I have a big pile of un-played and un-finished games chilling in my DVD drawer. The problem is, I make unrealistic judgments about my ability to dedicate time to gaming. I also am something of a stickler when it comes finishing games. Like books, I just can't stand to leave them unfinished without lying to myself, promising that I will get to them in the future. This same impulse also accounts for some weighty tomes cooling their heels in the nearby bookcase (I promise that I will come back for you one day, Hans Blumenberg's The Legitimacy of the Modern Age!)
In my effort to chip away at the pile, I settled on Call of Duty 4. (I do want to play Prince of Persia:Sands of Time and Fallout before their respective sequels come out this October, but I will have to put that project on the back-burner. Anybody have any suggestions on this one?) I've never met a military shooter that's impressed me much before (None of them have stacked up to the likes of Bioshock and Half-Life 2 in my estimation), but I have heard critics rave for going on a year now about how Call of Duty 4 is an example of peerless craftsmanship.
And it is. I'm only about a third of the way through the single-player campaign now, but I have been continuously impressed by the firm grasp on the finer points of pacing and gameplay variety shown by the folks over at Infinity Ward. Although it can't match Half-Life 2 in this department, it does a good job of overcoming the essential homogeneity of its level design by varying the combat-- moving from street-level fighting in claustrophobic Middle Eastern streets to pitched battles in Russian fields to helicopter turrets.
The multiplayer game bears out my recent thesis concerning leveling. Although the jobs-and-perks system builds imbalances into the game that are grossly punitive to the novice, it also offers the alluring idea that diligence and steady application will one day result in the murderous feats glimpsed only through your killcam, during one of your many deaths. I tell myself that I will be able to walk away before I am drawn into the vortex, but then again that next carrot is always only 150 XP away. You know how I feel about red dot sights. .
When I was playing online today my roommate walked by and said “Hey, this is that game that they use to recruit people for the Army.” She's not kidding. Even though Call of Duty is not an official recruiting product (unlike Full Spectrum Warrior and America's Army), it may as well be. It's not even that Call of Duty is jingoistic and triumpalist. It's just that it depicts war as a professional affair—its depiction of wartime service is overwhelmingly dominated by the feeling of competence. Games are almost inherently empowering, because their very structure trades on the player's gradual mastery of the virtual world. Coupled to the representation of military service they almost cannot help but glorify the cool-headed professionalism shown by the officers in Call of Duty.
I am less bothered by games' attempts to glorify warfare than I am by the steady convergence of warfare itself on video games. I trust that any sane human being can distinguish a video game from reality. But there is this eerie way that the tools of modern warfare can turn the killing of human beings into an intangible abstraction, no different from the dance of pixels on a screen.
I had heard Shawn Elliott discuss the chilling distantiation involved in Call of Duty's gunship mission on GFW Radio some time back, but it is worth having these two representations of an AC-130 gunship in action in front of you:
The top video is a mission in Call of Duty. The latter is an actual camera video from an AC-130 mission in Afghanistan. You have to hand it to the game's creators for nailing the flat, affectless tone of the radio chatter. And anyway, it's impossible to feel any pathos for blobs of light on a computer monitor. War is not a game. But how would you tell?