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Opinion: Why I can't go beyond the first 5 mins of Call of Duty: World At War

James Ransom-Wiley
James Ransom-Wiley|November 10, 2008 3:59 PM
world at war
I've been avoiding Call of Duty: World At War. Not because its developer, Treyarch, has yet to inspire me. Not because it's another World War II shooter. I've been avoiding World At War because the featured enemy is the Japanese Empire. Let me explain:

While not the first game to portray the Pacific-side of WWII, World At War is the most prominent. One could argue for Medal of Honor's pair of entries, but those came as the franchise was dwindling (not to mention, before and during Joystiq's infancy). World At War follows the overwhelming reception of Call of Duty 4 and benefits from a massive marketing campaign from its publisher, Activision. In short, it's in my face and on my mind.

This morning I watched the first five minutes of gameplay, which promised "disturbing" game content and historical footage (read: real-life executions). The video made my stomach bubble. My knees a little wobbly. My breath short, and my face hot. It made me think about my grandmother, who as a little girl was shipped with her family from their farm in California to an internment camp in Arizona. It made me think of her brother and brothers-in-law who were drafted into the United States military and fought, with pride, in the war in Europe. It reminded me of the shame I felt as a child when teased. An inheritance of lingering hatred.

I have a very personal problem with demonizing the Japanese. I don't feel that way about the Nazis. I draw a disconnect between Nazis and Germans as large as the divide between "alien" and human. The Nazis have been transformed into monsters, which does not need to be justified in my gaming. But the Japanese Empire that bombed Pearl Harbor and the Japanese today, even Japanese-Americans, are very much intertwined in my perception. Those people are connected for me -- a part of me -- and I see them in World at War.

I'm not calling for reparations, for a game "patch." I just want to share with you -- to start a dialogue. I don't think game developers should be forced to tiptoe around uncomfortable issues; or protect the feelings of a minority. But I think it's fair to judge a game based on its treatment of these factors. It's fair to say: This is how I'm feeling. And to ask: How about you?

I haven't been beyond those first five minutes of the game, and probably never will. I don't know what attempts Treyarch has made or not made to humanize the Japanese, or to tell the story of a Japanese-American whose family is locked away while he fights in Europe. I would hope for some contrast to the ruthless "fuckers" who use your fellow soldier's face as an ashtray and then slit his throat. I'm not looking to excuse the cruelty of the Japanese Empire, especially toward the Chinese and Koreans, but I would hope for parts of the experience to not be so black and white. A last level, perhaps, set on Monday, August 6, 1945. A view through the eyes of a civilian on the streets of Hiroshima at 8:15 am.

Author's note: It's not my intention to make a definitive statement about the validity of demonizing one group over another for the purpose of creating a video game "enemy." I did intend to highlight the unique contradiction between my experience "fighting" against Nazis in games and my hesitance to take on the Japanese in
World At War. How strange, indeed. What I'm wondering is: Have the Nazis transcended beyond historical reality into a mythical "beast" onto which we can safely project our aggression (à la an alien -- something not human)? What's the danger in that? (By the same token, what's the danger in, say, choosing to exclude the Bombing of Dresden from our WWII games?)

As games become more realistic, as they recreate history, what's their value to us? They're entertainment, sure, but when a developer takes on, for example, World War II, there's an expectation to get it right. Water it down? Of course not! But tell the truth. I think the Pearl Harbor attack and the subsequent mass internment of Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast complicates World At War, as do the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These issues should be addressed in the game -- and perhaps they are. Many games are, after all, stories that reflect our human experiences. And great games should be reflections of truth.

Similarly, yes, we should question the game's predecessor, Call of Duty 4. To what extent does it reinforce our stereotypes and fears concerning the very real issues of today? I didn't want this opinion piece to branch far beyond the visceral reaction I had to watching the opening minutes of
World At War, but that doesn't mean the discussion shouldn't do so. You can choose not to be a part of the discussion, or to lob some hateful remark into the comments (for which you will be banned), but it's my hope that there are readers out there who are interested in thinking and talking about how games make them feel -- who don't believe certain games should be taken lightly; that instead, games have the power to evoke deeply human experiences. So, please do so below.