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The Prison of Choice

By Phill Cameron

In our review of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Sam Giddings noted that the game’s already notorious ‘No Russian’ mission wasn’t too successful.  After letting it sink in for a few days, Phill Cameron considers why that might be…

norussian1Human empathy is a powerful thing. It’s what makes us allow people to dress up their animals in cute little outfits and pretend they’re Tudor kings. It’s how we can watch a film like Downfall and suddenly feel like maybe Hitler was just a man under too much pressure. It’s how, when we see a pair of planes fly into the Twin Towers, the entire Western world can grind to a halt in sheer horror. Games are, for the most part, an opportunity for developers to mould our empathy, push us into the role of the hero, or force us into a situation where we have to make tough decisions. These are things games do that film and literature can’t, and while we’ve not even coming close to fully tapping into that potential, we’re taking baby steps.

You might have heard that a game was released this week. It’s supposedly the largest release gaming has ever seen. My concern isn’t that high profile; rather, it’s the already infamous level, ‘No Russian’, which – and here be spoilers – has you play the role of an undercover CIA agent working with a group of terrorists as they assault an airport and kill hundreds of unarmed civilians. You’re given a fully automatic machine gun, and while you’re not told to do any shooting, even if you abstain, eventually you’re forced to fight when the police arrive. The level features some of the most convincing animation I’ve ever seen, animation that isn’t present throughout the rest of the game, as men crawl away from the shooters, clutching their stomachs as blood leaks out, before suddenly collapsing and painting a growing puddle on the floor. It’s horrific, and obviously intended to be, but that’s only part of what I’m addressing.

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Empathy, then. When you see something comparable in a film, where innocent people are getting gunned down by terrorists, you empathise with the victims. They are those you have the closest relationship with, not the monsters behind the guns. It’s the same with news stories about such atrocities, from which we hear about heroic acts of self sacrifice, where teachers hold the door closed while their students escape from the lone shooter, only to get cut down themselves. Or the son in Mumbai who managed to get an entire hotel room full of people to safety. These are the stories that are publicised, because they’re the ones people can relate to. Put the player behind the gun, and suddenly their crosshairs are fixed on the people they should be empathising with; they’re in the wrong set of shoes.

norussian2But shouldn’t such a role-reversal be applauded? Here is a developer placing you in the place of those who are so demonised by the media, and perhaps you can garner some relationship with their cause, see that they’re people too, just driven to extremes due to their situation. If that were the case, I’d be the first to get behind the scene, praising it for taking bold steps and utilising the medium to its full extent. Instead, Inifinty Ward give you firstly no reason for the shooting, then no context for the terrorists, barely having them speak a word before they open fire. They are two-dimensional monsters who seemingly gun down civilians for the fun of it.

Okay. What if the game provides you with the context for the shooting, leading up to the horrific moment with a clever and responsibly handled plot, keeping things subtle and sombre? But here, again, Modern Warfare 2 fails, with ‘No Russian’ seemingly thrown in with little thought for the tone or consistency toward the themes of the game. The level immediately preceding it has you sneaking around an unnamed base in a blizzard, using a ‘heartbeat sensor’ to detect enemies before you steal a pair of snowmobiles and race down a mountain and jump a hundred foot gap. It’s James Bond suddenly usurped by Al Qaeda.

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7 Comments

    As much as we disagree on the subject Phill, I must say that this is a strong article which contains a very valid argument.

  • [...] bit in it. Everyone has written about it. From the Telegraph to the Daily Scoundrel to Resolution (Who have hefty reservations that the whole thing works at all). Anyone seen anything else really [...]

  • In my opinion the scene doesn’t make any sense. I don’t care what kind of undercover agent you’re supposed to be or what your orders are – if you’re not a maniac you would turn your gun on the men trying to kill hundreds of civilians. I don’t care if the big bad guy you’re supposed to infiltrate your way to might possibly have a nuclear bomb, you would kill these other dudes first. You couldn’t help it without being a psychopath monster yourself.

  • I think the issue is much simpler than you are making it out to be. IW purposefully made this scene to provoke revulsion in the player and to highlight how horrific the act is. You seem to implying that they just put it in there for shits and giggles and the shock factor was just an unintentional by-product of that, which seems to miss the point entirely. I agree that if the scene was placed in greater context that it would have been more powerful but the fact you are actively encouraged to kill innocents (as opposed to something like GTA where killing innocents is an option, but something I’m sure every player did without thinking twice) is what makes it so uncomfortable, and therefore such a good thing. In something like GTA you can get away with wantonly killing hundreds of innocent bystanders without even having to deal with the consequences, even though those consequences may just be aesthetic. This scene doesn’t let you escape from the consequences of your actions and forces you to deal with the ethical implications. That can only be a good thing.

  • I understand your point Jesse, but I feel that you need to work a little harder to understand the way the world works. This is just a game, but many people are put in this kind of position on a daily basis, albeit less extreme. If it seems like I am taking a ’side’ then I apologise, it is not intended.
    In Afghanistan and Iraq both sides routinely kill large numbers of innocent civilians in their efforts to target each other. They either believe the sacrifice (or risk thereof) is worth it, or are psychopaths. Which do you think? The Israelis have attacked nuclear processing plants in foreign countries. The US have shot down civilian aircraft in the gulf just in case they were hostile. Several terrorist organisations in Europe a few decades ago killed innocents to fight what they saw as the march (back) to totalitarianism. I won’t even try to list the various atrocities committed by organisations like the PLO. The UK infiltrated republican groups in Northern Ireland, even supplying equipment to them in some circumstances are part of the cover. We also supply weapons and equipment to regimes who are likely to use them against their own civilian population.

    The world is not so simple that you can presume that anyone who makes this kind of decision is a psychopath. Or perhaps you can, in which case they make up a non-trivial proportion of the population.

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