War: Less like Call of Duty, more like Mass Effect

Originally published in 2014.

I forgot what prompted me to make this comparison. I think I had heard someone making the comparison of war to the popular game ‘Call of Duty.’ They may have been disputing the comparison, but the linkage was made. I remember shortly after getting out of the Army, a young boy’s first question upon learning that I had served in the Army overseas was to ask if it was like ‘Ghost Recon,’ another popular war game.

I’ve never been a big fan of Call of Duty or any of the ‘realistic’ first person shooters. They are flashy and visually stunning, but they are simple in their execution. For the most part, you navigate your avatar across a generally linear course, destroying everything in your path. Granted, I’m leaving out some things, but that is generally how the games work. Move. Destroy. Repeat until complete.

Those games reflect the exciting, but proportionally minute experiences of wartime service. Even out on the tip of the spear, the shooting war happens infrequently. I’ve never been in a Ranger or special operations unit – maybe their experience is Call of Duty-ish, but I’d venture it isn’t. A very tiny proportion of the American public experiences military combat, and the most visceral link the rest of the population gets comes displayed on an electronic screen in the form of movies and ‘realistic’ war games.

But if these games are zooming in and exploiting those tiny moments and expanding them to feature length, what then might serve as a better comparison?

Instead of looking at Call of Duty et al, I’d compare military service and wartime service to the game ‘Mass Effect,’ where the key events driving the plot in that game are the decisions made in non-combat situations, the interactions between leaders, subordinates, and outsiders, and the development of relations over time. Mass Effect has its share of kinetic combat, but it happens less frequently and chaotically, and usually between long periods of ‘inactivity’ filled by user-driven dialogue, planning, and preparation.

The choices made by the protagonist across the Mass Effect series have real consequences for the player and the universe he inhabits. The dialogue choices made when speaking with teammates can either build or erode the trust and cohesion of the fighting force. The application of force is weighed against sympathy and aid in key decisions, when the ‘right answer’ is not usually apparent. Act too harshly and you risk alienating potential allies. Too soft, and you open yourself to exploitation.

These nuances seem much more familiar to my military experience than anything I’ve seen in a ‘realistic’ combat game.

I don’t know, maybe I just missed out.

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Press X to Pay Respects: The absurdity of war in one stupid prompt

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I have never been a big Call of Duty fan, but as a military gamer I know how popular it is both at large and in the military community. Word has spread about the now infamous “funeral scene” in which the player is prompted to “pay respects” by holding F or X, depending on the gaming platform. I’ve read a number of short pieces on it, mostly deriding the scene as a cheap gimmick by quick-button prompting a funeral on one hand and disrespectful to veterans on the other.

I usually don’t get worked up over things like this, and honestly, I’m not worked up over this either. I’ve written aggressively in the past defending the right to depict war in art – even if that art is in the form of a video game. No one has a monopoly on the right to discuss or depict war – it is a human condition, not simply the purview of military folk and veterans. The funeral sequence is in the game and it will be played by millions of people. It is there and it is done. There will be no calls to pitchforks from me.

However, I do think that the funeral prompt perfectly encapsulates how far we’ve come in the meaninglessness of “support the troops” slogans and “thank you for your service” accolades. In that one short sequence, the death of a Marine is used as a plot device – fair enough. But the prompt to “Pay Respects” by simply pressing a button with no understanding of what that means is troubling. How exactly will I “pay respects” once I hold the X button? Will I break down and cry? Will I silently think something solemn and vow to live a good life? To avenge his death? Or is the simple act of pressing X enough to satisfy it all. What if nothing happens? That’s it? Where’s the explosion!?

Conversely, by choosing not to press the X button am I paying disrespect?

I can imagine a player out there, somewhere, who is a strong opponent of America’s wars in foreign lands, but who happens to love the rush of playing first person shooters. This fictional person believes that anyone stupid enough to join the military in a time of unpopular war deserves no sympathy, and perhaps deserves to be punished for knowingly choosing to serve. When prompted to pay respects, he or she will choose not to do so – a jab at the dead Marine and a nod to his own self-righteousness. His way of taking back control of something he has absolutely no control over – US foreign policy.

Even the term “pay respects” bothers me. I know we say it from time to time, “have you paid your respects?” or “you should go pay your respects” for example. But the way the phrase awkwardly floats there over the silent funeral begging you to push it as everyone sits there waiting for you to make a decision feels so forced and a little gross. Absent of the context of an actual conversation, “Pay Respects” as an action sounds stupid and even a little cute, in the same vein as people who talk about “getting on the Twitterz” or “internets”; the needless pluralization of words to be playful.

Thinking on it, the funeral scene is not a departure of the Call of Duty franchise from its realistic depiction of combat, because it has never featured a realistic depiction of combat. It has always been a cartoon, a caricature of combat. The funeral scene is no different, except for the fact that the military funeral is a sacred event, especially for the families of the over 6,775 service men and women who have died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Call of Duty though, the funeral is a plot device. Before the player even leaves the funeral, he is approached by a very realistic looking Kevin Spacey character, the father of the slain Marine, who shows little emotion concerning his son’s death and instead invites the player to join his company as the shots of the 21 gun salute ring out in the background. Charming.

Like I said, I’m honestly not worked up about this. If I played Call of Duty, I’d probably laugh at the scene and try to skip past it so I could get back to blowing shit up. I don’t need Call of Duty to kick me in the gut with the feels or prompt me to press X to pay respects. I’ve done it enough for real.

And Kevin Spacey is never there to offer me anything.

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