Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 and the Utopia of the Museum

As in the first Modern Warfare game Infinity Ward’s latest FPS delivers a fine range of military aesthetics, the sounds sights and movements of shooting over distances and using the environment as a palette for lethal human interaction. As in all of the Call of Duty games, death is accompanied by a quote or saw or epigram from various historical military, political and cultural leaders. If I remember rightly, the first game offered us Churchill, Patton and Twain; this one has some surprising, and probably ironic, contributions from Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney as well as Goethe. Completing the game brings the player to a credit sequence which is extraordinary in terms of the claims it seems to be making about how military experience might be historicised. This is in the back of a very ordinary plot that involves a typical betrayal of the US military by its leaders (for at least the past forty years this betrayal by authority has been a narrative motif that marks many narratives – especially games narratives – as if the history of the US in combat can only be told through the idea of deceit), where the key patriarchal figure, a British SAS commander called Captain Price, reminds the player that winners get to write history and in doing so can erase the contributions and sacrifices of all others. So far so typical. But the end credits are staged in a museum where the dioramas and exhibits – human characters and weapons set against painted environments that we have encountered during the game – are not rendered as ontologically or realistically different from the public who wander in front of them. On the one had we see that the idea is that, in winning the game, our history gets to be recorded and exhibited in triumph (although there is friction here between this triumph and the seeming indifference of some of the public who walk past or access the internet nearby). On the other perhaps this is a utopia where the brutal and cruel ways of combat are merely for the delight of the senses, as the gamer, having just finished the game can surely attest to. Far from celebratory this might point to the essential childishness of warfare, as a kind of spectacle that we can now safely exhibit, like the dinosaurs and Neanderthals from the past. But in doing so it raises an issue about the living and the dead, about what Adorno and Horkheimer describe as ‘the extirpation of animism’ caused by the ‘disenchantment of the world’, and here seemingly a confusion – because the game mechanics do not distinguish between a mechanical rendering of the ‘exhibits’ and the real visitors of the museum – between alive and non-alive. That, then, counters the utopian moment: this is a game that reeks of death, one that celebrates, in its visual motifs and stylistic animations, the moments of death, the extinguishing of life, and that is caught between a yearning for history and permanence and a desire for total and complete annihilation.

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