When its developers, Infinity Ward, announced that Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare would take place (partially) in space, the reaction was kneejerk and exclamatory. With the second-most-disliked trailer on YouTube (over three million thumbs down at the time of writing), the decision to move the battle further into the future and into the depths of space was clearly risky. But as I get to see a press screening of the game, and am walked through how the game plays, moment to moment, and its basic story outline, I find it all refreshing. I don't mind the space battles, and I don't mind the ship-to-ship hopping. All I can think is: are we losing interest in a Middle Eastern theatre of war?
The story, as far as I can interpret it at this point, is an interesting "United Nations in Space" (the group is actually called the United Nations Space Alliance) yarn about class struggle and civil war. It puts the player in the role of a SATO (Solar Associated Treaty Organization) commander at the outset of a war between federations. Earth relies on resources from other planets and asteroids, and Kit Harington plays the lead villain, a member of the militant Settlement Defense Front. The SDF wishes to control these off-world resources, and launches an attack on Geneva at the outset of the game. Yes, this is a terroristic act on United Nations Space Alliance soil, but the struggle underpinning the explosions seems to be about world resources and the rights of workers.
Since the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007, most games in the series that take place in our current age and beyond have featured some aspect of Middle Eastern conflict. Modern Warfare features big set pieces in the region (including the detonation of a nuclear bomb in an unnamed Middle Eastern city), Modern Warfare 3 ends in a hotel in the Middle East, and Black Ops II, though it takes place in the future, involves key scenes in Yemen. But Infinite Warfare? That takes place in outer space, mostly. So are we finally, as pop culture consumers, moving away from the "Middle East as generic hostile territory" clichés? And if we're no longer worrying as much about the Middle East, what are we worrying about?
'Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare', "Ship Assault' gameplay trailer from E3 2016
To help answer these questions I spoke with Dr. Anna Froula, a professor of media studies at East Carolina University and author of Reframing 9/11: Film, Popular Culture and the "War on Terror". I wanted to know where we currently stood, culturally, in regards to 9/11, the War on Terror, and the Middle Eastern theatre of war.
"The trauma's over," explains Dr. Froula, "but the way that we're trying to tell stories now has a lot to do with surveillance. So, we're questioning the government. We're aware of how much information is out about us, but we are still participating in it. We're questioning how the surveillance policies are keeping us safe."
And as for traditional war stories, those have been dipping in popularity across other media for years. "The American public is pretty weary of them," says Dr. Froula, adding that one of the main reasons we're losing interest is because of detachment. "We now have a population of students who don't remember 9/11. I ask my freshmen every year what they remember of it, and it's less and less. They remember what their parents told them, they remember being in kindergarten. Our students are growing away from that. It's freaky because we've been at war for as long as they can remember, and they don't seem as plugged in to why."
But how did popular culture react to the War on Terror while it was fresh? "With post-9/11 entertainment we dug right in and tried to do a lot of stories about the war," says Dr. Froula. "But none of them were popular until The Hurt Locker and, especially now, American Sniper, which is this kind of opportunity to rewrite why we went to Iraq in the first place."
And how did the video game industry react? I spoke to Dr. Matthew Payne, a professor at Notre Dame and author of the recently released Playing War: Military Video Games After 9/11. "What we see in the post-9/11 moment is this response by cultural industries – film, TV, video games – to the traumatic wound of 9/11," says Dr. Payne. "[We see] all kinds of narratives, many of which are these dyed-in-the-wool, American frontiersman, masculine narratives. But then, around 2004 with the Battle of Fallujah and as the war in Iraq and Afghanistan started to take the toll on our fighting men and women, it becomes less tenable and a less politically sexy operation."
Dr. Payne explains that while we've witnessed film and TV moving away from traditional war stories, the opposite has been true for video games. "We see fewer and fewer combat films and TV shows," he tells me, "and yet at the same time we see an uptick in the number of video games. What might these video games be doing, in the realm of military entertainment, which other kinds of media don't necessarily do? For me, a lot of it has to do with this notion of play. The notion that we, as the gamer, can enter into that world and affect change in a way that you cannot in fixed media like film, television and novels."
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"As powerful cultural objects, video games don't just model how ballistics work, and how techniques like clearing a room work," says Dr. Payne, "but they also perpetuate a certain kind of mythology about nationalism, about masculinity, about belief in technology."
With that in mind, where are video games headed now? "What's interesting to me with games like Infinite Warfare or Black Ops III before it, is that we see ourselves moving away from the Middle Eastern theatre," he says. "So the question becomes: is this simply about fatigue? We can also say that maybe the American buying public has a hopefully more sophisticated idea of who Middle Easterners are. So you can't simply trade in two-dimensional Middle Eastern villains in the way that might have been more immediately palatable after 9/11. You begin to see other types of crises. We see environmental crises, and we see in Advanced Warfare a concern with drone warfare."
No matter the problems of the world, wartime video games will tap into them. Dr. Payne describes them to me as "a barometer of the 'terror du jour'", a compelling thought. "War games are these vessels that continue to allow us to engage a series of questions about what we as consumers of military entertainment are anxious about," he says. "So it might move from, 'Yes we're afraid of Middle Eastern populations or Jihadi groups', onto environmental crises, or economic crises, or resource management." And if that takes the play into orbit and beyond, so be it.
If we're past the point of fresh trauma that was 9/11 and the War on Terror, but we're still buying up plenty of wartime video games, then where is the genre headed?
"The games will continue to reflect a whole host of cultural anxieties," says Dr. Payne. "From who or what is a terrorist, to when is it okay, if ever, to use torture to extract information, to when is it okay to fire upon non-combatants in those most awful situations." Dr. Froula thinks, as far as general pop culture is concerned, that it's all about diffusion of fears these days: "I can see the stories becoming more diffused. And our wars are more diffused. We're in Africa, we're in Syria, we're fighting all over the place and it's very loosely tied to the Overseas Contingency Operations. Are we going to see an uptick in nationalism, or white supremacy? And is that going to filter into our storytelling?" A chilling thought, but certainly one worth pursuing.
"I'm not sure where the industry is headed," Dr. Payne concludes. "But if they make games that connect, they're going to do so because of the fears that we have, whether we realise them or not."
While a new Call of Duty in space may raise the hackles of plenty of internet down-voters, the real test will is simple: will it sell? Are we truly finished with games that tell us the baddie is a dark-skinned man in the desert? Are we really past the trauma of 9/11? And if so, what are we going to be afraid of next?
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is released for Windows, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 on November the 4th, 2016.