A Marxist Critique of the Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare Series

Introduction

Recently I’ve been replaying the Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare series. It’s landmark in the video game industry; cementing the “modern military shooter” as the go-to product of a generation (it wasn’t the first but it was the big one) and was probably the game where a lot of people were first introduced to online multiplayer. Personally, I’m not too fond of multiplayer FPS (although I do love co-op), but I’m one of the those people that plays Call Of Duty for the single player. While some of it may be over-the-top, it’s got a solid combat system and has levels of catharsis that some more recent games just haven’t given to me.

With my previous work, I had fun looking at theories like postmodernism and gender and sexuality within gaming, so I went looking for another topic I wanted to tackle. And when I was playing through the Modern Warfare I started to see the glimpses of another dissection through an academic lens. So may I present “Marxism in the Call Of Duty Series”.

Key:

MW = Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007)

MW2 = Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009)

MW3 = Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (2011)

Part I: Bourgeois vs Proletariat

Marxist Theory is a theory that explains and shows that power in capitalist societies is situated in the “bourgeois”, also known as the higher classes. But Marxist theory doesn’t just stem from Karl Marx, there are several different interpretations and additions from other people that add up to Marxist Theory, so I will be jumping around from place to place, throwing in separate ideas from different theorists. But let’s start with a fairly simple one; characters.

Throughout the Modern Warfare series, you play as soldiers from around the globe; the UK, USA, Russia etc. However, all playable characters in the story mode are the highest tiers of the army. Members of the SAS, the US Marines, CIA operatives; the characters in the Modern Warfare series focuses on are ultra-competent badasses rather than the previous instalments, in which you were mainly a grunt in a large army.

In MW2, we mainly follow soldiers in Task Force 141, said to be the “…best handpicked group of warriors on the planet.” (12:22). This can be seen as a basic reading from Marxism as the “bourgeois” vs “proletariat”. “Bourgeois” refers to the higher classes, while the “proletariat” refers to the lower classes. A similar comparison might be the master (bourgeois) and their slave (proletariat). By playing as the ultimate top tier fighters in the world rather than just any soldier we are pushed towards this idea of the bourgeois, that the higher tier of fighters are the people we want to follow rather than a lowly soldier like in the previous CoD games.

The “proletariat”, or lower classes (in this case lower classes of soldier) are usually the people you are fighting against in Modern Warfare. Small bands and militias are rife throughout the series, usually carrying basic weaponry and are no match for the highly-trained player character. The only time you are up against an organised and well-equipped army is at the climax of Modern Warfare 2, where the player faces off against the Shadow Company, a highly trained and equipped force of soldiers that are willing to sacrifice themselves for their cause.

In a twist on the bourgeois vs. proletariat, when the player fights off against the Shadow Company (The Enemy Of My Enemy, Just Like Old Times) the player character Soap MacTavish and Captain Price have been disavowed from Task Force 141, meaning they are not recognised in any official capacity by the military. Therefore, Soap and Price attacking Shadow Company could be seen as the (new) proletariat attacking and destroying the bourgeois in a final act to save the world.

CoD Shadow Company
A Shadow Company patrol from the mission Just Like Old Times from Modern Warfare 2. Source: g2a.com

To follow on from character, it’s a well-worn tread that the characters that we play as are the only ones who can advance the plot. It’s become a meme with the community, “Ramirez do this! Do that!” is often parodied quote (here is one such video) but it still lends itself to Marxist theory, albeit rebelling against it rather than reinforcing it. As pointed out by Susan Hayward in her book on concepts of cinema, “[Soviet cinema] would use, in massive numbers, non-actors to create a collective proletariat hero, playing down individualism.” (2004, p.340). Modern Warfare breaks away from this tradition of Marxism by pushing the individual’s actions rather than the groups. Another example would be in the mission Aftermath. A nuclear explosion goes off, killing over 30,000 soldiers. Even though we see a scrolling list of all the dead soldiers, the player character at the time, Paul Jackson is still highlighted out of all the other characters (11:32-11:44).

The argument may arise that focussing on individual actions is for player benefit; we want to feel like we are the hero and a game where we are not the central character would not work. As a counter I would put forward a few sequences in Medal Of Honor 2010, in which the player character is made to provide covering fire rather than storm enemy strongholds, showing that gameplay focussing on the team rather than the individuals actions can be attainable.

Part II: Affirmative Culture

Created by Herbert Marcuse, “Affirmative Culture” is a term to describe art that can uplift us or promote optimism in times of suffering or grind; if the audience is shown a happier time in the art they consume, they will start to feel happier in their day-to-day lives. Susan Etherington-Wright and Ruth Doughty highlight one of the obvious cases of affirmative culture, the use of musicals during World War Two;

“…during WWII, Hollywood shelved plans to release adaptations of hardboiled detective narratives (Film Noir), because they were deemed too pessimistic. Instead it saturated the market with song-and-dance movies, realising that the optimism of Musicals helped relieve a period of darkness and hardship…Musicals adhere to a formulaic narrative where problems are created and solved easily, leaving the audience fulfilled and uplifted.” (2011, p.87).

In my opinion, Affirmative Culture is one of lynch-pins of the Modern Warfare series. The first Modern Warfare came out in 2007; the United States was already in two wars in the Middle East, both featuring ill-defined motives for invasion and increasingly spiralling out of control. Modern Warfare came at a time when the West and particularly America needed catharsis and some semblance of control against Middle Eastern terrorism and it gave the audience a power fantasy of being one of the best soldiers today going into battle and fixing the problems.

Around the same time that Marcuse brought about Affirmative Culture, critics Louis Althusser and Pierre Macharey thought up a separate reading, called Symptomatic Reading. Symptomatic Reading asks the reader to, “…look beyond the information presented to consider what has been omitted.” (2011, p.89). This can be applied to Modern Warfare, as is contains real-world armies and conflicts and alludes to problems but never dwells on them. Ideas like killing unarmed combatants rather than capturing them, (Crew Expendable) posing risks to civilians (Game Over, Takedown) or torturing enemies (Safehouse) are never explored and are used just to generate a greater enjoyment from the player, through violent catharsis or spectacle. This is known as “Culture Industry” (introduced by Adorno and Horkheimer), where we the audience take the information at face value and do not question it.

CoD Brazil
Running around saving the world from terrorism, or a weird imperialistic fantasy? Those things aren’t mutually exclusive. Source: g2a.com.

Part III: Interpellation

Another theory created by Althusser about Marxist theory is Interpellation. Interpellation’s main theory is about ideology and why we subscribe to certain beliefs and values in our day-to-day lives. Althusser identified the two places that try and control our ideology;

  1. Repressive State Apparatus (RSA). RSAs are systems that force individuals to follow rules and regulations. If we don’t follow these rules then we are punished. Things like the army, police forces and the judicial system work in this way.
  2. Ideological State Apparatus (ISA). ISAs are systems that manipulate individuals into performing certain actions, focussing on their morality. Things such as the church, family, friends and education instil these values.

Being a soldier in the army, the player character is both part of the RSA but at certain times in the games they are under it; in missions such as Team Player in MW2, the player is told to only fire upon enemies if fired upon themselves (8:09). Looking at the MW series in terms of RSAs is counter-productive as games have rules and regulations, although in games they are referred to as mechanics, therefore it would only be highlighting gameplay rather than narrative aspects.

In terms of ISAs though, Modern Warfare has many subtle threads, sometimes for less than reputable meanings behind them. For example, again in the mission Team Player, a large explosion conducted by the US Army is met with whoops and cheers by your fellow soldiers (7:41). To spread the question out further, for the majority of the campaign missions you are an American soldier or fighting alongside American soldiers, fighting enemies of not just Middle Eastern descent, but Russian, African and South American. General Shepherd says, “We [America] are the most powerful military force in the history of man.” (5:11).

Taking all of this, the game, alongside the game characters are telling us the players that the Americans are the best nation in the world, who can kill anyone with impunity and that it is okay to create massive collateral damage as long as it doesn’t affect you, the player character.

CoD White House.png
Could this be the reason that the USA was invaded in MW2? Seeing battles take place around classic American staples such as the Washington Memorial, WW2 Memorial, the White House and Wall Street, to bring about a sense of realisation? Source: Google Images.

Part IV: Carnivalesque

Our final look at Marxism focuses on the Carnivalesque, a theory created by philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin. His theory was based off the Carnivals in Ancient Rome and Greece, where normal structures breaks down and the classes come together in celebration, creating a Marxist utopia for a few days. Bakhtain made a list on what happens around the festivals, rewritten by Etherington-Wright and Doughty as;

  1. Law and order is suspended.
  2. During Carnival, traditional hierarchies no longer apply.
  3. Carnival brings together all walks of life.
  4. Celebration of blasphemy and obscenities.
  5. Indulgence in euphemisms and double entendre.
  6. Laughter and parody, such as spoof and satire.

(p.92, 2011).

While MW does not adhere to all of these rules, some of them can be applied to the series. Rule 4 can be seen within the name of the levels F.N.G. from MW and S.S.D.D. in MW2 (FNG standing for “Fucking New Guy” and SSDD for “Same Shit, Different Day”). Achievement names come under Rule 5, with achievements called things like “Dancing In The Dark”, “Mile High Club”, “Deep and Hard” (MW), “Soap on a Rope”, “Three-some” (MW2) and “Menage a Trois” (MW3), some being double entendre’s, have sexual connotations and some being explicit sexual acts.

Several other level names fall under Rule 6, with names like Game Over (the final mission in MW), Black Tuesday (MW3, being set on the stock market, which is also alluded to in the achievement for this level, “Too Big To Fail”), Mind The Gap (MW3, set in the London Tube Network) and Turbulence (MW3, set on an airplane) all having semi-ironic names. Parody can also be seen in gameplay as well. During the mission F.N.G., when the player is having a weapons drill, the player is told to stab a watermelon to practice their knife attack. It’s pretty ridiculous, but the parody is heightened when Gaz, the character giving the drill responds, “Your fruit-killing skills are remarkable.”

The parody becomes more apparent with the continual film references, with Aliens (Crew Expendable), Dr Strangelove (No Fighting In The War Room) and Red Dawn (Wolverines!) either being insinuated or straight-up being paid homage to. Films are also paid homage to in the achievements, with MW2’s “Royale With Cheese” (Pulp Fiction) and “It Goes To Eleven” (This Is Spinal Tap) as well as MW3’s “We’ll Always Have Paris” (Casablanca) and “Get Rich or Die Trying” (Get Rich or Die Trying).

CoD Showeroom.jpg
This isn’t even mentioning the several references to The Rock in Modern Warfare 2… Source: Google Images.

Conclusion

This is just my interpretation and opinion on the Modern Warfare series. It would be interesting to look into the series as a whole, and not just focus on the modern military conflicts. For example, in previous CoD games, such as World At War (CoD5), players have played as member of the Soviet Army. Does playing from a Soviet aspect in any way alter the Marxist viewpoint? Stretching out further than CoD, do other military games such as Halo as follow these viewpoints?

And can multiplayer also fit into the theory? Bakhtain’s Rule 3 is “Carnival brings together people from all walks of life.” The MW series are in the top forty best-selling games of all time, they have attracted some of the highest (in sheer numbers) player bases in all of gaming. Young players (sometimes not old enough to buy the game), old players, gamers from every single country and skill level come together to shoot each other in the face. How is that not a perfect reading of Rule 3?

So is the Modern Warfare series Marxist? In the end, I would say no. While it may subscribe to many of the theories I’ve laid out, I think it goes against too many of theories to be a Marxist text.

If you have any ideas, throw them in the comments and please share this post if you enjoyed it.

Bibliography

Adorno, T. and Horkheimer, M. (1995). “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” in Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Verso. (Originally published in 1947).

Althusser, L. (1970). “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Althusser, L. (1979). Reading Capital. London, Verso. (Originally published in 1965).

Bahktain, M. (1968). Rabelais and His World. London: MIT Press.

Etherington-Wright, C. and Doughty, R. (2011). Understanding Film Theory. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hayward, S. (2004). Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (2nd Ed.). United States: Routledge.(Originally published in 2000).

Infinity Ward. (2007). Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. United States: Activision.

Infinity Ward. (2009). Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. United States: Activision.

Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games. (2011). Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. United States: Activision.

Macherey, P. (1978). A Theory of Literary Production. London: Routledge.

Marcuse, H. (2002). One-Dimensional Man. London: Routledge. (Originally published in 1964).

 

Banner Photo Source: youtube.com.

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