Call of Duty: Black Ops II … a radical departure. Photograph: PR
Six months after Dave Anthony left his job as a writer and producer on the video game series Call of Duty, he received an unexpected phone-call from Washington DC.
That week, the caller, Steve Grundman, a former Pentagon official who served in a succession of appointments at the US Department of Defense during the 1990s, had been watching his son play Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. “Grundman told me that he’d been struck by the realism and authenticity in the game and in particular the story,” says Anthony. “So struck by it, in fact, that he’d been compelled to track me down.”
The game, which has been played by more than 20 million people since its release in 2012, is split between two settings: the final years of the Cold War in the late 1980s and an imagined second Cold War conflict in 2025. In the latter scenario, the conflict is defined not by mutually assured destruction via nuclear missiles, but rather by system-crashing cyber-attacks, capable of toppling the Stock Exchange or turning a fleet of drones against their own country. Grundman believed that the game’s imagined conflict was unusually credible for a work of military fiction. He invited the writer to visit the capital and join a panel of experts who were due to discuss the future of real-world modern warfare.
Video games have always enjoyed a close association with the military. During the 1980s, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) approached many developers with the idea of writing video games that could be used to train soldiers. Chuck Benton, the creator of racing classic BC’s Quest For Tires, was one coder who took up the challenge, eventually abandoning the games industry to concentrate on military simulations. Later, the US Marine Corp famously used a modified version of Doom II to teach new recruits, with Lieutenant Colonel Rick Eisiminger, then team leader of the Modeling and Simulation Office, telling Wired, “We were tasked with looking at commercial off-the-shelf computer games that might teach an appreciation for the art and science of war.”
Full Spectrum Warrior, an Xbox game released in 2004, was co-developed by a team at USC Institute for Creative Technologies which, in 1999, was established as an official US Army University Affiliated Research Center. Set in a fictional middle eastern country, the simulation was a comparatively inexpensive means of teaching marine tactics in military training, but was also launched as a consumer product. America’s Army is a freely available PC game, launched in 2002 but still available, that doubles as a military recruitment tool. Even the peripherals are shared between games and the military: the US and British armies both use Xbox controllers as an interface to control attack drones in live combat.
The early Call of Duty titles were set in the World War II era but, in 2007 the setting changed to contemporary conflict with the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The change was in part to freshen the fiction, but it was also intended to allow for contemporary modes of combat. In one of Modern Warfare’s most memorable missions, “Death From Above”, you control the gun turrets of an AC-130 gunship as it attacks enemy targets in Western Russia. Through the greenish wash of a night vision camera lens you watch the luminous shapes of men on the ground running at full pelt for cover. It’s a scene as grimly and dispassionately realistic as any late night news report.
While there’s currently no public evidence that the US military helps to fund mainstream video games that double as propaganda, as routinely happens in Hollywood, the makers of military-themed games often pay a license fee to gun manufacturers to use representations of their weapons, drawing consumers unwittingly into the Military-Entertainment complex.
Now, with Anthony’s appointment, the association is made clearer still.
After his appearance on the panel in Washington, the ex-game developer was offered an unpaid fellowship by Grundmen on the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan Washington-based think tank that advises on the future of unknown conflict. “My job is to advise outside-the-box thinking on the nature of future threats, and propose proactive solutions to mitigate against them,” he says. In late September, Anthony delivered one such suggestion during an Atlantic Council forum. His controversial proposition was the introduction of school marshals, “U.S. soldiers who are in plainclothes, whose job is to protect schools.”
It’s a familiar argument – guarding schools from terror threats and, of course, shooting massacres, through the provision of weaponsised staff. What made Anthony’s suggestion unique was his follow-up idea of how to deal with the inevitable public outcry that would greet such a policy: video game-style marketing. “When we have a new product that has elements that we’re not sure how people will respond to, what do we do as a corporation?” he asked. “We market it as much as we can — we do all the things we can to essentially brainwash people into liking it before it actually comes out. I’d like to see the government doing this too.”
To some, a writer of video game fictions may seem an unlikely candidate for a role that exists to “help to provide ideas to protect the United States from future attack.” Anthony, who has been writing and programming games for twenty years, deals in the realm of jingoistic military fiction, which, in the case of the Call of Duty series, features a protagonist who single-handedly conquers unending waves of anonymous terrorist enemies. In this way it has as much in common with the rhythm and spectacle of a Rambo movie as it does with the docudrama verisimilitude of a Zero Dark Thirty.
But push aside Call of Duty’s bluster and the appointment isn’t so incongruous. Modern combat games compete on authenticity; their creators must gather props and detail from the realm of fact and arrange them into believable fiction.
In this year’s entry to the Call of Duty series, which is set 45 years into the future, soldiers wear exoskeletons that grant them superhuman strength, while kilometre-wide digital canopies mask chemical warehouses from Google satellites’ prying lenses. It sounds like science fiction but it isn’t. According to developer Sledgehammer, all of this is drawn from real-life military research, gathered through close ties with Pentagon advisors. The work of a Call of Duty scriptwriter is similar to that of the futurologists whose job it is to prophesise the ways in which technology might be used to wage war decades from now. Figures like Anthony can become a useful cog in the military system.
He certainly has familiarity with troops from his time at Treyarch, the studio behind Black Ops II. There, Anthony worked closely with military advisers to ensure that, even if the game had more in common with Hollywood than the real world conflict, the surrounding props and details were based in truth. “My greatest honour was to consult with Lieut. Col. Oliver North on the story of Black Ops 2,” says Anthony. “I will never forget the stories he told me about the times he met former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. There are so many small details we could never have known about if it wasn’t for his involvement.”
Anthony also worked with a Seal Team Six member and even a Russian Spetsnaz soldier who wore a motion capture suit in order to have his movements translated accurately into the game. “Many lines of dialogue were touched by these men,” he says. “Their wisdom and experience added a great deal of authenticity to the games.”
During his recent talk Anthony showed videos depicting a US drone that had been hacked by Iran to attack Americans, an idea that first featured in Black Ops 2’s storyline. “In Washington, there is a tangible fear of suggesting controversial ideas, rocking the boat or moving outside of the established system,” he says. The fear is perhaps understandable for the career-minded Washington-ite. In the business of military prophecy, one doesn’t want to be marked out as an eccentric.
But Anthony believes that his entertainment background frees him from the incentive to limit his imagination. “As a director and writer, my job is to break expectations and established thinking without fear of failure in order to create new and fresh ideas,” he says. “It’s timely as the threats we face today don’t play by established rules. Our enemies are starting to use our own technologies and systems faster and more efficiently than we are.”
There are similarities to the stultifying rhetoric of the Cold War era: the race to master technology before the other guy, the fear of the unheralded catastrophe, a disaster from an unknown source, foes under our noses. But one thing is different this time: in video games the military is able to try out its theories, to simulate its strategies, to set a devastating domino run in motion and see where the pieces land, without consequence. Anthony believes that, for all their historical ties, perhaps games and war aren’t close enough after all. “I would like to see more collaboration with the military and game developers,” he says.