Call of Duty: Black Ops hits stores on Tuesday, and it shouldn't surprise anyone when it becomes one of the bestselling video games of the year. Judging from previews I've played, it’s another excellent entry in the series that has defined first-person shooters since its debut in 2003.
Video games must tiptoe around the "too soon" rule – that a certain amount of time must pass before a traumatic real-world event can be mined for entertainment.
What has been surprising so far is the lack of controversy surrounding Black Ops – these days, you usually can't release a war game without angering someone.
Last year, Activision inflamed critics with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which allowed players, during an optional level early in the game, to execute innocent civilians as part of an effort to infiltrate a terrorist organization. Earlier this year, Electronic Arts faced similar blowback over Medal of Honor, which featured a multiplayer mode that let gamers control Taliban fighters. EA, which initially wanted the game to be as realistic as possible, relented to the pressure just before its October release and switched the name of the multiplayer enemies to a generic "opposing force."
In both cases, critics felt the developers were being insensitive by allowing gamers to play as people responsible for killing soldiers and innocents in current conflicts. There are moral quandaries and plenty of enemies to kill in the new Call of Duty, but there's little controversy – because of the simple matter of setting.
Black Ops takes place during the Cold War, with players battling it out in southeast Asian villages and caves, downtrodden tenements in Hong Kong and the frozen wastelands of the old U.S.S.R. Players take on missions ostensibly based on real, unofficial U.S. military actions – or "black operations."
Like most books, films and TV shows that address recent conflicts, video games must tiptoe around the "too soon" rule – that a certain (albeit unspecified) amount of time must pass before a traumatic real-world event can be mined for artistic purposes or entertainment. That's why the overwhelming majority of first-person shooters, if not set in the future (like Halo or Doom), have taken place during the Second World War, including the first three Call of Duty games.
But just as too much True Blood and Twilight can make audiences sick of vampires, too many shooters have exhausted the Second World War setting. Gamers are clamouring for something different and pushing developers closer to that "too soon" line.
The numbers prove it. Modern Warfare 2 raked in $310 million US in its first day of release, making it the biggest entertainment release in history, the developers of the game claimed. More than 20 million copies have been sold so far. Other studios have taken notice, which is why EA reoriented its Medal of Honor series – created by Steven Spielberg in 1999 as an adjunct to his Second World War film Saving Private Ryan – toward a more modern setting. While not nearly as successful as Call of Duty, the reimagined Medal of Honor sold a solid 1.5 million copies in its first week.
There's one big problem with this push toward modernity and realism, and that’s the double standard that still dogs video games. Gamers took the criticisms of Modern Warfare 2 and Medal of Honor hard, given that films set during ongoing conflicts (like The Hurt Locker and Green Zone) typically escape scorn, and often garner praise from Oscar voters.
War video games, if they dare to tackle real issues and settings, inevitably continue to be singled out for supposedly encouraging violence. Detractors say they should be judged differently than films, arguing that they are an interactive form of entertainment and that participating in fictional violence makes players more likely to replicate such actions in the real world. There's also the mistaken belief that the primary audience for games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor are children. The games are in fact rated for mature audiences only, while the average Canadian gamer is 34 years old.
With Modern Warfare and now Black Ops, it’s clear Activision is shifting its war games toward a more modern setting, which is sure to be a lucrative move — and others are following. The "too soon" line is going to be increasingly tested, which means these arguments are only going to get more heated in the coming years.
Call of Duty: Black Ops will be released Nov. 9.
Peter Nowak is a writer based in Toronto.