How much longer will videogames be one of the biggest avenues of propaganda for the U.S. Armed Forces? Or better yet, how much longer will the games press act as a PR wing for the U.S. Army?
This is not going to be a long treatise where I find answers to the questions above. I am just tired and angry. Call of Duty used to mean something to me. Military shooters were once something I consumed with unbridled fervor—I’d luxuriate in the weapon animations, the blockbuster stories, and the endless multiplayer treadmill of the series Call of Duty 4 and on. The time in my life where I spent the most time with these games was in middle school, and it just so happens that when I was 11 and 12 I wanted to be in the army when I grew up. What a fucking stupid, ugly idea. But I was young and everything around me—from media to the news to my family—told me it was a heroic choice and that doing so would be an objectively good thing. I saw the heroes in Call of Duty saving the world again and again—that should be me, or so I thought.
And then I grew up. I started to think critically about the military, about politics in general, and more. Some people will say that I was radicalized, but honestly, I just started to see the truth in America. America is a violent, failed state with an endlessly funded army that has predominantly been used for imperialism, strong-arming, and unnecessary violence. People calling America the “world police” is actually quite fitting. The police are often just white nationalists with carte blanche for whatever violence they want. The cops are murderers and racists and monsters. And so are America’s armed forces. The military recruitment system preys on impoverished communities and defines itself as a “noble way out” where in reality it is just the American political apparatus willingly taking the people they care least about and tossing them into the violent, toxic meat grinder of the forever war. As it turns out, videogames have a hand in this. Call of Duty has undoubtedly inspired folks to join the army, and so many of the series’ campaigns are just Very Loud Jingoism. The developers don’t view the series as political, and that should be the first red flag. All art is political. And all art about war is definitely political. The series even engages in historical revisionism and has gone so far as to shift the blame of real-world war crimes (i.e. The Highway of Death) from the U.S. to other countries, mainly Russia. In a series that constantly plays into the fears of the other and willfully walks hand in hand with the American war machine post-9/11, you think the games industry would be at least a little trepidacious about covering these games. Turns out the Call of Duty series makes a lot of money. And so the industry eats it up. Glowing reviews, endless prerelease coverage, huge Twitch streams, esports…it never ends.
It is genuinely impossible to separate games press from military shooters. They are intertwined to the point where they are almost one. Pulling a trigger is the most common verb in modern videogames. This industry refuses to think critically about this or about what military shooters are doing with their themes and mechanics. They look good, sell well, are “fun”, and then, so what? 9.5/10. The prerelease hype for the new Call of Duty game, Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War, is on the rise and it is already getting the usual games press treatment—huge preview coverage from some of the biggest sites. I don’t have to name the sites. You know the ones. Hell, GameSpot went full mask off and ran a bunch of paid advertisement tweets for the National Guard. In a time where the U.S. Army and Navy are doing their best to be Very Online and stream on Twitch is being met with necessary (and oftentimes hilarious) backlash, this action is about as shortsighted as it can get. They took down the tweets but it isn’t really something that can be undone. GameSpot did do literal propaganda for the American war machine. A stupid, braindead decision from some mindless suits just condemned a lot of the great editors at GameSpot to ridicule. They don’t deserve this. Rich executives do and so does the U.S. Armed Forces. War criminals and the hyper-rich should never know peace.
But let’s get back to the new Black Ops game. Its reveal trailer showcases a terrifying digital recreation of Ronald Reagan—a notoriously inept, cruel, racist, classist, and homophobic president—and it plays him up as some sort of hero. The music swells at his entrance! Hell, by the end of the trailer he even gives the “okay” on illegal and unethical tactical gear/weapons requests. It is so brazen and ugly. But we are constantly told by the game’s creators that this series is not political. These choices are deliberate and, uh, very political. Even the teaser trailer features a speech by Yuri Bezmenov, a defector from the USSR whose beliefs helped sow the seeds for a lot of modern far-right, anti-communist/socialist beliefs. That video has 5.9 million views on IGN’s YouTube channel and 2.1 million views on the official Call of Duty YouTube channel.
And then there is the military’s dive into esports and streaming. Almost every branch of America’s armed forces has an esports league. War criminals are trying to be Very Online in order to recruit more people into their death cult. Twitch chats are often swarmed with people asking about war crimes and making fun of these fucking murderers. It is a great thing to seem, but the near-silence around the military being so easily let into esports is quite telling. I don’t have the answers to all of this but all I can say is that, honestly, you do not have to cover the Call of Duty series or other military shooters. We cannot let this industry—namely the bigger games press sites—continue to refuse to critically think about anything at all. Military shooters do not have to exist. But they sell well, garner acclaim, and lead websites to lots of clicks and ad revenue. They will continue to be covered by the bigger sites. It is so easy to look at what these games are doing, the coverage they get, and to just immediately fall into despair. But we can ask for better. The change has to start somewhere. I can say that I will never write about Call of Duty in a review form or coverage form again on this blog, but that will not result in any meaningful change. It is the right thing to do. Big sites won’t do it, we know this, and the ball is in their court. They’ll just keep dribbling it in circles because Call of Duty sells and it gets clicks. This essay or whatever is called “How Much Longer?” and my biggest fear is the answer to that question is too long. I do not know what else to say here. I just needed to say this. Fuck the United States armed forces and their actions, fuck predatory recruiting tactics (and military recruiting in general), fuck the war criminals in their stupid camo uniforms currently doing their best to create Online Content on Twitch, and please, please just think about these games a little harder. The Development heads, team leaders, narrative leads, and project managers sure won’t. And for the love of God, if you are writing a review for a game where hundreds of words are spent as a warning or outline of the game’s ugly, misinformed, and dangerous politics, then maybe you should not be covering said game on some of the biggest videogame websites in the world!