I’ve handed my review of Black Ops II to someone else this year. I normally look forward to my annual realisation that I really am too old for that kind of twitch shooter, but this year, I thought I’d get a second opinion.
After all, it’s really going to surprise no one that I don’t think much of the game - my review scores for CoD have been dropping pretty regular over the years.
But I thought I should give it a shot nonetheless. After all, it is a great way to get a handle on the greater gaming zeitgeist - more people will be playing CODBLOPS2: Ballistic Boogaloo than pretty much anything outside of Angry Birds. It’s always interesting to get a read on what Activision thinks is going to appeal to the masses this year.
And, in brief, it’s a pretty bleak outlook.. In terms of the player-base, it seems CoD continues to appeal to one of the most loudly homophobic and racist player-bases in gaming, and that, this year, burns victims are what the cool kids really want to see in a game.
So, I’ve pretty much given up on the campaign already. It seems designed to shock - and not in a good way - pretty much from the get-go. The amount of casual slaughter and cruelty in just the opening ten minutes is pretty staggering, and kind of ugly. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a great story-telling maxim, but in BLOPS2 the violence is more of a shitty shorthand for ‘hey kids, shit just got real’. From watching a young girl burn to death in discomforting detail, then a soldier cook off in a tank, and then to engage in a casual bout of ethnic cleansing... I’m sure it’s all going somewhere, and by all reports it may even be somewhere clever, but it’s a journey that, frankly, holds zero interest for me. There are plenty of games out there that can get me to care without resorting to what looks a lot like torture porn.
And don’t even get me started on the game’s annoying habit of removing player control at every point it can.
But I get it - CODBLOPS is not for me.
But here’s the real kicker. I just don’t want to play with people who like this game.
I know there are good people out there who play CoD. In a classic twist on the old phrase, some of my best friends are CoD players, but there’s no avoiding the fact that the game draws a lot of dickheads. In just a few days of playing, I’ve almost become inured to the cries of ‘faggot’, ‘gay’, and bouts of cheerfully casual racism.
The thing is, I don’t want to be.
There is a mute button, thankfully, but that’s just hiding the problem by pushing it under the digital rug. The same ‘banter’ will still be happening, the same childish snickers from people who think casual abuse of that calibre is meaningless and ultimately harmless. There are dicks aplenty in Battlefield 3, I know, but by and large it’s a far better community, if that word can apply. You do tend to get more aggressive types in competitive shooters, I admit, and I’m not above a bit of smacktalk myself - no one’s perfect.
But I do wonder why CoD draws such people in such extremes.
In some ways, as the Kotaku review points out, the game goes out of its way to present an empowered view of American individualism, but I think that’s not going far enough. Black Ops II is a celebration white male privilege - foreign nations fall at your whim, you are almost God-like in power, and the villain is a laughable caricature with an accent.
Is it any wonder, then, that it can attract the kind of people who think nothing of screaming at the end of a match “You cheating fucking chinese faggot, fuck you!”. I heard this - and more - just this morning, right after I logged out of the game for the last time.
We are all of us drawn to games because we like the power of fantasy (and maybe high scores). We can be true heroes, or villains. We can be knights in (power) armour, or command vast armies, or take mystical journeys, or... there’s just limitless variety in modern gaming.
But some fantasies are just a little too dangerously seductive, and the kind of shooter that CoD has become seems to be a magnet for frustrated men who just want to take out those frustrations on a faceless enemy. Few games place their protagonists in such positions of power, while at the same time also absolving those protagonists of any real guilt. Games like Dishonored or Mass Effect let you save the day (and the universe), but there’s a cost, a sense that your decisions have weight, and that your judgements may be wrong. There’s a moral compass in play.
CoD is the opposite. It teaches that morality is a thin veil to be torn aside by valiant men above such things, and it’s a fucking seductive idea that you ARE that kind of man.
In fact, the overall evolution CoD’s storytelling reminds me a lot of Atlas Shrugged, the Ayn Rand novel that’s been around (and pretty much reviled) for years. It pretty much ignited the ultra-conservative Tea Party political movement, and I think the allure of that book - rich men doing exceptional things unbound by morality - is not too far distant from the kind of storytelling to be found in Call of Duty.
What a horrifying thought.