header is screenshot from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II
Complicity Problem
Ed Smith

There’s this level in Modern Warfare II, "Violence and Timing", where Gaz and Captain Price are being assisted in rescuing their CIA buddy, Laswell, by the character Farah who was introduced in Modern Warfare 2019. Laswell has been kidnapped by Hassan, the Iranian Army major, and terrorist, who serves as one of three of the game’s villains. 

The level takes place in Urzikstan, the Call of Duty fictional surrogate for Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria—wherever players might internally decide. Farah, canonically, is born in Urzikstan and has spent a lot of her life fighting a war against Russia, which wants to annex Urzikstan for its own, ill-defined purposes. Hassan is involved at some level with the Russian government. When we eventually rescue Laswell, she reveals that Hassan has acquired launch codes for a trio of American missiles. “Where did he get those?” asks Price. “Russians,” replies Laswell.  As for Farah, when Price thanks her for the help she replies: “we share a common enemy,” implying that she wants to help Laswell because that will sabotage the plans of Hassan, in-turn sabotaging the plans of the Russians. 

When I wrote about Modern Warfare II at Polygon—and discussed it in our podcast—I talked about how I personally feel exhausted, foolish even, trying to hold Call of Duty to account when it comes to its representation of real-life war, or anything of relevance to politics, culture, society—whatever you might term it. In service of the innocuousness of their product, and by extension the broadness of that product’s appeal, the writers and developers of Modern Warfare II go beyond simply trying not to say anything. Call of Duty, judging largely by the Modern Warfare reboots, has turned neutrality and a kind of constantly moving truthlessness into an artform. The goal is to not say or do or be anything provocative while appearing to do the opposite, but then also, in another sequence, doing the opposite again, and so on. It’s as if Call of Duty has created a new kind of artistic element, a formless substance, a gaseous solid, a mass with zero quantum potential, and so judging these games by their bluntness or callousness, or sort of inept handling of reality, feels for me besides the point. Call of Duty is to be judged as an exercise in immaculately produced postmodern nullity. 

And so when I think about Farah, and an alternative way of depicting her character, and her reasons for wanting to fight against Hassan, I am not positing that Call of Duty is somehow a stupider or lower quality game for how it presents, or rather does not present Farah. It becomes for me a superlative—or perhaps nadiral—example of why videogames, not just in the mainstream, but all games, may struggle to pose certain types of themes and moral or spiritual questions; why reality and its difficult, contradictory nature can only ever be reached into by videogames so far. 

When Farah describes Hassan as a “common enemy”, I think about what that line, if I were writing Call of Duty, would mean: what would be an interesting or impactful or substantial meaning behind that line that could add complexity and bite to Farah as a character and Modern Warfare II as a story. As a revert Muslim, I immediately imagine a version of Modern Warfare II’s script where Farah considers Hassan an enemy because one is Sunni and the other is Shia. That, to me, makes sense in the context—geographically, historically, culturally—and also functions well dramatically: it adds a layer of texture and truth that could make the story, and by extension the action in the game, feel more real and alive, and again by extension, exciting, while also providing a nuance and an ambiguity to Farah as a dramatic prospect. She becomes more rooted in our own world. She becomes subjective—she inherits a system of morals and values that may or may not be the player’s, and thus, because we have to either attempt to sympathise with her or decide to judge her—a narrative component with which we have to actively think about and engage. 

Be they affinity or doubt, compassion or aversion, if Farah displays a personal morality so loaded with implications, we may—as I imagine is still part of the intentions that Call of Duty’s writers have for their characters, despite their skilled equivocating—have feelings towards and about her. The question for me is not about whether Call of Duty should do this. I have no interest or belief any more in judging Call of Duty for its attitudes towards illustrating anything from real life, with any kind of editorial slant. The question for me is why doesn’t Call of Duty do this? Why does it seem so large, strange, and impossible an expectation? Why does something that in TV or movies seems like it would be a straightforward artistic decision, to give a character a personal set of values, that may be at odds with some viewers, and helps realise and dramatise them, feel in Call of Duty—and in games generally—like a completely outlandish suggestion? I mean, when I read it back—why isn’t Farah a Sunni Muslim who fights Hassan partly because he’s Shia—it sounds absurd. Of course that can’t happen. What kind of a pretentious dumbass am I, even thinking about that kind of stuff when I play Call of Duty? But why is it like that, when I’d accept this proposition completely if Modern Warfare II were a film or a show? 

The issue comes down to the player’s direct involvement, or complicity, in Modern Warfare II, its story, and its characters. Through interaction and play, we are not simply observing—for hypothetical example—Farah’s spiritual or sectarian beliefs, but vicariously acting upon them, If she were to say, or it was somehow made clear, that she considered a Hassan an enemy partly owing to their differences of faith, when we participate in the mission alongside Farah, we would be “acting”, by association, in those interests—rather than passively watching, which I would consider is a more objective or distanced action, we would be behaving, doing something, “killing” in those interests’ service. The question, then, becomes one of endorsement. If we play as characters, or in service of characters, who have subjective beliefs, and do things in the game that serve those beliefs in some way, are we as players endorsing those beliefs by proxy? It seems perfectly well established that we can watch a movie where the characters are morally dubious, and do so without risk of inheriting—or feeling accused of inheriting—their dubious morality by proximity, but is that proximity reduced, and do we become too-active a participant, once something—a videogame—becomes interactive, and challenges us to do things, albeit virtually abstracted things, consistent with the characters’ subjectivity? Put more simply, can you play as someone without endorsing them, wholesale? 

Considering some of the other actions we perform through our interactivity in Modern Warfare II—for example, in the second level, shooting the presumed wife of a terrorist we have just killed, because she attempts to pick up his rifle—it seems arguable that we can do things in games, as characters, without giving our approval or agreement to that character. In fact, the act of actually “doing” as opposed to watching has the potential to heighten the sense of doubt and complexity we may feel with regards to a character’s subjective, perhaps challenging personality and views: having shot the wife of the terrorist, and in a sense, chosen to do so, we potentially feel a more profound responsibility, even guilt, which helps to emphasise the moral complexion of our character. We do something—shoot the terrorist’s wife—and our character, in this case Soap, seems unmoved: he responds to her death with a terse and pragmatic, “Ghost, we’re secure.” Rather than adding to an increased endorsement, this may have the opposite, and debatably more profound effect, of adding to our sense of doubt, uncertainty, and uncomfortableness towards the character, which in turn enhances the complexity of Modern Warfare II narratively and thematically. We do something. We have our own thoughts and responses to what we have done. Our character’s views and responses are different. And so perhaps we are invited to more deeply consider our viewpoint, their viewpoint, and the viewpoint of the game overall. Rather than straightforward endorsement, there becomes a contradiction between us and the character which enters us into a moral debate with ourselves and the game. 

This seems like a seriously untapped vein when it comes to what “doing stuff” in videogames can mean and achieve, narratively and dramatically. The complicity problem may not be a problem in the sense of creating a barrier or obstacle with regards to what can and cannot be represented, but rather a dynamic, a feature, a mechanic that games deploy in service of further complexifying and deepening their drama—you have the player do something, present them with a character whose response to that thing is perhaps very different to their own, and this presents a complicity problem which they are then challenged to internally resolve. It’s a straightforward “device”, but potentially heavy with implications.


Ed Smith is one of the co-founders of Bullet Points Monthly. His Twitter handle is @esmithwriter.