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Nov. 16 2009 - 1:24 pm | 1,608 views | 2 recommendations | 14 comments

Reflecting on Modern Warfare 2’s Airport Massacre

call of duty airport level

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    Paul, do you think the intent of the game creators was in creating this scenario? To make the player think twice about violence? Or just to shock? Or to create controversy?

    • collapse expand

      They needed a level for people to talk about. They had it in the first game, where an entire mission consists of your character crawling out of a downed helicopter after a nuclear blast, only to die a few minutes later from radiation poisoning.

      I think the inadvertent side effect of the mission though was to make you think twice about violence, at least that’s what it did for me anyway.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    I saw a good point made by someone under the YouTube comments.

    The commenter asked how we as Americans would feel if Russians made a game, turning the tables and had a level where you watched as American civilians got slaughtered.

    I’ve always been what some call morally sound and others call a pansy or lame and stayed away from video games where you kill other people (with the exception of Nazis). I’ll stick to sport games!

  3. collapse expand

    Yea i felt the same like a lot of other ppl. I think what makes this different from other games where your killing civilians is that your forced to walk through most the level, kinda adds a sinister feel to it, plus the general realism of the game too.

    I think that for the normal, non psychotic person, this would serve as a deterrant to violence. It rly shows you how raw it is when stuff like that happens in real life and makes u appreciate how horrific it really is.

    Hopefully.. this is an example that violent games in the future can serve as a deterrant for actuall violent crimes in real life and not be constantly used as a scape goat by critics for violence. Altho some things will never change..

  4. collapse expand

    This is my first post on this website and probably my last. i’m posting this because I’m a high school sophomore, and I’d like you to hear my perspective.

    When this game came out, a lot of kids went to the midnight premier, and some even skipped school the next day to play it. In the next few days, this scene in the game was the one kids talked about. But not in the way you saw it. Not at all. The scene was disgusting to me, all of the emotion made me sick, the realism was intense. But the next day, kids at school talked about how fun the mission was, and some of the obviously racist kids said that “the communists deserve it”. A senior said it was like “killing mosquitoes”. These kids are desensitized,and it’s complete bullshit. Them saying that the people in the airport deserve to die because of their nationality just really pissed me off. I know they’re pixels, but it’s the idea that made me so angry.

    I just thought you guys should read this since you’re older and not exposed to this. I can only imagine how a Russian student would feel if they heard something like that.

    • collapse expand

      Wow thats pretty fuckin messed up… I hope they dont seriously think that. Those are the type of ppl who just utterly hold up the progression of mankind. Such close minded evil views D:

      Maybe they will grow up to realise that its totally messed up to say shit like that, even still tho it says a lot about how desensitized kids are now.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    Paul, being an avid gamer yourself and reading your reaction, I think it proves the point that video game violence doesn’t really desensitize people to it.

    By the way, just like the first one, this game is really addicting!

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    After rising to blogging fame as the University of Michigan's answer to Gossip Girl, I took the EIC job at a student blog network spreading my wealth of college experience across the nation. My passion project is a movie/tv/gaming site called Unreality and I'm a movie news editor at JoBlo.com. I'm new to this business, and I think I'm a part of the first generation of journalists to skip print media entirely. When I started out, I had zero idea blogging could be a career, but I've learned more in the last ten months than I did in four years of college. What exactly did I major in again?

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