The future is black, announces the trailer for Call of Duty: Black Ops II.
The next iteration of the popular first person shooter hardly needs any marketing campaign: immediately after the official announcement, the gaming press diligently started to operate as an extension of Activision's PR department. Small and big media scrambled to produce the most comprehensive list of features, talking polygons and frame rates, revealing plot fragments, speculating on new gameplay additions that may or may not rejuvenate the trite shooting genre.
Given the predicable hype, it is surprising to see among the promotional material a serious, high-production-value "documentary" about 21st century warfare, touching upon cyberterrorism, robotics and counter-insurgency.
The 6-part video—available here in "interactive" form or here in sequential form—prominently features military commentator P.W. Singer and Oliver North, the key figure of the Iran-Contra scandal that nearly brought down the Reagan administration in the mid '80s.
Allow me a digression. The Iran-Contra affair is one of those rare cases in Cold War history where it's absolutely clear who the bad guys are. Oliver North, at the time working for the National Security Council, was involved in the clandestine sale of weapons to Iran (a rather common practice during the Cold War's proxy conflicts). The proceeds from the sales were then illegally diverted to finance the Contras, a network of CIA-trained guerrilla groups, who opposed the democratically-elected government of Nicaragua. Contras were notorious for their human right abuses such as murder, torture, rape and executions of civilians. They also funded themselves through drug trafficking and it's been alleged that the CIA was supporting, or at least, tolerating these activities. These last allegations were disproved after an investigation led by, well… the CIA.
The story of how Oliver North went from being a convicted felon for these activities, to Republican candidate for the Senate, best-selling author, news commentator for Fox News and eventually testimonial/media-stuntman for Activision, is a kind of twisted version of the American Dream that I'm not going to tell.
Back to the trailer: it's quite unusual to see a major game developer contextualizing a title in relation to current, hotly-debated issues; that is, avoiding the notorious "it's just a game" stance and acknowledging that military-themed games are part of a larger discourse around war. It's also somewhat gutsy to take a clear political position by hiring a figure like North. I personally would love to see more game companies taking their roles as cultural producers this seriously.
It's quite unusual to see a major game developer contextualizing a title in relation to current, hotly-debated issues; that is, avoiding the notorious "it's just a game" stance and acknowledging that military-themed games are part of a larger discourse around war.
As it turns out, it's hard to sell a shooter about black operations without glorifying the real black operations. The "documentary" feels like a polished piece of propaganda that may have come straight out of the Department of Defense.
I'm talking about a rather new kind of propaganda here. The post-9/11 triumphalist rhetoric of America's Army, Kuma War or Full Spectrum Warrior (just to mention other games set in contemporary or near-future scenarios) can only sound awkward after the epic failures of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Hence, the militaristic fable has to assume a different tone—in this case, a dark, apocalyptic—and envision scenarios of inconceivable horror to strike an audience desensitized by a decade of continuous war. As Oliver North puts it in the trailer: "I don't think the average American grasps how violent war is about to become".
The bulk of the narrative is provided by P.W. Singer, a prominent military expert and fortunate choice for this type of contextualization. His book Wired for War is an outstanding account of robotic warfare (and, by the way, the main source and inspiration for my latest game Unmanned). The treatise describes the state of the art of unmanned systems and examines the political, ethical and legal issues emerging from this ongoing technological revolution. It inevitably raises difficult questions: How does our perception of the frontline changes when we can remotely control a UAV from home? How important is the risk of losing human lives when waging a war? Will robots make us more inclined to use violence in resolution of conflicts? Who is responsible when an autonomous machine kills a human? The personnel who deployed it? The commander of the operation? The engineer? The programmer who made the software?
Of course, all these questions are not even hinted at in the Black Ops II "documentary". Singer is simply used to tell us that "the future is here" and that robots may have dangerous bugs, while North spins his Fox News-style terror scenario.
How does our perception of the frontline changes when we can remotely control a UAV from home? How important is the risk of losing human lives when waging a war? Will robots make us more inclined to use violence in resolution of conflicts?
Oliver North's nightmare seems to coincide with the premise of the game: in a imminent future, a supervillain (possibly affiliated with Anonymous) is able to hijack an army of unmanned war machines and attack Los Angeles.