Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II may nail its core gunplay and feature some standout characters across the board, but it also features some of the series’ most questionably awful depictions of violence and military power yet. One level in particular in which tensions rise between civilians and law enforcement stands out as profoundly tone deaf, and has been widely shared online as an example of the Call of Duty series at its most appalling and absurd.
In the level “Borderline,” you take on the role of Mexican military special forces following the trail of cartel members who are wrapped up in a broader escalating narrative about terrorism. The level barely stops for air before encouraging you to shoot at and kill people climbing the border wall into the United States. You then move through a residential area in Texas where armed citizens aren’t too thrilled to see you running through their yards and houses. The game asks you to “de-escalate civilians” with your aim button, and sure enough, pressing it results in you pointing your gun at them. There’s no unique animation or line of dialogue here. You don’t pull out a badge and say “please go inside.” You simply aim a weapon at their faces.
These scenes have become a topic of conversation and critique across the internet. A few days ago, popular political streamer Hasan Piker literally paused the game after “de-escalating” to comment on how remarkably awful this scenario is. As noted by Polygon, video essayist Jacob Geller also tweeted a video of the first de-escalation, which currently sits at a million views. This is far from an overlooked moment in a broader narrative.
“Borderline” asks you to do this three times. On the third, despite your efforts to (ahem) “de-escalate,” it seems the game gives you no alternative to violence. Standing in some random Texas citizen’s living room, the civilians draw weapons of their own and start firing at you. This leads to a brief encounter with local police outside where the following dialogue is shouted at you by cops with weapons drawn.
“Drop your fucking weapons right now! Do exactly what I say or I’ll fucking shoot you. Understand? Step forward to me! I want to see empty hands above your head!”
Just as Mexican special forces colonel Alejandro Vargas (the person leading your operation) is about to get cuffed, a cop steps out to stop the arrest saying it’s “hard to tell you boys apart from the cartel.” You’re then ambushed and have to fight off a few actual cartel members who are dressed nothing like your characters. They have little-to-no tactical gear on, no military insignia, and are arguably using noticeably different weaponry. So, it seems the cops can’t tell them apart because…why now?
This is basically the entire level. Half of it is spent aiming weapons at and killing people in private homes, then you’re viciously threatened by law enforcement and racially profiled before finally getting into a few skirmishes with the game’s “bad guys.”
I recently had a conversation about this game with a friend who served in the military. In particular we talked about another deeply uncomfortable moment of violence in the game, this one in the second level, where you gun down a person fleeing for their life and cowering in a bathroom. As he illustrated, awful things like this happen in war. But the depiction of this material, be that gunning down maimed or innocent people in a warzone or aiming weapons at civilians to “de-escalate” a situation, is a choice the developers made. And in cases like “Kill or Capture” or “Borderline,” there’s no clear alternative to these actions. This is not a recreation of a historical event, and while levels like Borderline echo contemporary events and wider conversations about how police interact with citizens, it’s worth asking what is appropriate for a game like this? Why were these the decisions made when designing these levels? What notions about how police or soldiers should act are legitimized and reinforced when presented the way they are here?
Questions of realism are beside the point. There are a remarkable number of unrealistic things in Modern Warfare II. As Polygon reports, no searchable police documentation recommends aiming a weapon at someone to de-escalate a situation. So it’s not as if they applied realistic standards to this fictional scenario.
And remember, in the level’s third de-escalation encounter, the people you’re aiming at not only do have guns, but draw them on you, indicating not only that you were right to treat civilians as hostile threats, but that as law enforcement, you’re in constant danger. Meanwhile, in real life, it’s very often the cops who are a threat to civilians, as , police shoot unarmed people, disproportionately people of color, at an alarmingly high rate in the United States. However, those who built and designed this game chose to run with this as the things you play out in a video game, in some cases with no alternative but to directly threaten the lives of innocent people. And these are the protagonists you’re playing as. There are values and messages embedded in that, whether the game’s creators intended there to be or not.
It is both of questionable taste and based on no written standards of practice for law enforcement.