, you can have the most highly-trained, well-supported, survivable and deadly ground troops on the planet, backed up by air assets and naval assets, but you’ll still lose a counterinsurgency if you can’t convince the population to trust you. This isn’t WWII, where you can just batter a government into surrender and replace it without a decade of open, grinding factional infighting. After a dozen years of these conflicts the U.S. military has learned this lesson well, but I’m not sure it’s trickled down to the public.

spec ops the line

Watch any television program about the history of warfare and you’ll find that it largely focuses on technology. The Romans won this battle or that battle because they had the ballista, or the testudo formation or the hasta, the History Channel will explain, but they won’t tell you how the Romans managed to hold the territory after the battle, because that’s boring political and administrative stuff not fit for television. Technology is tactile. People can grasp it easily. But selective history like this creates a dangerous myth that the side with the greatest weapons always wins a conflict, and that’s demonstrably false. Zulu warriors with spears and cowhide shields slaughtered a whole column of British troops at Isandlwana. Both the British and the Soviets couldn’t handle Afghanistan. No matter how many people we killed, the U.S. couldn’t affect a favorable outcome in Vietnam. But in games, the side with the drones and the laser sights and the active camouflage nearly always comes out on top. “Superior technology wins wars” is a societal myth that we cling to because, as the country with the most technologically advanced military, we find it extremely comforting. Developers naturally gravitate to this thought process as well, since they work in a field where technological advancement really does lead to success. But in these days of asymmetrical warfare, when a nation of rural poppy farmers and livestock herders can keep us pinned down with sniper fire and bombs made out of rice cookers, even the concept of victory can become elusive.

Things are changing, though, and there has been some sporadic progress. Spec Ops: The Line made major inroads into the issues of PTSD and civilian casualties, and received critical acclaim as a result. The reboot of Medal of Honor portrayed the Afghan National Army in a fairly favorable light, and largely was based off of real campaigns in Afghanistan rather than a fictional conflict (and took pains to have Afghan characters that weren’t Taliban, I might add). Modern Warfare 3 featured a section where you played as a Russian character. Call of Duty: Black Ops II, beneath a thick layer of BS, really did have some interesting thoughts about the overuse of drones in the armed services, included a playable Yemeni character and contained an unsubtle condemnation of America’s interventionism in the 1980s.Medal of Honor: Warfighter had a lot of problems, but it did try to dramatize how multiple deployments can brutalize a soldier’s family life. The granddaddy of them all, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, was entirely about the horror of nuclear-armed warfare, implicitly stating that the even the terrible price of proxy war is preferable to atomic annihilation.

These are encouraging developments, and they give me hope that in the future games will explore the War on Terror rather than exploit it. There’s still room in that mix for big, dumb, fun action games as well, but I’d like to see something different, a game that’s more thoughtful, that teaches the player something they didn’t know or gives them insight. America’s fascination with war is both understandable and inevitable: we’ve been at war for almost twelve years, and only one percent of the country’s population has served in Afghanistan and Iraq. During a conflict this protracted and distant, it’s normal for the civilian population to have a certain fascination with soldiers and war. It’s also perfectly normal for media to try and represent the conflict as we wish it were happening, rather than the stark and frustrating reality. But media isn’t only supposed to show us our fantasies, it also has a major role in informing citizens about a conflict. I’d like to see someone brave take up that banner. Someone needs to tell the story of the soldiers that were there – still are there in many cases – so we can better understand them, the people we fight, our allies and our role in the world.

I want to see a game depict modern warfare – because nobody’s really done it before.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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