Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II has been available for less than three weeks, but it’s already making waves. In a record-breaking ten days, the military shooter video game earned more than $1 billion in revenue. However, it is also highly controversial, mainly because missions include the assassination of an Iranian general clearly based on Qassem Soleimani, a political and military leader assassinated by the Trump administration in 2020, and a level where players have to shoot “drug traffickers” trying to cross the US/Mexico border.
The Call of Duty franchise is a game for entertainment lovers and has sold nearly half a billion games since its launch in 2003. Its publisher, Activision Blizzard, is a giant in the industry, behind such titles as Guitar Hero, Warcraft, Starcraft , Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater , Crash Bandicoot and Candy Crush Saga series.
However, a closer inspection of Activision Blizzard’s key personnel and their connections to government power, as well as details gleaned from documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that Call of Duty is not a neutral first-person shooter. face, but a carefully crafted piece of military propaganda designed to advance the interests of the US national security state.
It has long been a matter of public history that American spies have targeted and infiltrated Activision Blizzard games. Documents released by Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA, CIA, FBI and Department of Defense infiltrated vast online platforms like World of Warcraft, creating fake characters to monitor potential illegal activity and recruit informants. Indeed, at one point, there were so many US spies in a video game that they were forced to form a “de-escalation” team as they unwittingly wasted time tracking each other. Virtual games, the NSA wrote, were an “opportunity” and a “target-rich communications network.”
However, documents legally obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by journalist and researcher Tom Secker and shared with MintPress News show that the connections between the national security state and the video game industry go far beyond that and into active collaboration.
In September 2018, for example, the United States Air Force relocated a group of entertainment executives – including Call of Duty /Activision Blizzard producer Coco Francini – to their headquarters at Hurlburt Field, Florida. The express reason for doing this, they wrote, was to “showcase” their material and make the entertainment industry more “credible supporters” of the US war machine.
“We have a bunch of people working on future blockbusters (think Marvel, Call of Duty, etc.) excited about this trip!” wrote an Air Force officer. Another email notes that the point of the visit was to provide “heavy hitting” producers with “AFSOC [Air Force Special Operations Command] focused on Special Tactics Airmen and air-to-ground capabilities.”
“This is a great opportunity to educate this community and make them more reliable supporters for us in the production of any future films/television productions in the Air Force and our Special Tactics community,” the AFSOC community relations chief wrote.
Francini and others showed CV-22 helicopters and AC-130 airplanes in action, which feature heavily in the Call of Duty games.
However, Call of Duty’s partnership with the military goes back much further. The documents show that the United States Marine Corps (USMC) was involved in the production of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Call of Duty 5. The game’s producers approached the USMC at the 2010 E3 entertainment conference in Los Angeles, requesting access to hovercraft (vehicles that appeared later in the game). Call of Duty 5 executives also requested the use of a hovercraft, a tank, and a C-130 aircraft.
This partnership continued in 2012 with the release of Modern Warfare 4, where the producers requested access to all manner of aerial and ground vehicles. Secker told MintPress that by partnering with the gaming industry, the military is ensuring a positive image that can help it achieve its recruiting goals, stating that “For certain player demographics, it’s a recruiting portal, some first-person shooters have built ads into the games themselves… Even without this kind of overt recruiting effort, games like Call of Duty make war seem fun, exciting, a escape from the drudgery of their normal lives”.
Secker’s documentary, “Theatres of War: How the Pentagon and CIA Took Hollywood,” was released earlier this year.
The military clearly had a significant influence on the direction of the Call of Duty games. In 2010, its producers approached the Department of Defense (DoD) for help with a game set in 2075. However, the DoD liaison “expressed concern that the scenario under consideration involves a future war with China.” As a result, Activision Blizzard began “looking into other potential conflicts to design the game”. Eventually, partly due to military objections, the game was abandoned for good.
Not only does Activision Blizzard work with the US military to shape its products, but its board of directors is also full of former top government officials. Chief among them is Frances Townsend, Activision Blizzard’s senior counsel and, until September, its chief compliance officer and executive vice president of corporate affairs.
Before joining Activision Blizzard, Townsend spent her life climbing the ranks of the national security state. In 2004, President Bush appointed her to his Intelligence Advisory Board.
As the White House’s senior adviser on terrorism and homeland security, Townsend worked closely with Bush and Rice and became one of the faces of the administration’s War on Terror. One of her main achievements was whipping the American public into a constant state of fear over the supposed threat of more al-Qaeda attacks (which never came).
In addition to this role, Townsend is director of NATO’s Atlantic Council arm, a director at the Council on Foreign Relations, and administrator of the hawkish think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a group MintPress News previously covered in detail.
Funded by arms companies, NATO and the US government, the Atlantic Council acts as the brain trust of the military alliance, devising strategies for how best to manage the world. Also on its board are high-ranking officials such as Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice, nearly all retired US generals, and no less than seven former CIA directors. As such, the Atlantic Council represents the collective opinion of the national security state.
Two other key Call of Duty executives also work for the Atlantic Council. Chance Glasco , co-founder of Infinity Ward developers who oversaw the rapid rise of the game franchise, is a non-resident senior fellow of the board, advising top strategists and political leaders on the latest developments in technology.
Game designer and producer Dave Anthony, instrumental in the success of Call of Duty, is also an employee of the Atlantic Council, he joined the team in 2014. There, he advises them on what the future of war will look like and devises strategies for the NATO battle in upcoming conflicts.
Anthony has made no secret of the fact that he collaborated with the US national security state while making the Call of Duty franchise. “It was my greatest honor to consult Lieut. Colonel Oliver North on the story of Black Ops 2,” he said publicly, adding, “There are so many little details that we would never have known about if it weren’t for his involvement.”
Oliver North is a high-ranking government official who gained global notoriety after being convicted for his role in the Iran-Contra affair, where his group secretly sold weapons to the Iranian government, using the money to arm and train fascist death squads in Central America – groups that attempted to overthrow the Nicaraguan government and carried out waves of massacres and ethnic cleansing in the process.
These deep connections to the US national security state can perhaps help in part to explain why, for years, many have complained about the blatant pro-American propaganda that was evident throughout the games.
The latest installment, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, is no exception. In the first mission of the game, players have to carry out a drone attack against a character named
The latest installment, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, is no exception. In the first mission of the game, players have to carry out a drone strike against a character named General Ghorbrani. The mission is apparently a reenactment of the Trump administration’s 2020 illegal drone strike against Iranian General Qasem Soleimani — the acting general even bears a striking resemblance to Soleimani.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II ludicrously portrays the general as being under the thumb of Russia and claims that Ghorbrani is “supplying terrorists” with aid. In fact, Soleimani has been a key force in the fight against ISIS terror across the Middle East – actions for which even the Western media have hailed him as a “hero”. Polls conducted by the US showed that Soleimani was perhaps the most popular leader in the Middle East, with over 80% of Iranians having a favorable opinion of him.
Immediately after the assassination, Pompeo’s State Department denied that the reason they killed Soleimani was that he was on the verge of carrying out a terrorist attack against Americans. Soleimani was actually in Baghdad, Iraq for peace talks with Saudi Arabia.
These negotiations could have led to peace between the two nations, something the US government is dead set on. Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi at the time revealed that he had personally asked President Trump for permission to invite Soleimani. Trump agreed and then used the opportunity to carry out the assassination.
So just as Activision Blizzard recruits top State Department officials into its upper ranks, its games celebrate the same State Department’s most controversial assassinations.
However, this is far from the first time Call of Duty has instructed impressionable young players to kill foreign leaders. In Call of Duty Black Ops (2010), players must complete a mission to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro. If they manage to shoot him in the head, they are rewarded with an extra grim slow-motion scene and get a bronze “Death to Dictators” trophy. So players are forced to do digitally what Washington has failed to do on more than 600 occasions.
Likewise, Call of Duty: Ghosts is set in Venezuela, where players battle against General Almagro, a socialist military leader clearly modeled after former president Hugo Chavez. Like Chávez, Almagro wears a red beret and uses Venezuela’s oil wealth to forge an alliance of independent Latin American nations against the U.S. Washington has tried to topple Chávez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro, several times. During the game’s sixth mission, players must shoot and kill Almagro at close range.
Anti-Russian propaganda is also turned up to 11 in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019). One mission recreates the infamous Highway of Death incident. During the First Iraq War, US-led forces trapped troops fleeing Iraq on Highway 80. What followed was what then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell described as “senseless killing” and “ carnage for carnage’s sake’ as US troops and their allies pounded the Iraqi convoy for hours, killing hundreds and destroying thousands of vehicles. US forces have reportedly shot hundreds of Iraqi civilians and surrendered soldiers to their care.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare recreates this scene for dramatic effect. However, in their version, it is not the US-led forces that are doing the killing, but Russia, thereby whitewashing a war crime by placing the blame on official enemies.
End of season
In today’s digitized age, the worlds of war and video games are becoming more and more similar to each other. Many have commented on the similarities between piloting drones in real life and in games like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Prince Harry, who was a helicopter gunner in Afghanistan, described the “joy” of firing missiles at enemies. “I’m one of those people who likes to play PlayStation and Xbox, so fingers crossed I like to think I’m probably pretty useful,” he said. “If there are people trying to do bad things to our kids, then we’re going to take them out of the game,” he added, explicitly comparing the two activities. US forces are even controlling drones with Xbox controllers, further blurring the lines between war and war games.
The military has also directly created video games as promotional and recruiting tools. One is a US Air Force game called Airman Challenge. It includes 16 missions to complete, interspersed with events and recruitment information on how to become a drone operator. In its latest efforts to promote active duty to young people, players move through missions escorting US vehicles in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, serving death from above to all those labeled “insurgents” by the game.
Players earn medals and achievements for the most efficient destruction of moving targets. Meanwhile, there’s a prominent “Apply Now” button on the screen if players want to enlist and carry out actual drone strikes in the Middle East.
The US Armed Forces are using the popularity of video games to heavily recruit youth, sponsor gaming tournaments, field their own US Army Esports team, and directly try to recruit teenagers to streaming sites like Twitch. The Amazon-owned platform eventually had to scrap the practice after the military used fake prize giveaways that lured impressionable young viewers to recruitment websites.
Video games are a huge business and a huge center of power and ideology. The medium makes for particularly persuasive propaganda because children and teenagers consume it, often for weeks or months, and because it is light entertainment. Because of this, users are not as protected as if they were listening to a politician speak. Their power is often overlooked by scholars and journalists because of the supposed frivolity of the medium. But it’s the very notion that these are trivial sources of entertainment that makes their message all the more powerful.
The Call of Duty franchise is particularly outrageous, not only in its messages, but also because of who the messengers are. More and more, games seem to be little more than American propaganda masquerading as fun first-person shooters. For gamers, it’s all about enjoying its fast-paced fun. But for those involved in their production, the goal is not just to make money. it is about serving the imperial war machine.