Intelligame’s founding premise is that we shouldn’t fear taking gaming seriously. Perhaps that’s why Kotaku’s recent article about the “No Russian” mission in Modern Warfare 2 bothers me…or, more specifically, its title.
If a rose weren’t called a rose, would it smell as sweet? Well, if it were named in the era of modern internet journalism, it just might be called “Smelling This Flower Will Irrevocably Change Your Life Forever,” and that certainly would have an effect on how you think about the flower, or if you even bother to pay attention to the flower at all. Titles are the gatekeepers to Internet content, and content creators know this. A compelling title adds views, a boring title does not.
We’re already familiar with titling as a concept: “clickbait” headlines garner attention by making outlandish promises or statements which convince people to click an article regardless of what’s inside. But titles also create a frame for the content inside, shaping the reader’s view of the content inside before a single word of the article is processed. Though I wouldn’t call the following article clickbait, the framing that comes with the title might be why “That Time Call of Duty Let You Shoot Up An Airport” feels irresponsible to me: it takes one of the Call of Duty franchise’s most significant moments (perhaps its most significant) and makes it seem light, airy, almost inconsequential.
For those that played it, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” left a mark on the memory. Playing as undercover CIA agent Joseph Allen, you’re embedded with known terrorist Vladimir Makarov. The level opens with you and a group of other men standing in an elevator wearing flak jackets and wielding machine guns. The elevator door opens, and Makarov says to the group, “Remember: no Russian.” You and the rest of the party walk off of an elevator and in to a corridor of a bustling airport. The first-person camera then shows you raising your weapon, just like you would in any other first-person shooter…except instead of pointing the barrel at armed militants, you’re aiming at civilians. Unarmed civilians.
“No Russian” broke ground in many respects. Though the game didn’t force you to fire a single round in the airport, you did have to watch as your compatriots mowed down civilian after civilian without doing anything to stop it. Shooting your partners ended the mission and forced a reset, as well as leaving the mission zone. As gamers, we’re used to being the heroes…or if we’re the villains, we’re generally cool villains who fight against capable heroes. This time, we’re just dirty mercenaries ending the lives of people who were unlucky enough to go to the airport today. It’s an experience that feels radically different from any other first-person shooter, and it started a chain of other attempts for war games to create emotional relevance through shock. That said, the “No Russian” experience remains unique.
Just recently I wrote in my blog about how we shouldn’t be afraid to take ourselves seriously because that seriousness allows us to grow. I understand that video games are still “games,” so they’re not instinctively taken as seriously as books, movies, music, or television. But all of these mediums convey experiences to us, experiences we can grow from if we respect them. To me, “That Time COD Let You Shoot Up An Airport” conveys the idea that I shouldn’t take it TOO seriously; sure, you kill innocent civilians, but it’s JUST Call of Duty, it’s JUST “shooting up an airport.” It’s JUST a video game; people and places get shot up all the time.
Kotaku itself is one of the sites I read most regularly for gaming news because of their mix of hardline news and personal opinions. To be fair, the article itself is well-written. Patrick Klepek, the writer for Kotaku’s “That Actually Happened” series summarized the events of the mission, then provided context as to how the public responded to the controversial mission, along with some opinions of the development team. But That Actually Happened’s other article titles: “Remember When Sonic Kissed a Woman?” “That Time Sony Threw a God of War Party With a Dead Goat.” “That Time a German Hacker Leaked Half-Life 2’s Source Code.” So how am I supposed to feel about the events that are highlighted in this series? They’re all fairly light content to contrast with being forced to commit a virtual act of terror.
Maybe I’m more sensitive to this because I’m a journalist and get frustrated by what feel like mis-framing titles. Maybe I’m reacting because MW2 was such a critical game in my development. But, to me, framing the No Russian mission and its surrounding controversy/effects on the industry as trivia similar to Sonic the Hedgehog kissing a human or Sony PR folks throwing a party with topless women and a dead goat for God of War directly goes against the intention of the mission’s design. According to the cited interview Matthew Burns had with game designer Mohammad Alavi, Alavi’s intention was to make gamers feel:
What’s relevant is that the level managed to make the player feel anything at all… In the sea of endless bullets you fire off at countless enemies without a moment’s hesitation or afterthought, the fact that I got the player to hesitate even for a split second and actually consider his actions before he pulled that trigger– that makes me feel very accomplished.
Being a civilian doesn’t offer you a choice or make you feel anything other than the fear of dying in a video game, which is so normal it’s not even a feeling gamers feel anymore.
I knew about the mission before I bought Modern Warfare 2, but I refused to look up any gameplay videos before I purchased it myself. I still remember the yellow-gold lighting in my dorm room from the dingy fixtures, the slow movement of my character on screen as I watched, wishing there was something I could do to change the events in front of me. I was used to being the hero, and playing the game provided me the tools to be a hero. Now, the game tied my hands behind my back: there was no way to continue through the game’s story without at least cosigning to the senseless shootings in front of me. Though I didn’t file a single shot, I still felt more like a killer than in any other game I’d played.
There’s plenty in the No Russian experience to feel, but not when we neutralize it with casual language. This doesn’t mean that every discussion about games needs to be serious and depressing, but setting the proper tone for our retrospectives shines a more effective light on the past and helps to illuminate the present. No Russian is much more than “that time Call of Duty let me shoot up an airport;” that statement presupposes I’d at some point WANTED to shoot up an airport, and the game forcing my hand is what made the experience so significant and gut-wrenching.