Lt. Col. Oliver North is a polarizing figure in American history and, we found out, earlier this month, an advisor on the next huge Call of Duty game, Black Ops II.
North isn't your average video game consultant. He was one of the main actors in the Iran-Contra scandal that wracked America in the '80s. North helped the U.S. government sell weapons to Iran with the intent to free hostages, while transferring the money earned to back rebels in Nicaragua who were accused of human rights abuses. Both ends of the deals were suspect and potentially in violation of U.S. law. North testified to Congress about the affair in widely-televised hearings that marked one of the worst moments of the popular Reagan administration. He was later convicted on charges related to the shredding of documents relevant to the scandal but his convictions were reversed on appeal.
Since then, he rehabilitated his image, ran for Senate, wrote books and became a fixture on Conservative news shows and a favorite of the Republican party.
In early May, North appeared in a Black Ops II mini-documentary. In the documentary, he speculated about a dark future where America's most high tech weapons are used against us. He was, we reported, essentially shilling for the game. Some readers didn't mind. Others were irate, labeling him a traitor to the nation. One of our writers wrote an editorial lambasting North's involvement.
In late May, I got a chance to chat with Mark Lamia, the head of Treyarch, the studio that makes Black Ops II and consulted with North. What follows is, with some interruptions, our exchange on the matter, one I thought was illuminating enough to present in full, with minor edits made for clarity's sake:
(It's relevant to the exchange to note the set-up. Lamia and I sat across from each other backstage at an Activision showcase event. An Activision public relations rep sat nearby. Lt. Col. Hank Keirsey, who has served as military consultant for multiple Call of Duty games and who I have interviewed before, stood at the ready to the side, next to me.)
Kotaku: Let's talk about Oliver North. That was controversial when you guys used him in the roll-out. A lot of our readers and even some of our writers had strong reactions to him, felt he was a politicized figure and some of our readers were angry about his inclusion in the promotion. Did you guys expect it to be controversial to be using Oliver North as a consultant?
Mark Lamia, head of Black Ops II development studio Treyarch: So, we used him for the game. When we create the fictions that we create, we do a bunch of research and try to talk to subject matter experts on it. And part of that research is reading and watching documentaries and movies and everything else. What can be a part of it is talking to people who've been through the experiences, people like Hank, and when you're talking about doing something in the ‘80s, black ops, when we were doing research in the conflicts that we were covering and everything else and some of our conflicts … in any event he rises to the top as someone who was probably, obviously the most well-known covert operations [person]. So it made sense for us from a game development point of view to spend the time and be able to talk to [him]. One of the things we do is we have these brushes with history in our Black Ops fiction. That's a signature, I think, to the way we create our historical fiction. We set you up with that. We put you in this place where it's, ‘Ok, I'm in that part of history,' and we have sort of that fiction we weave right through. Part of doing that has been and is getting a first-hand account whether that was last time in Black Ops, when we were highlighting parts of Vietnam, meeting with someone who was a real S.O.G. who did black operations in Vietnam and in this case with Lt. Col Oliver North.
Kotaku: But he's a controversial figure. Some of our readers said explicitly they consider him a traitor.
Lt. Col. Hank Keirsey, military advisor for the game: Did they really?
Keirsey: I think it's because he's on Fox News. Probably. Do they know what he really did? I guess I'm out of line even coming into the interview, but the man was involved in a crux of history… [Note: Keirsey pauses as he is waved off by a public relations person and excuses himself]. He wants me out of there.
Lamia: So, you know we're not trying to make a political statement with our game. We're trying to make a piece of art and entertainment. … If you're trying to create that fiction, for us to have met with him as we're creating our fiction is totally appropriate.
Kotaku: I understand his relevance. The question was on whether you expected the controversy. Like I said some of our readers and at least one of our writers – you may have even read the piece that he wrote about it – considered Oliver North as somebody who sold weapons to the Iranians, who supported a distasteful regime in South America and said this guy is somebody I grew up watching testify in the ‘80s. I'm very uncomfortable about him. I don't agree with what he did. And in the past, Call of Duty has used military advisers that have not drawn that kind of reaction from any of our readers. People had, just by default, respect for those leaders. So it feels like you guys, in working with him, have taken a risk in how people respond. But, not a risk you guys felt was a barrier?
Activision spokesperson: Ultimately it was to lean on him for his experience and insight.
Lamia: We chose to take on that late ‘80s time frame and when you think about that late ‘80s time frame… you know, we're not trying to put anyone on a pedestal. We're trying to create our fiction as game developers, as creators. Choosing this person, somebody who has met with leaders, and has run black operations, and understands that was really valuable to have that sort of first-hand account from him... Even down to people who he's met with in terms of understanding this is somebody who has sat at these tables. Let me give you an example. It doesn't have anything to do with the story fiction, per se, but deals with another game, if you're a character artist, and this person has met with someone you want to portray in your game, a historical figure…
Kotaku: ... you're going to talk to him.
Lamia: You can talk to him. That's if you're a character artist. You can say, ‘how did he look?' And if you're an animator, you can say, ‘how did he act?' And he can tell you. These are things you can't get very well from anywhere [else]. There's no source material I can get that's going to give me that kind of thing. And if you're an audio guy, you say, well how did he sound? You might say, ‘well if you don't know how is anybody else going to know?' But that's our form of art and entertainment.
Kotaku: That makes sense.
Lamia: We actually do that kind of stuff. That's an example that's just outside of it, but if you want to talk about an historical scenario that we want to set up, our Black Ops fiction is here's history, ours is the one you don't know about. It's helpful to have somebody who has first-hand accounts of those situations.
Shortly after this part of our conversation, as we were winding our discussion to other matters, such as the game's multiple endings and the advice of its other main consultant, future-weapons expert P.W. Singer, Lamia added an important distinction between the North-Singer documentary which had prompted our earlier North coverage and the game-making Lamia and I had just discussed. "That's not a game development piece," Lamia said of the video. "That's an advertising piece."