Is Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 Terrorist Gameplay Artful?

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Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2

Now that we've collectively gasped and had a chance to pull the paper sacks from our faces, is last week's Modern Warfare 2 footage worth getting our camouflage in a bunch?

Friendly warning, gameplay (less story) spoilers ahead. I don't think the reveal that you can <spoiler> ruins anything, personally, but some people don't want to know the sun might come up tomorrow.

Okay, deep breaths. Ready then?

Activision's modern military shooter arrives next week for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows. Unless you're a visiting extraterrestrial, you've probably read about this video clip from the game, which shows a player-controlled massacre of innocent civilians in an airport. As the video begins, a load sequence displays blurred words like "madman" and "body count" onscreen. When it completes, several men--one of them controlled by the player--step from an elevator into a baggage reclaim area, leveling high-caliber machine guns at clustered civilians, then unloading into the crowd. The player hesitates, then joins in, firing indiscriminately at the seething huddle.

The gunfire pauses, the smoke partly clears, and bodies are strewn everywhere. Terrified, heart-rending screams issue from somewhere beyond. The player advances through the baggage area, spotting fleeing civilians and firing in bursts. He proceeds up stairs, scanning for victims, zooming down his iron sights to better aim, finishing off the crawling wounded, and lobbing ballistic grenades across the concourse.

It's the screams that got to me.

Why so serious, I know. Because the game takes itself seriously, for starters. This isn't an on-sides situation where the developers have your squad mates slapping at friendly bullets--misfired or not--like bees and muttering "Hey watch it!" It's not like picking up tiny yelping villagers by their toes and flinging them across hills and mountains to watch them hobble home broken-limbed in Lionhead's Black & White. These aren't victims of "collateral damage" (an abhorrent military term, but you get the point) betwixt you and some equally violence-dealing opponent. It's violence for the sake of violence--ostensibly to intimidate in pursuit of some political or ideological aim.

If you've got a pulse, it's disturbing stuff

The big question, though, is whether it's good disturbing stuff. Like Jack Harkness's gut-wrenching choice in Torchwood Children of the Earth. Like the scene in Mad Men where Don Draper assaults one of his more wily paramours in the bathroom. Like nearly everything that happens in Lars von Trier's Antichrist. Is it artful, in other words.

A word about art, without--I promise--going overboard. In On The Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, Brian Boyd calls art simply "cognitive play with pattern." Just as "play" over time refines our behavioral palette, says Boyd, so art "increases cognitive skills, repertoires, and sensitivities."

"A work of art acts like a playground for the mind, a swing or a slide or a merry-go-round of visual or aural or social pattern," he says, arguing "Like play, art succeeds by engaging and rewarding attention, since the more frequent and intense our response, the more powerful the neural consequences."

It's that last sentence that resonates when thinking about this Modern Warfare 2 sequence. What we've seen of it certainly fits Boyd's criteria. We know it's a game, therefore we know it's not real. We take it as given that the computer avatars standing in for airport-going citizenry are empty shells, that they're not alive, and that flies exhibit more sentience. We know those aren't really guns on-screen, that they're not firing actual bullets, and that we're not, in fact, harming anyone.

And yet most players will almost surely be stirred. We're visualizing grievous injury inflicted on a massive scale, and there's no letting you off the hook--the horrified wailing will turn your blood. Unless you're undead, the sequence kindles something atavistic. You can't help but react.

Ergo Boyd: The more intense our response, the more powerful the neural consequences.

The best analysis I've read of the footage is by Tom Hoggins, writing for Telegraph. Give it a read. Hoggins asks all the right questions, like "Has this scene done its job in the way it was intended?" or "Is the use of grenades in this scene a totally unnecessary inclusion?" or "Have Infinity Ward approached the scene from the wrong direction?"

He also notes the BBFC (the British Board of Film Classification) already passed Modern Warfare 2 with an 18 ("Suitable only for adults") certification. Our own Entertainment Software Rating Board has done the same, awarding the game a "Mature 17+" rating. They've even folded that specific scene into their ratings summary:

The most intense depiction of violence occurs during a "No Russian" mission where players take on the role of an undercover Ranger: Several civilians are gunned down at an airport as players are given a choice to participate in the killings (e.g., players can shoot a wounded civilian that is crawling on the ground), or walk by and observe without opening fire.

You can participate in the killings, but you can also choose not to, simply observing what would then play for all intents and purposes like a movie in which terrorists are portrayed doing terrible things. You can probably come up with half a dozen offhand that depict worse atrocities.

The difference in this instance is that you're given the option to participate. That choice--to do or avoid doing something horrible--occurs in safe "play-space," a kind of "experimental authenticity" unique to gaming.

I'm not suggesting anything goes. Handling is everything here, and I won't know for sure on which side of the divide between "artful" and "excessive" this sequence falls until I've played and analyzed it myself. It's certainly possible to take something too far. Art isn't a catch-all for any conceivable endeavor. Imagine a game that let you participate in rape, or child molestation.

I'd rather not.

One thing's certain: With the response it's already received, Activision won't be wanting for press coverage. Wait until the usual legislative suspects wrap their tendrils round this, then expect to see the sequence trotted out with the same oblivious bombast cable news networks gave the vaguely amorous sequences in BioWare's Mass Effect. The company's already received plenty of attention for its depiction of Washington in flames.

Win-win for Activision?

You know what they say about bad publicity.

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