Call of Duty Versus History

12/02/2016 10:02 GMT | Updated 11/02/2017 10:12 GMT

I recently wrote an article about the crass way video games tend to depict historical figures (posted on this website as Assassin's Creed Verses History). I mentioned how games like Assassin's Creed, God of War, and Tomb Raider oversimplify historical figures and historical events just to prop up the games' cardboard protagonists. So I wasn't surprised to read the news that the children of the late Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi are suing the makers of Call of Duty for their depiction of him in Call of Duty: Black Ops II.

Whether you a know a lot about Angolan history or not, or regard Savimbi as an honest freedom fighter or as a barbarian, anyone can see that the writers of Call of Duty: Black Ops II didn't depict Savimbi favourably (though they claim otherwise). "Seeing him kill people, cutting someone's arm off... that isn't Dad,' said Cheya Savimbi. The family's lawyer Carole Enfert said Savimbi is represented as a "big halfwit who wants to kill everybody."

It's hard to disagree with her. At the start of the mission in which Savimbi is prominently featured, you play as C.I.A. operative Alex Mason who has been ordered by the C.I.A. and, strangely, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North (of the Iran-Contra affair), to aid Savimbi and his Unita party against the Angolan government in order to find out from Savimbi the whereabouts of your comrade Frank Woods. (It's not worth going into detail about the game's ridiculous and convoluted plot, but I also wrote how historical events are almost always warped into conspiracy theories just to advance the games' plots, such as great wars being fought just to find a MacGuffin-style artefact.) Referring to Savimbi, one of the characters, Woods, says, "You think I'm fucking nuts? This guy..." At the beginning of the mission, Savimbi callously watches a man burning to death. And in broken English he shouts words of encouragement to his men as he leads them into battle against the Angolan government forces. During, he stabs an enemy soldier in the chest, and shouts, "They are weak, we must finish them." And at the end of the mission, he remarks, "You killed many men today, huh?' And laughs and says, "Yes, we all did."

But Activision claims his depiction was "rather favourable".

To clarify, Jonas Savimbi was the founder and leader of the National Union of Total Independence of Angola (Unita) who fought against the Angolan government and its dominant party the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). During the Cold War, the government was backed by the Soviets and China, and the rebels were backed by America. He was killed in clashes with state forces in 2002.

Manuel Noriega filed a similar complaint in 2014 for his depiction in the same game, which was dismissed by the Los Angeles Superior Court under the first amendment right to free expression. However, the Savimbi family are suing under French laws (where they live) that permits a defamation action in the case where the alleged defamation affects the deceased person's relatives' reputation and/or causes them suffering.

What will the verdict mean either way? Activision stated that they did not intend to depict Savimbi unfavourably (it's just bad writing, then, that led to him being depicted unfavourably). If they win, it sends a message that games can depict real people and real events however they like, with only a loose idea of the facts. If the Savimbis win, it sends a message that games have to be careful how they portray real people and real events.

Honestly, however, it's one of those situations where you don't want either party to win. Neither cares about the bigger picture: that games should put more effort into making their stories good (especially games like Call of Duty which clearly cares about its plots but can't get out of writing macho, cliché stuff). Activision just wants to avoid a big pay-out, and the Savimbi family just wants to ensure a pristine image of their father who probably wasn't as pristine as they make out.

History shouldn't be treated in such a shoddy way by any medium. Games developers like the makers of Call of Duty use history to try and make themselves look intelligent, but by weaving a loose interpretation of history into mundane plots they just end up producing lame conspiracy theories which dooms their plots from being interesting right from the start. I don't care who wins, but if more lawsuits come as a result for shoddy and ill-thought writing, then I'm all for it. As long as it's not from the family of Jonas Savimbi, or Manuel Noriega.