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.