First-Person Shooter Ideology: The Cultural Contradictions of Call of DutyRoundup
tags: Cold War, imperialism, video games, violence, militarism, teaching history
Daniel Bessner is the Joff Hanauer Honors Associate Professor in Western Civilization in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and author of Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual (cornell, 2018).
For decades, historians of the twentieth century have debated why, exactly, the United States fought a protracted, destructive, and ultimately pointless Cold War with the Soviet Union. Some have claimed that the United States was simply reacting rationally to Joseph Stalin’s provocations; “the brave and essential response of free men to communist aggression,” in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Others, including Stephen Wertheim and myself, have pointed to the traumatizing experience of the 1930s and 1940s, when the struggle with Nazism persuaded a generation of American elites that peace and prosperity depended on global U.S. supremacy. For their part, Marxist historians have insisted that the Cold War was, to borrow the conservative scholar John Lewis Gaddis’s description, about “an aggressive search for markets and investment opportunities overseas, without which the capitalist system in the United States could not survive.” And in the last two decades, a generation of scholars inspired by the work of Odd Arne Westad have argued persuasively that ideology was the key to understanding American and Soviet motivations, and that the Cold War was at base a struggle between capitalism and communism for the hearts and minds of the world.
History is always in flux, reimagined by each new generation of scholars, and the process by which it filters down to American students in schools can be contentious. Most recently, The New York Times’s “1619 Project” sparked controversy when it established the basis for high school curricular reforms intended to “reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation’s foundational date.” The administration of President Donald J. Trump retaliated with its own “1776 Report,” which maintained that “distorted histories” like the “1619 Project” disrespect “students’ independence as young thinkers trying to grapple with social complexity.”
But these debates among historians, liberal journalists, and right wing politicians exist apart from the ways that knowledge of American history is actually disseminated to most “young thinkers.” Indeed, if historians, educators, commentators, and politicians really wanted to shape how youth understand U.S. history, they’d focus on the fact that an overwhelming number of people under eighteen generally first confront extended historical narratives not in the classroom, but at home, as they zonk out in front of the television and while away the best years of their lives playing video games set in Ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, or World War II.
Video games are indisputably a dominant form of entertainment in the United States. According to the (possibly generous) estimate of the Entertainment Software Association, an industry lobbying group, around 214 million Americans, roughly two-thirds of the total population, currently play them, including about 70 percent of all Americans under eighteen. As technological advances have bled other sectors of media dry, gaming has thrived, even and especially throughout the pandemic. As one Hollywood Reporter article underlined, in the third quarter of 2020 consumer spending in the gaming industry surpassed $11.2 billion, an increase of 24 percent from the previous year. For the sake of comparison, in February 2020, the month before the Covid-19 lockdowns began, domestic theater box office receipts barely topped $634 million. What movies were to the twentieth century, video games are to the twenty-first. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these games have become the primary medium through which many young Americans first encounter complex narratives about U.S. history.
For eight out of the last eleven years, a Call of Duty game has been the top-selling video game in the United States. Call of Duty is a “first-person shooter” (FPS), a type of game in which players assume the perspective of a “shooter” who travels through varied environments killing enemies. The genre stretches from pixelated shoot-’em-ups like Wolfenstein 3D to nostalgic classics like 1997’s GoldenEye 007. And as the former’s Germanic title suggests, for decades FPS games have taken inspiration from history, with World War II — a conflict that clearly pitted “good guys” against “bad guys” — serving as a particularly common setting.
The first Call of Duty was released in October 2003, two years after the United States invaded Afghanistan and seven months after the country invaded Iraq. The game, which was set entirely in World War II’s European Theater of Operations and which involved killing thousands of Nazis, was very much a product of the post-Cold War and post-9/11 eras. Similar to other successful cultural products of the 1990s and 2000s, from Saving Private Ryan to Band of Brothers, the first Call of Duty returned to the founding moment of the modern American Empire to justify its post-Cold War claim to being the world’s “indispensable nation.” And it was an enormous success, selling around 4.5 million copies, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars, and setting the stage for a series that now includes dozens of games that allow players to shoot people in many different times (The 1940s! The 1960s! The 2060s!) and places (Vietnam! Cuba! Southern California!). Call of Duty is that kitschy t-shirt slogan about the Marines — “Travel To Exotic Places. Meet New People. Then Kill Them” — come to electronic life.
The recently released Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War was just named the top selling game of 2020. Right now, this one game is teaching millions of young Americans about the epic struggle between their government and the Soviet Union, a century-defining cataclysm that resulted in tens of millions of deaths, reshaped world history, and engendered the ideological struggles that presently bedevil the public sphere. But where the original Call of Duty was all rah-rah patriotism, the latest entry in the series evinces how cynical the franchise — and, by extension, American politics — has become.
As the United States remains mired in a series of endless wars that show little sign of abating, as the nation continues to spend more on its military than the next ten countries combined, and as the country maintains access to hundreds of military bases that do little but threaten smaller powers, Americans have become willing consumers of stories that portray their nation as fallible, foolish, and maybe even a little bit evil.
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