Call of Duty: WWII is as loud about war as a blockbuster, stocked with the series’ signature desensitization tactics and above average amounts of tranquilizing propaganda. It comes to us hot off the reception of Battlefield 1 as a throwback for a series that modernized in 2007 and has not looked back since. It begs more than questions of its symbolic regression in a regressing industry. In an age where game quality is propagandized by publisher payoffs as surely as nationalism is buffed up by talking points, where you can pay real money to edge out competition in online battle simulations, CoD: WWII begs to be asked: what games aren’t about war anymore?
Darpa has been training soldiers with video games since the 1980s. The emergence of Doom particularly gave them plenty of ammunition to create battle programs for troops in training. Despite the fact that Full Spectrum Warrior was developed by a U.S. Army University Affiliated Research Center as a real-time tactics simulator, you can still buy it on your XBOX and on Steam. War has always been integral to the gaming community and since war never changes, neither do games that are about it.
But beyond the veil of actual military development programs, PTSD recovery regimens, and interactive desensitization simulators, war is the sinew of the video game medium in the first place. The very first video game was Tic-Tac-Toe and gamers have been outmaneuvering enemies ever since. You are the righteous square that goes right and all else is the enemy square that goes left (and all else must be destroyed). Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare had Patton and Eisenhauer quotes strewn throughout it and everyone assumed these were only relevant to the theme. But Joust in the arcade opened with a Sun Tzu quote – these sentiments are far more relevant to the medium in general than to the military FPS specifically.
CoD: WWII is so tactical in its pursuit of turning players into payers, so integrated to the art of war of which the AAA video gaming industry has become a spiritual extension, that it may be the most purely video game-like of its entire lineage. War isn’t always about being a hero and doing what you believe is right: sometimes it’s about listening up, taking orders, and following other people’s example.
But now the general is Activision, not MacArthur, and the battle is over your money.
The FPS hasn’t advanced much beyond its aesthetic but Doom, Half-Life, and Modern Warfare might be the checkpoints. Each of these initiated some change in how the industry perceived the genre. If we add Overwatch to the list, we have to ask: what is its contribution?
The loot box model propagated by Activision/ Blizzard for Overwatch didn’t invent the system but by its exemplary profit margin it has made it all but obligatory. What makes it insidious is how it preys on the instinct to follow-the-leader in situations of competition and combat. It ingrains in its player’s mind the advancement paradigm that used to be the sole property of a good game of war. The way it’s implemented in CoD makes its perversity so much clearer.
There’s a hub world in CoD: WWII, something totally unknown to the series’ tradition, which allows players to comingle, emote, and most importantly, to purchase loot boxes. Watching people buy and open these boxes isn’t required, as the company is quick to point out, but the game makes doing so an actual achievement in-game. It would be natural for anyone to look up to their betters, to marvel at someone’s medals and accomplishments, and to aspire to be like them. Advancement on the CoD leaderboards exemplifies the sentiment. In a setting like that present in real-world tests of values, this can be how lineages of virtue are ingrained into an organization.
But what if the military had no goal but to fleece you of your paycheck? What if their goal in making you a good little soldier was really to make you a good little investment? What if by being a winner you automatically lured beginners into the same trap?
I have considered that military action games, a genre which I have played exactly once, may at least instill in their players the innate desire to fight for a cause and inherit bravery. Activision has taken this possibility and fermented it into an investment scheme. It has devised algorithms to appropriate your zeal for battle into a psychological labyrinth of tiny purchases and rewards. Playing with fellow soldiers has become an emotional schematic for their payment options, rewarding those who watch other purchases, who use purchases to good effect, who buy and keep buying. The paltry campaign offering – 3-4 hours and stuffed with cutscenes – only underscores their true purpose for even making a game anymore: to sell a profit model.
If video games are always about the player’s oneness with virtue in a world against evil (until they get interesting: see Spec Ops: The Line), the military FPS is a results-hungry root to the heart of the matter, the protein shake of video games. So it has become ideal as a platform for excising the adventure from the art and instituting a pay model that rewards gambling syndromes and envy while masquerading it as playful patriotism. This is the logical terminus for desensitization: the integration of real resources with the desire to defeat a simulated enemy. All games have risen to become about war, but Activision’s paid patriots lead the charge against the uninitiated to pay for entry into their hierarchy of maladjusted hitmen.
Activision has delayed their microtransaction rewards system until this last week, and so now this worldly empowerment simulator can fully get to recruiting payers into its regiment. CoD: WWII creates nothing new, but embodies the combative envy, the spectating, the kill-seeking, the worst in games and in war. And it begins to prove how close these have become.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org