Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Real World in 'Call of Duty: Black Ops II'

David Petraeus in Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Activision, 2012),
image from
This week at PopMatters, I talk about Call of Duty: Black Ops 2's relationship with reality.

Maybe it's all in my head, but I always feel a little sheepish when playing and analyzing a Call of Duty game. As I noted in the article, Call of Duty is almost a punchline for a certain subsection of the game community. "What are you going to next," someone (like me) might ask, "explore the subtle themes of a Michael Bay movie?" I can't deny that there's some merit to this. Black Ops II has enough 'splosions and Hoo-rah for a couple of games.

Still, the games never fail to interest me. The Black Ops series particularly so, since it tackles actual historical events and people. If I told you that there was a video game that addressed CIA ties to terrorist organizations and put you face to face with Manuel Noriega, would you think that I was describing what will be one of the top selling video games of the year? It sounds more like something you'd find in the independent scene. Few other games acknowledge our reality in even the most general sense, let alone call out specific people and events.

The problem is that Black Ops II plays fast and loose with the real historical topics it leverages. In the marketing and in the game Oliver North is presented as some vague authority figure. There are always hints that the CIA is up to some shady business, but the game rarely takes a definitive stance on its actions. Jonas Savimbi is all soldier and no politician, and his ties to neo-conservative U.S. groups are ignored. China is a continual lurking threat, but the roots of the conflict are hard to follow as you frantically strafe through the levels.

Folks like Jorge and me routinely express our desires to see video games branch out to tackle more diverse topics. For every ten games about wizards, we're lucky to get one about politics. At best, I think Black Ops II goes halfway: it's not afraid to reference historical events and figures, but it doesn't offer much in-depth insight. Still, that's more than most games do.

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