Home > Essays > Call of Duty: Black Ops – That’s Entertainment?

Call of Duty: Black Ops – That’s Entertainment?

November 19, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Kob Monney

If you follow games (why else would you be reading this?) you’ll find over the last week that the gaming press have been regularly supplying their readership with doses of Call of Duty. Whether you like it or not, whenever a new game in the series is released it’s an interesting barometer for how gaming perceives itself and how it wants to be perceived by those outside of it.  This is especially true when it comes to deciphering games’ place as pieces of entertainment: what do they offer as pieces of entertainment and what kind of experience are they trying to effect?

This is not a view on certification; Black Ops is a violent game with a rating that is well deserved. It’s a game aimed at adults and should be analysed within that framework. The aim is to uncover whether Call of Duty: Black Ops is along the lines of what we expect from our entertainment in games.

In terms of the violence in games that issue has always been a contentious point between those who play games and those who disapprove of the more explicit content. Games are generally seen as a recreational pastime, they’re seen as being fun. Whether that’s an effect of Nintendo and their advertising to the more ‘casual’ conditioning people’s thoughts or the idea that games are simply seen as a lesser cousin to film, literature and theatre and less deserving of the credibility that is afforded to those mediums is yet to be truly determined. Games have been on the verge of breaking out into the mainstream for a number of years (if they have not done so already) but it’s still a relatively nascent medium. Issues of violence and sexuality, issues that other mediums can handle much better, still cloud perceptions of what games can do or more importantly, what they can be.

It’s in the nature of games to veer on the ridiculous or hyper-realistic, there’s very little about games that we can say is just like it is in real life. Look at Hideki Kamiya’s Bayonetta or the macho-fest that is CliffyB’s Gears of War series. That exaggerated, almost caricature-like nature of the characters exist to distance the player away from reality and into whatever setting that the game takes place in. In much the same way as films do games can be escapist entertainment. In a more obvious way compared to real life there aren’t any restarts or checkpoints, you’re not funnelled down a corridor and then told to backtrack in order to progress, and your enemy doesn’t perform an inexplicable barrel roll before popping off a few shots. The trouble comes in reconciling the more exaggerated nature of games with real life and trying to find a good balance between the two while retaining a modicum of credibility. Here is where the Call of Duty games falter. They haven’t (in my mind) reconciled the exaggeration we see in games with realism, in fact the effect they give off is somewhat grisly and immature despite the adult tones it wishes to project.

I came to this moment when I raced down the hill at Kne Sanh trying to figure out what to do (silly oil barrels!) and taking some time behind some sandbags from the incessant gunfire. I saw a Vietnamese soldier on my right. I faced him, pulled the trigger and watched his head explode. It was not something that I was entertained by. Frankly, I was rather disturbed.

Yet this happens in other games where we’ve seen heads explode or limbs disappear in a hail of bullets. Fallout comes to mind straight away, Red Dead Redemption is another as well as Resident Evil. However with those games there are other ways to incapacitate your opponent, you could shoot them in leg, arm, disarm them, hogtie them etc. In the Call of Duty games all you have is your gun and grenades (and if you’re up close a knife) and when an NPC shoots at you you’re less likely to use a knife to stop them. Call of Duty leaves you in situations where your only recourse is to shoot but seeing an arm or leg disappear is an unsavoury sight to see.  The choice of how I act is removed and I’m left with perforating these digital characters until they go down and I can progress.

Are these dismemberments meant to shock me in some way? Is that by design? Because I have no time to reflect on it as I’m under fire almost immediately. Should I just wave it away and not pay any attention to it? Is this the kind of entertainment I should expect from any game that situates itself in some sort of realism? It’s all rather confusing as I have no idea what to think when confronted by a situation like that. If the game is meant to be some approximation of war, an insight into what war is like from the view of the soldier then why is the game filled with sequences that appeal to our more anarchic sense of fun? Do soldiers really get into turrets and lay waste to everything that’s around them? Of course not. There is this weird action hedonism that is Call of Duty in a nutshell but also as violent if not more so than the most ludicrous action films. The game does not attempt to make a statement instead it uses the setting as a playground for players to have fun in but never to think about the consequences of their actions.

There isn’t an overarching point to the acts you’ve perpetrated other than advancing through the campaign. As a result of the breathless speed at which the game zips along at there is no time to gather your thoughts and reflect on what’s happened. You’re whisked from set piece to set piece and then thrown another part of the story. The story is meant to be entertaining; perhaps even the developers acknowledge that it’s a gleeful piece of nonsense but the violence is stark and unsettling and the use of it seems even tawdrier when films are referenced.

The reference to Vietnam films – films that dealt with a serious subject and are conveyed in a way that is solemn, at times subtle and most definitely with a deal of respect towards it characters just glare at you in Black Ops with its crassness. That feeling of subtlety is never obtained in Call of Duty as it ploughs through sections with reckless abandon. It’s hyperbolic to a point where it’s hard to sustain some sort of believability about what is happening. The references are things that developers feel like inserting in as a wink to the player but come across as very unsubtle and have no place in a game that doesn’t take itself as seriously as those films.

If that believability is lacking then what is the game trying to be? The outcome is rather confusing – the game appears to have its cake and utterly devour it. When we have killing sprees and points for assassinations in our games it’s as if we’re trying to make violence fun. What’s the overall statement? Is it trying to make one at all? If it was about violence that men are capable of doing then perhaps it may have validated itself but I’m not sure it is. Not when much of game (especially when you look at the achievements/trophy list) seemingly implore you to commit ridiculous acts of violence and destruction. That would reveal a mentality behind the game, that it was designed from the ground up to be a playground for our more fantastical thoughts. Let’s blow this up and see the carnage that it creates etc, it’s entertaining but when put in a realistic setting with realistic looking opponents, it does seem a little naughty and mildly offensive.

Perhaps it may come down to each player’s tolerance of violence. Will people care about the amount of violence in the game or will they even notice the scale of it? It may just be a “game” and depending on who you are have a large or infinitesimal degree of influence over you but even for a game that’s a lot of violence to wade through. It’s a military FPS and it’s known that to progress you’d need to ‘kill’ the enemies but it’s the brash manner in which the Call of Duty series goes about it, not the actual action behind it that unnerves me the most.

So what do we expect from our supposedly mature titles? We’ve travelled a long way from games such as Golden Axe and Streets of Rage but games are no better at making a statement on violence. I’m not asking for some post-modern account of violence in society or some pretentious, vapid statement (I hope you won’t consider this view as the latter). We’re adults and we’re more than able to take stock of the violence we see in games but the games themselves seem to have only a tangible connection to morality. They’re not a reflection of us or society because as a society (I hope) we do not revel in violence but you play Black Ops and never once does it go against violence and how could it when it’s in its very DNA. If that is what entertainment looks like then perhaps we need to reconsider our thoughts about games as being fun.

Copyright Kob Monney 2010

Categories: Essays
  1. November 19, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    I totally agree that CoD presents a major contradiction: the level of violence has increased, suggesting a desire for enhanced realism. This, however, completely contradicts the nature of the game as something very unrealistic, as you play some kind of superhero who, in each game, owns whatever battlefield he’s on.

    The gameplay is entertaining, to be sure, but the in some cases extreme violence threatens that.

    Also, I slightly disagree about your comment that Vietnam films are entirely sincere. I found that, Apocalypse Now, Platoon and especially Full Metal Jacket had elements of very, very dark humour about them. This is far less apparent in films about other wars, however, and doesn’t affect your point: this humour serves a purpose, mostly highlighting the lunacy of the conflict. This is something, I think, that the Call of Duty games haven’t matured enough to understand.

  2. Andrew
    November 21, 2010 at 10:05 am

    This article was not as insightful, interesting or substantive as I thought it would be considering the level of the writing.

    • November 21, 2010 at 1:15 pm

      In what respect?

    • November 22, 2010 at 11:04 am

      Could you elaborate on your thoughts? Any feedback would helpful and if it adds to discussion then it’ll be great to read.

  3. November 21, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    The scary thing about all the mutilation you can do is that I didn’t notice it until the point where you get the ridiculously overpowered Dragon’s Breath shotgun which just obliterates anyone in your path. I then started looking at the damage my weapons were doing and realised it was just over the top slapstick violence. I’m not an expert on weaponry but I don’t think I should be able to blow a guy’s limbs clean off with a pistol, especially in a game that always touts realism as its selling point.

    • November 21, 2010 at 1:21 pm

      I would agree, as I’m certainly no expert in such things either, though I know people who are, and they have complained before that games like Call of Duty seriously under-represent the power of certain weapons in regard to the kind of damage they can do to the human body.

      It’s a seriously difficult issue, on the one hand the game is entertainment, making extreme violence either a) rather pointless or b) very telling if people actually find it entertaining. On the other hand, it is attempting a level of realism, but that completely undermines the player’s ability to gun his way through hundreds of enemies in the game.

  4. Liam
    November 21, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    For those of us who are psychologically aware that what we are experiencing is not “of the real world” experiencing this would be a problem. But as far as I’m concerned I have seen things on movies/ cable tv more disturbing, at a younger age. … its the ability of the gamer to be aware of the fact that what is happening to the soldier he seems to control in the game has nothing to do with the real, tangible world. And…what about the internet? 🙂

  5. Liam
    November 21, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    For those of us who are psychologically aware that what we are experiencing is not “of the real world” experiencing this *isn’t disturbing.* its an image made of pixels reflected off the back of your eye and projected. It may be disturbing to someone who has experienced someone disembodied, or hung, etc. However if someone has been through a traumatic violent/war experience, maybe they shouldn’t participate in any activities that may highlight their violent tendencies. (ie: War movies, UFC on TV, the internet.) How would that possibly be legislated? Point I’m trying to make is that any thing that’s edgy get’s forgot once the next scandoulous production is released. It’s freedom of speech, and if it shocks some because the war seems “more real.” Than MAYBE it will raise awareness to a more tangible global issue, preventing WW3.

  6. Zemmy
    November 27, 2010 at 1:26 am

    If I may join the discussion, I believe there may have been a slight instance of miscommunication of those reading and the author. First, Mr. Monney, in my opinion, that was a good article to be sure as it brought to issue a point that many feel but few voice. I may be wrong, but from reading this, it makes me think his point was more on the tolerance, acceptance, and further glorification of violence in today’s video game industry rather than a criticism of the Call of Duty franchise and the actual game was a means of expressing that opinion. The addition of the “realistic” environment in contrast to the more cartoonish in which violence can be expressed with a lower degree of seriousness or backlash (at least that’s how the majority seem to view it, see many cartoons). Really though, if we were to examine games such as these in their purest element, they in essence make “fun” out of some of history’s most serious times: World War II, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and even our modern armed conflicts with various groups. These were conflicts that many fought and still fight in and gave their life defending their or their leaders’ ideals and beliefs whatever they may be and for whomever they might be fighting. Would not many of the World War II games be considered offensive to the families of those in say Japan or even Germany? Granted, history might portray their “sides” as the “bad guys,” still this does not minimize or even justify the fact that they gave their lives, the ultimate sacrifice, for something they believed in or followed or were forced to follow. Still, I do believe in the essence of art and being able to express a viewpoint, belief,or message whatever that might be. It is our individual choice to either accept and participate or disagree and refuse. Myself, I do not play such games for various reasons but the Metal Gear Solid series features one of my favorite games. Contradiction? Hypocrisy? No. Returning to the issue of violence however, it seems as this element will forever be found in our entertainment, be it video games or other. Reason? It sells. Personally, I don’t agree with it myself, but we have to remember that video games are in the basest element, a product to be sold and to make a profit off of. And any good salesman or company knows that in order to sell something, you must first have something the people want to buy correct? Perhaps this element of violence applied to “realistic” settings is not entirely the fault of Activision Blizzard or even the Call of Duty developers, but of our society?

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