Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg had some sharp words when asked about the criticism that Call Of Duty games get for their supposed glorification of violence and military aggression.
"There's a sense that games are more exploitive in a way that The Hurt Locker—which also was designed as form of entertainment—isn't." Hirshberg's opinion is that "video games are fictitious popular culture." "I think they are an art form," he continued. "And I think that 'too soon' criteria is not applied to things like Green Zone. Or United 93. There will be a time when we look back and find it quaint that video games were so controversial. I think the active ingredient to changing that attitude is time."
Hirshberg elaborated, "The producers didn't create The Hurt Locker as a public service; they did it to tell a story that they thought needed to be told. It was a piece of entertainment that they sold tickets to and sell DVDs with. And, yet, that's not viewed as exploiting current events. It's viewed as somehow artistically interpreting and commenting on current events. The creative process of making that movie and making our games is very similar, but they're received differently."
I had a chance to talk to Hirshberg before I started at Kotaku, for a feature I co-wrote with Lev Grossman on the year's biggest war games for the Oct. 31 issue of Time Magazine.
2011 marks the third consecutive year that Activision will have a record-breaking COD release. Will the future efforts of Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer, and whomever makes the next COD games help move the public's perception of video games into a more respected place? "I don't know if there is a way for us to accelerate that process through content," the CEO says. "There's a way to accelerate it through continued success, through continued engagement and commitment to quality by making great games that people want to play. The more people that play I think the more mainstream and accepted games will become."
With Black Hawk Down or The Hurt Locker, you can walk away from a movie and be entertained. But you can also walk away from that movie and take away the larger points about American military engagement: Should we have been there? Did we have the right intel? How did the troops act when they were on the ground? These are questions a Call of Duty game can answer, too, right? If Hirshberg's assertion is that games deserve equal standing with movies, why diverge from reality to create a cartoonish conflict against Makarov's Russians? Why not actually go and pit them against the Taliban or al-Qaeda?
"The narrative of Call of Duty has been much more good guys and bad guys, and brotherhood and the journey and the battle," Hirshberg says. "And I don't think that's an indictment. It's a choice, one that's maybe a little less literary and a little more action-oriented in terms of its foundation. I don't think that means the narrative structure of Call of Duty is lacking, though. I can name a hundred other movies that are not like Black Hawk Down, but you don't leave questioning about the heroism and the bravery and the action and the sort of extreme experience of battle."
Would it hurt the commercial standing of a Call of Duty game if Activision pushed the envelope of social commentary? They've had the #1 franchise in the world for the last three years, with a user base of more than seven million daily players. They're the 800-pound gorilla. One can assume that those passionate fans will follow Activision wherever they next take Call of Duty next. So, what's stopping them from using that unique and exalted position to deliver more pointed commentary about war? Couldn't they make a documentary video game, something like what the cancelled Six Days in Fallujah wanted to be?
"We've told the stories that the developers want to tell," said Hirshberg. "I don't think we've made choices based on avoiding or aiming for commentary. The story and the characters have unfolded with great intent from our developers. Black Ops is an example where the guys who were really doing the secret stuff during the Cold War intersected with reality a little. Like there was the scene with Castro. There was the scene with President Kennedy. There were moments where it felt like that could have maybe really happened. But, then in the next scene, you're doing something that couldn't have really happened. So I see that was an example of a new angle on a military adventure story."
These last few years, Activision's gleefully trumpeted how their best-selling FPS franchise isn't just the top game of the year, but the top entertainment launch of the year. But to me, there's still one last foundational cultural gap that the world's biggest games publisher has yet to bridge.