It began with my character, Ramirez, in an underground bunker that’d seen better days. Soldiers monitored the airwaves while faulty electrical wiring sparked and popped from exposed breakers, and wounded soldiers peppered the place. They jammed gauze on bullet wounds and fists into bloody eye sockets. Scores of body bags lined up outside a makeshift medic ward where men laid on cots and would not make the night. I wound my way through morbid halls, the dull bulbs dimmed and flickered as mortar fire hammered down from above, until I passed a Ranger sat on his ass and staring at the floor. He looked dejected and in need of a lot of winks. Instead, Sergeant Foley tossed a rifle his way and gave the orders. Our mission was to secure an extraction point for helicopters en route. I followed Foley up the stairs and out of the bunker, while a sight familiar to all Americans, the Washington Monument, broke over the concrete horizon. The straight, splendid opulence of memory gave way to a hollowed out, broken, tangled mass of steel girders, amid a landscape that looks like a page straight out of Dante. It was Hell made of barbed wire and bomb shelters. Trench lines were sawn into the Mall, trees burned in a night sky choked with rockets and choppers, and everywhere there was gun fire. The Russians had landed, a homeland invasion most Americans swore could never happen. They fired from the streets, from the windows, from APCs and Jeeps, SAM sites, choppers, and tanks.
They fired from our memorials. Our monuments.
Sgt. Foley barked to stay close, but I lagged behind as I looked in horror at the destruction of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial lit up with muzzle flash, and far in the distance, the dome of the Capital Building caved in and smoking. Our symbols of democracy, our legacy of great men and ideals, reduced to soot stained, crumbling stone and serving no purpose higher than to provide cover from incoming. It was too much. I paused the game and took a moment to collect myself, as tears threatened and welled in my eyes.
Never have I been moved so completely by a videogame.
Modern Warfare 2 begins with General Shepherd spouting one line after another so heavy-handed with war mongering that Arnie or Sly Stallone would buckle under the weight. At first, I was disgusted by the game’s blatant “patriotism.” I thought it served to justify the past eight years of war with Iraq, an impending war with Afghanistan, and all future preventive wars. I didn’t play to get an education in combat philosophy, though; I came to bust heads like hi-def melons, and quickly brushed off the plot as no more than filler between fire fights.
Yet, when you die, as the game loads up your last check point (assuming you don’t meet your end by grenades, exploding barrels, cars, or those damn dogs), you’re treated to quotes by famous figures throughout history, which I didn’t know what to make of. Quotes like, “If you set out on a journey of revenge, you must first dig two graves,” and “Patriotism is loyalty to your country all the time, and to your government only when it deserves it” certainly didn’t fit in with Shepherd’s We-Will-Win-This-War speech. The tone MW2 kicks off with was much more in line with Dick Cheney’s, “It’s easy to take liberty for granted, when you’ve never had it taken from you.” That the quotes are both for and against vengeance only made things more confusing, until I realized that majority of pro-vengeance stances are so zealous they’re almost comical; the most recently famous one (due to Fahrenheit 9/11) belonged to Donald Rumsfeld about exact knowledge of Al Qaida’s whereabouts: “…to the north, east, west, and south somewhat.” Some quotes were so recent, they stung.
I had recently visited Washington, DC, a trip that left me with mixed feelings. As my friends guided me through the district, pointing out foreign embassies, the vice-president’s house, and places where famous Americans had lived over a hundred years ago, I was filled with wondrous pride for our heritage, and marveled at the rustic yet timeless beauty of it all; nothing but fresh grass, green trees, and a smorgasbord of gorgeous, gorgeous women. It felt very appropriate for the capital of the “free world.” But over the course of my visit, an altogether different feeling set in and took hold. Things started to feel a bit “off” in DC. Police lined the streets. An hour wouldn’t pass by without sirens, somewhere, blaring in the distance. Helicopters swung low and drew attention as they chopped through the air. Escorts tore through the streets at high speeds. Tourists snapped happy photos in front of the White House, just steps away from people on a hunger strike for the sake of abused prisoners in Tehran, and under the watchful gaze of snipers perched on the roof. The Reflecting Pool was a bog; filthy, green, and a place even the ducks seemed to steer clear of. The Iraq section of the American History Museum was labeled “America’s New Role,” referring to our Super Power status as we policed the rest of the world in the name of “freedom” and “democracy.” The exhibit included the surprisingly small uniforms of Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, and a twisted beam from the fallen Twin Towers. What motivates a curator’s selection, I wondered, when the museum is free?
I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, when it struck me how flat DC is. An entire district leveled in deference to the Washington Monument. The place felt designed to make the average person feel subordinate and small, straight down to the Natural History Museum with its larger than life shark jaws and a war memorial what seemed every ten steps. Oppression hung in the air like fog soup, and I knew exactly where I’d want to be if the chips were down: anywhere but DC. I had lost faith in an America I thought I knew, had once loved, and long ago grew jaded with. After eight years of war that’s claimed the lives of thousands of American soldiers and over half a million Iraqis for nothing but a foothold overseas; after a regime that, time and again, proved to care little for the people it supposedly served, and replaced by a new one that represented “hope,” but now clamors for more war, more spending; the monuments, memorials, museums, and relics- the symbols of America- had come, in this exhausted citizen’s eyes, to represent little more than ruthless oppression and imperial tyranny. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, among the mindless tourists and their constant photo-ops, I gazed at those symbols stretched out before me. Something stirred within. I was moved to give them all my own personal salute: a middle finger, raised defiant and high and angry. I turned to the Capital Building, where so much of our country and its people have been sold over the years to the highest bidder, and for a brief, radical moment, wondered what it would look like if that building were bombed.
Modern Warfare 2 showed me exactly what that would look like, and the sight will stick for a long time. As the game progresses and the actions of the parties involved escalate until it’s all out war in suburban Virginia, it dawned on me that MW2 actually has something to say, and “Of Their Own Accord…,” while definitely an example of social commentary, may well represent one of the stronger examples of a Game as Art. I believe, in that level, through your actions, the greater theme of MW2 emerges. It’s not until later in the level, after you secure the extraction point, climb your way into a waiting chopper and man the turret that this occurs. What follows is an intense fly-by on Russian soldiers and, much more importantly, American monuments. You’re told to target the RPG soldiers camped on top of the World War II memorial. When you open fire, the sheer power of your weapon blisteringly carves through anything in its path. The memorial, built in memory of the 50 states and an alliance that brought an end to Hitler’s wrath, is eviscerated in seconds. I could point out where my friend, just months ago, washed her feet in the water, next to a sign that ordered, out of respect, “Don’t.” When the chopper passes a colonial-era building loaded with Russians, the force of your bullets shatter the windows, tear chunks from the walls, and crack columns. As you fire on the enemy, you can’t help but wreck American symbols that represent valor, honor, democracy, peace.
Is this a mirror to the opening level, when a mini-gun caused the same mayhem on Afghani streets? What symbols of theirs were ruined? Did you catch, in that same level, before heading into the city, the soldiers wonder aloud which of the two identical buildings was gonna get bombed, then cheer as that Afghani building collapsed?
Were you reminded of anything?
I couldn’t shake the feeling, as the chopper-mounted turret reamed swaths of destruction, I wasn’t firing on Russians. I was firing on what brought America to this point: namely, the profit of few at the cost of many. In this light, are Shepherd or Makarov, and their mad quests for vengeance, so different from Bush? Is our world that different from theirs, or am I reading into this way too much?
The game may stumble in its execution. It’s saddled down with a James Bond popcorn plot and outlandish politics, but it’s no less viscerally effective when it stabs straight at the heart of what makes us American: love for our country. I had forgotten what that love felt like. But symbols have power and meanings can change. When I saw the Washington Monument ruined, its girders bent out of shape and exposed, our nation’s capital reduced to a war zone, and the carnage cause by a single turret, my heart broke for an America I wanted back, the idealized America I was brought up, since birth, to believe in. Where was the benevolent leader of the free world, the shining beacon of democracy? Instead, I was left with a district in ruins, minutes away from a nuclear strike, and no clear victory in sight.
I believe Modern Warfare 2, beyond the bullets and bravado, has a message. The game’s reached six million homes- those of hardcore gamers, frat boys, a Kotaku Girl’s Night Out, and even (regrettably) young children. I hope the message reaches more than I expect it will. Because, as those in power spill more money into a war we were tricked into and no longer want, instead of healthcare, education, or jobs; as long standing nuclear treaties are weakened and broke in support of short sighted self-interests; as tensions across the globe are continually heightened by our own actions that, in the past, we deemed “terrorism,” try not to ignore the message from a company that dared to show an America on the brink of ruin:
Don’t Let This Happen.