Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Modern Warfare 2 controversy to come

For weeks, not one television network took the trouble to examine the context in which Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor made the “make policy” and “wise latina” remarks that fed this summer's 24-hour news cycle. I can only imagine how they'll handle footage captured from the forthcoming Modern Warfare 2 in which players unconscionably massacre civilians during a terrorist attack on an airport. If they weren't willing to sit through the Duke University and Berkeley Law School speeches from which Sotomayor's commentary was stripped, they certainly aren't about to play a videogame before using it to tar an entire medium by association.

Of course, without that context it's impossible to come to any worthwhile conclusions (including whether developer Infinity Ward was courageous to include intellectually challenging content that can sustain complicated readings; foolhardy in its assumption that meaningfully violent videogames can come of age in the present reporting climate; or crass in its belief that no press is bad press). It is, however, fair to frame questions. A few that come to my mind include:

Would an alternative approach effectively “establish the depth of evil and the cold-bloodedness of a rogue Russian villain” and “add to the urgency of the player's mission to stop them.” What if the scene, for example, cast the players as a counter-terrorist who monitors the massacre while en route to the airport where he will engage the enemy? And what, if anything, will the answer tell us about the differences in reading a novel narrated from a monster's point of view, and in acting monstrously in a videogame where the player presumably has other options?

What happens when the player turns and attacks the terrorists? Do they die, or does the game end then and there (since the story sustains only one outcome and the bad guys need to live in order to play their part in the escape scene at end of the level)? If the latter, must we comply with the terrorists to complete the mission and continue the story? I don't see why not when the character we play is destined to die.

Must we commit mass murder to appreciate the extent of its evil?

Is the scene's ending intended to serve as absolution not only for the character -- a CIA agent complicit in mass murder even should he never fire a shot -- but also for the player who presumably will want to “kill” the part of himself that played such a role?


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