Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 may nail his basic shooter and feature remarkable characters across the board, but it also features some of the series’ most gruesome depictions of violence and military might to date. One level in particular in which tensions are rising between civilians and law enforcement stands out as deeply tone deaf and has been widely shared online as an example of the Call of Duty series at its most appalling and absurd.
In the “Borderline” level, you play as Mexican military special forces following the trail of cartel members who are wrapped up in a larger and growing narrative about terrorism. The level barely stops to breathe before encouraging you to shoot and kill people climbing the border wall in the United States. You then move into a residential area of Texas where armed citizens aren’t too thrilled to see you running through their yards and homes. The game asks you to “defuse civilians” with your aim button, and of course pressing it will point your gun at them. There is no animation or single line of dialogue here. You don’t pull out a badge and say “please come in”. You just aim a gun at their faces.
These scenes have become a topic of conversation and criticism on the internet. A few days ago, popular political streamer Hasan Piker literally paused the game post “de-escalation” to comment on how remarkably awful this scenario is. As noted Polygon, video essayist Jacob Geller also tweeted a video of the first de-escalation, which currently has one million views. It’s far from an overlooked moment in a larger narrative.
“Borderline” asks you to do this three times. On the third, despite your best efforts to (ahem) “defuse”, it seems the game offers you no alternative to violence. Standing in the living room of a random Texas citizen, the civilians pull out their own guns and start shooting at you. This leads to a brief encounter with the local police outside where the following dialogue is shouted at you by cops with guns drawn.
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“Drop your fucking weapons now!” Do exactly what I say or I’ll shoot you. To understand? Walk towards me! I want to see empty hands above your head!
Just as Mexican Special Forces Colonel Alejandro Vargas (the person running your operation) is about to be handcuffed, a cop comes out to stop the arrest saying it’s “hard to tell you apart from the cartel “. You are then ambushed and have to fight off some real cartel members who are not dressed like your characters. They have little or no tactical gear, no military insignia, and no doubt use significantly different weaponry. So it looks like the cops can’t tell them apart because…why now?
That’s basically the whole level. Half of it is spent on aiming guns and killing people in private homes, then you’re violently threatened by law enforcement and racially profiled before finally getting into a few skirmishes with the “bad guys” of the Game.
I recently had a conversation about this game with a friend who served in the military. In particular, we talked about another deeply uncomfortable moment of violence in the game, this one in level two, where you gun down a person fleeing for their life and cowering in a bathroom. As he illustrated, horrible things like this happen in war. But the depiction of this material, whether it’s gunning down maimed or innocent people in a war zone or pointing guns at civilians to “defuse” a situation, is a choice made by the developers. And in cases like “Kill or Capture” or “Borderline”, there is no clear alternative to these actions. It’s not a recreation of a historical event, and while levels like Borderline echo contemporary events and larger conversations about how the police interact with citizens, it’s worth wondering. what is appropriate for a game like this? Why were these decisions made when designing these levels? What notions of how police or soldiers should act are legitimized and reinforced when presented as they are here?
Questions of realism are out of place. There are a remarkable number of unrealistic things in Modern Warfare II. As Polygon reports, no searchable police document recommends pointing a gun at someone to defuse a situation. So it’s not like they’re applying realistic standards to this fictional scenario.
And remember, in the third level de-escalation encounter, the people you’re targeting not only have guns, but shoot them at you, not only indicating that you were right to treat civilians as hostile threats, but as law enforcement, you are in constant danger. Meanwhile, in real life, it is very often the cops who pose a threat to civilians, as police shoot unarmed people, disproportionately people of color, at an alarming rate in the United States. . However, those who built and designed this game chose to operate with it like the things you play in a video game, in some cases with no alternative but to directly threaten the lives of innocent people. And these are the protagonists you play as. There are values and messages embedded in there, whether the creators of the game intended there to be or not.
It is both in questionable taste and based on no written standard of practice for law enforcement.
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