Legacy of Brutality

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #127. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.


Looking at the world and finding it confusing. 


I love to kill people with my friends.

A few times a week, we all get together, grab our guns and lay waste to anyone who dares step in front of us. There is no thought to this massacre. We just kill for killing’s sake. It’s something to do while we talk about work and what we had for dinner.

In our new quarantined life, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer has become my main source of social interaction. It’s one of the best ways my friends and I currently have to get a large group together to hang out while we can’t see each other in person. It also instantly gives us something to do – we play the game. But only kind of, as the game is the background to our conversations. The setting, the weapons, the reason we’re going through the multiplayer maps killing everyone we see doesn’t really matter. In fact, outside of particularly good plays or kills, we hardly even talk about what we’re doing in-game. Killing people in Modern Warfare is simply the catalyst that gets us together, a mundane task like going out for coffee or lunch that gives us a reason to talk and hang out.

That’s largely because, in the AAA space, violence in videogames doesn’t matter. It never has. It’s always been the action that fuels the game’s progression; micro-challenges that keep the brain engaged. And while some big-budget games pretend to be reflections on violence, or even *gasp* videogame violence, this is often shallow grandstanding. Yeah, I guess The Last of Us is a meditation on videogame violence, but also I can upgrade my guns to make me a more effective murderer. And sure, Kratos in God of War (2018) spends all of 10 seconds in a cut scene brooding about his violent past, as if this is truly a statement, but also he can rip the jaws off of enemies in spectacularly gory, meticulously crafted detail. And these things are fun! They have a good game feel. When you gamify violence in a way that is enjoyable to play, your statement is instantly undermined. Violence is bad, yes, I get it. Can I get back to killing now?

The violence in Modern Warfare definitely does not matter. Which is a wild thing to say, because the game is brutal. Load up a 10v10 match in the hyper-small Shipment map and all out chaos ensues. Bodies fly, heads blow up and blood sprays as if it was loaded into a Super Soaker. If you can patiently sneak up behind an enemy player without them noticing, you’re treated to a horribly gruesome execution, where your player does such things as curb stomp the opponent, sick a dog onto their jugular vein or shoot them at point-blank range. You can call in a FUCKING WHITE PHOSPHOROUS attack on your opponents. That’s a kill streak! Get 10 kills or some shit and you can commit an actual war crime by pressing left on the D-pad. Videogames, baby.

The best thing about Modern Warfare is the marriage of its brutality and its ambivalence to violence. Put simply, this game does not work if you think too much about it. This is especially true if you play its horrendous campaign. Like any game, I should be horrified by what I’m seeing on screen and troubled by what I’m willing to do to others. But I’m not. Because I need that violence right now.

In case you haven’t heard, everything currently sucks. Waking up in the morning is a Sisyphean task for the entire population of the United States. Simply bearing witness to the current state of, well, the world is enough to make you want to give up entirely. Goddammit, I’m owed a few hours a day of mindlessly murdering faceless enemies. It’s a brief catharsis from juggling my daily workload and the apocalypse outside my front door.

But I also need that violence because I miss my friends. Modern Warfare is a fun game, and it is cathartic to blow through a bunch of dudes without a second thought, but what makes me load it up is getting to talk to the boys. When the quarantine first started, we tried to do group FaceTimes but for whatever reason that never really stuck. It was hard to get us all to just sit there and talk. Which makes sense, you don’t always go hang out with someone without something to do first. Modern Warfare is something to do.

The game’s violence doesn’t matter, it requires no second thought from the player. It only asks you to engage with the violence, which is a simple task of aim and shoot. It takes more thought to take a piss than it does to kill 20 people in Modern Warfare. And that’s good! It shouldn’t be good, but it is good! It’s the most minimum requirement necessary to get me and my friends together, talking to each other and enjoying each other’s company. I miss my friends so much and I would kill to see them again. I do kill to talk to them.

There are a lot of conversations that the videogame industry needs to have about violence. Real conversations, not vapid ones like the ones in The Last of Us and God of War (2018)*. And oh boy, are there conversations we need to have about the Call of Duty series, its fetishization of the military, xenophobic narratives and cowardly apolitical stance on, well, everything. Now is not the time, though. Now is the time for the boys to drop in, kill some bad dudes and enjoy each other’s company over a nice cup of violence. Stay frosty.

*I feel it’s worth pointing out I am a big fan of both of these games – especially The Last of Us. But also, come on. These games have nothing real to say about violence, no matter how many times they try to tell me otherwise.


Blake Hester is a Kentucky-based writer focusing on the videogame industry. His work has appeared on Polygon, Vice and Rolling Stone. Keep up with him on Twitter @metallicaisrad

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