Call of Duty: Modern Warfare has nothing to say about modern warfare

Commentary: Video games are obsessed with re-creating war. But then why do they have nothing meaningful to say about it?

Daniel Van Boom Senior Writer
Daniel Van Boom is an award-winning Senior Writer based in Sydney, Australia. Daniel Van Boom covers cryptocurrency, NFTs, culture and global issues. When not writing, Daniel Van Boom practices Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, reads as much as he can, and speaks about himself in the third person.
Expertise Cryptocurrency, Culture, International News
Daniel Van Boom
5 min read

Is it time for video games to take war more seriously?

Activision/Infinity Ward

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the new reboot released Oct. 25, is a frustrating game.

I don't have an issue with the shooting or in-game movement, which are both crisp and sharp. No problem with the online multiplayer, which is still fun despite being camper-friendly.

No, I say Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is frustrating because, in its single-player campaign, Infinity Ward has managed to craft a seven-hour story about a 2019 Middle Eastern military conflict without actually saying anything even slightly meaningful about the subject matter. It's almost impressive. Almost.

Other mediums, like film or fiction, trip over themselves to comment on the broader impact of war and armed conflict. But in 2019, games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare seem determined to say as little as possible.

Call of Duty has been around since 2003, but it was 2007's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare that turned the series into a money spinning annual event. Some people love it, some hate it and others accept it for the quintessential casual shooter it is.

The last single-player Call of Duty game I played was the original Modern Warfare. At the time, I was a 15-year-old gamer who played everything he could. Now I'm a 27-year-old man who plays whatever he can when he's not subdued by the grind of life. Commuting, cooking, washing, more commuting, folding. You know the drill.

But the Modern Warfare reboot piqued my interest. I wondered what it would be like to play its story mode as an adult rather than an uncritical teenager. In the end, despite being a sophisticated game, Modern Warfare's campaign encapsulates everything that makes it hard for me to be a dedicated gamer.

It's technically incredible. The campaign is well-paced, with memorable set pieces and varied missions. But it all still feels completely and utterly pointless.

What's the point?

In Modern Warfare you play sometimes as CIA officer Alex, other times as SAS Sergeant Kyle Garrick. The goal: Avenge an explosive terrorist attack in the UK. Bad guys got hold of Russian gas while related bad guys bombed London's Piccadilly Square. You find out who's behind both incidents, who they're working with and, ultimately, save the day.

But, after playing through the game, I'm still not completely sure what Modern Warfare is actually about. There are times where it tries to make a point, but then immediately glosses over it or -- worse -- contradicts that point moments later.

One of the recurring themes, I think, is the ol' "violence begets violence" thing. In one mission, you play as a child in a Middle Eastern city being gas bombed by Russian forces. You run to your house with your dad, who is then shot up by a Russian military man. You manage to kill said military man, only to find your dad on the verge of death.

"Survive," he pleads with his last gasp of breath, "whatever it takes. Never back down."

OK, that's fine. Deadly environments create deadly people. I'm with you, Call of Duty™.


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But then at the beginning of the very next mission, when clearing out a house of terrorists one room at a time, you shoot and kill an aggressive mother who was using her son as a human shield. The son shrieks and cries over her corpse.

This isn't a cut scene. It's just a perfunctory part of the mission, but neither your character nor anyone in your accompanying squad comments or seems to notice. You just move into the next room.

Was Infinity Ward trying to make a point? That you, the good guys, can be the root of the problem? Maybe. But it felt more like they inadvertently undercut the moral point they were previously trying to make in order to slightly vary the mission's opponents.

Similarly, there are other missions where killing a civilian instantly causes game over. It's questionable design, but also calls to mind the logistical nightmare that is guerilla warfare: How do you distinguish between friend and foe? It's a simple question with significant consequences.

But again, instead of putting weight behind a moral statement it ends up being a gameplay mechanic completely unrelated to the story. No character dwells on the conundrum, so I guess you shouldn't either.

These are just some of the times that Modern Warfare circles an interesting point but never actually makes it. There's no shortage of distressing scenes and harrowing imagery, but little to shape these visuals into something coherent.

This failure to, for want of a better term, "say something," is at its most perplexing when it comes to setting. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare takes place in a fictional country called Urzikstan, a mixture of Syria and Afghanistan, and includes the fictional group Al-Qatala.

Yes, Al-Qatala.

Aggregating real places and groups into fictional ones makes things easier creatively. Crucially, it also allows creators to evade making statements about those same places and groups. It's hard to imagine thematic ambiguity in a game set in the Syrian Civil War, for instance.

We already know the video games industry largely has an aversion to making political statements. That's fine sometimes, but other times it's painful self impairment. Games about war, especially based on recent wars, are going to be political no matter what. As it stands, Modern Warfare's campaign may well be remembered most for taking an infamous US military attack and presenting it as Russian.

Not enough time

I often lament the fact that I don't play enough video games. I often tell myself it's because I don't have enough time, which is true. But Modern Warfare has forced me to admit there's more to the issue than that.

In the last month, I've played Modern Warfare, watched Letters From Iwo Jima, listened to Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast on the American-Spanish War and read a longform New Yorker piece on the war in Afghanistan.

I can safely say Modern Warfare was easily the least satisfying of all those experiences.

For a medium obsessed with re-creating the theatre of war, it's puzzling to see video games terrified of addressing its causes, impact or participants in any substantial way. We have popcorn blockbusters about war, no doubt, but we also have Apocalypse Now, Zero Dark Thirty or the aforementioned Letters from Iwo Jima. 

Games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare don't just abstain from making meaningful political statements, they actively invent fictional countries to dilute any meaningful statements they might accidentally make. In a world with streaming services for every medium imaginable, where deciding how you spend your alone time means weighing up dozens of options, this waffling makes it much easier to pass up games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. 

Evading statements doesn't make video games apolitical, it just makes them a waste of time.

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