Video games are increasing drastically in popularity and cultural relevance, and deservedly so. The medium has so much to offer, being much grander in scope and more immersive than something like a film can be. However, as with any artistic medium, it is plagued with controversy.
Since video games involve doing while other forms of entertainment involve viewing or reading, people worry about their impact. After all, it is one thing to watch someone shoot someone in a film. Is it different if the player has to shoot that person themselves, at the press of a button?
In that line of thinking, should the guidelines for censorship be different for video games than other artistic mediums? This series of articles will explore a few issues regarding controversy and censorship in the world of gaming. I will explore exactly what makes certain moments in gaming history commendable and others despicable. In other words, where is the line? What is too far for developers, or is the very concept of a line artistically limiting? First, we will look at one of the most controversial moments from possibly the famous game franchise of all time.
Call of Duty
With the Modern Warfare series just rebooted, aiming for a darker, grittier tone than what has come before for the Call of Duty franchise, it seems an apt time to look back on what has made the series controversial in the first place.
Call of Duty, due to it’s immense popularity, has always been the subject of controversy. With many acts of mass violence occurring far too often, people point their fingers at shooters such as Call of Duty and label them responsible. Although there is no sound scientific research to support their argument, the immersive nature of a first-person shooter proves troubling for some.
Call of Duty’s most controversial moment has to be the ‘No Russian’ mission. In this level, the player is put in the shoes of an undercover CIA agent who has infiltrated a Russian terrorist cell. In order to gain their trust, you go with them to an airport and, when commanded, fire on a group of unarmed civilians.
The entire level involves you moving through the airport, killing any civilians you see as they scream, running for their lives. It is incredibly disturbing, and the interactive nature of the video game ensures that you participate in this controversial slaughter.
The entire point of the level, though, was to be disturbing. You aren’t supposed to like what you are doing, and that is what makes it impactful, or at least memorable. Ultimately, the level was intended to be narratively significant, building up the heinous image of the villain, Makarov, and providing a reason for the United States to be blamed for the attack, leading to a war.
Reactions to No Russian
However, many attributed the level’s inclusion in the game to shock value. The idea that all publicity is good publicity permeated the discussion of ‘No Russian’. This is in spite of the fact that Call of Duty, especially back then, did not need a boost in popularity via controversy.
When the game was being play-tested, people did find the mission disturbing, refusing to play it. Therefore, in the finished product, we are all given the option to skip the mission if we want to. Many people do, hearing of it’s infamy due to the massive media attention the controversial mission received. Some protest this option, though, as it gives the player the ability to skip part of the story altogether. They argue that this is a form, although minor, of censorship.
No Russian was, after all, a genuine attempt at an impactful narrative moment in Modern Warfare 2’s story. You shooting civilians and of serviceman wasn’t intended to be controversial, but just impactful. But, ultimately, it is to some, my self included.
Why is this?
To answer this question requires analyzing the nature of video game narratives and the relationship they have to player autonomy. In other words, the quality of a story, and how well it utilizes player actions.
I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb when I say that Call of Duty story-lines aren’t the most excellent or refined. We don’t play Call of Duty for the same reasons we play The Last of Us or Detroit: Become Human. Call of Duty, no matter the iteration, has incredible gameplay, with some of the tightest controls around. It’s story is oftentimes merely a vehicle to explore the gameplay via grand set-pieces and interesting scenarios.
Modern Warfare 2’s story fares better than others in the franchise but, ultimately, does not rise to the level of more narrative-driven games. Personally, I do not remember many specifics about the plot, despite all the controversy. I remember the missions, though, which were incredible. What I also do remember is groaning when the cutscenes/ briefings between missions popped up, showing us maps and dossiers with a voice-over explaining the plot.
Modern Warfare 2‘s Briefings
I always groaned because that isn’t effective story-telling. In the end, that’s a glorified powerpoint presentation. Even by film standards, these briefings do nothing to engage me, and there are incredibly important plot points within them. Therefore, since the cutscenes do not engage me, I have trouble being interested in the plot.
Furthermore, I am playing a video game, which means I expect a deeper level of interaction than that of a film or a book. Some of the best video games (Half-Life 2 is a fantastic example) have the player interact with and participate in the story. The Modern Warfare series has it told to you like a deeply complicated, controversial children’s book meant to put you to sleep.
So, when I am put in the shoes of an undercover CIA agent and expected to shoot civilians for the sake of the plot, I am caught off-guard. Call of Duty’s narrative, so far, has done nothing to prepare me for this moment. I have not been an active member of the story, having it told to me, and now I am being shoved into an incredibly uncomfortable, dark moment.
When you’re only involved in the story during ‘No Russian’, it is easy to feel as if it was included for shock value, not for narrative significance. Therefore, due to lacking a quality, cohesive whole of a narrative, ‘No Russian’ is inappropriate and controversial. As a player, you shoot up an airport without adequate reason, intended narrative significance or not. It certainly isn’t enhancing one’s experience of the story. In this case, censorship isn’t negative. The player isn’t missing anything that can’t be summed up by a briefing before the next mission or anything that must be experienced to truly understand.
There are games, though, that have players commit atrocities and are praised for it. These games do something distinct from Modern Warfare 2. I will go over why these games are considered art all the while being controversial in Part 2. They make us feel terrible and disturbed, and we applaud them for it.
While Part 2 is in the works, we want to hear from you. Did you consider ‘No Russian’ distasteful? Did you play through it? What is a controversial gaming moment for you? What are your thoughts on the issue of censorship in video games?