Call of Duty is the best selling first person shooter franchise of all time. But how realistic is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019)? In this video Chris Cooper, Lead Curator on IWM's War Games exhibiton, delves deep into the IWM collections to examine the game and what it can tell us about real life contemporary conflict.
How realistic is Call of Duty?
This is Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare one of the latest installments of the most popular first-person-shooter franchise of all time. Set firmly in the modern day, the game takes the player on a dark and gritty thrill ride through terror attacks in London, special forces raids in the Middle East and black ops in Eastern Europe. But is that what real modern warfare is actually like? Well to find out we'll be delving into the IWM collections with Chris Cooper, one of the lead curators on our brand new War Games exhibition. We're going to take an in-depth look at the game's gadgets, missions, and story all to answer one big question - is this really modern warfare?
First let's look at some of the small details that Call of Duty gets absolutely right. Infinity War, the developers of the game, spent huge amounts of time and effort on creating realistic weapons, character models, textures, and sound effects and this pulls the player into the game.
Chris Cooper, IWM Curator: This is a set of American night vision goggles of the type that was used by British helicopter pilots who landed SAS troops on the Falkland Islands in 1982. The development of night vision dates back to the Second World War and is something that the team that developed Call of Duty: Modern Warfare spent an awful lot of time researching. You can see this really quite clearly in the attention they paid to making their night vision levels look and feel as realistic as possible. The way that the light bounces off people's clothing and interacts with the environment is almost hyper realistic.
However for all those real world details the game is ultimately a work of fiction. The missions are clearly inspired by real life events, one references 'the Highway of Death' where Allied aircraft bombed Iraqi forces retreating from Kuwait. However the details in the game are changed with the attack taking place in the fictional country of Urzikstan and being perpetrated by Russian forces. The real-life 'Highway of Death' was hugely controversial and this is reflective of one of the game's key themes, the murky nature of modern conflict.
Chris Cooper: The war in Syria is a really good example of this where its anything but simple. What began as a peaceful protest movement evolved into a multi-layered war involving all sorts of disparate and diverse actors both from within Syria itself and from without. The narrative in Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare clearly draws on these ideas. Nothing is clear-cut and agents and actors all have their own particular agendas. I never knew who I should be trusting.
In this complex game world its special forces who take center stage and this reflects real-life contemporary warfare. Fearing a backlash from their citizens Western governments have become reluctant to commit boots on the ground, instead deploying special forces on covert missions.
Chris Cooper: In the main I think it's a response to the so-called 'forever wars' that both Britain and the US have been involved in for the last 20 years. Special forces are a way for governments to intervene and pursue their interests and agendas behind a veiled cloak of deniability. Whilst the UK refused to commit ground forces in wars in places like Syria, you do hear of UK special forces operating in those theatres. In January 2019 for example two British special forces soldiers were seriously injured in eastern Syria while fighting Isis alongside Kurdish forces there.
Using special forces might seem like a way to surgically strike at an enemy without the risk of collateral damage. But the game also complicates that idea, sometimes gleefully forcing the player into difficult and dark choices. In the mission clearing Piccadilly Circus of terrorists for example, the player can shoot at unarmed civilians and face few consequences. When one soldier begins to question their own power and authority towards the end of the game, Captain Price, one of the game's most iconic characters, retorts "You draw the line wherever you need it... we get dirty and the world stays clean".
Chris Cooper: I think there's an assumption maybe that the level of deniability creates a lack of accountability. But it's hard to say how far that really holds true. There are recent allegations that the SAS killed detainees in Afghanistan. The British Ministry of Defense generally does not comment on allegations or operations. This all adds to the mystique that surrounds special forces and this really inevitably makes them more attractive characters for video games.
The key antagonists of the game are Russian in particular a rogue actor called General Barkov. For years Russians have been the go-to bad guys in video games, but why is that?
Chris Cooper: This is really a hangover from the Cold War to a large extent. Russia also provides a very technologically advanced adversary with tanks helicopters and really easily identifiable opponents. This is our BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle, this type of vehicle was deployed by the Soviet Union and used during the Cold War to move troops around and support them in the fight but later Russian variants of the BMP appear in various levels of Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare. Taking on one of these provides a more entertaining challenge in a video game than a few insurgents with RPGs.
But Russia's presence doesn't just make the game more exciting, it's also reflective of modern war. Alongside Ukraine, Russia now has a significant presence in many areas of conflict around the world. However Russia can't commit the same resources to foreign interventions as countries like the US and so they turn to other means.
Chris Cooper: The Wagner group is a Russian paramilitary organization, perhaps it might also be described as a private military company. It often operates in support of Russian operations abroad and is allegedly trained by the Russian Ministry of Defense. The group has been sent, we know, to the Central African Republic and to Libya, but it also has a very heavy presence in the Donbas and Ukraine. The group maybe offers Russia a means to intervene abroad whilst offering a measure of state deniability.
Facing the Russians are a rebel faction called The Urzikstan Liberation Force, led by a character called Farah Karim. Farah and her faction are closely based on Kurdish Peshmerga who played an important role in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Chris Cooper: The Peshmerga is the military force of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Women have served in the Peshmerga forces for decades, with ISIS's emergence they have assumed a more active combat role and even served on the front lines. British forces have been heavily involved in training the peshmerga to increase their capabilities in resisting ISIS. This is a flag of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, it bears all the names of the British soldiers who were involved in training Peshmerga fighters there over a six-month period in 2015. And this is a training target that was used by Kurdish Peshmerga forces to improve their marksmanship skills. It looks quite pixelated, but obviously it was designed to be seen from quite a long way away.
Farah becomes the player character for a few missions later on in the game and these turn into some of the most affecting sequences. The player goes from elite special forces operator to a young child as Farah and her brother try to escape their town while the Russians role in.
Chris Cooper: I found the experience both intense and disturbing and it left me feeling a little bit uncomfortable having played through it. But I find it interesting and important that that experience and that perspective was included in a video game.According to the UN, 90% of present-day war casualties are civilians. Some studies estimate that between 2003 and 2011 about half a million people died in Iraq as a result of war-related causes following a US-led invasion.
Put all of that together and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare can tell you a lot about what contemporary war is really like. Small details like the depiction of weapons, uniforms, and vehicles are extremely realistic. The game also reflects broad trends in the nature of contemporary conflict like the growth of Special Forces, the nations and non-state actors involved, and the costs paid by civilians. The game's attempts to echo particular real-life events are perhaps a little ham-fisted. But you would expect that from a fictional setting produced primarily to entertain us as players and that's what Call of Duty is really all about.