Sunday, November 14, 2010


While I don't think it aired here in Australia, I came across the following commercial for Call of Duty: Black Ops via several discussions of it online this week.

Over at Border House, they applaud the commercial for the diversity of the people portrayed: 
The commercial portrays a war in which a variety of people are the soldiers. The commercial includes people of color, men, women, people of various body types, and even a number of professions. All of these people are portrayed as equal soldiers in this war. This commercial implies that this first person shooter game welcomes adult players from a variety of backgrounds and is not simply a toy for men aged 18-25.
Meanwhile, writing over at The Atlantic, Sam Machkovech has a different take on the commercial:
I couldn't have asked for a more disappointing game-related ad. These aren't the video games I play. Even at their highest levels of action and violence, video games play like sophisticated games of Cops & Robbers. They're silly; they require colorful, funny-shaped controllers; they stay decidedly in the domain of detached fiction.

This ad equips people with real guns and simulates real-life, no-CGI combat. The thud of recoil, the screams of rockets, the dust of explosions... and the look of exasperation on that little, shotgun-wielding girl. The only things missing are the dead bodies on the receiving ends of each bullet and blast.
It really is a slick commercial, there is no arguing that, and I certainly agree with Border House that the diversity of the the people portrayed in the commercial is (probably) a good thing. However, I also can't help but agree with Machkovech that the commercial is ultimately problematic. To try to express why I feel it is problematic, i am going to compare it to an Xbox commercial that Microsoft opted not to air. Machkovech noted the same commercial in his article and my conclusions will be similar to his, but not identical.


Personally, I think this second commercial is absolutely fabulous. It shows the true beauty of games: playfulness and imagination. Violence is not something kids learn just from videogames; many games (videogames, boardgames, schoolyard games nursery games) are situated in re-enactments of violence, either real or pretend. This Xbox commercial simply shows a large group of strangers playing together. It is cute. It makes me smile. I would love this to happen in reality.

The Black Ops commercial is trying to tap into a similar theme, I feel. However, while the Xbox commercial brings war into the context of games, play, and fun, the Black Ops commercial takes games and players and fun and puts them into the context of war. The difference is nuanced, but it makes a huge difference.

Using war as the basis for entertainment is already a gray area ethically. It risks belittling real acts of violence, real lives, and real sacrifices (to use a potentially loaded word) into fictional, consumable action plots. Generally, though, if the line between the two is kept clear, then there is no problem. You can have a game, movie, or book based on war that is entertaining that also acknowledges that the real war was not entertaining at all. It is a thin line, but it is one that various media have managed to more-or-less maintain through the decades.

And that is where the Black Ops commercial falls down. By placing the game players not in a virtual game but in a real war, the distinction between the entertainment product and the real war is blurred--potentially to the benefit of the former, but certainly to the disrespect of the latter. When I play I war game, I  want to have fun, and I want to feel the gravitas of war. I do not want to feel that the two are the same thing, that real war is fun. That is when it stops being a game and starts being propaganda.

This line blurring is disconcerting from another aspect, also. I have written before (as have many others better than me, I don't doubt) about the blurring between 'real' war and 'virtual' war, as each looks more and more like the other. War videogames are becoming increasingly realistic while real wars are looking more like videogames with each leaked video appearing on YouTube. 

As Machkovech points out, the tag line of the commercial is "There's a soldier in all of us". Not a hero, a soldier. Not "everyone is capable of great sacrifice and fighting for a noble cause", but "everyone is capable of being conditioned to follow orders and to kill without question". These commercial puts these two ideas together (war is becoming more like a videogame; anyone can be conditioned to be a soldier) alongside a young girl (or boy) clearing a real room with a real shotgun in a commercial for a virtual videogame. When I watched that girl clear the room, I was not sure if I should be happy to see someone other than an '18-25-year-old male' enjoying videogames' or concerned that I was seeing a child be conditioned into a soldier. 

Which, as something of a side note, makes me skeptical of the true nature of the commercial's diversity. "There's a soldier in all of us". With the right technology and the right content, anyone can be conditioned to fight in a war, and not just any war, but a war as morally hazardous as Vietnam. Okay, perhaps that is a bit fatalistic, and I should just accept the one time the broader gaming industry does diversity right. But considering Activision's track record, I can't help but be skeptical.

So what are your opinions on the commercial? Are Machkovech and I the only people who have a problem with it?

Full disclosure: 1) I have been listening to The Rolling Stones all day thanks to the excellent use of music in the Black Ops commercial. 2) I have not yet played Black Ops and do not mean to comment on the game's content itself but rather the themes of the commercial and the content of war games generally.


Fraser Allison said...

Agreed on the general points: CODBLOPS ad does diversity well, but presents games poorly to a general audience.

The self-interest shows through pretty clearly. Activision is free to be reckless: it's hurting the image of gaming in general, but the ad will work on its target audience, and possibly even broaden it to people who have the right mindset for it but are out of the normal demographic. Microsoft has to be much more careful with its advertising, because it has a greater stake in the status of gaming in general being elevated.

The point about modern war and Modern Warfare looking more like each other every year is well covered in an interview with Kieron Gillen and Lucas Siegel, an Iraq war vet.

Brendan Keogh said...

Thanks for the link, Fraser. I knew I had seen plenty of articles and interviews and the such about it around the webs but could not remember a single one when I went to put in links. Though, somehow I have not seen this one before, so thanks!

Anonymous said...

I really don't see a huge difference between the two commercials. They're both about games as make-believe play, they just present the same idea with different visuals. When kids play imaginary war games, they often imagine the rest of the war going on around them. The CODBLOPS commercial simply makes that imagination visually literal.

Fraser Allison said...

Adrian: I'm thinking about it from an outsider's perspective. Blops uses the visuals of real war, Microsoft uses the visuals of pretend war. Summed up in the Violence section of this article:

TheGamingPhilosopher said...

My YouTube video giving my thoughts on the ad:

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