The Propaganda Machine in your Xbox: Activision and the Imperialist Mythology of Call of Duty

Image: Call of Duty: Black Ops: Cold War’s banner, featuring two soldiers’ faces split in half to from a whole. via Activision

I will never forget my first taste of virtual warfare; age ten, huddled up with my cousins, thrilled to be opening Activision’s ground-breaking Call of Duty: Black Ops. Blood spatters ensue. Set at the peak of the Cold War, the game has you chase a Fidel Castro body double through Havana, resist capture at the Bay of Pigs invasion, tear up Vietnamese jungle, escape from Viet Minh forces, and save the United States from the Soviet threat.  A full decade later – three decades after the end of the Cold War – Activision releases Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War, the fifth instalment in the Black Ops series and seventeenth Call of Duty game overall. This time we find in ourselves chasing – and executing – Iranian student terrorists and returning to Cuba to prevent a Soviet spy from gaining access codes to neutron bombs that America has planted in major European cities so that the continent can be destroyed in the case of Soviet expansion. The game, I can confirm, is still thrilling and stylish in execution. 

Yet there lies something deeply concerning beneath this historical rollercoaster of blood and steel: a concern that I do not feel in the many historical games set before and around the World Wars. So, what is the concern? Before addressing this, I want to clarify that I am not arguing for censorship in this – or any – industry. Nor do I believe that one’s actions in a video game represent one’s moral character or worldview. But I do believe that Activision perpetuates a mythologised version of the Cold War that denies America’s warmongering and responsibility in establishing authoritarian and inhumane regimes throughout the world. Furthermore, the game itself – and other games of a similar nature – reduce citizens of the Orientalised ‘third world’ to an object of violence in the name of ‘American justice.’ 

Cold War’s tagline is ‘Know your History’ – a wise principle. It is not so different from the inscription seen in monuments all over the world; ‘lest we forget.’ My precise concern is that Treyarch and Activision have not given us that history with which we are urged to acquaint ourselves. The history of the Cold War has been practically immortalised in the American mythology as a Manichaean struggle between the liberating forces of the capitalist West, and the evils of the communist, post-colonial, and subaltern East. It is not shocking that Activision’s latest release does such justice to this mythology. The video game industry – as much as we might enjoy it – is the medium for imperialism and orientalism if ever there was one. What worries me particularly about the game is not in its violence or portrayal of war, but rather in the idea that the American project in the 1980s was one of defending the free world from the ‘yellow peril’ or ‘red threat,’ without critical insight into the racism and imperialism that grounded the construction of such a narrative. 

Activision perpetuates a mythologised version of the Cold War that denies America’s warmongering and responsibility in establishing authoritarian and inhumane regimes throughout the world.

Activision makes an attempt at liberal progressivism by allowing the player to choose the race of their own operative, with a respectable number of options and even the chance to play as a non-binary operative. This impressed me and deserves acknowledgement; but there remains something particularly insidious about inclusivity in humanity. Performatively inclusive imperialism is still imperialism, and it might even be harder to criticise. This is a trend we have seen growing in the past decade; politicians and public figures waging war abroad, harming members of their own community, and upholding unjust power structures, yet avoiding indictment by virtue of their identity. Cold War blends progressive attitudes to warfare with a false image of American modern history and represents a dangerous new opportunity for the military-industrial complex: promotion of liberal inclusivity values for the purpose of profoundly violent and interventionist projects in the developing world. Cold War, for this reason, differs from similar games set in and around the World Wars. We are realistic, I claim, about the nature of World War geopolitics; the evils of the Nazi project, Japan’s rape of East Asia, and the racism that existed in the American armed forces are often addressed, perhaps not sensitively, but at least directly. Activision has not been realistic about the Cold War and the American government and army was not an inclusivity haven. They were not fighting to defend democracy – and especially not non-binary or POC rights – in the developing world. The game not only fails to help ‘Know your History,’ but it actively masks the racist imperialism that grounds the Cold War narrative itself.

Now I turn to my second claim: Cold War reduces denizens of the Orientalised third world to objects of violence and reifies the longstanding myth of white, American justice saving and protecting both East and West. To clarify once again, I take no issue with violence and warfare in a recreational game. The problem lies in representation. I am highlighting the particularly uncomfortable nature of inclusivity in imperialism: imperialism with a human face, in Žižekian terms. The game has you killing (armed) Vietnamese rice farmers, Iranian hostage-takers, German police, and many more from the rainbow of American ‘threats,’ in order to stave off Soviet access to American bomb codes. No doubt was Eastern Communism maintained through brutality and totalitarianism; but, as in real history, it is the virtual innocent that pays the price. Games of this nature seem almost to require the opportunity to take out as many civilians (armed, and thus precluded from innocence) as possible, so long as they do not represent the American Empire. Dark complexion preferred, but not required. 

What is most concerning about this dynamic – West vs. Rest – is that Activision’s new title will be played by millions of children and adults in America and across the world.

What is most concerning about this dynamic – West vs. Rest – is that Activision’s new title will be played by millions of children and adults in America and across the world. Violence and warfare are not prima facie a cause for concern in what is meant to be a recreational activity, but it is undeniable that the stories, cultures and images we consume – especially those purporting to represent history – influence how we think about the world around us. For a game like Cold War to have a playable atmosphere and narrative, you cannot be allowed to ‘Know your History;’ you must remain an ideological ward of the State, inspired by Reagan, revolted by Gorbachev, and perplexed by the East. This becomes all the more suspect when we see that Activision did not pay tax in 2018, instead receiving 228 million dollars (almost double what Amazon received) from the American taxpayer. I am not an economist and I cannot comment on the intricacies of tax avoidance, but it is undoubtedly convenient that a publisher with such immense propaganda potential is funded so graciously by the American government.

It is easy to comment on these issues without a positive case for what we ought to do or what kind of media we should support instead. I believe in artistic license and despise censorship. Activision should carry on producing and publishing as they like; being so deeply entrenched in American culture, propped up by the world’s strongest and most militarised government, there is little I or any individual can do to change the nature of American mythologising about war and history. Ironically, then, I recommend we follow Cold War’s tagline properly; let us know our history. Let us be realistic. We’re kidding ourselves to think that operative forces were so enlightened as to have a non-binary option (or substantial ethnic minority representation) in their ID systems. We are lying to ourselves when we measure moral progress in terms of inclusivity rather than humanity. Most importantly, we are closing off our imaginations when we continue to buy and consume media that reinforces the accepted cultural mythology. I don’t want less thrill, less (virtual!) blood or less fun – but I want it to be fair, democratic, realistic and free of the cultural bias that so subtly brings us under the ideological aegis of the imperialists and the inhuman. 

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