Virtual Death

Glen Newey · Modern Warfare 3

Eleven-eleven-eleven is upon us, and the 93rd anniversary of the Armistice. Politicos and telly folk have long vied to out-poppy each other by getting on their red blooms ever earlier in October, and this week the poppy piety has merged with its near-ringer, the death-piety of the Premiership, where it only takes the groundsman’s cat to croak for a minute’s silence and black armbands all round. The entirely proper matter of honouring war dead has been 'overshadowed' by teacup squalls over the England football team’s royal-enforced right to wear poppies and Muslims’ lack of a right to burn them – with, as usual, the red-tops riding shotgun on the catafalque. Thursday’s Question Time panel, sanctimonious even by QT standards, unanimously agreed with the home secretary’s decision to ban poppy-burning, on the strange ground that this 'glorifies' terrorism.

There’s no obvious reason why footballers’ jerseys shouldn’t have a poppy stitched on them, given that they are usually plastered with plugs for Carlsberg or Northern Rock. Nor is there much in the charge that acts of remembrance necessarily ‘glorify’ war. But somewhere a glorification awaits unseen. This Remembrance Sunday, the 11 a.m. silence at the Cenotaph will be dinned out on many of the nation’s screens by the crackle and snarl of virtual death. The new Activision blockbuster Modern Warfare 3, launched this week with a tsunami-sized splash, is the ideal Christmas gift for the bedroom psycho. The franchise umbrella monicker, Call of Duty, sounds like the call of nature re-envisioned by Kant, and that’s about right, as adrenaline surges in the service of a pitiless sanctity. Its threadbare set-up pairs ‘Vet’ John ‘Soap’ MacTavish (Avatar’s Sam Worthington) with ‘Noob’ sidekick (Jonah Hill) in an unending shoot-out against eastern hordes covetously eyeing our Lebensraum, outriders of an ideologically null expansionism.

The game, we’re assured, is both amazingly realistic, because of near ‘movie-quality’ visuals; but also, reassuringly, nothing like reality, because though the heroes sport star-spangled arm-flashes, the badhats are Commie-Lite Russky nats, rather than the ragheads we’re really fighting right now. Collateral damage and friendly fire bungles by the good guys are also in short supply. Gamers get to kill an awful lot of people, and earn points for it. You can pilot Predator-style drones from your cell in Nevada to take out far-away terrorists, just like we do in Af-Pak – though the MW3 version doesn’t seem to echo what, on Brookings Institution reckoning, is the 1:10 jihadi-to-civilian kill ratio of the real-life drones. In defending civilisation against barbarism what matters is splatter, with right a given, and no prisoners taken.

Apparently MW3 is on course to gross £1 billion by Christmas. It’s been lauded as the CGI apotheosis of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. Gaming hacks have unsurprisingly gone ape over the let’s-pretend killing spree, which hops from NY to Paris, London, Berlin, and all points east where Activision has big markets among boy consumers. But not all the plaudits have come from those in secure units, their moist fists coiled about their joysticks. Keith Stuart, the Grauniad’s tech-floss pundit, hailed MW3 as ‘peerlessly slick’, ‘an engrossing study of cause and effect, of input and immediate, explosive consequence’. And don’t try and pull that pinko egghead crap about the moral high ground. ‘If you want to ask questions about the morality of war as entertainment, you should perhaps begin your quest with Homer or even chess’. One way or another we’re all bashing the bishop. There must surely be a reason why all this is less distasteful and emotionally stunted than a video game called, say, Kiddie Fiddler: The Call of Lust, but it’s quite hard to think what it is.


  • 16 November 2011 at 5:10pm
    cliffsky says:
    love this post. almost parodic in its disregard for the game's plot & specifics, the author's unfamiliarity with the game (and, presumably, whole medium) coming through in every word. and yet - yet! - even with all the wrong notes, inaccuracies, and proud knee-jerk disregard, mr. newey nevertheless manages to make a meaningful point about the mysterious, threatening object of his scorn.

    that final line and bit about the "points for killing" excepted - duly, as the first borders on prudish old-man self-mockery, and the second is only half-accurate, insofar as it applies to the amoral, postmodern, "multiplayer" half of the game - paragraphs 3 and 4 are more or less otm: blockbuster videogame renditions of bloody, armed conflict are in astounding poor taste. one can rarely see so tragic a selection in themes: of the wide array offered by war, eschewed are all those concerning basic human dignity, absurdity, and tragedy; no heed whatsoever is paid to homerian concerns over meaning, or hemingway-ian metaphysics (both of which arguably do their share of glorification); the setting is picked seemingly only on the basis of its violent sensory exuberance, and the room for expression it offers to its audience's vestigial machismo. beyond the surface, aesthetic resemblance, the product could not be further from the reality of interstate conflict. to activision's credit, maybe that's where the "modern" comes in, but i doubt it.

    still, mr. newey would benefit from handling videogames a bit more carefully next time. most readers won't bother reading through the blunders.

    • 17 November 2011 at 8:56am
      Phil Edwards says: @ cliffsky
      There was a brief debate about the artistic merit of video games* on Roger Ebert's blog a while back, which rapidly turned into a much longer debate about whether Ebert had any right to pronounce on video games without ever having played one. What stuck in my mind was an enthusiast explaining that you couldn't just dip into a video game - the good ones revealed their artistic and philosophical subtleties after you'd played them for 80 hours or so. That, and Ebert's near-dumbfounded response - "Eighty *hours*?" He added that he couldn't imagine devoting that amount of time to a video game while there were still films in the world he hadn't seen, at around two hours each. (I have spent 80 hours or more on a few video games, but I sympathise with Ebert.)

      The point is, nobody is going to commit that much time to video games unless they're enthusiatic about them (or on commission, I suppose) - so anyone writing about them from the outside is liable to make what look like solecisms in the eyes of enthusiasts. I doubt that most of the readers of this blog are bothered.

      *Is this even how they're referred to these days? After typing the phrase a few times I'm starting to feel as if I'm talking about rap singers.

    • 17 November 2011 at 11:56am
      It's evidently a scene, isn't it? Parochial, tribal and fiercely protective of its sorry little patch in inverse proportion to the world's desire to trespass upon it, like Ruritanian visa policy. 'I'm afraid, sir, these documents are not in order. It clearly states on page 693 of the application form that the certificate of personal hygiene must be made out in triplicate by a physician designated by the Embassy in the country of residence.' Now the Church of St. Vladislav the Flatulent may well boast the third finest onion dome in Lower Carpathia, but under the circumstances...

    • 17 November 2011 at 9:31pm
      Bob Beck says: @ outofdate
      The "parochial, tribal, fiercely protective" characterization initially put me in mind of prosletyzing enthusiasts for Linux, and other open-source systems. Of course, their goal is ostensibly the opposite -- to convert rather than to exclude the outside world -- but either their technical explanations, or their scornful replies to hesitant or skeptical questions, tend toward the counter-productive.

    • 22 November 2011 at 9:51am
      semitone says: @ Phil Edwards
      How many hours does it take for Ulysses to give up its artistic and philosophical subtleties?