How 'Call of Duty' Got Itself Into A Political Pickle

'COD' is either using historical realism to make a statement or it's being exploitative, but it can't be neither.
How 'Call of Duty' Got Itself Into A Political Pickle

The Call of Duty franchise is known for taking historical settings and using them as a backdrop for their games. It's unclear as to why, but I guess there's just something extra rewarding about shooting someone close-range with a sniper rifle and then being able to think, "Yep, this must have been what the battle of Stalingrad was like."

So it's no surprise that the latest iteration of the game, Call Of Duty: Cold War, is looking to double down on historical immersion. But there are all sorts of problems that you run into when you try to depict history in a video game, and I'm not just talking about the processing power required to render the many wrinkles on Ronald Reagan's face.

Holy Gipper, those graphics! The only thing that would make Reagan feel more real is if he ended the clip by downplaying the AIDS crisis. But I'm getting distracted. See, for as good as this COD looks, and as historically weighty as it feels based on the trailer above, it has also put itself in a political bind. Namely, with this teaser it released here:

The teaser showcases an actual, historical interview with Russian defect Yuri Bezmenov outlining a four-step Soviet plan designed to cripple America from within. We are shown clips of, again, real historical events, as he details this strategy like the Vietnam War, riots around the world, and footage of the White House. One such clip is of the famed 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests in which the Chinese Communist Government fired upon protesters, and it is still to this day one of the most heavily censored and sensitive topics in China. That's why it is especially curious that Activision removed the teaser and replaced it with a version that no longer features the Tiananmen Square Protests. Here's the new version:

Now, I don't know Activision's political stances as a company. Maybe they collectively felt the need to call out China's current regime (which feels more and more Tiananmen Square-y by the day), or maybe one rogue agent within the Activision editing-bay snuck in this footage at the last possible moment. Either way, I would guess that political stance went quickly out the window when Activision executives realized they might be cutting themselves off from selling video games to the massive Chinese market. Or, perhaps, they realized they could be in over their heads in an even worse way.

According to the Hong Kong Daily, Chinese internet users were incensed by Activision's inclusion of the footage. One wrote on social media, "These white-skinned pigs are beyond saving. They focus not on developing the game but promoting ideology." Another wrote, "American politicians are the ones who want to start a new cold war."

Was this Activision panicking over the prospect of inciting an international incident with China? I don't know. Our President was the dude from The Apprentice, so anything is possible. But whatever their reasons to pull the footage, they come out looking like hypocrites. See, Activision made the tagline of their game "Know your history." Hmmm, it's kind of hard to know your history when you're in the process of censoring it.

Activision could always hide their shame by falling back on the old tried-and-true argument of, "Hey, bros! Woogity, woogity, woogity. I know people are talking about video games like they're legit art now, but it's just a game. It's not a movie or a book that's supposed to have a message or provoke thought. It's just a game." And, fair enough. But that brings us to the other side of the bind that Activision has placed themselves in. If this is just meant to be mindless, meaningless fun, why are you centering that game around real-world atrocities that carry modern-day political relevance? It reminds of that Kumail Nanjiani bit, which, hey, was about Call of Duty!

Kumail jokes about playing a Call of Duty multiplayer map called Karachi, which is named and modeled after the war-torn city that he grew up in. He rationalizes that his experience growing up there will give him an advantage in the game, but the obvious subtext is how messed up he feels it is that this American company trivialized the atrocities of his childhood by turning it into a playground.

So again, we're back to Activision's bind. Either claim your game is some type of lofty, artistic title, using historical realism as a backdrop to make a political statement and engage the user on a deeper level, or admit that your RPG-shooter about the Cold War is just trying to exploit our current moment. It's a tough call, but at least this franchise has benefited from the experience in making this call before. Lest we not forget Call of Duty: WWII, which included gratuitous Swastikas in multiplayer. Sledgehammer co-founder Michael Condrey said about the Swastikas later removal, "Including Nazi symbols wouldn't bring honor, nor be appropriate, without the rich history of a WWII story to ground their context in Multiplayer." 

He's right. It's the context that matters. It's the context that lets you make art about WWII or The Cold War, etc. Devoid of that context, you're just signaling that "This real-world warzone is a place for fun!" The other problem is that it takes a hell of a lot of context to justify making a level like this:

Yeah, maybe Call of Duty should lay off the historical realism for awhile.

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Top Image: Activision


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