Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Screenshot

I've already posted my take on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's now-(in)famous "No Russian" chapter. I was not content to simply post my own thoughts on the matter, however. Given the uproar and truly interesting commentary that has sprung up around the game sequence, I wanted to survey a few of my fellow bloggers regarding their own opinions and experiences.

I received a handful of responses to my request for commentary: Some authors had played the sequence in question, some had not. Some felt quite strongly in the positive, others in the negative. Some responses were longer pieces, others were short remarks or pointed me towards an existing blog post. To all who responded, I offer my sincere gratitude.

I'll preface their comments, presented here, with a few disclaimers:

1.) If by some chance you are a game blogger who is reading this post and feel snubbed because I did not reach out to contact you, please do not feel cheated out of an opportunity to comment. This conversation is open to all, and if you would like to add something, I will most likely follow up this post as additional comments come in… or you can add a comment below.

2.) These opinions solely represent the thoughts and feelings of their authors, not my own. In no way do I blindly condone or support a statement simply because I am quoting it here. However, it should be noted that I came away from the emails agreeing with many, if not all, of the authors on various points.

3.) I'm not usually in the habit of posting or re-posting such surveys; this is an isolated case used to satisfy my own intellectual curiosity. Ben Abraham and company do a much, much better job of summarizing game blog posts and opinions on a regular basis over at the noted site Critical Distance. If you do not already visit that site regularly, please do so. It's undoubtedly worth the read! I hope this post is in no way taken to be a step on anyone's toes. Please contact me if you have a problem with something written here, or if you feel that I have misquoted or misrepresented any of these comments in any way.

From L.B. Jeffries of Banana Pepper Martinis:

This was going to happen eventually. From BioShock asking us if we wanted to kill a little girl to Grand Theft Auto's prostitutes, the artistic question of video games is not what you're willing to do but what you're not willing to do. A video game, in all its glorious simulacra, presents us with the quintessential Ring of Gyges. How would you behave if there were no consequences? The airport massacre in Modern Warfare 2 is a lot of different things. It's a PR stunt, it's an artistic statement about making sacrifices for the greater good, but in the end it's mostly about the player themselves. For the players that boast they shot every civilian and could care less about their screams, one has to wonder how well they could handle playing a Half-Life 2 mod like Robert Yang's "Handle with Care" where you are in a homosexual relationship. I have my doubts. What the airport massacre really means, for video games, is that we have about run out of things to shoot that will test your limits. I cannot wait to see what they come up with next.

From Justin Keverne of Groping the Elephant:

It's violent, gratuitous, unpleasant, and a very cheap shot. It's also possibly the best example of manipulating of player psychology that I've seen in a long time.

Not one of the people commenting on the "No Russian" level of Modern Warfare 2 online could have been entirely unaware of its content going in. That news had "leaked" days prior to the game's release. Those commentators, many of them having extreme emotional reactions that ranged from anger to revulsion and many shades between, not only had an idea of the content but were also given the option to skip it entirely.

But they didn't, I suspect that even ignorant to the content few players will have selected the option to skip it. Potentially Disturbing content? It's a game; I can handle anything it can throw at me, of course I don't want to skip. The natural belief is that the level will be entertaining in some form even if only that of morbid curiosity, after all games are not supposed to make you feel uncomfortable.

What occurs next is soulless and utterly offensive, however there's still that sense that being a game this will ultimately be in the service of a "greater good" that there will be some justification, some reward. Clearly killing the terrorists doesn't work, that leads to a game over screen, so obviously the correct of action is to play along, maintain the facade, it'll all work out right in the end, that's how games function. A single gunshot as you attempt to make your escape. The ending is pure nihilism, casting your actions over the last few minutes as singularly void of meaning or worth. There was no greater good; there was no entertainment, only death and destruction.

You've been played, you chose to play this level and you got what you asked for.

Infinity Ward couldn't have pulled the player's strings better if they had asked: "Would You Kindly?"

From Borut Pfeifer of Plush Apocalypse:

I haven't played it yet, so I can't comment on my experience of it—but I recently had my experience with the first Modern Warfare thrown into question. In playing the AC130 mission, I had begun firing indiscriminantly at the soldiers, who are difficult to make out from enemies. Friendly soldiers flicker only slightly with flares, so I had thought I had unknowingly killed some, and I felt very conflicted. To me, the game had something powerful to say about the indiscriminate, unbalanced nature of modern warfare. In discussing it recently I found out that the mission actually stops if you kill any friendlies —I had misinterpreted the coincidence of my firing, men dying on the battlefield, and the repeating dialog warning you off firing on friendlies as if I had actually done so. The realization that it wasn't actually possible in turn cheapened my entire experience of the game.

I think the discussion around the mission is one of the most fruitful benefits of Infinity Ward's attempt. People are slowly coming to grips with the notion that a game can make you play a role as opposed to just playing with its mechanics. Still, it's clear even without playing it that they have been similarly, perhaps unnecessarily, heavy handed about it. In combining it with typical big budget action sequences, such as the mission based on The Rock, I'm concerned that gamers will confuse an attempt to create an emotionally varied thrill ride for actual thematic depth, much like sequences in the first Modern Warfare. A few philisophical text quotes are no stand in for what games can actually achieve in terms of thematic depth through player agency. But gamers are so desparate for more meaning, they'll take any stand-in. I see it as a sign post in the road of what's to come, and so it helps people come to grips with what games will be, but at the risk of turning off some to the possibilities. Once I play I'll be able to decide if the risk was worth it.

From Ben Abraham of Critical Distance and SLRC:

I haven't played Modern Warfare 2, but I probably will at some point in the future. What I want to do in the short space you have provided for me is examine one of the underlying assumptions that we gamers and game critics sometimes make when jumping to defend or attack these kinds of inclusions in games.

The assumption is this; that "it's just a game". This tired old argument used to be regularly pulled out in defence of any game that attracted the sensationalising gaze of the mainstream media. Thankfully, this is decreasing in frequency inversely to the rising level of awareness of games as a serious medium for creative expression (or to use Ian Bogost term, an "earnest" medium). Implicit in our rejection of the "just a game" defence is that games actually do mean something, or can mean something – even to the point of perhaps being considered "art".

But what we seem to have overlooked in our rebuff of the "just a game" argument and in our acceptance of the potential within our chosen medium is that there will come a point where games can make not only a positive, artistic statement but also a negative one. The community is quick to apologise for the violence and mature themes of games like Grand Theft Auto IV and even now Modern Warfare 2, but we haven't come to grips with the fact that if games mean something, eventually we are going to have to start actually examining what they are saying.

It is my belief think when we seriously start doing that, start earnestly examining some of the games we play, we may very well decide that we don't like what we see.

So let's ask what "No Russian" is saying about itself; about its players; about the world at large? I am encouraged to see that some of the people who have played through the level are starting to answer these questions.

From Corvus Elrod of Man Bytes Blog:

I don't have much to say about this specific incident, but I do think it's important that we're having these conversations around video games. I'm encouraged that there are developers interested in engaging players by placing them in uncomfortable situations, even if they might do so for less than-conscientious reasons.* It has become more and more clear to me that a large segment of the gaming populace is growing up and expecting games to fill some of the same artistic and cultural niches as art, film, and literature. The fact that portions of the industry are paying attention and trying to address this need on some level can only mean good things for video games and our cultures' perceptions of their legitimacy. Ideally, at some point in the near future, there won't be so much controversy over every piece of ham-fisted commentary in a video game, but only intelligent and reasoned discourse over the legitimacy of it.

* That is not my assessment of IW, just a general observation.

From Jeffrey Wilson of 2D-X:

I'll be quite frank: I'm shocked, although my all rights I shouldn't be, at the media's reaction to controversy. Every few years the media, a watchdog group, or some overly conservative segment of the public, gets up in arms about a video game and uses it as an opening to spew their rhetoric. I remember the Mortal Kombat and Night Trap debates quite well. This time, however, the focus seems to be less on the actual violence, an more on the act of committing heinous acts of terrorism, which boggles the mind.

There are very few instances of pure black and white, pure right and wrong in the world—it's full of grays. Killing is bad, yes, but even the most heroic war vet has blood-soaked hands. Stealing is wrong, but if you're homeless and hungry, it may be an unfortunate fact of life. In order to stymie the forces of evil, you may very well have to drop a couple of nukes.

Modern Warfare 2, much like Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, simply demonstrates the unattractive idea that peace is sometimes born from horror. In that sense, Infinity Ward one-upped Kojima in that it showed in great no holds barred brutality what may very well be a fictional take on espionage truths. My only gripe is that there weren't, from what I could tell, children in the scene which would've added more emotional punch.

Some will state it's just the further corruption of our American values; I see it as video gaming making yet another stride in offering content that makes us question our actions. The true horror here may be the Polly-Anna world view held by some members of society.

From Charles J Pratt of Game Design Advance:

What I would say in regard to the "Airport Scene" in Modern Warfare 2 is that from my understanding the issue to my mind is pretty cut and dry.

As a visual spectacle I don't find it that disturbing. It's so obviously manipulative that it fails to shock my sensibilities. Besides, when all is said and done the game is not that realistic, contrary to what is sometimes said I doubt anyone would mistake that scene in full resolution for a video of an actual incident.

Further I would say that in play I'm sure I would find the scene mostly annoying rather than affecting. Because it seems that the player simply walks along with nothing to do while cartoons writhe in agony. As such the majority of the scene is entirely fat, teaching you nothing about how the game works and offering no interesting decisions to be made.

Even to observe it as a piece of linear media, it strikes me as surprisingly antiquated. A group of Europeans in suits and flak jackets wreak havoc on an airport with machine guns? What is this, the '90s? The fact that they avoided using the most obvious images of terrorism for the present moment tells me that they wanted to be controversial, but didn't have the guts to take it all the way. To me that makes them come off as hacks rather than provocateurs.

Fullbright's Steve Gaynor very kindly and humbly pointed me in the direction of another (rather excellent) blog post by Tom Chick:

Anything I have to add has been expressed more clearly and eloquently already by Tom Chick on Fidgit which I won't try to one-up.

Similarly, Michael Abbott of Brainy Gamer pointed me towards a piece by Tom Bissell of Crispy Gamer. He has recently written an interesting post about Modern Warfare 2, although on a different subject.

I started my own post about it this morning before discovering Tom Bissell's essay at Crispy Gamer. Reading his take made me abandon my own piece because he basically encapsulates everything I intended to say. The sequence fails on multiple levels, but we shouldn't see it as a failure of conception or ambition, or an indictment of the limitations of games. It's a failure of execution. Games can deliver what Modern Warfare 2 is trying to achieve, but to succeed they need to do it smarter and better than Infinity Ward did in this case. As I said, Tom articulates this perfectly in his piece.

So aside from saluting Tom's essay, I'm afraid I don't have anything meaningful to add to the conversation.

Finally, Trent Polack of Polycat pointed me to a (then new) blog post at his own site. You can read it here.

Matthew Kaplan
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13 years ago

In Battlefield 1942 you could play as the Nazis and kill American soldiers. Did everyone forget that?