In a poorly lit suburban street just north of the US-Mexican border, two police cars pull to a halt. By the time the drivers step out onto the tarmac, their guns are already drawn. “Do exactly what I say, or I’ll fucking shoot you. Understand?”
As the protagonist behind the camera, you see your own hands rise unbidden above your head, empty of the handgun they’d been clutching moments before. An officer reaches for the zip ties in his back pocket. It’s a fleeting moment of powerlessness in Call of Duty, America’s most popular power fantasy.
Of course, you’re not an immigrant illegally entering the US. You’re a Tier 1 Mexican Special Forces operator reaching slightly beyond his jurisdiction. And these local cops are supposed to be the cavalry (“Hard to tell you boys apart from the cartel,” one officer chuckles by way of wrongheaded apology).
But Infinity Ward’s intent is evident as it directs you up and over an imposing border wall, momentarily taking camera control to show you the forbidding sight of America from an outsider’s view – the bright lights of its more affluent neighborhoods glistening just beyond reach. The studio wants its Western audience to put themselves in less comfortable shoes.
That intent is clear, too, when your Tier 1 colleague Alejandro acts as a tour guide for Captain Price’s team of Brits abroad in Las Almas. The colonel points out how local gangsters win hearts and minds through public acts of generosity and instil fear through narcomantas – grisly warnings written on cloth banners. He explains the narco tactic of wooing and recruiting special forces soldiers, compounding Mexico’s problems. It’s a sorry state of affairs with no easy answers. In moments like these, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 feels like an empathy-building exercise aimed at American teens.
Yet just moments before that police encounter on the border, Modern Warfare 2 shows an astonishing lack of empathy for people beyond its limited military perspective. You may well have seen the moment highlighted on social media – in which the UI encourages you to point a gun at a civilian on their own porch, in order to ‘de-escalate’ your late-night intrusion onto their land.
Unbelievable moment in the new Call of Duty campaign, where, stalking through a trailer park, the game tells you to de-escalate a situation, and "de-escalating" means pointing your gun directly at civilians pic.twitter.com/HyRxeXzIohOctober 24, 2022
A couple of different factors have converged to create this particular storm. First, there’s Call of Duty’s limited verb set. This is a series in which, despite the high fidelity, your actions are broadly limited to either firing a gun or signaling your intent to fire a gun.
When those options don’t get the job done, COD developers tend to resort to bespoke animations and on-screen text. The latter can be tonally clumsy, to say the least. In that sense, ‘hold L2 to de-escalate civilians’ is the direct descendent of the notorious ‘press F to pay respects’.
Then there’s the question of why civilians are there at all. Infinity Ward made a concerted effort to stuff its levels with non-combatants in 2019’s Modern Warfare reboot, even scoring players on their ability to keep civvies safe during target acquisition and crossfire. I can see an argument as to why. According to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, more than 387,000 civilians have been killed in fighting across Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan since 2001. A charitable reading would suggest that Infinity Ward wants to confront players with the risk of collateral damage, and punish them for contributing to it. To give them pause, even in the context of a rollicking blockbuster FPS.
You might also say, however, that the developer is simulating civilian life in order to up the challenge and variety of an unsavory shooting gallery. Ultimately, it’s the decision to include civilians in Modern Warfare missions that has made this controversy possible. These scenes have brought the heightened action of an FPS in close enough proximity to domestic life that it’s unnerved and appalled a portion of the public.
Infinity Ward is stuffed with smart designers and writers, and they will be listening and learning from this latest blow-up. But it’s unlikely to be the last, since the controversy is inherent to the very premise of Modern Warfare. This is a subseries of COD that first found success in the noughties thanks to its ripped-from-the-headlines quality – a sense that it explored murky events just beyond the reports on our TV screens. Making a new one is more or less a mandate to play with fire, to create drama from Western society’s greatest fears. As such, Modern Warfare will always create new headlines of its own.
Sometimes, the developers do it on purpose. Modern Warfare 2’s post-credits scene finds a faceless terrorist assembling a gun from 3D-printed parts on a passenger plane – an apparent remix of COD’s most self-consciously shocking mission, No Russian. I’m already half-dreading the results in the next sequel. But I also hope that Infinity Ward continues to move forward in its efforts to humanize America’s neighbors and victims. Modern Warfare may never be a natural place to push a positive message, but it’s surely better to try.
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Jeremy is TRG's features editor. He has a decade’s experience across publications like GamesRadar, PC Gamer and Edge, and has been nominated for two games media awards. Jeremy was once told off by the director of Dishonored 2 for not having played Dishonored 2, an error he has since corrected.