It's a Massacre!: The Appalling Failure of Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" Mission
I have now received several interesting phone calls from friends wanting to talk about their reactions to the "No Russian" mission in Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare 2, in which one must watch, and has the choice to take part in, the terroristic massacre of civilians. Most of these calls have fallen somewhere between flummoxed and upset -- only one could be characterized as infuriated -- but all agreed it was affecting and provocative.
When I first heard about the mission, I will confess, I was skeptical. The talented people at Infinity Ward may have no peers when it comes to gameplay- and multiplayer-level design, but complex moral experiences have not exactly been an emblem of the Call of Duty franchise. In short, these games peddle a creed of salvation by M-16, in which you do the right -- and instantly apparent -- thing, and then bask in a heroic swell of music. I have now played through "No Russian" several times and behaved differently each run through it. My skepticism, I believe, was warranted. About the best one can say about "No Russian" is that it is morally confused and dramatically lazy. Yes, of course, it is affecting and provocative -- but so is purposefully stomping on someone's big toe. This is essentially what "No Russian" does when it desperately needs to do much, much more.
Let me be clear that I very much want to champion what Infinity Ward is obviously attempting to do here. I am all for thought-provoking scenarios and have no objection to the depiction of barbarous acts in games, provided that there is an appropriate and compelling dramatic context. Many sincere commentators have commended "No Russian" for these very things. Most of these people, I think, are bluffing, not wishing to fall in with the Fox News brownshirts and other opponents of videogame violence. Those who are not bluffing, and are authentically inclined to hail what is going on in "No Russian," are confusing thought provoking for mere provocation. Simply put, the issues raised during "No Russian" can be considered morally compelling only by the willfully obtuse.
My argument has to do with what is depicted only incidentally. In fact, my first objections are logic-based. For one thing, are we really to believe that Imran Zakhaev, the destroyed Russian terrorist from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, would truly be hailed as a national hero by Russians? That he would have a Cossack-in-equestrian-glory statue raised to him? That he would have an airport named for him? Supporters of Imran Zakhaev have decided to stage a terrorist attack on Zakhaev International Airport: Think, for a moment, how conceptually stupid that is. At any rate, given what I know about Russian history, if Imran Zakhaev were to be accepted by average Russians as anything more than a gangster folk hero, he would have been obligated to kill several million more -- and preferably Russian -- people.
Now let us consider what has put Pfc. Joseph Allen undercover and in the midst of a Russian terror cell. Yet we cannot consider this. All we are told is that we do not want to know what the CIA had to do to make this happen (though it probably involved a lot of Berlitz language classes for Allen). We do learn, however, that it was only "yesterday" that Allen was on the frontlines (which does not seem nearly enough time for him to have picked up the finer points of the Muscovite accent). According to our commander, the leader of this terrorist cell, Makarov, is our new "best friend," and because he is "not loyal" to "any set of ideals," the required mission will "cost you a piece of yourself."
This is ridiculous in a logical, operational and moral sense. Yes, Modern Warfare 2 is only a videogame, a form not known for its adherence to narrative logic or pristine moral code. But we cannot honestly face up to Allen's quandary without believing in the difficulty of his choice. This mission is asking you to take part in the morally outrageous slaughter of innocent people guilty only of attempting to make their connecting flights to Prague and London and Kiev. The game frames this act in terms of moral necessity, which is, of course, a convention of stories with a "deep cover" conceit. A film like "The Departed" requires two-and-a-half hours of finely modulated performances and superb writing and direction to make the moral anguish of being in deep cover clear, and even then the decisions Leonardo DiCaprio's character makes are ambiguous.
It is not wrong that the mission is in the game, in other words. What is wrong is that it is framed so pathetically. For the experience to matter in a dramatic sense, we would have to get to know Makarov quite well and Allen even better; only then would we feel the noose of motivation tighten. Videogames, unfortunately, do not handle this type of storytelling well, and Infinity Ward handles this type of storytelling less well than most videogames. (Consider a game like Fallout 3, which not only has the imagination to leave the Russians out of the future apocalypse, but whose giant, slogan-shouting, Commie-crushing American robot manages to say more about the absurdity of war than any Call of Duty game.) It is as if we are being asked to empathize with Raskolnikov after no more exposure to him than the paragraph in which he chops up the old money lender.
As presented in Modern Warfare 2, the morality of Allen's situation is actually, completely clear. It could not be clearer. No one in Allen's place, deep cover or not, could be expected to take part in such senseless slaughter. Why would he not just attempt to shoot his three accomplices in the back? (You can do that in the game, of course. You will also not succeed in passing the mission if you do.) A scenario cannot be morally provocative if it does not align with any identifiable set of moral imperatives. Thus, the makers of Modern Warfare 2 are asking us to think about what we would do if we were in a moral situation that a) could never actually occur, and b) does not present a conundrum worth thinking about. In place of the morally riveting experience Infinity Ward has tried to give us, we have, most basically, a murder simulator.
Arguing against the morality of a game that asks you to gun down enemy soldiers by the dozen may seem like an odd stance. But the whole point of games like Call of Duty is that they offer an uncomplicated, athleticized version of war in which the messier questions of morality are set aside. You are the good guys and the bad guys are over there: Go get 'em, soldier. In previous Call of Duty games, I always found myself laughing in appalled amusement whenever one of those preposterously "deep" epigraphs popped up after an in-game death. But with Call of Duty 4 and now with Modern Warfare 2, I have the sinking feeling that Infinity Ward believes it has something (however borrowed) to say about war. During the "No Russian" sequence -- which I played on Veteran-level difficulty and, thus, died often -- I was faced with a gnomic quote from the vile Dick Armey ("You cannot get ahead while getting even"), which was followed by a peaceable and rather lonely quote from Gandhi, which was followed by this gem from former Vice President Dick Cheney: "It is easy to take liberty for granted when it's never been taken from you." If this is satire, it is a gruesomely unfunny species of it.
While researching my upcoming book, "Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter," I had the pleasure of interviewing Clint Hocking about his game Far Cry 2, which also attempts to say something about the morality of war, but in a much less sensationalistic and more organically game-like way. When I asked why, in a game about the perverting and seductive power of violence, the player was not allowed to put that seduction to the test against an in-game civilian population, Hocking said, "We didn't want to be muddying up our themes with a bunch of mass murder for laughs. That would have made it confusing." This is surely correct. The "No Russian" mission is not only confusing; it is confused. And it throws more mud upon a game whose moral windshield is already quite spattered.
While "No Russian" was a commendable creative risk, Infinity Ward finally reveals an unforgivable doublethink when the game grants the player the option to not play it. I hope the next game to attempt something so troubling and willfully outrageous will do so out of courage rather than cowardice, and I hope the designers will have the maturity to recognize the difference between testing the conscience to make a serious point and shocking the conscience as a kind of pointless test.
Come back to Crispy Gamer at 2 p.m. EST on Friday, Nov. 13 to chat live with the Game Trust about Modern Warfare 2!
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