[Videogames are about the instances when player, machine, and code meld together in a formless dance and produce something meaningful. Something memorable. An experience. A moment.]
You not entirely sure what your colonel was alluding to while he debriefed you during the loading screen of Modern Warfare 2’s third level. You do know you are going undercover to infiltrate a terrorist cell of ultranationalist Russians (always the Russians) to get close to their leader, Makarov. Your CO says “You don’t want to know what it has cost already to put you next to him.” But what does he mean when he adds, “It will cost a bit of yourself.”?
“But that is nothing compared to what you will save.”
So the level loads. The mission begins. First there are the sounds: a bag unzipping, the hum of machinery, ammo being clipped into guns.
Then the visuals fade in. You are in an elevator with three men. Each is wearing a Kevlar vest over their suit. Each is holding a rather large machine gun. Maybe you are surprised to see that, in fact, so are you. But probably you aren’t. After all, the point of the game is to shoot people, right? You move your crosshair over the one directly in front of you and his name pops up as is common for your allied companions: Makarov.
Makarov looks at you. “Remember,” he says. “No Russian.”
You wonder what me means by this as the lift doors open and the four of you walk out.
You are in an airport. A Russian airport. You are confused. This isn’t a Middle Eastern battlefield or a Russian castle full of commandos. This is not the kind of place you are used to shooting people in. The crowds queued at the security checkpoint don’t notice your group at first, but then the three men open fire.
Maybe you open fire as well. Maybe you roll your eyes and laugh at the very idea of a Modern Warfare game trying something this serious. But you know what? This isn’t about you. This is about me. I didn’t open fire. I sat there on my couch, with my controller in my hand, trembling. Unable to pull the trigger that would fire the gun at the civilians now running, screaming, and dying. I’ve fought waves of faceless soldiers. I’ve run over pedestrians by the city-full. I have built rollercoasters deliberately to send their passengers hurtling into the side of a mountain. Implicated in a massacre? That is something I have never been.
Bodies litter the ground. I follow the three men through the security gates as they beep and flash futilely. An injured woman is dragging herself away by her arms. A man is on his knees, begging. Makarov’s men mow them down.
We follow Makarov up the escalator and through the duty-free shops. More crowds. More firing. More screaming. The screaming is the worst. It just doesn’t stop. If I try, I can here the exact screams of that level in my mind. The problem is getting them out again.
“Run, you idiots!” I plead at my television screen. Why is that one not running? Why is he staying near that corpse? The men shoot him.
A cop jumps out from behind a wall and I shoot without thinking, dropping him. It gets easier, then. Not easy. Just easier. I have to shoot, surely, or else Makarov will get suspicious. I spray bullets past the fleeing, screaming people, deliberately missing. Occasionally, I shoot the injured. The other men will kill anyway, I justify to myself.
It’s horrifying. Absolutely horrifying. As we progress through the airport, I can’t run. The game forces me to walk, to move slowly past the ocean of corpses I’m implicit in. I keep repeating the CO’s line to me. This is nothing compared to what I will save. This is nothing compared to what I will save.
We move onto the runaway and, finally, face targets that shoot back. Russian SWAT. We fight out way through. The terror has been caused. Now we must escape.
We lose the SWAT through a fire escape into a side room. There is an ambulance waiting for our escape. The first man jumps on and helps Makarov up. He chuckles. “That will send them a message.”
Makarov turns and takes my hand to help me up next. “That was no message,” he says and shoots me in the head.
“That is the message.”
The ambulance drives away as my character lies dying on a Russian runway. As the SWAT run up, ambivalent of the fleeing ambulance, I think about what just happened. The entire attack was staged just to leave my corpse amongst it. To have the Americans blamed.
I feel like throwing up.
Over the following stages, full-scale war breaks out between Russia and America. America says it is because they were framed by Russia for the attack. Maybe that is true. But as I fight the Russians through a variety of other playable characters, as I protect Washington DC, suburban streets, and fast food chains from the vengeful invades, there is no denying it: I was a part of that heinous crime. It cost a bit of myself, and I didn’t save a damn thing.