Call of Post-Modern Warfare – Video Games as Propaganda

‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’: A Cautionary Tale for Post-9/11 America < PopMatters

A recent study by Jayne Gackenbach of Grant McEwan University in Edmonton yielded an interesting result: among a sample group of military officers who experienced nightmares about war, those classified as “high gaming” (playing violent and aggressive games such as Call of Duty several times a week) were found to have nightmares that were less intense and “were more likely to be able to conquer whatever the opposing force was. By contrast, those classified as ‘low gamers’ said the enemies in their dreams were more aggressive, and they expressed having feelings of helplessness [. . .] Gackenbach referred to games like Call of Duty as ‘threat simulators,’ and said they can teach the mind to better deal with dangerous situations even when they arise in nightmares” (Mark Raby, “War Simulation Game Helps Real Soldiers Sleep”, Games Radar, 9 March 2011).

Some realities are beyond the purview of Call of Duty; it is unlikely that we will find a level where we play a veteran suffering from PTSD or attempting to adjust to having lost his legs to a roadside bomb. But Gackenbach and McEwan’s study suggests that Call of Duty has value to real world militaries that extends beyond mere recreation. During Vietnam, the domestic radical group the Weather Underground infamously sought to “bring the war home”, but Call of Duty actually does so, albeit in a markedly different way. The game works tirelessly to habituate us to a postmodern version of warfare: constant, borderless, high-definition.

In 1991, Jean Baudrillard famously declared that the Gulf War did not take place, insofar as the war existed for most Americans primarily as simulation and reproduction, both on the radar screens of generals and the TV sets of people watching at home. It’s not impossible to imagine today’s punchy critical theorist making a similar argument about the post 9/11 “Long War” with the caveat that, for many people, even televised and filmed representations of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan played a supporting role with the conflict’s primary existence in the virtual form of Call of Duty on display in 1 of every 8 American homes. And with its earlier WWII titles and the Vietnam-era story of Black Ops, the game extends its representational dominance into the past.

Although Call of Duty draws influence from big-budget blockbusters, its sheer ubiquity means that films have also begun to emulate the game itself. In its depiction of a desperate battle against a shadowy, poorly understood enemy across shockingly familiar territory, the recent alien invasion yarn Battle: Los Angeles recalls no film inspiration as much as the Modern Warfare games. But the relatively small grosses for that movie are utterly dwarfed by the sales juggernaut of the Call of Duty franchise. Even the entire opening weekend of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was outsold by Black Ops—in just one day.

In the final analysis, Call of Duty functions no differently than any other piece of mass culture, reflecting the anxieties and prejudices of our present. Despite the game’s macho bluster, Call of Duty speaks to us as a culture of fear: fear of terrorism, fear of foreign invasion, fear of duplicity and deceit on the part of our leaders. It helps accustom us to a post-9/11 view of war that is perpetual and global, a conspiratorial view of world events, and an apocalyptic outlook that views collapse and catastrophe as ever imminent.

A game like the upcoming Modern Warfare 3 thus represents another accessory in the booming market for end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it paraphernalia such as gold coins, water purification tablets, and home solar generators. The chief difference is that when compared to most of the merchandise hawked by erstwhile Glenn Beck sponsors, Modern Warfare 3 will undoubtedly be an exceptionally crafted and highly polished product.


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6 comments on “Call of Post-Modern Warfare – Video Games as Propaganda

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  1. Well not really, Makarov, resembles nothing more than the Gary Oldman role in Air Force One, while Zakhaev is more like General Radek, Jurgen Prochnow’s. In this privatized universe, General Shepherd, fits the archetypes from Colonel Stuart of the Second Die Hard, to General Hummel the antagonist on the Rock, I’ll leave out the byzantine world view of the Metal Gear Soldi series,

  2. We can also reference General Peter McCallister, the all but mustache twirling ‘drug lord in mufti’ of Lethal Weapon, was that another right wing exposition, I think Shane Black would differ with you.

  3. How does any of that contradict any point the writer made? Serious question.

    As for Shane Black – back when he was kind of relevant almost I don’t think anyone was accusing him of being terribly sophisticated politically. He may have conceived of himself as left or liberal – I don’t know, never seen his party ID – but that doesn’t mean that his work wasn’t, at bottom, reactionary or suitable to a reactionary worldview.

    By the same token, the fact that a particular work of art, philosophy, science, or spirituality has appealed to or been take as encouragement by the worst people may not tell you very much at all about its intrinsic value. If Call of Duty and Modern Warfare may help train the “desktop-killers” of today, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re “bad work.” It might be a question worth examining, however.

  4. One could make the argument that anti establishment figures probably starting with Dirty Harry, gained currency in the after math of Vietnam, LW’s Riggs and Murtaugh fit that paradigm as Die Hard’s John McClane, fighting criminals adopting a political pose for private gain, but that would get in the way of the meme, Hunter’s Bob Swagger novels fall in the same category

    • What “meme”?

      Anti-heroes have been popular figures for a very long time – Jesus Christ being one important prototype. The lone warrior who defies a weak establishment, however defined, and kills on behalf of a higher law or following a more personal or more true code of ethics has a long and impressive tradition. You could fill up some space arguing for it as THE tradition of American popular fiction.

  5. The Russia, in this series, is not unlike the almost Boschian landscape of Ghelfi’s Volk series, not to mention some of the recent Post-Ludlum Bourne offerings, It’s a bit of a stretch than arms dealer could garner enough support to become President, ala Zakhaev, but with a KGB man already there is it, It dovetails with the discussion on Miller, and Superhero and Villain archetypes. Batman vs. Ras Ghul and the Joker,

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