The video game franchise Call of Duty (COD) looks likely to top many teenagers' Christmas wishlists this year. For those settling down on Christmas Day to try out the latest instalment of the franchise - which began in 2003 and has since amassed a legion of dedicated fans worldwide and grossed over £10 billion in sales - they will not be alone. There are over 40 million active players across all of the COD titles each of whom spend countless hours immersed in the action of the battlefield from the comfort of their homes.
The latest instalment in the COD series, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, takes a jump from reality in terms of its story and content. The campaign sees a Kevin Spacey-headed private army, more powerful than any state and with imperial ambition, attempt to flex its muscles on the international stage drawing on a vast arsenal of state-of-the-art weaponry.
Much is made of the realism of COD and it's been no different for the latest in the series. A review by IGN stated that COD reflects 'real world news' and that 'there's a layer of truth beneath it all that's genuinely scary.' Such realism in the game has been used as a key theme in its marketing. Michael Condrey, co-founder of Sledgehammer Games, the company behind the series, was candid in divulging how a scenario planner from within the Pentagon was enlisted to create the most realistic gaming experiencing, showcasing technologies that will one day be used in real warfare.
Video games, like TV and cinema in the way they reach a wide audience, shape our perceptions of what they depict. Through its realism, COD paints a damaging portrait of warfare and the world in which it takes place. The franchise has always revelled in post-9/11 paranoia and that mindset is still present in the latest game. Through the battles and scenarios it presents, it manages to normalise torture and rendition, and makes light of the impact of gung ho military forces in civilian areas. This depiction of warfare becomes especially important when you consider how many young people play COD games. It can be claimed that exposure to this depiction of warfare in your formative years can go on to shape your politics in the same ways as the other forms of media that influence you.
Yet it is not the intent of this blog to say that it is the depiction of violence itself in games like COD that cause problems in our perceptions of warfare per se. There's been a long history of overreaction in this area, when it comes to violence in video games, and the violent television, cinema and literature before them. Indeed video games can be violent and it's not the violence that's the issue. Spec Ops: The Line is one example of how a video game can simultaneously be violent whilst depicting warfare in a way that does not shy away from civilian cost and other brutal realities of warfare.
The depiction of warfare in COD games is just one way in which video games, and the wider culture, can be influencing young people. The recent GamerGate controversy has revealed the extent of misogyny and sexism present in gaming circles. Games can be used to help create a better society through what they represent, so more should be done to cut out content that can further enforce beliefs like violent misogyny. There's nothing wrong with fantasy violence itself but video games should not belittle or target already marginalised and victimised groups or the real violence towards them won't change. Not being allowed to violently murder a member of a group you don't like in a video game is not a form of Orwellian censorship.
The content of video games can affect how we think, especially the young people that grow up with them. Video games have the potential to be an incredibly positive influence, the Mario and Zelda franchises can get people playing in groups, the Mass Effect series has great representation and series like Total War and Age of Empires can spark interests in history.
So it matters that people are playing COD because of its politics. Video games influence so the beliefs they portray matter. If Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is on your Christmas list this year, think about the politics in the game and realise that video games can be as ideologically charged as other forms of popular media.