It was perhaps seeing the sight of a bright blue flag with a single star in the middle that finally caught my attention. Or perhaps, it was the villainous character’s name that I was suppose to hunt down and kill. Maybe it was seeing the eerily familiar landscape with the dilapidated and bullet-ridden buildings that finally made me stop and put down the controller. I always have these kinds of moments when I’m playing a video game. It was not a surprise then that I would have a very visceral reaction when I played the latest shoot ’em up game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 last week. In the chapter called “Return to Sender,” the character that I play (the ‘”good guy”) is sent to Bosaaso, Somalia to hunt down a warlord named, interestingly enough, “Waraabe” (Somali: hyena).
It is a thinly veiled attempt to recreate the famous Black Hawk Down battle that took place in Mogadisho on Oct. 3 1993 between the American military’s Delta Force/Rangers and General Aidid’s militia. Like the 2001 Ridley Scott recreation on celluloid, Modern Warfare 3 does an excellent job of recreating the battle for the glory of entertainment on video games. As I started playing the chapter, going from room to room, street to street gunning down the avatars on screen, the irony of a Somali guy playing a video game killing Somalis was not lost on me. Like the Germans and Japanese people who play World War II video games depicting the killing of their ancestors, albeit an avatar. But playing Modern Warfare 3 was Modern Warfare 2 all over again. In MW2, I played a US Marine who goes to Fallujah, Iraq to kill people that I co-share with religion, albeit an avatar representation. Then within the same game playing an undercover Russian spy that is given the choice of slaughtering civilians at Moscow airport or simply doing nothing.
For many people, video games are simply something violent and immoral. But the truth is more gray than black or white. As the advancement of technology has enhanced the realism of the design and execution of the technical aspects of the games, so has the moral ambiguity of the plots and storytelling. For example, in the above example of civilian slaughter at the Moscow airport in Modern Warfare 2, the undercover agent, who’s the “good guy” trying to prevent WWIII, is given a choice to either participate in the mass murder of civilians, or he can just simply watch and do nothing so as not to blow his cover. Here, then, lies the moral ambiguity of video games today. Is preventing world war 3 more important than participating (or simply not doing anything to prevent) in killing hundreds of innocent people? More and more games today force the player to make moral choices. But in my case, I had to stop playing the game and reassess my values. Even though I was playing a ‘good guy’ trying to stop World War III from happening, how could I justify playing a recreation of something as horrible as the Black Hawk down incident? Or any real life based conflict? For me, I simply had to return the game, not because it is based on a real event but I couldn’t find it entertaining in shooting, however virtual and unreal, someone that I can recognize.