So all five of you who read yesterday’s entry and are familiar with MW2 probably noted the conspicuous lack of reference to what is probably the largest talking point engendered by the game: the sequence where your “buddies” wipe out an airport full of Russian civvies.

At first I figured I’d avoid that stuff to focus on the game and the experience of playing it. That said, “No Russian” is a part of that experience and I ought to comment, yes? I heard about it, like most people, before buying the game. It didn’t impact my decision whatsoever because at the core of it, I understand what Infinity Ward is up to. On one hand, they are ostensibly trying to raise the bar they set in Modern Warfare with the execution scene and the infamous nuclear mambo. They want to fuck with us some more, see if they can illicit shock and involuntary emotional responses in a videogame. On the other hand, they are also shocking us to get us talking and generate even more hype for their already overflowing hype-bag. I’m okay with the commercial aspect of it but I give them the benefit of the doubt in terms of what they are trying to accomplish thematically. Someone on a talkback I read on some gaming website put it best, and I am paraphrasing, when they said that the sequence is about something bigger than giving players a sense of collateral damage. This game is asking us how far we’re willing to go in giving politicians power to launch military adventures around the globe. It may not be as topical as it would have been 4 years ago, but it still resonates. In that context, the scene is about whether or not the ends justify the means. Of course, the game has its plot to worry about as well and Sheppard is a bad guy for engineering the airport attack and for many other reasons. We are supposed to sympathize with Task Force 141, namely Soap and Price, but we are supposed to draw hopefully affecting thematic parallels. The game does pull this off, and games should be trying to do things like this.

I think the content of the sequence being in poor taste is entirely subjective. Not so subjective is the philosophical issue of agency in relation to games. You’ll never hear me compare this sequence to a movie because there’s a tacit difference and that difference has to do with agency. When one is an active participant, one is de facto more morally culpable in wrong-doing than if one is an observer. This adds a greater shade of meaning in considering people who willingly engage in the slaughter in “No Russian”. But we shouldn’t condemn them outright, as if MW2 is some kind of moral compass we can use to separate the callous from the principled. That sort of shit is giving the game too much credit.

Some people will kill the civvies because they agree with the implicit notion that such means do justify the ends. Utilitarian philosophy has to side with the actions taken by our fictional avatar in MW2. This is presuming that Pvt. Allen would in fact have to shoot at people because to not do so is to risk exposure. Obviously in-game people can not pull the trigger but this is less a function of intent or experimentation with our psychology than it is the expression of a simple gameplay mechanic. It is impossible to deny that in such a situation, a real-life CIA operative (or whomever) would not make the Utilitarian choice and thereby risk blowing their cover. Someone who did would not last long in that line of work.

I don’t think what I’m saying here should be read as condoning the acts in question. The truth is that I’m one of the people who think that when it’s impossible to tell if the ends justify the means, it’s best to take a step back rather than plowing ahead. But then I’m not a general responsible for the defense of an entire nation. I’m glad I wouldn’t have to make the kind of calls taken on by Sheppard (as we know him before the truth is revealed) or by Pvt. Allen.

But in the context of the game, I understand what Infinity Ward is asking me. It’s not asking me “do you have the balls, pussy?” as some backlash-happy people have posited. It’s asking me to believe for a second, not unreasonably, that these sorts of things do happen in the real world. And if so, what are the implications?

Like I said, there are people who’ll shoot the civvies in that level because they believe it’s a necessary evil. They are philosophically aligned with the agencies that make these kinds of decisions all the time, weighing the collateral cost of human lives against the net benefits of national security. But at the same time, there are people who will do it just for fun, or because they feel like it’s something the character would have to do (me) and are thus endorsing only what is required for immersion. And there are still others who aren’t going to think about the implications, they are just going to play the game and will never pause to worry about this in the first place. So in the final analysis, is all I’m saying that there’s different people in the world so yo, whatever?

Nah. I don’t think I have any conclusion that tells people how they should think about this. I just want to share my thoughts, which may be a bit abstract. Hopefully they are at least interesting.