I've worked with Motherboard senior writer Joseph Cox for roughly five years. Up until last week, I thought of him as probably the most reserved person on our team. I spend way more time than I should on Slack joking around and sharing terrible tweets with most of my coworkers, but with Joe it is relatively business-like. He files, I edit, we talk through any problems, and post. He uses one word replies like "sure," "yes," and has been known to respond to jokes with a single "ha."
You think you know your coworker, but then you see them fall from the sky at terminal velocity while firing a submachine gun at a common enemy, not because it's necessarily a wise strategy, but because Joe is just apparently wild like that. Such is the magic of Call of Duty Warzone, a free, "battle royale" game that is playing a surprisingly important role in my life during a crisis and teaching me things I never knew about my friends and coworkers.
On March 9, VICE sent us to work from home because of the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, I've not left the house other than to walk my dog and occasionally go to the grocery store. I have not meaningfully interacted with another human being who isn't my wife in the same space for over a month. I am grateful to so far have the ability to weather this crisis from the comfort of my home, relying on the dangerous labor of essential workers less lucky than myself, but like most people in my position, my screws are starting to come loose.
Millions of people around the globe are in the same boat, and many of them have turned to video games for comfort and connection. There's a measurable surge in the number of people who are playing video games online.
During the second week of working from home, people who I don't usually talk about video games with asked me what game they should get into now that they are stuck at home and desperate for distraction.
Many takes have been taken about Animal Crossing as an escape, but to me Call of Duty: Warzone was the obvious answer. It's:
- A hugely popular franchise for more than a decade, meaning a lot of people have at least some experience with it or an idea what it's about.
- Free, so has a very low barrier to entry. Games are expensive!
- Available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
- Most importantly, it's platform agnostic, meaning you can play with your friends even if none of you own the same console or a PC. As long as you can play the game, you can easily join a group of friends no matter what platform they're on.
That last point is a fairly new development in the video game industry, and one I suspect we'll look back on as more revolutionary than is currently recognized. Until recently, platforms gated their communities in an effort to lock people into their ecosystems and hit a critical mass that makes them the platform of choice. If most Call of Duty players are playing on PlayStation 4, the thinking goes, more people will buy PlayStation 4s since they want to play with their friends.
Thankfully, this has started to change with hugely popular, cross-platform games like Rocket League and more notably Fortnite, which is far more popular than any single platform. Call of Duty cross-play works very well, and came around right as the world went into hiding, so it has become a fixture in my circle, and incredibly popular worldwide, with more than 50 million players a month after launching.
In addition to the technological and business infrastructure that allows everyone to play together, Warzone is also a great game to play with a group because of its structure.
To start, its ruthless, zero-sum game rules paradoxically make winning the only point to play and at the same time not matter at all. Like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and Fortnite, 100 people (150 in Warzone's case) parachute onto a giant map with a slowly shrinking play area, and the last player or team standing wins. Whereas most multiplayer shooters—and Call of Duty's traditional multiplayer modes chief among them—end with a scoreboard showing who got the most kills or points, Warzone results are much easier to read. If you died, you lost. If you're the only person not to die, you won.
The chances for the average player to outlive 149 other players are very low, though every novice Warzone player eventually comes to the same misleading conclusion: You don't have to defeat 149 other players. Technically, you can get away with only defeating one of them, when everyone but you and another player have already killed each other. This, of course, is much easier said than done since it becomes nearly impossible to hide from other players, and the players who survive are usually more skilled and better equipped.
A big part of the fun is coming up with strategies like this, even if you never win. It's the goal, of course, but the reward is not in winning. It's in experimenting with these different strategies and seeing them succeed or fail. While a few people in our group have won, we have yet to win as a group. But not winning a match doesn't mean that a match isn't filled with small victories: successfully flanking an enemy group, reviving a friend, and speeding away in a jeep less than a second before the deadly gas which shrinks the play area engulfs our group.
I may never win a match, but I'll still never forget the time when we were on top of a lumber mill, locked in a sniping match with a group on a nearby hill, when I decided to take a radical measure: parachute off the roof, jump in a car, and run over the pesky sniper across the way. It sort of worked in that we survived the encounter and got to play a little more before we died. But it was definitely a hilarious and exciting moment that I got to share with friends.
I am definitely not very good at Warzone, but if I contribute anything to my team it's probably that kind of… creative problem solving. It's been interesting and hugely rewarding to see what other friends and coworkers bring to the table. Whereas sudden and direct engagements often frazzle me to the point where my aim is useless, Joe, as I've alluded to, doesn't shy away from a gun fight. One of our former coworkers we play with often, who is far more into games than any of us realized, understands the meta best, and keeps us informed of current best practices when it comes to weapons in the game and how to acquire and spend the in-game currency.
Ironically, Warzone's rigid structure and the fact that it demands so much attention has resulted in the most natural virtual socializing I've experienced in the pandemic. Like others, I've tried various Zoom and other video conference social events. I find them awkward and hard to socially navigate. I don't know when to jump in and when to just sit back and listen, and the conversation sadly turns to the pandemic over and over again. They are futile attempts to replace a type of connection we're not likely to get back in months at least.
But by focusing on the singular purpose of playing Warzone, people relax and become themselves. There is blessedly little time for small talk about the virus, and we're not trying to pretend that everything is normal. We're running from deadly gas, checking corners as we storm and clear buildings, and taking wildly dangerous helicopter rides. Once in a while, while a group of us are hold up in a secluded house, tensely waiting for the inevitable attack, I can hear friend's dog barking in the background, or discussing with their partner what they're going to have for dinner—glimpses at normal, mundane life that feels so precious now. We're just being together, and that feels good.
Regardless of what each player brings to the table, Warzone allows us to cooperate and communicate. I've spent years solving problems with most of the people I play with, professionally. We come into work, we often face tasks that seem impossible, but somehow find solutions.
We're still doing that today, but it feels like so much of the current predicament is out of our control. A big part of video games' appeal has always been this illusion and sensation of control. Power fantasies, which so many games like Call of Duty are obsessed with delivering to players, are really just a way of making people feel like they have more control than is realistic.
There's not much I can do about Covid-19, which has crashed into our lives like an asteroid. But when I'm playing Warzone I can at least take pleasure in fighting against the odds with my friends.