Reflecting on Modern Warfare 2’s Airport Massacre
I’ve killed civilians in games before. I’ve killed thousands of them.
I’ve run over pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto, I’ve blown up shoppers in State of Emergency, I’ve hunted farmers in Age of Empires. But none of that compares to what I experienced physically and emotionally in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
I’ll set the scene for you. You’re an Army Rangers officer who has gone undercover with an extremist cell lead by a man named Makarov, famous for arms dealing, human trafficking and terrorism all across the globe.
The mission opens and is black for about twenty seconds. You hear gear shuffling, guns clicking, people muttering in Russian. The lights turn on and you see that you’re in an elevator with a half dozen other men, all wearing bullet proof vests and armed to the teeth. Next to you is Makarov, who tells you “No Russian” as the doors open.
You walk out into the security gate at an airport, with lines full of people swarming to get through to their flights. I cocked my head while playing, as did all the civilians who turned to stare at us, and before I knew what was happening, Makarov and his men opened fire.
My jaw hit the floor as I watched them mow down about thirty people in under five seconds. But then the level actually begins, and it’s one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever taken part in.
The game forces you to walk at a snail’s pace through the airport, so you get the full effect of what’s happening. All around you, fleeing civilians are being mowed down by Makarov’s team, and you witness some crawling away trying to hide, and some sitting up against walls, nursing their wounds.
Now, you have the option to shoot the civilians if you want, but my entire first playthrough, I couldn’t even bring myself to, I was too much in shock. The only time I actually started firing was when the SWAT teams started showing up, and it started feeling like an actual video game again, rather than a snuff film.
The entire time the scene was unfolding, I was just thinking in my head “This is the Mumbai Massacre, I am playing the Mumbai Massacre.” I’ve since played the scene a few times, just to see the reaction from my friends, which was always the same as mine. And once you start shooting helpless civs yourself, the experience gets even more profound.
Here’s a video of the whole ordeal in case my words aren’t painting a good enough picture. This player opted to participate in the slaughter.
The scene isn’t in the game to teach any sort of lesson, and served to get the game banned in Russia. It doesn’t really make logical sense to begin with (when you embed an agent with a terrorist cell, shouldn’t you report in and tip off your handlers BEFORE you actually commit mass murder?) and the aftermath is even less cohesive (Russia blames the US for the attack so they invade us like it’s Red Dawn). So why then put it in the game?
Because they could.
There are games that go for shock value alone, but they have the unfortunate side effect of being generally shitty. Call of Duty on the other hand, knew that they had created one of the most cinematic game play experiences of all time, so when THEY put in a shocking scene, it’s really going to hit home.
And even after 18 years of video game playing, this was like nothing I’d ever experienced in a game. It’s the first time in history I can remember feeling BAD about killing people in a game. Titles like Grand Theft Auto and State of Emergency have you kill civilians like they’re gnats, as the world you’re living in doesn’t feel real in any sense. Call of Duty on the other hand, put the gun in your hand, makes you look through your eyes and makes the injured victims crawl right in front of your barrel. It’s tragic, and horrifying, and hypnotizing all at the same time.
It’s so realistic that to me, it’s more of a deterrent to real-world violence than anything I’ve played before. I’ve always made the argument that playing violent games does not make you violent (except when you lose), and I stand by that. However, this is the first time I’ve played a game that actually has the opposite effect. Using violence to shock the player into thinking twice about what they’re actually doing. Forcing them to witness something so close to reality, an emotional reaction can’t be avoided.
So was the level necessary? No. But was it important? I think so.