In my last post, I wrote that several recent critically acclaimed games have been set in the Middle East. Among these is Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, touted for its photorealism and its perfection of the FPS gameplay formula.
Now it's time for a confession. I'm not a fan of first-person shooters. Like most twenty-something guys with any interest in videogames whatsoever, I poured an insane number of hours into Doom and Duke Nukem as a kid back in the Nineties. But since then? With the notable exceptions of Bioshock, Portal, and a brief Half-Life 2 stint aborted by boredom, my FPS consumption has been zero. Counter-Strike? Didn't care. Halo? No interest whatsoever.
But I was hooked on Call of Duty 4 a few weeks ago. Activision's announcement last month of record profits due in large part to CoD4 sales exceeding one billion dollars makes it clear I wasn't the only one.
So what is it that makes the game so damn successful?
It can't just be franchise loyalty. I'm proof enough of that. Gameplay, maybe? Among critics and consumers, the general consensus seems to be that CoD4 failed to innovate substantially on FPS mechanics; instead, it took the route of perfecting what the franchise already does well. But the repetitive "shoot the bad guys, duck behind cover, reload" style of gameplay is what usually turns me off to FPS. There has to be more to the game than that; otherwise my eyes start to glaze over, and I wander off to something else.
For me, the attraction to Call of Duty was personal.
I originally meant to write Virtuality Continuum’s first post when I played CoD4 in May. But I struggled at the time with sharing a very private story—not mine, but my cousin's. Sgt. Luis ''Tito" Rosa-Valentin is a bona fide career soldier, the kind of guy behind the first-person HUD in real life. On April 21, 2008, two days before his birthday, my cousin was patrolling a dusty, dangerous road east of Baghdad's Sadr City. His unit got in a firefight. A roadside bomb detonated.
A short time later, my phone rang. My mother was sobbing on the other end of the line. She told me that Luis had been severely injured, and no one was sure whether he'd survive. He'd lost one arm and both legs in the IED explosion.
I was devastated. After crying off and on for a few gut-seizing hours, I felt numb.
Then, inexplicably, I remembered that my roommate had a copy of Call of Duty 4 that I'd never felt any interest in before. I started up my Xbox 360, and for the next two days I obsessively, single-mindedly gunned my way through swaths of martyrdom-bent virtual hadjis. My forearms ached from clenching the controller too tightly, and I found my teeth gritted, eyes fixed on the screen.
Each time I mangled an enemy's body with carbine fire or squeezed off a shot with a scavenged Dragunov—sniping through an enemy's brain in an ultra-graphic burst of gore—I got a rush. When I failed to grab a nearby grenade in time, and my proxy soldier self hit the ground as the frag exploded and the screen turned red, I felt sick. I thought: "It's that fast. One second you're alive. The next second, something explodes and you're not."
As I played, I noticed little details in CoD4's story. Like how fictional villain Khaled Al-Asad's evasion of US and British forces mirrored hunts for numerous political or terrorist figures—Hussein, al-Zarqawi, al-Masri, bin Laden. How the murder of Yasir Al-Fulani near the game's beginning evokes the climate of kidnappings and assassinations so prevalent in America's current war in Iraq. How a Middle Eastern terrorist group's acquisition of nuclear warheads from a rebel Russian faction during the story suggests very real anxieties about Russia covertly supplying nuclear materials to Iran.
These anxieties, transposed onto a fictional conflict in an unnamed Middle Eastern nation, result in an intense gaming experience. Call of Duty 4 tapped into our national insecurities, providing gamers a safe way (if only indirectly) to fight back. That's why I think this game has been so successful.
I was fighting back too. Not from some watered-down, digitalized version of patriotism. I was inflicting retribution on the people and the ideas that had hurt Luis, working through my grief and my rage. It wasn't the real thing; I don't think I could survive twenty-four hours of patrolling the physical, flesh-and-blood Baghdad. But Call of Duty 4 was as close as I could get. By the time I'd reached the end, I felt a visceral sense of relief and satisfaction. And part of me thought: "This one's for you, buddy. Hooah."
•Nearly two months after sustaining his injuries, Sgt. Rosa-Valentin is alive and continuing to recover at an astronomical rate, an unflappable force of positivity and perseverance. You can read some of his story here, in an article by his hometown Laurel Gazette.
UPDATE: The June 17, 2008 edition of the New York Times includes an op-ed piece by Bob Herbert on Luis and buddy Joshua Hubbell. The piece is online here.