Modern Warfare 2’s Controversial Introduction

Footage from the introductory level of Modern Warfare 2 has been leaked through various video sources. The game promises to be incredibly controversial from the introductory level alone, which places the player in the role of an undercover agent participating in a terrorist attack on an airport. The game’s publisher, Activision, has been pushing to remove the clips from the web left and right. The clip I saw was through this link.

Infinity Ward, the game’s developer, has released a statement containing the usual information that the clip is from an unauthorized leak of the game and is “not representative of the overall gameplay experience in Modern Warfare 2.” That being said, the game is very close to its November 10 launch, and so the gameplay is likely very close to the final version. Games have been leaked before launch in the past, and this sounds like a similar situation.

The clip is particularly disturbing because it depicts this group of terrorists with automatic weapons mowing down dozens of people at an airport terminal. What is most shocking about the sequence is that the player has agency and so can participate in the shooting of the civilians (and in the video, the player is doing so in a very brutal fashion – in some instances shooting civilians who are wounded even when the other terrorists aren’t shooting at them). The consequences of shooting a person are graphically depicted: instead of dying outright as in most games, wounded will crawl around or writhe from their wounds, while one sequence shows one civilian dragging the body of another to safety. The player can shoot at any of these people, but is not required to. At the end of the sequence, the terrorists fight their way past the armored police sent to stop them and the lead terrorist (a Russian who is hell-bent on starting a global war) shoots the player at the end of the mission. Note that while the player does not appear to be required to shoot civilians, it is likely a necessity that he must fight the police for the simple reason that they are a barrier to the exit.

It is also important to remember that the final context of this clip is sketchy at best. It is unclear exactly why the player is involved in this mission (mainly because the briefing text is impossible to read in the poor quality video clip and is not spoken in English). Second, it is unknown what happens at the end of this sequence and how the player’s character is treated by the authorities. Third, it is unclear what the consequences of shooting civilians are – or, for that matter, shooting the terrorists instead – not only for the outcome of the game but also how other characters in the game react to this event. Miguel Sicart’s book on game ethics would relate to this question in particular. If the killing of civilians contains no impact on the outcome of the game or the player’s performance, then the choice of killing is ultimately up to the player. This raises ethical arguments because if there are no consequences, it means it is really up to the player to decide whether it is alright to shoot them or not. It should always be remembered though that ludic ethics do not translate into real-world ethics.

Note that prior to participating in the mission, players are warned that “an upcoming segment may contain disturbing elements and they can choose not to engage in the gameplay that involves this scene.” This seems unnecessary from an artistic perspective and sounds more like something you would see in a television broadcast. Simply put, would we expect the flow of a Spielberg or Kubrick war drama, or even a horror flick, for that matter, to interrupt the flow of the film with a content warning?

Ultimately, the clip is out of context – or rather does not have enough context to be properly interpreted. As such, it is prime for knee-jerk reactions, particularly of the variety that mainstream journalism induces (not that I have high hopes mainstream media would take the final build in context anyway). The potentials Modern Warfare 2 has for exploring the consequences of warfare are certainly present, but it ultimately remains to be seen whether or not the game succeeds in this goal.

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