(The related article below was published at videogametourism.at on 03 Feb. 2016)
If you’ve never played any of the Call of Duty series, there are two details you should know. First, these games are typical first-person shooters, which means you will likely mow down a few hundred enemies before the credits roll. Second, they are presented as highly cinematic experiences, in which a lot of combat and action is happening around you at all times, most of which is tertiary to your character’s goals and is present only as atmospheric context. You are meant to feel like just an ordinary soldier within the ranks of a larger force. However, because you are the protagonist of the story, you’re expected to be on the front lines doing a lot of the dirty work yourself if you’re playing as intended.
I recently sat down for the first time with Modern Warfare, the fourth sequential entry in the line and a favorite among fans. Though violent agency is a common thread in a vast majority of games in the genre, the ubiquitous presence of semi-competent, computer-controlled teammates in the Call of Duty franchise stood out to me as a compelling variation. What would happen if you chose to shirk your own “duty” and let your allies shoulder the responsibility of cutting through the enemy line that stand between you and victory? Would the game’s programming allow you to play as a pacifist? These were the questions that ran through my head. After completing the first mission without firing a shot, I realized my idle conjecture might actually have some merit, and I made it my own personal responsibility to see just how far I could push through the story without doing any harm to those around me.
The fact that this feat is even remotely possible is an interesting discovery in itself. This is a series whose very name insists that you, the player, are going to be called upon to fulfill your duty, to do whatever it takes to secure victory. By forsaking that responsibility you are essentially defying the entire purpose of the game.
I quickly developed various strategies for advancing the narrative of each level without directly engaging with the targets set up in front of me at each turn. Usually this would involve moving from one waypoint to another alongside the team until I found a hiding place, and waiting there until my companions finished clearing out all the bad guys from that immediate area. Sometimes I would need to run to the next “trigger point,” which would sometimes teleport my friends nearby and allow them to completely bypass entire firefights just as I had. These unconventional techniques usually worked flawlessly, as enemies were programmed to pop out at predetermined points of engagement for a quick firefight, and my comrades were likewise programmed to move along a route as my “support,” seeking cover & occasionally emerging to help out in the fight. The player is meant to be the star of the show, but when push came to shove, these minions have no problem pulling the trigger where you can’t (or won’t, in my case).
There were some parts of the run, however, that required more complicated maneuvers, such as manually pushing allies out into the line of fire in order to force them into engaging the enemy for me. Other complications came in the form of mission objectives that demanded I take specific action, such as planting explosives on an anti-aircraft weapon or firing rockets at a small team of tanks blocking the way through. I did a lot of practice runs on each level, trying to find the best route and the safest strategies for getting through to the end without dying or having to use a weapon. The solution in some cases was just a matter of finding the right pattern of movements to get around anyone in my way, but avoiding some of the scripted sequences proved to be a challenge that I could find no way through without taking an active part in the story. I managed to get through several missions before encountering such a roadblock, but as soon as it happened I decided I would need to craft a specific set of rules for myself:
- I shall not harm infantry or vehicles.
- If I must use explosives or weaponry of any kind, I must do everything within my power to ensure that no enemy infantry are caught in the blast.
- I may only break the above rules if the programming will absolutely not let me proceed otherwise, and only after I have attempted to exploit said programming in order to avoid breaking these rules.
Incredibly, there were only a handful of points at which I was required to violate my hand-crafted code of ethics. For most of the game, I could simply allow events to play out by themselves without any direct involvement from me whatsoever.
After I wrapped up the campaign this way, I sat back in my chair and just stared at the screen as the credits rolled, mulling over the implications of what I had just done.
The first thing I realized upon reviewing the footage of my run was that there were innumerable cases where I could have prevented a lot of death with a single bullet, if I’d been willing to put it through the head of just one enemy combatant. So many times I watched helplessly as my compatriots ran valiantly forward, only to be cut down by the same gout of automatic gunfire. Was I responsible for these deaths, or did I still have the moral high ground by refusing to actively take part in the bloodshed?
At some point I had a flashback to Freshman Philosophy 101, remembering Immanuel Kant and his insistence that murder is always wrong, regardless of how much goodness we perceive to be the result. This was the mantra to which I chose to adhere, refusing to justify violence by speculating on its results. From the antithetical Utilitarian perspective, though, these hypothetical killings would have been morally justified, because they would have saved countless lives.
As I considered these two opposing moral frameworks, I felt like I was once again in the front row of that early-morning class, scrabbling for bullet points I’d scrawled down from last week’s lecture and desperately attempting to defend my position, to justify my inaction that had cost so many lives. Even as I write these words, I feel poorly equipped to make such a judgement.
I quickly reached another disturbing realization, that despite refusing to pull the trigger I was still very much a mechanical component of the massacre. Just by moving from one location to another I had caused my allies to surge into harm’s way, forcing them to kill in self-defense and often to die in my stead as I ducked behind nearby cover and refused to let myself be a target. Other times I was directly involved in coercing them to act violently against others, by pushing them into a position where they had no choice but to react with lethal action. Not only did I refuse to shoulder this burden, but I was actually the one who manipulated them into taking lives on my behalf. In a way, some of my strategies for avoiding murder were actually far more vile than if I had simply gone along with what the game wanted me to do, if I’d just drawn my weapon like a good soldier and pulled the trigger.
Again, there were times when I was forced to act in a way that directly caused the deaths of enemy troops, and those compromises should be addressed. I accepted these moments grimly at the time, realizing that if I was going to finish this trial I would have to bend my own rules. At the time I chose to just keep pressing on for the sake of completing the run, but what if I had simply refused to go any further? I could have ended the experiment at the first junction that required lethal force on my part, and declared the task to be impossible. My fear of stagnation won out in the end, though, and rather than accept defeat I chose to make exceptions, to make excuses. I wanted to stay the course with the knowledge that I was still doing my best to avoid taking lives. I still had the moral high ground, in my own opinion, because it clearly wasn’t my fault I had to blow up that tank. It was the game’s fault for pushing me into a corner, for shoving the rocket launcher into my hands and saying “take this, we need you to do this one thing for us so we can keep moving forward.” There was no alternative. But…what if I’d just stopped playing?
By the end of the game, I had neutralized about thirty people (if you count the ones I ended up shooting in the leg or arm so the game would count them as a “kill” during parts of the game in which I couldn’t proceed until I’d dropped a requisite number of enemies). I still might make another attempt and see if I can reduce this number even further, as there were some places where I could have set of an explosive at a better time, or used different strategies to to avoid certain sections entirely.
I’m still not quite sure whether my efforts to preserve life in Modern Warfare would be morally justified had they taken place in the real world; I suppose the verdict rests on how we would individually answer those age-old questions of morality, how we weigh our actions and inactions against their consequences. What began as a superficial challenge in game otherwise intended for escapism turned into a deeply philosophical experience for me, and I think the end result is worth scrutinizing. I refuse to accept that there is any form of interactive media that is not worth exploring and pushing to its limits, even if that means taking the exact opposite approach and just stepping back to let things play out as they will. You can decide for yourself what to make of the results.