The Moody Views: MODERN WARFARE 3 and Why Video Game Advertising Matters
Hi, welcome to the Moody Views! I’m hoping to provide some more in-depth commentary on issues in popular culture that I believe greater consideration. In this era of quick reactions and instant commentary, sometimes it’s good to actually reflect on what certain things mean in our information era, and I hope to explore some issues and ideas that may warrant greater consideration beyond “Wow, that’s cool” or “Hey, that sucks.” With that in mind, let’s get into it.
Recently a series of articles appeared that focused on how ex-military personnel attacked Activision’s TV ad campaign for its mega-popular first-person shooter CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE 3. In particular, they questioned why the ad campaign displayed such fervent, aggressive love for war when the reality of war is so different and much less appealing. And I only think that they got half of the story.
As a piece of advertising for a video game, it’s certainly eye-catching, and it’s attracted backlash. Criticism of the ads by military personnel emphasize the depiction of war in the spot as trivial and ephemeral. US Army Special Operations Command paratrooper D.B. Grady wrote a scathing takedown of the advertising (not the game itself, we’ll get to that in a second), claiming it was a crass and hideous piece of marketing that trivialized war and the brave men and women that fight for us by claiming that there were soldiers in all of us.
Furthermore, Grady analyzes the ad without an understanding of its context. Worthington isn’t the “vet” because he’s a Hollywood action star (although it’s true); he actually voiced the character-controlled protagonist in 2010’s entry into the CALL OF DUTY franchise, BLACK OPS. All of the environments in the ad are recreations of levels and scenes in the game, meaning that the ad is subtly showing you what the experience of playing the game would feel like. Finally, this is a continuation of the 2010 ad campaign for CALL OF DUTY. BLACK OPS received a similar large-scale treatment of one of its multiplayer level maps and had celebrities like Jimmy Kimmel and Kobe Bryant shooting guns at unseen antagonists, with the same tagline at the end. So Grady is simply a year late and a dollar short on some of his claims. Granted, none of these points are explicitly stated in the ad for the casual observer, but for those of us with an understanding of the context it deflates some of his argument.
Well, they don’t. Advertising is meant to sell a product at its outset. But successful advertising doesn’t just revolve around a product. If Mad Men, marketing degrees and years of exposure to deeper thematic content tell us anything, advertisements promise a lifestyle, something that will not just fulfill our desires but also provide us with happiness. And I think that this is what most of us should think about when we’re talking about the MW3 advertising since this is possibly the first thing people will think when they see game advertisements: Why does this ad tell me I should buy the product? What will the product do for me? How will this make me happy?
That’s the point that Grady disputes throughout his criticism, and yet he never addresses the simple fact that a video game ad is not the same thing as a military ad. Look at the definitive difference between the reality of soldiers in MW3’s ads versus those presented by the following Marines ad. If Grady were to be truthful, he’d have to admit that the Marines advertisement engages in a different-yet-similar type of storytelling for its reality and goals. Instead of claiming that anybody can be a soldier, the ad states that very few can become part of the elite group of soldiers in the Marine Corps. Therefore, there are elite soldiers at the end of each ad, but much different ways of achieving this, and a level of attrition and hierarchy that stands above the rest. Also, let’s get down to brass tacks: No Marine that I’ve known or read about has ever defeated a lava monster after fighting for the Master Sword in an arena.
Let me ask another question: Does it offend you when you watch this ad? It doesn’t offend me because I know the context of the ad. It doesn’t offend most people because they are a) not soldiers or employed by the military, b) aware of the fact that this is an ad, as evidenced by Jonah Hill’s presence and the product rating, and c) they probably just don’t care. But I have a friend in the military who was disgusted when he watched it, having a reaction similar to that of Grady, and simply walked away in anger from it. Why should anyone who has actually fought through conflict and come out alive feel palpable anger towards this product?
Huntemann goes on to point out that her criticism isn’t limited to just video games, but it’s clear that video games bear the brunt of her harsh words. And because they’re games with interactive components that movies simply don’t contain they can engage audiences with greater strength. Through these games players can control their protagonists and engage in a very simplified, fetishized depiction of war without any real consequences, completely unlike how reality operates. Games are escapist entertainment, and CALL OF DUTY is no different from any other game in that way.
It also ties the points of Grady and Huntemann together, and sadly realizes both of them. If advertising sells lifestyles, then the CALL OF DUTY franchise is selling the “awesome” nature of war as a game, and their consumers are buying in droves. Advertising is the way that the company views not only their product, but WHO should be buying their product, and this is exactly why gaming advertising matters. Even if Activision says that they’re not profiting from armed conflict, they are fetishizing it for audiences. I bet many soldiers don’t have the pleasure of listening to AC/DC’s “Shoot to Thrill” while pirouetting around rockets fired at them from helicopters hovering over metropolitan war zones. Yet Activision’s belief in the desire of audiences to be soldiers is translated to us by showing us what we should be wanting, which is to be either Worthington, Hill or Howard on a scarred New York City battlefield.
But this was actually part of the point of MGS2; by engaging in digital trickery to manipulate the players and intended audiences for MGS2 in its previews and trailers, Kojima was directly involved in pushing the themes of the game (the ease of digital manipulation and the question of veracity of information) to their breaking point, already changing the final product from its advertised expectations. It’s a bit of metatextual brilliance for advertising for a toy with aspirations to pulp art, but it was too clever for its own good. MGS2 was almost universally reviled for its bait-and-switch tactics, inability to play as Solid Snake, Raiden’s complaining character, and the head-scratching twists and turns that inevitably made the game almost incomprehensible. By the time the third game was previewed, it was clear that Kojima would not be engaging in the same shenanigans again, and instead gave the players what they wanted: METAL GEAR SOLID in the 1960s, with more action and a more linear, straightforward storyline.
By giving gamers what they want and fulfilling their expectations of the experience, Activision’s success with the CALL OF DUTY franchise shows us how gaming advertising exists to provide users with a fantasy that the game serves to achieve, even if it flies of the face of actual content and moves into fetishized violence. The only trickery being played on the audience is that war is nothing like the amazing heroics shown by Worthington’s “vet” and Hill’s “n00b.” They may feel like a soldier after conquering a computer simulation or friends in multiplayer modes, but playing a video game does not equate to the pride one feels in serving their country and making a sacrifice of time and self for a greater good.
And maybe that’s the point in all of this. For me, this is a chilling reminder of what worries most of us when we think about video game violence, and appropriately it comes from MGS2:
Raiden: There’s pain sensation in VR, and even a sense of reality and urgency. The only difference is that it isn’t actually happening.
Pliskin: That’s the way they want you to think, to remove you from the fear that goes with battle situations. War as a video game — what better way to raise the ultimate soldier?