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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.


The ad in question is important because it is the first time that certain audiences will be encountering the CALL OF DUTY series, and Activision has taken an interesting approach to this. The basic premise of the ad presents a “veteran” soldier (played by Sam Worthington – AVATAR, WRATH OF THE TITANS) and a “rookie” played by Jonah Hill (SUPERBAD, 21 JUMP STREET) who face nondescript human enemies and various machines of death while recreating scenes of destruction across the globe. After Hill’s rookie soldier fumbles through a set of situations, he eventually displays skills akin to Worthington’s heroics at the outset of the ad and becomes confident and assured. We then see Dwight “Superman” Howard shooting a grenade launcher, and Hill and Worthington walk with Lou Reed-style cool through a war-torn New York City while white typeface reads “There’s a soldier in all of us.”

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.

For most people it should be obvious that not everybody can be a soldier; Grady smartly emphasizes the point by sharing the story of Sergeant Timothy Gilboe, whose heroics during an attack on his patrol earned him a Silver Star and several rounds to his armor-plated chest. The juxtaposition of the Hollywood construction of war versus its gritty, painful and damaging reality is something that cannot be disputed, and yet there’s no JACKASS-style reminder that you are not a selfless soldier that can perform acts of valor on the battlefield, nor will you get back up from a proximity mine blowing up in your face like Hill’s character does. Therefore, it functions as a piece of fiction for anybody willing to understand the difference between reality and fantasy.

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.


So let’s reflect on this initial story: A military expert complains about a piece of advertising for a (supposedly) harmless escapist video game that deals with international conflict as though it’s…well, as though it’s a game that anybody willing to plunk down $60 can play. Perhaps we should ask what Sgt. Grady expected from Activision, much less an advertisement that’s supposed to hold mass appeal. Yet it’s that point about mass appeal that really gets lost in the Internet kerfluffle about the article and its reception. Why do enough people think that there’s a soldier in them?

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?

I will give Activision and the ad agency kudos for their willingness to advertise a game with absolutely no gameplay footage or hints that this takes place outside of the movie universe. It simply brims with the confidence of a well-heeled franchise owner that knows it has what its customers want, and places “two Hollywood buffoons” in the line of fire as a way of reminding people about it. And if it’s lifestyle advertisement, then it appeals to audiences as a way of saying “You too can be the fat guy in THE SITTER, kicking butt with that guy who changed accents all the time in TERMINATOR SALVATION. You’ll be having the time of your life, and eventually become an awesome soldier type.” If there’s a soldier in all of us, then it seems like anybody can become one of the elite soldiers depicted by Worthington and Hill.

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.

So for both ads it’s the same silly road of undergoing a heroic rite of passage, only the Marines ad plays it with a completely straight face. Nonetheless, Grady inadvertently raises a great point: Why DO these ads matter? Well, if Activision is using the same theme to promote its products, it must have found that the campaign resonated with viewers in some way. And the tagline makes it clear that it serves as a brand of wish fulfillment, a way of achieving something internal for most people. So what is that? Why should we agree that there’s a soldier in all of us at a time when more people are returning home from conflict and while war itself is becoming more mechanized? There’s not an easy answer here.

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?

That’s just it: War is a product in military games. More specifically, as stated by the brilliant Suffolk University professor Nina Huntemann, video games glorify military conflict and war without focusing on other political, economic and humanitarian aspects of war. “Since the attacks on 9/11, the largest publishers in the videogame industry have profited from fear and anxiety about terrorism…Electronic Arts (BATTLEFIELD 3) (writer’s note: BF3 sold 10 million units within one week…wow, I’m in the wrong job) and Activision have spent millions of dollars producing and marketing first-person shooter games that simplify and glamorize global conflict and military intervention.”


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.

What IS different is the success of the CALL OF DUTY franchise. Within five days of its release in Europe and North America on November 8, MODERN WARFARE 3 grossed $775 million in those markets. By the end of the year it had earned $1 billion worldwide, making it the largest entertainment launch of all time. But here’s the rub for non-gamers reading this: those numbers aren’t shocking, they’re expected. Ever since the incredible success of CALL OF DUTY 4: MODERN WARFARE (13 million copies sold worldwide since 2007), the series has launched a new entry in the franchise every year around the Thanksgiving holiday, and that release has easily been the year’s biggest game, only getting bigger every year, and scaring off other video game publishers from releasing games at a time when they know that their audience will be engaged in playing CALL OF DUTY. So that contributes to some of Activision’s confidence with the CALL OF DUTY advertising; at some point you’ll know that this crazy setup is for a CALL OF DUTY game, or you’ll be so enthralled by the prospect of becoming a soldier that you’ll automatically sign up.

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.

To offer some perspective, I’d like to think about METAL GEAR SOLID 2: SONS OF LIBERTY, another game that was released to expand the franchise of stealth action games that was spawned by the success of its PlayStation One predecessor METAL GEAR SOLID. This game is even more interesting from a marketing and gaming perspective because game designer Hideo Kojima and publisher Konami deliberately manipulated in-game footage to depict the series protagonist Solid Snake in later chapters of the game when he cannot actually be played there. Instead, players were infuriated to discover that their favorite gravelly-voiced Michael Biehn rip-off character had been replaced by a whiny albino simulacrum named Raiden with a nagging girlfriend and penchant for third-act nudity.

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.

The MGS2 connection may not be fully clear, but the idea is that gamers don’t like to be manipulated, and advertisers perceived that fact when creating game ads. For video games, it’s easier to give audiences what they want. Therefore, with MODERN WARFARE 3’s advertising, Activision follows this trend by making all of us soldiers in our own personal battleground, achieving by killing faceless enemies.

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: 

Pliskin: You don’t get injured in VR, do you? Every year, a few soldiers die in field exercises.

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?

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The Author

Kyle Moody

Kyle Moody

Kyle Moody is a PhD candidate in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa. His research and writing interests are digital media, online communities, popular culture, video games, and broadcasting/podcasting, and how online culture is responsible for expanding and shrinking communities. His blog Moodicarus explores these issues further, but with pictures and colors!
His entertainment loves include music from the Nineties, teen movies, karaoke and bicycling. He lives in Iowa City with his plants, LPs and video game collection, and hails from Georgetown, Kentucky. It’s not recommended that you make fun of his Kentucky Wildcats unless you want to get shown up on the court. Visit his blog - https://www.moodicarus.blogspot.com