Wednesday, September 8, 2010

We Can Play War; We Just Can’t Find Iraq On A Map

ramadi_2_f Last week, President Barack Obama sat in the Oval Office to announce the formal end of Operation: Iraqi Freedom, a seven-year war that claimed the lives of 4,416 American soldiers and countless thousands of Iraqi civilians. As he spoke, I wondered: how many people were playing Call of Duty right now?

Likely hundreds of thousands– its swift and colossal sales quickly made it the biggest entertainment event in history. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 isn’t radically different from the many shooters before it. Players run, duck, and shoot the bad guys.

But in parts of Modern Warfare 2, they’re running, ducking and shooting through Afghanistan, and the bad guys are insurgents. Then the gamers, many of whom are eligible partake in real combat, take the fight online, playing soldiers vs. guerrillas with picture-perfect firearms, realistic down to the last bolt.

Meanwhile, thousands of their peers are living modern warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have been since the United States launched the inscrutably named war on terror in 2001.

Games like Modern Warfare aren’t inherently immoral, nor are those who play them (I own both). But their success illustrates an unsettling disconnect in the American psyche: we love playing war, but when it comes to knowing anything about it, we’re clueless.

The generation currently fighting the United States’ battles was raised on videogames. I remember playing Ghost Recon with my best friend, Marine Lance Cpl. Chad Clifton, shortly after the invasion of Iraq. Reporters were rolling through the desert on the backs of tanks, live footage playing in the next room, but Chad was more concerned with which rifles could penetrate which kinds of cover. He played with a hand-drawn chart before him at all times.

Games like Ghost Recon and Modern Warfare sell themselves on a certain breed of realism: you can only carry two weapons, and a few shots will kill you dead. It’s a gritty and ruthless style of play. Chad loved it; Modern Warfare is the choice game of many marines I know.

If sales figures are any indication, the franchise totally dominates the market: Modern Warfare 2 sold more than 7 million copies on its first day. In January, publisher Activision announced the game had banked $1 billion.

That’s far fewer than the reported 29.2 million who watched Obama’s Iraq speech – but the president only spoke for 20 minutes. Modern Warfare 2’s campaign lasts five to six hours, with some players pouring dozens more into the competitive online facet. And it cost $60 – more, if you buy the Xbox Live subscription required for multiplayer.

Also worth noting: Fewer people watched the Iraq address than some of 2010’s other big speeches. According to Nielsen Media Research, the President’s State of the Union address drew 48 million viewers; his December speech on Afghanistan drew 40.8 million; his June speech on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill drew 32.1 million.

In March 2008, shortly after Modern Warfare 2’s predecessor was published, the Pew Research Center said only 28 percent of Americans knew how many soldiers had died in Iraq. This was a sharp decline from August 2007, when 54 percent could correctly identify the approximate number of fatalities. What happened?

The troop surge started working. When I was playing the first Modern Warfare in November 2007, cautiously optimistic reports were trickling home from Gen. David Petraeus and his commanders in Iraq: attacks against U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians were on the decline. Anbar Province, formerly known as “The Triangle of Death,” was purging itself of al Qaeda insurgents.

Within five months, it seems the majority of Americans convinced themselves we’d won the Iraq War. They stopped paying attention; the economy was taking a turn for the worse, the collective bottom line was threatened and all eyes turned to domestic issues.

But we hadn’t won; nearly 500 soldiers had yet to die. And with roughly 50,000 troops remaining in-country as part of Operation: New Dawn, many more might yet breathe their last fighting for the freedom of the Iraqi people – which, Obama said last week, is now in their own hands.

Never mind that the presently-nonexistent government can barely manage to keep the lights on.
The stakes are too high, the situation too dire for so few Americans to have any clue what’s going on. Watching Modern Warfare swell in popularity, I can’t help but cringe – I loved the campaign, but I can also point out Baghdad on a map. I can find Ar Ramadi, too, the capital of the Triangle of Death. Chad died there. He never lived to see Modern Warfare, or Modern Warfare 2, or the upcoming Medal of Honor, which will be banned from sale on military bases because it lets gamers play as Taliban fighters in multiplayer.

If gamers invade a surrogate Iraq as they can in Modern Warfare, they too should be able to find the real one on a map. Yet a 2006 survey showed most couldn’t.

This isn’t the game’s fault; it’s a piece of entertainment, and it excels as such. But there’s something wrong about a service-eligible gamer who can line up headshots on his Xbox but can’t pick Petraeus out of a lineup.