Contains Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 spoilers. Read it anyway, since MW2’s been out for years.
Today’s the 4th of July, a day which, to most people on the planet, doesn’t mean a whole lot. But here in the US we celebrate Independence Day, a time for fireworks, family, and…freedom. And fireworks. So many fireworks. Since it’s the Fourth, I’d love to make some connections between life and games based on the Revolutionary War, but there really aren’t many games based on that period of American history (and I don’t want to get started on an Assassin’s Creed III rant)…so let’s talk about something a little broader.
We gamers are familiar with war…or, at least, the idea of war. The military first-person shooter, typified by the Counter-Strike, Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises entertain millions with simulated explosions, virtual models of real weapons, and generally paper-thin single-player campaigns that entertain, but don’t do much to educate. But every-so-often gaming presents us an opportunity to learn, grow from virtual war games. Even though I’d heard rumor of the airport scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, I wasn’t prepared to unload round after round of machine gun fire on an airport full of unarmed civilians. Though I’d played hours-upon-hours of CoD, killed hundreds, maybe thousands of virtual enemy combatants, I still remember the feeling in my chest, the lump in my throat as I watched the terrorists I traveled with mow down innocent men, women. Children.
Years later, even after playing plenty more war games (newer CoDs included), that’s still my most visceral Call of Duty moment.
Then there’s Spec Ops: The Line, a highly-underrated third-person shooter about the ugliness and brutality of war. Playing as Captain Martin Walker, leading his two squad members through the worst dust storm to ever hit Dubai, I made decisions that shaped lives. Ended lives. I remember talking with Walt Williams, the lead writer For Spec Ops: The Line at E3 2012, and he told me that he wanted people to really think about the actions they take in games, to question whether or not Walker is a “good person” at the end of the game, what a “good person” is, and whether we are “good people” by extension. There’s no right or wrong answer there, just an opportunity for question. That game left plenty of memories in my head.
My most recent war-game is Ubisoft Montpellier’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War, a tale of five people whose paths cross during World War I (more commonly known as The Great War back then). More than any other game, this one resonated with me, even without 3D graphics or a AAA budget. Starting as Emile, a French farmer drafted into the war, Valiant Hearts hops from serious and downtrodden to comedic to happy and hopeful fluidly, somewhat just like life does. Whether playing as Freddy, the gruff American seeking battlefield revenge, Anna, the battlefield angel saving lives and trying to rescue her father, or Karl, the German soldier (and Emile’s son-in-law) trying to get home to his wife and child, the stories feel relevant, relatable even. Perhaps that’s why the game’s ending feels so deep: because it feels less like it’s trying to send a message and more like it’s delivering an experience, one that teaches the value of family and friendship, that what we love is worth fighting for, and, unfortunately, sometimes we have to.
We have a few federal holidays based on the military here in the US: 4th of July, Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, as well as other days where we reflect on military action: Flag Day, the Bombing of Pearl Harbor, D-Day…most recently, 9/11. The effects of war weave their way through the American tradition as well as the rest of human history because, though some may think otherwise, there is a value to human life, to love, to family, to friendship that transcends our need to prove ourselves right through bloodshed. We don’t memorialize these dates of war to glorify acts of war, but instead to remind ourselves of the costs paid in blood, sweat, tears, and time by family, friends, and allies long since passed. For me, games like Spec Ops: The Line, Valiant Hearts, and yes, even Call of Duty serve as reminders of those traits which make countries great: sacrifice, dedication, and love. Games show us how great the world can be when we have those things, and how terrible it can be when we don’t.
So I say, regardless of whether or not you decide to celebrate the USA’s Independence Day today, take some time to remember what makes us all great regardless of where we live, what we look like, or what we believe. Hang out with a friend, eat with a family member, or maybe play some rounds of League of Legends with old buddies. And thank someone in the service.