Call of Duty: Feeding the Venezuela Haters or Just Dumb Fun?
If ideology shapes our fantasies as Zizek suggests, then Call of Duty: Ghosts is imperialism distilled.
“How do we experience ourselves ideologically? What do we find worth fighting for? What's the meaning of our life?”
This is how Slovenian philosopher Slajoj Zizek launched a response to the question of why he finds cinema such a useful tool for analysing modern capitalist ideology during a recent interview with Vice.
Answering his own questions, he continued, “You have to look at Hollywood, where you get it [ideology] in pure, distilled form.”
The interview was about Zizek's latest film, The Pervert's Guide to Ideology. In the film, Zizek essentially argues that even in our dreams and fantasies, we cannot escape the dominant ideologies of our time.
“Ideology is not only the world we live in, but especially the wrong ways we imagine how to escape. There, precisely when you dream how to escape from reality, you just reproduce the same world,” he explained.
“I strongly believe that film in its current form and the transition of popularity to TV series and computer games is extremely important in following the ideologies of today,” Zizek told CineVue.
Fear also plays an important role in ideology, according to Zizek.
“Ordinary Americans, as ordinary people in all countries, have a multitude of fears. We fear all kind[s] of things. We fear – maybe immigrants, or people whom we perceive as lower than ourselves attacking us, robbing us,” he says in his latest film.
The plot of Call of Duty: Ghosts plays on sum of all redneck fears; Hispanics threatening to take over the United States. It's a terrifying inversion of 20th Century geopolitical reality. In an alternative near-future world, South America has unified into an aggressive coalition simply dubbed the “Federation”. Led by the red-beret wearing, Simon Bolivar-admiring and vehemently anti-US Venezuelan dictator General Diego Almagro, the Federation has seized most of Latin America, and reduced the southern US to ashes. In a act intended to mirror Bolivar's “Decree of War to the Death”, Almagro demanded the arrest or killing of anyone born in the US found in Federation territory prior to the events of the game, sparking the all-out hemispheric war.
When the game opens, the US is on the back foot, after the Feds (as the Latino coalition is often referred to by your fellow grunts) stole an orbital mass murder thing and turned it against its former owners. Everyone's a bit upset because half the US was nuked before the satellite of doom could be stopped. After all, only the US is allowed to use weapons of mass destruction.
The nightmare continues as Hispanics swarm into the south- now a desolate wasteland of shelled out cities.
During the ten or so hours of shooting/stabbing/nuking anything that moves (no complaining there), the player gets to visit the Federation capital of Caracas a few times, kill young Chavez General Almagro and experience some kind of family drama.
Of course, this isn't the first time gamers have visited Venezuela to depose Chavez an imaginary power hungry dictator. A few years back, Mercenaries 2: World in Flames offered a similar experience, abet with infinitely worse gameplay and a “fully destructible Venezuela” environment. When Mercenaries 2 started receiving criticism from the Venezuelan government, a spokesperson for the game's makers described the hostile response from Caracas as “comical”.
“At the end of the day you have to remind yourself it's a damned video game,” Jeff Brown from Electronic Arts said.
And I agree...mostly, though the media fear-mongering of Venezuela isn't restricted to a few video games.
Take the TV drama Homeland, which earlier this year underwent a surprise plot twist that landed the protagonist in what appears to be an alternate reality Hell-on-Earth version of Caracas.
Then of course, there is the endless vilification and misinformation about Venezuela in the international press.
However, in isolation both Mercenaries 2 and COD: Ghosts are indeed just games. The point is to shoot things, not pay attention to the (usually paper thin) back stories.
At this point, I should note that in years past I was a big fan of the COD franchise, but I have never before actually figured out the plots of any of the games not based on WWII. I somehow played through Modern Warfare II's campaign with absolutely no idea what was going on. By the time I got to Modern Warfare III, I started just making up my own story to explain why I was destroying Wall Street in one level (or trying to save it? Who cares?) then stealthing around an African shanty town with a high powered machine gun a few hours later.
I started slipping away from the series around the time when I began to lose track of which game I was playing mid-level.
Moreover, despite links between Mercenaries 2 creator Pandemic and the US military, the notion that video games are being used in a concerted effort to brainwash a generation into wanting to invade Venezuela is questionable.
For example, even if some bright spark out there can dig up a tenuous link between Activision and the US military-industrial complex, I probably wouldn't be convinced that this is an intentional, carefully thought out plot to indoctrinate young people into the army, or some other cunning scheme. For one, given my own moderate gaming habits I suspect I may only have four or five more identical COD cash-in sequels before Carpal Tunnel Syndrome sets in, and I'm permanently deprived of the ability to fire a machine gun. Prime recruit for combat I am not (kudos to my friends Mountain Dew and Doritos).
Moreover, to most COD players I suspect that South America is just another exotic backdrop for high resolution gunfights. Washington's long history of terrorising the Western Hemisphere, its role in the 2002 coup to overthrow the Venezuelan government, its ongoing efforts to destabilise Venezuela and long history of backing dictators that bear more resemblance to Almagro than Chavez probably don't come to mind as gamers blast their way through COD's single player campaign. The graphics, the new guns, that creeping urge to just skip to multiplayer and the eternal question of is it possible to grab another can of dew before the next level loads are all issues that weigh more heavily on the minds of gamers than those neo-colonial undertones. Likewise, COD: Ghosts hardly seems like the perfect tool for shaping public opinion against Venezuela (how many politicians and business leaders even play video games?).
A far better explanation is something more reminiscent of the Herman/Chomsky propaganda model of the media. Like the news, there's no reason to believe that entertainment media content can't naturally adhere to a dominant ideological framework.
It's a simple formula. Games sell because they are fun. Hence, developers make games around ideas that sound fun. Like the rest of us, as individuals developers, programmers, game artists and the like are immersed in dominant ideological constructs of capitalism and imperialism. When they dream, they dream of capitalism, as Zizek would suggest. When they put their dreams into computer code, they organically reproduce the same ideologies. More than anything, the storyline of COD: Ghosts is the product of dominant ideologies. The political metaphors may sink in for a handful of gamers, but most probably wont even remember what countries they visited in each level.
Moreover those fears of the Hispanic invasion, those cruel, exotic lands south of the border and the nightmare possibility that all those smaller countries could one day unify and resist exploitation aren't just inbuilt in COD: Ghosts. Those fears are inbuilt in US policy, economic interests and arguably Anglo-Saxon culture in general. This one game isn't the problem- the real issue is the ideological framework that makes fantasies like COD's story appealing.
However, a far more pressing concern is that the fantasy world of COD: Ghosts isn't only inhabited by gamers taking breaks from real life. The dream world where Venezuela is run by an aggressive dictatorship that must be contained is also graced by high profile political figures like US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, US Secretary of State John Kerry, senators like Chairman of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Bob Menendez, Roger Noriega, a sizable chunk of Venezuela's far right opposition groups and a host of right-wing pundits and corporate journalists. In other words, it's already boom-time for crazytown real estate agents, but that could easily turn into a housing bubble next season of Homeland. But those gamers engaging in ridiculous fantasies after working hours isn't the problem; policy makers doing the same thing during working hours is.
So, although I still love you COD, I'd rather kill zombies instead of South Americans in your next instalment. It's nothing personal, I'm just tired of the far right gloating as it accrues popular entertainment franchises.