Why do so many gamers heed “Call of Duty?”

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 alone has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. What makes this series so popular?

Ten years ago, a group of men working with Al-Quaeda hijacked four American airplanes. They crashed two of them into the World Trade Center towers in New York, toppling them. A third crashed at the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed over Pennsylvania. Within weeks, American troops had invaded Afghanistan and declared war on the Taliban. By 2003, the military had moved into Iraq as well. A decade of messy, complicated war followed.

It may be no surprise, then, that the Call of Duty franchise has become one of the all-time best-selling video game series during this decade. Many Americans were justifiably angry, but couldn’t go to war themselves. Others wondered what our soldiers were going through, but the news reports just weren’t enough. The Call of Duty games feed just those kinds of emotions, providing lifelike and detailed versions of military operations in spots around the globe.

As the world looked back this month on September 11, 2001, The Denver Post’s John Wenzel spoke up for Call of Duty, saying the games helped players make sense of the terrorist attacks:

Instead of promising escapism, they provided an outlet for ordinary Americans to vent their rage and frustration by aiming virtual weapons at otherwise nebulous foreign enemies.

Video-game environments are entertaining and tidily self-contained — unlike real war, where the blood lingers long after players switch off the Xbox 360. But as funhouse mirrors of the past decade, “Call of Duty” and other war games have reflected a certain distorted collective therapy that, at times, makes for an eerily lifelike portrait of the aggression and anxiety that violence breeds.

The new Call of Duty game, Modern Warfare 3, is due out next month and is likely to be a top seller at Christmas. The #2 holiday pick is another military game, Gears of War 3. Clearly there’s a hunger for war games in this long era of military exercises in far-flung places.

With such brisk sales, it’s inevitable that some teens and younger kids will play Call of Duty. And there are some who say they shouldn’t. But kids were just as effected by the terrorist attacks and the vagueries of war as adults were — and they have a right to explore these ideas as well.

Call of Duty players: what attracted you to the game? Did playing it help you process the 9/11 attacks or the “War on Terror” in any way? Has it helped you understand your feelings about war and military action better?


5 responses to “Why do so many gamers heed “Call of Duty?”

  1. Originally, I followed the Call of Duty Franchise because I was previously a fan of Medal of Honor. MoH was initiated by Spielberg as a spin-off of Saving Private Ryan, which itself revolutionized and revitalized the WWII Movie genre, a genre that set new standards for fine filmmaking in Clint Eastwood’s 2006 Iwo Jima diptych. Saving Private Ryan had gotten me interested in WWII in a way I hadn’t been before. As a gamer, I found that MoH’s WWII setting and attention to period detail set it apart from its contemporaries, which were all bland grim-future sci-fi shooters.
    After a creative spat with EA, the developers behind MoH’s best iteration went to Activision and created a spiritual sequel, the original Call of Duty. Lots of fans of the genre, myself included came along for the ride, confident that the same creative staff would give us another fine game. They did; the original CoD was great.

    Gradually, the focus of the games shifted away from “realistic verisimilitude” where you could sort of pretend you were an individual soldier in a classic war movie, to something more like a roller-coaster thrill ride, with a constant bombardment of surprises and obstacles and thrill-a-minute pacing. At the same time, the WWII setting grew increasingly stale and “done to death”, especially in light of the arrival of the Brothers In Arms series in 2005, which brought a much more mature, nuanced, less-Hollywood more-HBO perspective on the genre.

    2007’s “Modern Warfare” shifted the focus from Paratroopers’n’Nazis to Specops’n’Terrorists didn’t change the way the game was played that much (at least not single-player, which is what I’m here for), but the new coat of paint and increasing levels of spit’n’polish let the franchise tap into the Tom Clancy techno-thriller vibe. It was a good fit for the underlying mechanics. I imagine they’ll ride this trend for another few releases, at which point they’ll need to find a new subgenre to mine to keep sales rolling along.

    In the meantime, the franchise has just as many explosions as a Michael Bay movie, with better writing and pacing (this isn’t saying much, I know, but it’s enough!). Seriously, Action Games have replaced the Summer Action Blockbuster Movie for me. I’m pitting $50-60 for 6-10 hours of action-story that I can download in the background and play at my leisure, vs. $15-20 (ticket+parking+gas) and 90 mins transit, parking, and standing-in-lines for 2 hours of action-story. The economics are right. Where folks at work may once have said “Did you see that crazy scene in that new movie?”, the water-cooler discussions are more likely to be “Did you play that crazy level in that new game?”

    But as CoD becomes more and more about techno-thriller pastiche, it’s also lost the wonderful historical resonance that drew me into MoH in the first place. I find it’s just mindless entertainment at this point.

  2. Thanks for this detailed comment. I’ve never played the games, but I know many, many people love them…

  3. I’d be remiss not to mention the multiplayer aspects of the more recent CoD games, especially Modern Warfare and MWII, which are very finely crafted, tightly balanced competitive team games. While I’m mostly here for single-player, I think that most CoD players are interested in multiplayer, which has a sort of pickup-streetball vibe of competition. Lots of trash-talking, and a lot of computerized logic to try to match people up based on relative skill level.

  4. I’m a CoD fan, and started with the first Modern Warfare series, single player on a PC, which I loved to pieces. As Hans mentioned above, part of the biggest draw in the beginning was the realism and attention to detail, rather than setting it in a futuristic world, with fantasy weapons (so overdone). I’m not sure it’s a direct response to 9/11, rather an indirect response to having a very active military/special forces. As CoD has many antagonists, etc in their storylines, including ones where the military itself can be the bad guy. Only MW deals with storylines today and it switches between British and American characters–and in MW2 (spoilers) the american is killed in one campaign, you finish it with the Brit.
    However, I made the jump to Xbox when CoD really exploded on Xbox Live (multi-player) a few years ago and have been on the Xbox ever since with every version of CoD. The last version, Black Ops (set in vietnam/coldwar era), was actually a big let down in the single player campaign but I didn’t care (nor did I even get halfway through it) as I was there for the Live multi-player action, and still play it routinely ( 3 times a week?). There is something cathartic about the multi-player, as it is akin to stopping off after work to a pickup game of basketball at the park, with the exception of the lack of physical activity (ha), it has the same release as a sport would (aggression, stress release, social interaction, unpredictable result, etc).
    Infinityward, which makes the MW versions, usually makes better single-player campaigns that are worth playing, so I’m hoping MW3 will deliver in both arenas–can’t wait.
    Oh, and I’m girl.

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