Call of Duty Modern Warfare Multiplayer

Daily Reaction: Games Need to Come to Terms With Their Political Nature, But What is ‘Political?’

The devs at Infinity Ward recently doubled down on saying that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is not a political game. When questioned by Game Informer about the title that they describe as “ripped from the headlines,” Studio Art Director Joe Emslie stated emphatically that the game is not political. Following up with Campaign Gameplay Director Jacob Minkoff, he offered a slightly longer explanation about Infinity Ward’s stance: “Do we touch topics that bear a resemblance to to the geopolitics of the world we live in today? Hell yeah! Because that is the subject matter of Modern Warfare. Are we telling a story that has anything to do with the specific governments of any country we are portraying? No.”

That certainly ruffled some feathers, mine included. I mean, how can you state so sternly that your game inspired by modern day politics, war, and issues, is, in fact, not political? But how does one define “political?” What does the question “Is your game political?” actually mean?

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Minkoff said. “The question ‘Is this a political game?’ doesn’t actually mean anything, because what does the word ‘political’ mean to you?” Infinity Ward’s stance on this seems to stem from modern political divisiveness regarding the nonfiction people, politics, and problems of the moment. “Is Trump in the video game? No he isn’t.” Okay, so Modern Warfare isn’t designed to be a game that specifically endorses or denounces political figures (which I don’t think is the motivation behind the question being asked), but surely the inspiration of the game is inherently political in nature, right? Plenty of works of fiction have been described as political because that’s where they root their narrative and story.

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Narrative Director Taylor Kurosaki added to this point. “We do talk about concepts like colonialism and occupation and independence and freedom…That’s the realm that we are in. But you could have a game that takes place in Revolutionary America talk about those exact same concepts.” And from my perspective, a game set in the backdrop of the American Revolution is also inherently political in nature and inspiration. Assassin’s Creed III did it, and I would definitely call that series quite politically inspired.

The misunderstanding stems from the way in which the words “political” and “politics” have been used by different people to describe different things. In gaming and entertainment culture specifically, calling something political is an argument used by people angry about what they see as “agendas” within pieces of media. Things like equal representation of LGBTQ+, gender equality, and racial equality all immediately get hammered as a game being “full of politics.” So with a massive game like Modern Warfare—which is inherently inspired and derived from the politics of today—from a huge publisher like Activision, the company shies away from the definition.

While I don’t know for certain, I’d imagine that there’s some amount of publisher direction behind this messaging. After all, Activision is publicly traded, and for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare to hit the headlines as taking a specific stance on current politics, that could present some damage when it comes to investors. Kurosaki and Minkoff were very clear that while it delves into political concepts, it is not a commentary on exactly what’s going on right now.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare Killstreaks

“If you wanted a situation where I would say ‘yes it is a political story,’ I would have to be telling a story about specifically the exact administrations and governments and events in our world today. We are talking about thematic things,” Minkoff said. “You would also have to have a perspective on it. We want to present the different perspectives. We don’t want to say that one of them is correct.” You can watch the full interview on Game Informer.

So Call of Duty: Modern Warfare does not take a political stance. It doesn’t present either a left or right agenda, and it’s not a commentary on specific people and events of the moment. It is, however, based on thematic elements that have been at the heart of politics since forever. Does that make it a political game? By sheer definition of the term, yes. Political doesn’t mean nonfiction. It doesn’t mean taking one side or another. It means “of, relating to, or concerned with politics.”

Not The First Spin on the Merry-Go-Round

This isn’t the first time that we’ve talked about this either. Daily Reaction recently criticized Ubisoft for taking the stance that Watch Dogs Legion would be a non-political game. The very core of the game is rooted in a post-Brexit London where you build up a group of resistance fighters to get back at The Man. At least Modern Warfare has the argument of presenting multiple angles. Watch Dogs Legion clearly takes sides in this fictional, but still politically-charged environment. How can you have a game that is about resisting an oppressive government and then say it’s not political in any way?

Again, I think these talking points stem from the position of the larger companies. Ubisoft and Activision don’t want their games to be taken as political commentary, in the interest of not upsetting any investors, so they steer as far from the term as possible. The interview with Kurosaki and Minkoff highlighted this, where they managed to talk about a lot of political topics, calling them concepts and themes but avoiding ever making any direct connection that would state “Modern Warfare is political.”

Watch Dogs Legion E3 2019 preview

Some of the greatest pieces of media ever created are inherently political in nature. Some of the best music has come from specific stances on politics. There are incredible books, films, and television shows that were born from political concepts and themes. I’d almost argue that if you tried to write a narrative that wasn’t based in some kind of politics (personal politics, community politics, moral politics, etc.), it’d result in something rather flat and boring. We live in a world where politics rule our lives. Believable characters and scenarios are imperative to connecting with the things that we read, watch, and play. Conflict is important to character and narrative growth, and often conflict is presented through themes that are inherently political.

Remember that political doesn’t have to mean anything about sides. It’s not about the shallow surface tensions. It’s about embracing concepts and themes that make people think. It’s about connecting with the audience through relevant conflicts that cause people to think. It’s about bringing people together through a shared vision, struggle, or idea. A political game is simply a unique lens through which to look at and interact with certain political themes.

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I understand where Infinity Ward and even Ubisoft (to an extent) are coming from. Video games are designed to be entertainment products and to sell a lot of copies. They are supposed to be fun to play, and (especially of late) politics can be a factor that will drive people away—or at least invite heavy criticism from vocal minorities. Headlines stating “Call of Duty Modern Warfare is political” might send the wrong message, based strictly on the varying definitions of what exactly “political” is. Ironically, taking the non-political stance is doing the same thing, though probably less damaging to the brand overall. Kurosaki and Minkoff know their game deals in political themes. Avoiding the term isn’t so much a creative decision as much as a marketing one. It’s all about the optics.

Unfortunately that also has the impact of video games still not being taken very seriously, seen instead from the outside as senselessly violent experiences that are supposedly training the next round of mass shooters in America. Where a film about war can be a deep and insightful take on those politics, war games are apparently just inciting violence. The sooner games can come to terms with their political nature, the sooner we can take the next steps towards them earning a bit more respect outside of just those who play.

Daily Reaction reacts daily to the video game industry. Have suggestions for the column or subjects you’d like us to react to? Let me know in the comments below and be sure to check out previous Daily Reactions for more dives beyond the headlines.