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War Games

The company behind Call of Duty reaps its own bitter fruits

In 1994, Blizzard Entertainment published Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, a real-time strategy game set in the Tolkien-ish world of Azeroth. Players oversee their kingdom from a God’s-eye-view, building up little hamlets using resources taken from the land. You click on a peasant and then a tree, and he goes to the tree and cuts wood. With this wood you might build a barracks, in which, assuming you have the necessary food supply, you might train some footmen. They function much like peasants: click on them and then an enemy, and they will go to the enemy and attack.

An introductory voice-over tells players that the humans of Azeroth have made their kingdom a prosperous “paradise,” where knights roam far and wide, “serving the King’s people with honor and justice.” That is, until the arrival of the Orcish hordes: “No one knew where these creatures came from, and none were prepared for the terror that they spawned . . . Unimagined were the destructive powers of their evil magiks, derived from the fires of the underworld.”

What to do with these green, ghoulish savages? If the kingdom of Azeroth is to remain unsullied, there can be only one answer: war. And this is where the game begins. “With an ingenious arsenal of weaponry and powerful magic, these two forces collide in a contest of cunning, intellect and brute strength with the victor claiming dominance over the whole of Azeroth. Welcome to the World of Warcraft.”

Warcraft set the stage for Blizzard to become one of the video game industry’s most successful and well-trusted developers. Over the coming years, they published StarCraft and Diablo, two other mainstays in the company’s cherished oeuvre. The former title pits humans against aliens; the latter, humans against demons. Characters from all three series now do battle in Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm. The prophesied World of Warcraft would become a reality in 2004, launching the most successful massively multiplayer online role-playing game of all time, its total earnings surpassing $10 billion. The game still maintains an active player base of a few million.

In 2008, Blizzard merged with Activision, a company that was recovering from a debt crisis by buying up various video game studios and intellectual properties. To this marriage Activision brought the coveted dowry of Call of Duty, which stands today as the third best-selling video game franchise of all time (in the company of Pokémon and Mario). The newly founded Activision Blizzard—now included in the S&P 500—would be headed by CEO Bobby Kotick, who, along with a group of investors, was responsible for rescuing Activision all those years ago. In his time at the company, Kotick has reported a cool half-billion dollars in earnings, with a salary of $155 million this year alone.

Most gamers associate the merger with the beginning of the end for Blizzard, an explanation for the steady decline in the quality of their games. World of Warcraft expansions are increasingly poorly received, as are sequels and offshoots of the company’s foundational trifecta. When it was announced at BlizzCon in 2018 as the occasion’s “big reveal” that the company would be launching a mobile version of Diablo, one fan approached the microphone to ask: “Is this an out-of-season April Fool’s joke?”

How does a former National Security Advisor end up in the kingdom of Azeroth?

But the most recent of Blizzard’s scandals has nothing to do with the quality of their video games. After a two-year investigation, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing concluded that Activision Blizzard has fostered a “frat boy” culture, where male employees openly joke about rape and sexually harass women. In a lawsuit filed in July of this year, the state department describes the company as a “breeding ground for harassment and discrimination against women,” where female employees are routinely paid less than their male counterparts. The lawsuit also draws attention to a case in which a female employee died by suicide after having a sexual relationship with her male supervisor. Male colleagues allegedly shared explicit photographs of the woman before her death.

Thankfully, a business worth almost $70 billion is well-prepared for moments like these. Activision Blizzard swiftly released a statement calling the allegations “distorted” and “false,” claiming that the DFEH had “rushed to file an inaccurate complaint.” The statement continues: “It is this type of irresponsible behavior from unaccountable State bureaucrats that are driving many of the State’s best businesses out of California.”

Similar language was used in an internal email sent by senior executive Frances Townsend, who began her message with, “As the Executive Sponsor of the ABK Employee Women’s Network,” before dismissing the testimony of those women as “untrue.” Townsend would step down from her role at the Women’s Network a few days later. A savvier public relations machine might have deployed Townsend’s womanhood even more cynically—something like, “This girlboss has to bear the brunt of bad boys’ behavior YET AGAIN!” accompanied by the eye-rolling emoji.

The Blizzard scandal should’ve been something of a softball for Townsend, whose previous job saw her dismissing allegations of war crimes on behalf of the United States government. If you recall, Townsend was the third of four Homeland Security Advisors during the George W. Bush administration. She was in the position when the Abu Ghraib revelations came to light and had visited the prison around the time that the worst human rights abuses were alleged to have occurred: prisoners force-fed pork and alcohol, stripped naked, sodomized, smeared with human feces, or, in one instance, hung from their wrists until death.

Townsend claimed at the time that the United States “does not torture.” (We instead use “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.”) She has since distanced herself from the episode, claiming that she was out of the loop or only vaguely aware of the human rights abuses. And yet, in a report from the Washington Post, Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan, who ran the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center at Abu Ghraib, claimed that Townsend’s visit to the prison “was among the pressures he felt to intensify intelligence-gathering efforts.” This seems likely, given that Townsend admitted torture was sometimes a fruitful endeavor, stating in a 2010 interview: “Think what you will about the morality and legality of the enhanced interrogations program, but we were certainly getting information that painted a picture of al-Qaeda that we didn’t otherwise have at that time.”

So how does a former National Security Advisor end up in the kingdom of Azeroth? Strangely enough, Townsend isn’t the only ex-Republican official at the company. Among the current leadership team at Activision Blizzard are Chief Administrative Officer Brian Bulatao and Chief Legal Officer Grant Dixton. Bulatao, who joined the company in March this year, same as Townsend, previously worked in the Trump administration and before that was the CIA’s Chief Operating Officer under Mike Pompeo. Dixton worked as Bush’s associate counsel, essentially providing the legal underpinnings for whatever Townsend wanted as NSA, be that greater overseas surveillance or the legal authorization for torture. Post-White House, he worked for the Boeing Company before following his true passion, gaming, at Activision Blizzard in June.

Even the law firm brought in by the company for an internal review, WilmerHale, has suspect connections to the U.S. intelligence community (it also happens to be the former employer of World of Warcraft Director Ion Hazzikostas). As WilmerHale’s website proudly boasts, its lawyers have previously held appointments in the CIA and Department of Defense, among other departments charged with maintaining national security—including those which, as Edward Snowden leaked in 2013, attempted to infiltrate World of Warcraft with rogues of their own.

What’s in a name? “Warcraft,” a word which implies both killing and creativity, makes good on its description of war as a “contest of cunning,” a kind of sporting endeavor where one team wins and the other loses. The overhead perspective of real-time strategy games like Warcraft represents a natural progression from their Dungeons & Dragons forebearers. It also recalls the military planning of old—men gathered around a sprawling table-top map with battalions represented as chess pieces. They toss away human lives as if playing shuffleboard, scooting their footmen forward into the fray. There will be casualties, of course, but strategically, it’s the winning move.

I imagine that Townsend and her ilk have often viewed the Middle East in this same way. They have likely been privy to satellite cartography precise to the pixel, where the soldiers (and civilians) below are necessarily digitized and thus detached from their humanity. It is not so strange, then, that these war hawks have applied their expertise to the video game sector, which has become increasingly tethered to the military industrial complex over the past few decades. An estimated 90 percent of the 75,000 men and women who join the U.S. Army each year identify as “casual” gamers, while 30 percent label themselves “hardcore.” These recruits are so familiar with the contours of a PlayStation controller that the military has even mimicked its setup for their remote-controlled surveillance vehicle “Dragon Runner.”

Naturally, then, the U.S. military goes looking for potential soldiers in the gaming world. In a recent essay for The Drift, Daniel Bessner notes that the Department of Defense was keeping an eye on gamers as early as 1962—perhaps recognizing, in the setup of a joystick and CRT television, something resembling a fighter jet cockpit. A 2020 Navy recruitment “Guide for Streamers” claims that “Gamers utilize skills every day while they compete . . . These are the same skill sets used in the fields in nuclear engineering, aviation, special warfare, cryptology, and counter-intelligence.” It might be simpler to say that if you offered someone well-versed in Microsoft Flight Simulator a button that fires an AGM-114 Hellfire II air-to-ground missile at the enemy, then they would make a perfectly capable drone pilot. All you’d have to do is convince them that they’re playing a video game.

Then again, it may not take so much convincing when games like Call of Duty exist. Its 2010 iteration, Call of Duty: Black Ops, featured an ad campaign in which “civilians”—mostly men and women dressed in business attire, but the commercial also included Kobe Bryant and Jimmy Kimmel—do battle in a bombed-out cityscape, a real-world rendering of your typical first-person shooter deathmatch. As it ends, a comically dressed line cook goes guns akimbo with two pistols, spraying bullets in either direction. Under this image comes the ad’s tagline: “There’s a soldier in all of us.”

In form and function, games like Call of Duty argue for the necessity of permawar and an interventionist Western military.

In 2019’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, there’s a campaign level called “The Wolf’s Den.” Players are dropped into an isolated compound by helicopter and must strategically infiltrate the facility to assassinate the eponymous Wolf. The level is set in the fictional “Urzikstan” where you do battle against the fictional “Al-Qatala,” but the mission is an obvious retelling of the Osama Bin Laden assassination—famously aestheticized some years earlier by Kathryn Bigelow in Zero Dark Thirty, which applied the same first-person night-vision perspective on display in the game. Like the film, Call of Duty’s decision to include this mission partakes in the Frances Townsend school of ideology: torture leads to intelligence which leads to successful assassinations which make the world a safer place. (Say what you will about the War on Terror, but never forget: “We got him.”)

Video games themselves are sites of militarization, where our obscene monetary investments in killing technologies are made fun. You may never have the opportunity to deploy a nuclear weapon in your day-to-day life, but if you go on a twenty-man killstreak in Call of Duty, you can drop a tactical nuke and wipe out the entire enemy team. And it feels so good! Every nuke, knife, frag, and headshot results in a quick hit of dopamine—something true of most video game mechanics: solve puzzle, receive reward. But here, in the context of a realist military FPS, that brief, chemical joy comes at the cost of a naturalized War of Terror. It’s also easy advertising for the makers of those real-life weapons—the military contractors who reap in billions and often “consult” on the weapons used in Call of Duty games. In form and function, games like Call of Duty—and Counter Strike and Medal of Honor and Rainbow Six and so on—argue for the necessity of permawar and an interventionist Western military, highly specialized and more-highly funded, that can drop-in at any moment to swiftly and consummately do away with the myriad Al-Qatalas that exist in our world.

These games, their narratives, and their utterly logical killing mechanisms are necessary because the real-world equivalent is anything but. They make sense of a military illogic through facsimile and the rigid rules and procedures of video games. (In most games you can’t kill players on your own team, for example, a basic example of how military politics override reality in the game-world.) Some believe this to be a good thing, where war functions as a kind of pharmakon—both poison and cure. One example can be found in Harun Farocki’s video installation, Immersion (2009), where ex-soldiers are therapized by game-versions of their own traumatic experiences. A more general example might be that military shooters like Call of Duty “re-inscribe 9/11’s cultural memory into their ludic wars . . . to give players hope that these re-imagined 9/11s can have different outcomes than their horrific ur-text,” according to media theorist Peter Mantello. This style of game, he argues, which rose to prominence after the towers fell, functions as a “cathartic instrument to guard against the kind of traumatic immediacy America experienced as a result of 9/11 by allowing gamers to leverage the chaos and uncertainty of future threats through the coherent and stable world of algorithmic game play.”

The most potent antidote for immediacy lies in the destruction of time itself—manifested in the game world as the ability to undo death. “Respawning” is another of those standard video game mechanics that operates more insidiously in a military context: propagating the myth that all soldiers—ours and theirs—are fitted with a Lazarus gene. (One of Call of Duty’s great joys is letting a dead person know you killed them through voice chat; or walking atop their digital corpse and mashing the “crouch” key to mimic the effect of “tea bagging”—an act of desecration that finds a parallel in the U.S. soldiers who were caught pissing on the corpses of their victims.) Necromancy is the fundamental magic that allows the military FPS to function. Bodies are made upright at the end of each round as a means of reforging war’s zero-sum game into a ludic feedback loop of live, die, repeat.

We attempt something similar in the real world, too, trying our best to do away with human soldiers in favor of an emblemized alternative. Our glorious dead are wrapped in the American flag as a means of camouflage, their personhood covered over by this all-subsuming symbol. Through a strict adherence to remembrance and meticulous ceremony, soldiers are ideologically reanimated so as to justify further recruitment, killing, dying, and so on—a military merry-go-round run on narrative, not soldiers. Veterans are a punctum to this process, frustratingly material.

While the war in Azeroth still rages, one of the biggest problems Warcraft writers face today is in the creation of new and compelling villains. War is much simpler when it’s just Orcs and humans, when you know that Goldshire is good and The Black Morass is bad.

Orcs have always been a functionary for Otherness—stand-ins for whatever “savage” enemies the soldiers of paradise encounter. They’re simple and silly, with names like Gorfax Angerfang; their magic is bound to nature, conjured through primitive rituals. And when you kill them, you don’t feel so bad, because they’re green and therefore not real. Over time, however, Warcraft has come to recognize the Orcs as a more morally-sound set of “good guys,” moving in step with a culture that has become increasingly conscious of colonialism and its consequences.

War is much simpler when it’s just Orcs and humans, when you know that Goldshire is good and The Black Morass is bad.

Military shooters have done the opposite, working instead to replace the symbol with its referent, making Orcs, demons, and monsters somewhat redundant. In just two short decades, the Middle Eastern man has succeeded these barbaric creatures as the obvious and innate enemy, a substitution made possible by the relentless propaganda of the U.S. military’s unending colonial project. (When Bin Laden was slain the call to home base came: “For God and country—Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.”)

The interchangeability of American enemies is also a part of war’s most imperative ideological conceit: dehumanization—something propagated prior to, during, and after invasion. In the intermingling of war and games, this culture of dehumanization has passed from the former to the latter, metastasizing in the realm of the military shooter, where heinous war crimes like “rape” are euphemistic lingo for being “thoroughly outplayed.” Perhaps the most famous example of this culture occurred during a live-streamed game of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, where Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg lashed out at his opponent with the n-word. The Call of Duty community, in particular, has a notorious racism problem—so much so that TikTok user @silksheets has produced “slur speedruns” for the game, where he enters a lobby and deploys strategies like saying “Black Lives Matter” to see how quickly he can be called the “gamer word,” a synonym for the slur used by PewDiePie.

Would such vitriol exist if video games still focused on fitting shapes in a row, or frogs crossing roads, or tiny Italian men running right? It’s possible—I’ve certainly said some pretty aggressive things playing Mario Kart.

But for all those “gamers” who want not to be associated with that label, it doesn’t bode well to see ghouls like Frances Townsend move so seamlessly from the Middle East to Azeroth—where the two constants from Abu Ghraib to Activision Blizzard are her and sexual violence. While Townsend is a fairly new addition to the company, her inclusion, along with Bulatao, Dixton, and Hazzikostas, points to the increasing advancement of the right-wing in our culture war’s virtual battleground.