Modern Warfare 3 earned $1 billion in sales in 16 days, proving the series has become an influential force in American entertainment. It sold millions of copies in its first day of release, and the sales of content packs have only just begun; the game is going to have legs at retail. But it hasn’t been without a bit of controversy. The Atlantic recently ran a story claiming the game’s television commercial “sunk to new lows,” but the problem isn’t the fact the live-action commercial cheapens war, it’s that the commercial accurately depicts an immensely popular game.
The commercial shows two characters dressed as soldiers, played by actors Jonah Hill and Sam Worthington, as they nonchalantly destroy buildings and kill enemy soldiers, although the carnage largely takes place off screen. The ad seems to show a version of war that’s fun, where combatants are more worried about strategy than losing their lives.
“The advertisement trivializes combat and sanitizes war. If this were September 10, 2001, maybe it wouldn’t be quite so bad…” the writer, a former paratrooper, wrote. “But after ten years of constant war, of thousands of amputees and flag-draped coffins, of hundreds of grief-stricken communities, did nobody involved in this commercial raise a hand and say, ‘You know, this is probably a little crass. Maybe we could just show footage from the game.'”
When the ads were released for the launch of Modern Warfare 3, they were striking and original, but nothing about them hit me as being offensive. It’s likely this is due to the fact that a large portion of my adult life, and much of my professional life, has been spent inside these war games, interacting with the community through walls of gunfire and thrown grenades.Modern Warfare 3
For gamers, there is nothing new or striking about how the ad shows war, because that’s the way the game shows war: we wear the skin of a soldier and take part in armed conflict as if it were a thrill ride. We design our in-game avatars, and we virtually kill people in locations based on the real world, with dramatic music and a presentation that seems to tell us the game is a very serious thing. All the while, we’re cheering on our kill-streaks and laughing as bodies fly hither and yon. From the outside looking in, or if you’re not familiar with war games, it is a very disturbing way to spend your free time.
“This is not an argument against so-called shooter video games or depictions of war in popular culture,” the author continues. “However, as Afghanistan intensifies and we assess the mental and physical damage to veterans of Iraq, is now really the time to sell the country on how much fun the whole enterprise is?”
The characters in the commercial are dressed up like soldiers, but they talk to each other as if they’re just trying out the role for fun, just as players do. Think of the two actors as playing the virtual representations of soldiers we see on the screen, and their words are spoken through voice chat, not in person. What we’re seeing is what Modern Warfare would look like if played in the real world. This is what gamers see in their heads as they play; that image can be hard to take if you’re unfamiliar with the games, or if you’re a soldier who knows the gravity of the acts being portrayed on the screen.
The imagery used in the ad may be shocking to non-gamers, but the ad itself isn’t the problem. The popularity of this sanitized, no-consequences form of virtual war is what should have critics talking. Activision didn’t have to create a commercial to sell millions of copies of Modern Warfare 3, the game would have been a monstrous hit without this commercial; gamers have been drowning themselves in pixelated bloodshed and gleeful violent for decades.
The commercial shows the game, and how it’s played, to an audience that isn’t likely to pick up a controller and experience it for themselves. It’s how entertainment is marketed in our country, and it has been since long before MW3 debuted. The ad shows how gamers see the world when they play war games, along with a very tame of version of how they speak to each other while playing. This commercial isn’t a look into the future, it’s a mirror for the present.