Killing Castro

My first, perhaps my only visit to Cuba came last week in a video game that asked me to kill the man responsible for taking my grandfather's property from him and who changed the country so dramatically it ensured our family would never return.

But what stuck with me most about that much talked about first level of Call of Duty: Black Ops wasn't the moment I pulled the trigger and sent a bullet spiraling into the head of a man I thought was Fidel Castro, it was how the game depicted the island nation as I made my way to Castro's compound.

My grandfather was born in Rodrigo, Cuba in 1914, orphaned at a young age and brought up by a priest in the nearby town of Quemados. His only ties to his family were the pharmacies and buildings his father left him when he died.

He left Cuba in the 30s, returning with his American wife to work as an accountant at a sugar refinery for a few years before heading back to south Georgia, where my father was born.

Shortly after Castro took power in 1959, my grandfather returned to Cuba to check on the properties his father left him, when he arrived he was told they no longer belonged to him.

That was the last time anyone in my family stepped foot in Cuba. My knowledge of the country comes from my grandfather's tales of growing up as the ward of the church, told to me as we ate thick slices of guava paste following a huge, Cuban lunch in the kitchen of his Moultrie, Georgia home.

They were stories of a wild childhood in a place that sounded almost magical. My grandfather, and the boy that would become his brother in all but blood, running around a pre-Castro Cuba getting into the sorts of trouble you'd expect to read about in books by Hemingway or Jack London.

I yearned to visit those places, to see where my grandfather grew up and ran wild. But I didn't get a chance until I popped Call of Duty: Black Ops into the Xbox 360 last week.

The game opens in a small bar in Havana, music plays as a woman slowly dances around the nearly empty room by herself. The bar's owner explains to you how to get to Castro's compound, a place that once was his own home. The virtual bartender's disgust and anger is obvious. It's also familiar, I think, to anyone with family who had their property taken by Castro.

The scene quickly devolves into a running firefight with police which sends you down the streets and toward the compound. The rest of the Cuba level has you fighting your way through the compound, trying to get to Castro.

The level ends with your player discovering that the man you killed, the man who grabbed and used his mistress as a human shield, is actually a body double, and not Castro.

The discovery is a reminder that as with books and movies before it, Call of Duty: Black Ops is simply examining historic events and adding a bit of fiction to spice things up.

But because Black Ops is a video game, because it puts the gun in your hand, the trigger at your finger, it can also give you a chance to do something that some Cubans have longed to do for nearly half a century: Kill Castro.

As the son of the son of a Cuban expatriate, the moment was lost on me. No death, virtual or real, can return my family history to me. There is a part of me undiscovered, unexamined thanks to the rift between the U.S. and Cuba.

I realize that this game doesn't hope to heal that scar, that the makers of the game may not have even weighed the impact this small part of Black Ops might have had on Cubans.

But the Cuban government, the one now led by Castro's brother, certainly noticed and as they always have, twisted the meaning, overlooking the game's reminders of what Cuba actually did to its own people in favor of decrying the bit of fiction the game uses as a plot device.

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.