The Call of Duty series' military advisor may spend most of his time informing developers on how to best portray acts of violence, but that doesn't mean he always agrees with what ends up in the games.
Compared to the developers we're used to interviewing, Hank Keirsey is a little different. He's wiry and athletic despite clearly being middle-aged; he's softly spoken and polite, but utterly engaging. He sits upright. You listen closely. Every single word he sounds seems like it matters. He commands your respect. And despite being heavily involved in the development of Call of Duty franchise, we're certain he would instantly stand out in a room full of developers.
Our interview has just begun, and we wonder – how on earth does a guy like this get involved in the development of a game like Call of Duty.
"I always ask myself that!" laughs Keirsey. "These are not the kind of people I would normally hang out with! But you know, in the end, I developed a real grudging respect for the games industry guys, because they work so damn hard. They're a real hard working bunch of humans in this industry."
Hank Keirsey is a retired Lt. Col. and now works as the Military Advisor for the Call of Duty franchise. It's his job to make sure Treyarch and Infinity Ward get the details right – that the weapons have the right attachments, that the environment rings true.
"The way I got involved," remembers Hank, "was I used to run training courses after I retired, training corporate leaders.
"I would take people into the woods and treat them like they were army units and teach them that way. One of the guys that was in that particular outfit was an officer in the military – he was on CNN or NBC for some reason – and someone at Activision was like, ‘we need a military advisor for the game we're working on'. They called him, he calls me. He said, ‘I'm kind of a grand strategy guy, I don't know too much about guns'. I was like, ‘hmm, I'm not really a video game guy', but we decided to just go down there anyway and see what they were doing."
The level of detail and work that Infinity Ward had put into recreating the large scale battles of World War II was what convinced Hank Keirsey to help out.
"When I got there," says Hank, "I saw that the developers were paying such close attention to the detail of World War II and they were kind of teaching history through that. And that's why I bought in.
"They really started teaching history through all those World War II games – and with the Modern Warfare game I thought, ‘well, they're teaching a legacy of honour and courage', so I was fine with that.
"And now they're going back to the Vietnam era – filling a hole. It's an exciting game, but you know it's also recovering a period of history."
In a sense World War II is the perfect setting for drama – and Nazis the perfect fodder for a first person shooter in which the primary mechanics are, well… shooting. Nazis have become your go-to bullet sponge in many a shooter but, perhaps more importantly, WWII is the quintessential good war – representative of a fight against oppression, defence against an aggressor. The perfect setting for a blockbuster videogame.
In Vietnam and the Cold War, however, conflict takes on a different tone entirely. It becomes a murky shade of gray – wars fought in secrecy and espionage are not typically an ideal arena for the kind of heroism the Call of Duty franchise usually espouses.
Hank, however, doesn't necessarily agree with that assertion.
"Yeah, you know interestingly enough," he begins, "the crew that's told to take the hill is the same guy no matter what war he's in. He doesn't get to make the decision. He doesn't decide. You follow your leader with courage and you give up a lot to do that. And so for you to come home and be sullied by someone's moral decision that this was bad or good – you gotta separate that. This guy was just doing his job. And he's doing the same job that soldiers did in World War II.
"Now you can argue with the moral decisions about going into Vietnam," he continues, "but as I remember it, it made perfect sense. We watched Hitler take Europe piece by piece by piece and we didn't stop him. We now have this monolithic model of communism that is present in China and we watched them go piece by piece by piece, and no-one had the courage to go over there and say, that's enough."
Call of Duty is a franchise with so much power and influence – a series with the potential to redefine history for a new audience. Will Black Ops be the kind of game that redefines the Cold War in the public consciousness, or at the very least inspire a healthy interest in the period?
"Absolutely," believes Hank. "First and foremost, these guys have to make an entertainment product – they want to make a game that sells – but there are enough intellectually curious people that they'll come out of this single player campaign and wonder, why did 58,000 Americans get whacked in Vietnam, maybe I'll ask my grandfather what he did in the 51st Marine division – you know, there's so many people out there whose knowledge of history is like a thimbleful, their history is what happened last week at high school."
But as historically accurate as video games often, the push and pull dynamic between what is factually correct and what works as a video game often results in an experience that devalues the violence of war, transforming what is a harrowing experience into a blockbuster piece of entertainment.
We get the sense that it's an issue Hank has spent a lot of time thinking about.
"You know," he begins, "people ask me about that level in Modern Warfare 2, where you end up playing as a CIA plant in a terrorist organisation. That made me really disturbed, and I wonder how many people joined in and started shooting civilians. Maybe they're deranged, but that was a little moral twist that made you question what you were doing there…
"I've spent my life serving and protecting people and I couldn't do it. I couldn't go out there and shoot innocent civilians. There's probably people out there that have been whacking people all their life that don't have that moral switch and were completely comfortable with that level, but those that you hope would rise to positions of influence, I think you'd hope they would question and say, ‘I can't do that. I can't shoot people.'"
The issue is how one presents violence – how do developers give violence weight in a game in which the primary mechanic is shooting. In Call of Duty your only means of interaction with the game world is through your gun – by the time you complete Black Ops you may have shot and killed over 1000 enemy combatants. How do you give that violence meaning?
"I like the whole idea you're getting at," claims Hank. "I'd love it if, say, you shot a guy and a picture falls out of his pocket and it showed his wife and his kids."
That would, believes Hank, create some sort of parallel between the way life is valued in a game, and the way life is valued on the battlefield.
"You'd get guys in World War II," says Hank, "and they would shoot the Japanese like they were ants - because that was the way they were trained. But every once in a while they would find a body and they'd pick through it and find some pictures of his mother, his kids, his wife and they'd be like, wait a minute. This guy is not an ant at all, he's human and he has a life."
Hank often gets concerned with the portrayal of violence in games, but seems to be more troubled when he sees protagonists acting in a way he deems inappropriate on the battlefield.
"I remember one particular level I spoke to the Infinity Ward guys about," begins Hank. "They were interrogating someone in a barn and the guy wasn't giving any information and so the good guy walked over and just shot him!"
Hank's referring to the moment in the original Modern Warfare, when Capt. Price interrogates then shoots a bound-up prisoner.
"I got on the phone and said, ‘what are you doing!' I mean this is the guy that's supposed to represent all the values that the gamers are supposed to aspire to – and you just had him cap the tied-up prisoner. But they wanted to stir up the whole moral issue, so they left it there. They left it on purpose. But it sure bothered me. I thought that we ought to represent what the good guys should do in these games."
But is there space for more sensitive, accurate portrayal of the war experience?
"I think there's space," claims Hank, "but whether or not it would sell is the key. Remember this is not a purely artistic exercise. In the end this is a business – but I'd like to think there's definitely room for something like that."
This story originally appeared on Kotaku Australia.