Where are the US civilians in the 'Modern Warfare 2' video game?

The huge success of "Modern Warfare 2" lies in its stunningly realistic depiction of war, which includes civilian losses. But gamers can't harm US civilians, for the simple reason that there are none. Did someone say "self-censorship"?


It’s the biggest ever video game release, whose first five days of sales outperformed any entertainment release - be it books, cinema, music, or DVDs. It shot past the one billion dollars in revenue mark, just like "Avatar”, but without grabbing the media attention that James Cameron’s 3D blockbuster received. It also broke new piracy records, earning the dubious title of the most pirated game of 2009 (over five million downloads).

Yet nobody noticed that the commercial success of “Call of Duty – Modern Warfare 2” was partly built on the implicit - but pervasive - notion that the blood of foreign civilians is more dispensable than that of Americans. Self-censorship?

The Call of Duty franchise is a video game series produced by California-based Activision Blizzard, featuring US soldiers and their allies, which rose to prominence thanks to its Hollywoodian rendition of a modern battlefield. The series’ latest installment, “Modern Warfare 2”, reaches new heights of realism where the gamer is immersed in several scenes with blurry rules of engagement. The game doesn’t encourage the killing of virtual civilians, but merely uses them to mirror real life warfare.

Virtual civilian casualties

The game has several levels that take place in Brazil’s gang-infested favelas, where the gamer must make split-second decisions whether the person in his cross hairs is an unarmed civilian or a dangerous gang member. As the gamer’s special operations team stirs up an epic gunfight in ultra-realistic narrow alleys and slum houses, innocent civilians inevitably get shot.

In another level, the gamer plays an undercover agent trying to gain the trust of a terrorist gang by taking part in a mass-killing game sequence in Moscow airport. Scenes of the carnage were leaked a few days before the official launching of “Modern Warfare 2”, sparking a public outcry everywhere from Internet forums to the UK's House of Commons.

Activision calmed the controversy by pointing to the fact that the game was rated 18  - for adults only - for violent scenes.

“Modern Warfare 2 is a fantasy action game designed for intense, realistic game play that mirrors real life conflicts, much like epic, action movies,” read the company’s statement.

American taboo

But while Activision producers go to great lengths to depict fatally wounded Russian civilians leaving big streaks of blood as they crawl on the airport floor – all in the name of realism - they designed the US-based levels in such a way that no virtual American civilian can be seen nor hurt.

The game includes scenes featuring the near-annihilation of Washington DC, but even the depiction of US civilian corpses remains taboo – a sharp contrast to the Brazilian favela or Russian airport levels.

Activision declined to comment on this issue or whether the absence of US civilians in “Modern Warfare 2” was motivated by legal or purely business considerations.

“We don't comment on the use of civilians in our games because we want to avoid a controversy that is completely unnecessary. We consider video games as a piece of work and producers don't want to comment on subjective choices,” Activision France's PR manager, Julien Chevron, told FRANCE 24.

The implicit message that “Modern Warfare 2” sends out is that machine-gunning innocent civilians is fun, as long as US civilians are not involved.

Cheap thrills?

The fact that critics focused their attacks on the generic violence of “Modern Warfare 2”, forgetting its big red 18 rating, without playing enough of the game to see the discrimination it applies within its civilian categories, also reveals another form of contempt for the entire video game industry.

Despite overtaking the cinema industry in terms of revenue, video games are still considered to be a lesser form of entertainment, whose cheap thrills are not worthy of mainstream media scrutiny. Analysts highlight the financial weight of video games but the medium itself is not taken seriously.

But because of their interactive nature, video games can sometime articulate public perceptions of events better than traditional mass media. Video games producers have done what Hollywood hasn't managed to since the start of America's war on Iraq in 2003 – depict the US military in a positive light.

The US military even developed its own video game, “America’s Army”, to boost recruiting. According to a 2008 study by two MIT researchers, 30 percent of all Americans aged 16-24 ended up having a more positive impression of the US army after playing the game. These results show that mainstream media should pay attention to some of the video game industry’s more disturbing messages.

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