Friday, August 7, 2009

Missing in Action, part 1: Civilians in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

This is the first of a three part series dedicated to analyzing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is an exceedingly entertaining game, which makes it a bit problematic for folks who like to think of video games as meaningful art. At first blush, the game seems vacuous: while playing, I was never inspired to ruminate on any philosophies, I never made any particularly heavy ethical decisions, and the plot had all the nuance of an episode of 24.

The game's outstanding production values can give off the sense that the game is "war porn." Players are quickly funneled through the game, jumping from one explosion to the next, very rarely reflecting on the human toll or existential meaning behind the battles they fight. Despite a large cast of characters, the game seems to lack humanity.

Duncan Fyfe gives aptly describes the morally unambiguous world of CoD 4:

"There is never any question about who's hostile and who's not; everyone is, and they'll confirm it by firing first. The rules of engagement, in part, exist to prevent unnecessary civilian casualties. In these games, the civilians are never there to begin with. These are entertainment wars."

Clearly, the game has blind spots, but that does not mean it has nothing to say about war. Instead of dismissing the game as mindless entertainment, we can use utilize its omissions to explore our understanding of war in both our video games and our larger world.

To revisit Duncan's point, it should be noted that although the civilians "are never there to begin with," it is implied that they are "somewhere" and that they must be helped. Their implied presence is used as a tool to justify the game's violence, and by extension, the violence of war. During the opening scene, the player's ability to act is stifled as they witness a brutal military coup. An attentive player watches while civilians are beaten and executed. Although the player is powerless to help at this point, they have been provided with the justification for action. By removing a large portion of player control, the game links the player to the theoretical civilians via a feeling of shared helplessness. When the player is finally given a gun, they are justified in using it.

As is the case with many justifications, this one's utility overrides its logic. Real civilians serve as a representation of humanity in the opening scene, but are quickly transformed into a mantra to justify combat. At one point, the player's squad learns that the enemy is massacring civilians in a nearby village. Upon arrival, there are few signs of a massacre, let alone previous habitation. In effect, the player's true mission was never to rescue civilians, but rather to kill enemies. "They're killing civilians" becomes a stand in for "They're the bad guys," which is in turn a stand in for "Shoot 'em." But how is this helping the civilians? Who are these people? How many of them have been killed? Somewhere along the line, these questions stopped mattering.

Of the many spurious reasons behind the United States' invasion of Iraq, the goal of "helping the civilians" was one of the more noble ones. However, as in CoD 4, the cry of "Saddam's killing civilians" was quickly translated into "Stop the the bad guy," which was a stand in for "Shoot 'em." Never mind trying to parse out the intricacies of military force, the aftermath of battle, or war's unintended consequences, let alone anything regarding the needs and culture of those who needed help.

The average person knows almost as much about Iraqi citizens as they do about the practically non-existent people that supposedly inhabit the world of CoD 4. None of these victims have names, families, or history; they are ultimately used as a collective entity to justify action. While it may be absurd that the player never interacts with those they are tasked to protect, is it any less absurd than the fact that no one can decide how many Iraqis have died since the invasion?

The resemblance between the confirmed death count in our real war and the confirmed death count in our video game war demonstrates that CoD 4's world may not be as detached from reality as it appears. This is in no way an apology for the game; this is claim that the game simply succeeds in mirroring the world it aspires to emulate, albeit in unintended ways. CoD 4 creates a world absent of fully-realized humans, a world in which civilians are plot devices used to advance the narrative of war.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare introduces us to theoretical civilians. Unfortunately, it is not the first time we have been presented with such a concept.


  1. Great post. I have just started my first playthrough of Call of Duty 4 so this caught me at a perfect time. I think it is interesting that account of a characters actions are sufficient to name a character as antagonistic. This being contrasted with visual cues to a characters type seen in cinema. The active experience of gaming allows for other types of stimuli to cue us to the nature of things around us. There were other ideas that popped into my head as I read your post. However, I will wait until you have put the rest of the series up so I might give a more full account of myself. Looking forward to them :)

  2. Great post.
    I'm denying myself the joy of gaming at present or I would grab a copy and give it a go.
    Looking forward to more.

  3. Great post. (Also, I thought it was funny to begin with the same two words as the previous commenters).

    It seems like the critique of missing civilians is a similar one to your Far Cry 2 articles, isn't it?

    It made me think about what the game would be like if they were civilians. How should they behave? How would you react to them? Wouldn't the game change radically if they were present?

    And they are two instances where friend & foe aren't so well defined after all.

    First, in the multiplayer part. In the team play modes, you act as a team. Although there are numerous indicators which help you distinguish your teammates from enemies, I found myself having severe difficulties to prevent friendly fire. The player models are very similar from afar. It takes hours to adjust your perception to those tiny details that distinguish them. I've seen similar problems when watching friends play. And every time I opened fire on a teammate, even though friendly fire was off, it always struck me. "If this was real, you would have made a life-changing mistake just now... AGAIN". It gives you a glimpse of how real war must be like. There is never something like true "team-based combat". In a way, it's always deathmatch, everybody against everybody. A split second of reaction time may be deciding about your survival. In such an environment, you can't allow yourself the luxury of eliminating all possibilities of friendly fire. And I think this is one of those terrifying things about War.

    And then there is one instance where civilians are clearly visible. Not in persona but through the environment. In CoD4 you traverse ridiculously detailed reconstructions of civilian areas. Streets, apartments, backyards, buses. While playing the game, even during multiplayer, it often struck me that I'm currently in somebody's living room. There is a neat carpet, a TV set, the closet is open and there are some clothes inside. Looking out of the window, you see a small grocery store. The inhabitants might have done their daily shopping there. And now when this private place has been turned into a war zone, the impact of the war on the civilian population is clearly visible. It's all around you. In a way, it's effective specifically because a the people are gone.

    I think the second part highlights what I consider the strength of videogames in a specific way of storytelling. Games are not very good at telling stories trough characters. Theater and Movies work that way. What works in games is creating environments to do the storytelling.

    Henry Jenkins wrote this cool article on Environmental Storytelling, btw.

  4. Civilians in war games, always a topic that piques my interest. To bounce off of Krystian's comment, I appreciate that Infinity Ward created the environmental remnants of civilians, or in the case of the opening credits, the abused civilians.

    As a somewhat crude answer to Krystian's question, civilian NPCs are really troublesome if players can interact with them. How do you punish a player who accidentally kills civilians in a respectable way so as to make it meaningful? That isn't to say they couldn't at least show fleeing civilians.

  5. Gerard:

    Thanks Gerard. As you may have guessed, CoD 4 was a surprisingly thought-provoking experience. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts as we go on...and perhaps a more thorough deconstruction on Binary-Swan? ;-)


    Thanks Kim. All be interested to hear your thoughts when you break your vow of gaming celibacy. If you can wait a bit longer, you can play Modern Warfare 1 and 2 back to back!


    Witty and insightful as always. ;-)

    I definitely took a page from Jorge's book while writing this post.

    You're point about friendly fire foreshadows what I'm planning on writing about next, and I feel we had very similar experiences.

    Neat stuff regarding the environment and character-based storytelling as well. It's one of those things that the best games do almost invisibly.


    While this isn't about NPCs, I'll be interested to see how MAG punishes players for friendly fire or purposeful fragging.

  6. Great post!

    I'm not sure why I always had a weird feeling while fighting in Call of Duty 4. Maybe it's because everything felt alienated to me; suddenly I was in the middle east, in a hostile environment getting shot by the enemy, but that enemy didin't look like a military force, they had no choppers, no air support, not even a uniform, in contrast with me, the invading force. For some reason I coudn't stop to think I was fighting civilians, the men I shot maybe had families, and perhaps they had no other choice than to fight.

    Maybe it's in the lack of civilians, constant call out of them, and a already distant enviorment, that made me feel unclear about who really was the enemy. They way you call the civilians a "collective entity" seems to nail it, but it can also be applied in the enemy soldiers (except their leaders) since they don't have much personality, and work as what to shoot.

    Looking forward to the next parts!

  7. @RASS

    Thanks for stopping by!

    I was thinking about the back-stories of the enemies as well. The feeling was strongest during the AC-130 gunship fight; something about being so removed from the fighting made it powerful, yet unsettling...

    By the way, your site has motivated me to re-learn Spanish, so keep up the great work!

  8. The impression is given that these civilians being massacred in the level 'Safehouse' are Christian rather than Muslims and therefore the cause is more justifiable. My reasoning for this is that the mission is set in a rural northern azerbaijani village with a church which is where Christian groups tend to be found and discriminated against in predominately Muslim Azerbajian. This idea of Christians being somehow more valuable or at least news worthy is represented in the real world were the attempts to ethnically cleanse Iraq of Christians is given more weighted media coverage than the ethnic cleansing of Kurds by Sunni’s, which has been more brutal and widespread.