This topic is a kettle of worms, but it raises too many interesting questions to leave it alone. Here are the facts, some background and my initial take.

Call of Duty is a very popular first-person shooter franchise which recently made the leap from historical/fictional WWII settings to completely fictional near-future settings. News broke last week that a mission within the upcoming Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 will allow players to play as the game’s villains as they conduct a terrorist attack on an airport. For non-gamers out there, think of “missions” as discrete levels of the game, something like chapters in a novel.

From what I can gather—the game will be released on November 10, so news of this mission only broke after footage was leaked illegally—the player takes the role of an undercover CIA agent who is complicit in the massacre. According to the game’s publisher, Activision, players are given two very explicit warnings that they may be disturbed by the mission, and can choose not to play it. From Activision:

The scene establishes the depth of evil and the cold bloodedness of a rogue Russian villain and his unit. By establishing that evil, it adds to the urgency of the player’s mission to stop them.

I frequently find myself leaping to the defense of video games as a medium worthy of the same freedoms and respect that are accorded to disturbing novels, films, music and other arts. When this all shakes out, I’ll almost certainly conclude that the game’s developers should have been allowed to include this controversial content. However, it’s still hard stuff to watch. The video is embedded below; don’t click it if you don’t want to see it.

The tone of the comments on a similar video don’t make it any easier to defend as a piece of challenging but thought-provoking art. Groan.

This isn’t the first time that games have let you play as the bad guy. Players have been able to kill civilians and even commit terrorist acts in numerous previous games. So what’s different now? Well, the graphics are damned realistic, for one thing. Another issue is that the climate has changed. Developers are justifiably concerned about press reaction to the game and subsequent backlash against the medium, which has been slowly but surely gaining mainstream acceptance in recent years. The reaction to artist Wafaa Bilal’s exhibitVirtual Jihadi,” the arrest of a high school student for making a map of his high school for use in an FPS mod, and the plethora of propaganda games about terrorism (from numerous sides!) suggest that video games are a fertile but highly charged ground for this kind of political expression.

One final related question: if the political objectives of the authors of the propaganda games above are germane to our interpretation of those games, then are the political views of the members of Modern Warfare 2 developer Infinity Ward equally relevant? The question of developer intent and political affiliation was raised earlier this year with the release of Shadow Complex, an extremely well-reviewed game that was nevertheless the subject of a boycott by gamers unhappy that it was based on the work of virulent homophobe Orson Scott Card. (Incidentally, Infinity Ward recently courted their own homophobia controversy.) Personally, I believe that an author’s background and intentions matter a great deal, but I won’t go so far as to argue that authorial intent is always primary.

Update [11/12/2009]: Tom Chick has the most valid take yet on this topic, which means not that I agree with him (I can’t, since haven’t played the game yet), but that his opinion actually addresses the fundamental questions raised by this level. Aaron Thomas, Brett Bates, Shanker Srinivasin and Jay Frechette discuss the level on the most recent Bitmob podcast, but the level of the discussion is disappointingly shallow. The absolute lowlight is Shanker’s missing-the-point argument that games should be able to do whatever they want, because freedom of speech and stuff.

Original sources for this post include the frequently provocative and always intelligent Shawn Elliott, who posted about the impending controversy on his blog, Shacknews’ Chris Faylor, who has been following publisher Activision’s reaction to the leaked footage, and GamingBox, a blog I’ve never heard of but which posted some disturbing screenshots and pointed me to the YouTube footage embedded in this post.