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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Modern Warfare 2's Airport Scene - A New Low?

When I first started to hear about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's airport scene, I thought - nice PR ploy. Look, we have this scene so violent that we'll make it optional. Cue forum chatter and lots of free advertising.

Yeah. Then I watched it (pulled now). And, um.

What the fsck was that?

I'm not even going to debate whether material like this should be allowed in a game. I don't condone censorship, if Activision and Infinity Ward want to make it ... let them make it. Trying to determine the finer lines of what should be legally distributed and not legally distributed when it comes to virtual violence is a futile, pointless debate.

That's not the same as me agreeing that Activision and Infinity Ward are in the right and there's nothing to discuss. This material is wrong. It's exploitation, it's grotesque sensationalism and has no place as a part of packaged entertainment. Let's get real specific here: this is not Modern Warfare this Modern Selling Games By Being Extreme.

According to Activision and Infinity Ward, I should be OK with this material partially because they make it optional. This is a total cop out. It places the obligation on the player to determine the morality of scene they haven't actually played out. This is them basically saying "We know this is over the top, but that's OK because we made it your choice."

If it's over the top, it shouldn't be part of the game. The player is not the producer here, Activision and Infinity Ward should take responsibility. If they feel so strongly that this material is acceptable - just keep it in the game, no if's and's or but's.

Worse, though, is narrative angle. This is Activision:

Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2 features a deep and gripping storyline in which players face off against a terrorist threat dedicated to bringing the world to the brink of collapse. The game includes a plot involving a mission carried out by a Russian villain who wants to trigger a global war. In order to defeat him, the player infiltrates his inner circle. The scene is designed to evoke the atrocities of terrorism.

And this is Infinity Ward:

The scene establishes the depth of evil and the cold bloodedness of a rogue Russian villain and his unit. By establishing that evil, it adds to the urgency of the player’s mission to stop them...
Infinity Ward: Modern Warfare 2 Airport Scene is Real, Optional[GamerRiot]

Well, it certainly evokes terrorism. And, it certainly establishes evil. What both companies so neatly sidestep, however, is that it plants the player into a character that is a complete sociopath. That the player is, if I'm reading the description of this scene correctly, shooting innocent unarmed civilians in the back as they run screaming from them, pulling others to safety, and destroying an elevator full of people all in the name of justice and The American Way - makes absolutely no sense whatever. It doesn't "add to the urgency to stop them", it makes the player a willing participant in the atrocity. No reasonable character would go through this experience and come out the other side a military hero - there's no good side to this scene, it's just evil carried out by evil people. By playing through this scene, the player is in the role of a a cold-blooded murderer ... the very kind they're likely supposed to be fighting. This isn't narration, it's exploitation.

And let's get realistic here - this is only going forward because this is an A-list franchise with a lot of weight. If it was say, a game mod or a military shooter about Fallujah - we wouldn't be having this conversation, because the material would already be shouted down.

Activision and Infinity Ward should be ashamed and players should move on to better games.

Thanks to goodgaming for multiple tweets on the subject.


Unknown said...

The potential to commit atrocities has been part of videogames for a while. In GTA3, as a common example, you could stand atop a parking deck and shoot a car with a rocket launcher, watch the crowd run over to see the dead people, and then shoot the crowd.

You could. The game didn't encourage you to do it, or make it part of a mission.

The Modern Warfare 2 scene is somehow different, no? Not only is the level of realism heightened, but the maliciousness at least looks to be part of the intended enjoyment. I have no doubt there are people who will cackle with glee at the thrill.

Which is the better murder simulator, in the sense of Thompson? DooM or Modern Warfare 2?

Watching the furor build over this could be very interesting.

Josh said...

Yeah, civilian violence in GTA is about the closest comparison I can think of ... and that doesn't really match up for me.

For one thing, Liberty City citizens were often not completely defenseless - and the franchise enforced a fairly rapid police response. You could go around, shooting random people in public ... but there was an inherent risk involved.

In this scene, the player isn't even confronted until towards the end. The majority of the "mission" is just slaughter, plain and simple. And I agree, there's a different emotion to it - and it isn't dread.

Plus - I would generally think of the Modern Warfare series as portraying soldiers, not complete sociopaths. Niko, star of GTAIV - is a sociopath. You're playing the bad guy.

And couldn't you just see Thompson bringing up his Columbine material here? This fodder for the anti-game arena the industry just doesn't need.

But I'd rather instead of furor, people just don't buy the game :)

sterno said...

I completely disagree.

Looking at the video, yeah it's pretty horrible. But that's what makes it good. I don't mean good in the sense of, "hey won't it be fun to shoot innocent people in the back," but good in presenting players with a serious moral dilemma.

Not to trivialize this too much but it's basically the same situation Keanu's character faced in Point Break. You get put into a situation where you're working with the bad guys in spite of being the good guy. Then you have to make the call about what's the ethical thing to do. What can you do to save your own hide and what's for the greater good.

You can go into that situation and not shoot anybody. Of course if you do that you don't look much like a terrorist and you might get exposed. That may prevent you from stopping a greater atrocity later beyond the fact that it will get you killed. You may shoot a few, hoping to injure them but not kill them, or you may play your part to the hilt, killing a few innocents for the greater good.

I think it's a really interesting moral dilemma that could never be portrayed better in a less interactive form. Yes some people will go in there and just butcher people for fun without thinking that big moral question through just as I've run around GTA with a golf club murdering people for fun. I grant the portrayal here is far more realistic and so it's different, but I think there's value here in what they are trying to do.

I have no doubt that this kind of scene is probably more realistic than we care to admit. War is replete with good people doing horrible things for good reasons. This is especially so for special ops forces who are in situations where they are cut off from the moral context of our day to day civilization and have to try to figure out what's right on their own.

We've seen games try to somehow make moral quandries into some stat like in Infamous. Oh, here's a boolean decision, be the good guy or be the bad guy. That's easy. That's fun. This is different. This is actually hard. Your reaction to that situation can say a lot about what kind of person you are.

I think this is actually pushing the boundaries of games to a new level that really demonstrates the art that's possible in them. One of the key values of art is to cause us to question and think about who we are, the world around us, etc. Hearing about the atrocity of the Spanish Civil War is different than seeing Picasso's painting of the horror of it. This game is doing similarly, asking us to think about what that would be like. What hard choices somebody would have to make.

So kudos for Activision for having the balls to do this.

Josh said...

See, I just don't see the huge moral distinction between "sitting back and watching the slaughter of innocent people" and "participating in the slaughter of innocent people". Sure, there's some - but not a like a huge circle of Hell some.

If they let you say, try to stop the terrorists, or run from the scene, or something other than going with the flow - there might be something to add to the narrative in general. Especially if your actions had serious ramifications (participation means you have to go rogue from your own people, trying to stop the terrorists makes your job harder).

As shown, I think the bottom line is - you're playing a sociopath. Which if this was a game about being sociopath, maybe I could see ... but it's not. Infinity Ward could have written this to be consistent with the character, but instead they just milk the violence.

sterno said...

If they let you say, try to stop the terrorists, or run from the scene, or something other than going with the flow - there might be something to add to the narrative in general.

The reality is that how this scene is implemented does dictate a lot of the impact of it. The video shows you go along shooting people, but of course that's an extreme example that's shocking, and thus has garnered this attention. But there's a couple possible ways to do this scene:

1) Make it so you're required to kill X number of civilians to pass the level. If that's how it's implemented then I completely agree with you. Then there's no moral quandry, it's just killing people.

2) Make it so that you can choose to go along with the mayhem or stop it. Then have consequences for that choice that develop further down the plot. It might make it difficult or impossible to stop a greater atrocity later on. Perhaps shooting the civilians will lead to some act of retaliation against you later on.

3) Make it so that there's an even finer grey area involved in the mission. The AI could dictate the results based on the casualties akin to scenario one but provide different outcomes based on what you do. If you shoot nobody you get revealed and that has consequences. If you shoot a few, only wound people, etc, then that has different consequences. If yo go all out and kill everybody in site, it has yet other consequences.

Basically my point would be to not judge this based on a video. It is an interactive game, and therefore, the context of that scene is largely going to be determined by how you interact with it. Whether it's bringing up a challenging moral quandary or it's just pointless over the top violence is entirely dependent on how that happens. We won't know until people get some hands on time with it and see what it's really like.

I will say that even if my moral quandary argument holds in the implementation it can be fairly said that they've pushed this most graphic and extreme version of that quandary for shock and attention value. For that I think you can rightly condemn them.

Granted this was a leaked video (and btw, pulled from YouTube since you posted it), so whether this was a deliberate marketing push by them or it was genuinely a leak that lacks context, I don't know. Given the hype surrounding MW2 I can't imagine they'd need to get gimmicky on us, but who knows.

Josh said...

True, I'm making assumptions from just some limited sources. If this part of a truly dynamic moral decision, I'll retreat on my words. I remain highly doubtful based on the imagery in the video and the PR response from both companies, though. There's going to need for a huge shift in context for this to sit right.

If the bottom line comes down to "this is your chance to play the terrorist" - I think they should be called to the carpet for it. Just because it's a game isn't justification for the content alone. And their explanation doesn't jive with what's being shown, I think.

sterno said...

Now that the game is out, Destructoid put together a video play through of the level including the context for the mission.

Josh said...

Won't be able to watch it till later tonight, but from what I'm reading about the full game - a) the context of the scene is exactly what I thought the context of the scene was and b) in general, the SP of MW2 isn't really good storytelling in any sense, so this feels a lot like emotional shock value, not emotional weight to me.

But will still reserve judgement until I can witness for meself.

sterno said...

I saw the Destructoid clip you shared out and I now officially recant all of my defense of Infinity Ward.

In order for there to be morality, there must be free will. Infinity Ward eliminates free will in this scene. It seems that, at best, you can choose not to shoot innocent bystanders. If you are never given the option to break your cover and stop the massacre, then this level is just violence pornography.

Having the book ends of the mission giving you the context of the level helps make it clear what they intended, but they utterly failed to execute. It seems that ultimately they chose to be lazy. They could have had a branched plot line with some variation based on your choices in that mission. Instead they force you to be a mass murderer. That's just gruesome and stupid.

Anonymous said...

"...this level is just violence pornography."

The rest of the game isn't?

Josh said...

God I hope not, because then the game would really suck. Porn's just porn, indefensible and base - only valued for getting the rocks off. This scene isn't needed, serves a craptacular storyline and only serves to prove how far IW can push the limits of decency.

The whole "it's just a game" and "other games are violent" angle ignores the specifics of the subject matter. Simply being in a game doesn't equalize every scene in said game - and if we accept that we throw out any chance of games actually being artistic. Art's defensible. Porn isn't.

And I haven't read a good defense of this scene yet.

mburke said...

i bought this game modern warfare 2 im a gulfwar veteran and im deeply shocked by the lvl of violence in the airport scene so shocked i refuse to play the game anymore