Knowing that games are propaganda doesn’t stop them from working
Image: From the series DoD (2013) by Kent Sheely. Courtesy the artist.
Toward the end of 2020, after Biden’s election but before the Capitol riots, I received a disquieting voicemail message from someone claiming to be with the Capitol Police — an agency almost all of us would be familiar with after January 6th, 2021, but one I’d honestly never heard of before they flagged me. A special agent wanted to ask me a few questions regarding a Twitter account, and it didn’t sound like a scam. After taking a few deep breaths and popping a Klonopin, I dialed the callback number and connected with a Special Agent, who seemed a little embarrassed about what his job required him to do: “Are you familiar with the Twitter account @trillmoregirls?” Nervously laughing, I answered that it was mine.
He proceeded to do something that strikes dread into the heart of any poster, but especially when it comes from a literal fed: He read one of my tweets out loud to me. A few days before, I’d been playing Call of Duty: Warzone — a free, multiplayer spinoff of the highly profitable first-person-shooter franchise — with my friends. Like all blockbuster, action-oriented media, the game’s consumer base crosses a variety of ideological and identity spectrums, but its loudest appreciators are often proudly reactionary, and eager to troll through whatever means available. My friends and I had picked up a bounty contract that directed us to kill a player named NancyPelosi; someone else on their team was named KamalaHarris.
The fed warned me against posting that “type of thing” publicly again. “Have you ever played Warzone?” I asked him. “All the time.” Of course he did
It made me chuckle, and without a second thought, I screenshotted and posted the image, which read “BOUNTY: NancyPelosi,” captioning it, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it: kill nancy pelosi.” I imagined Twitter might lightly slap my wrist at worst, not that I’d end up on a watchlist and receive a barrage of questions from a federal officer about whether or not I had violent intentions toward Senator Pelosi, whether I held any grudges against American politicians (hard not to answer that bluntly: who doesn’t), and, most appallingly — and at this point, the agent started stumbling over his script, obviously a little uncomfortable being personally tasked with the state’s invasiveness — if I’d been diagnosed with any mental illnesses and if I was currently taking any medication. What I did, he told me, wasn’t illegal, and he didn’t even tell me to take the post down — but he did warn me against posting that “type of thing” publicly again, more like a disappointed mother than a Big Brother. What stuck with me most about the incident, though, is the one question I asked him: “Have you ever played Warzone?” “All the time.” Of course he did.
For over a decade Call of Duty has been an almost unavoidable part of contemporary pop culture, dominating its niche, selling over 300 million copies as of 2019 (likely hundreds of millions more by now, given the release of multiple games in that timeframe), and spawning memes that have become familiar even to nongamers. Typically, COD and games like it — the long-running Medal of Honor and Battlefield franchises, numerous Tom Clancy tie-in games, and more explicit recruitment tools like America’s Army and Six Days in Fallujah — adopt a reactionary American standpoint, in which the U.S. military intelligence apparatus is cast as both victim and victor in a global conflict, usually against the Soviet Union or a post-Soviet state. (It’s only fitting that there’s a Call of Duty game called Infinite Warfare.) At this point, military-themed first person shooters are both active recruitment tools for future soldiers, and wish fulfillment fantasies for active-duty soldiers who dream of violent catharsis and brotherhood forged in bloodshed.
Most games in the Call of Duty franchise are single-player, striving for a kind of cinematic perspective, with minimal room for alternate interpretation. On March 10, 2020, though, three days before Covid-19 was declared a national emergency in the United States, Activision released Call of Duty: Warzone, which updates the franchise for the era of Fortnite-style multiplayer battle royale games. Warzone offers a multitude of perspectives and invites a variety of ways to engage with the landscape — an abandoned, vaguely Eastern European city, hollowed out for battle — and the players who populate it. It encourages cooperation, open communication, and strategizing between teammates as much as it incentivizes competition between teams themselves. Playing the game provides a place for you to foster friendships and hang out; like Nintendo’s Animal Crossing, another game whose cultural status flourished over the past year, Warzone has provided a platform for social interaction over the course of lockdown, drawing comparisons to the golf course and the bowling alley.
Attacking virtual reactionaries offers the glee of shitposting. The game was working on me just the way it was meant to
I’ve never been a competitive multiplayer gamer. But over the past year I fell deep into Warzone — in large part for the opportunity to shoot the shit, catch up, and reconnect with friends during the pandemic in a relatively low-stakes environment. Compared to the corporate rigidity of the Zoom Happy Hour, which requires you to be alert, upright, and all dolled up, multiplayer game chat doesn’t force conversation: you can catch up, but you can also joke around, sometimes you’re silent, sometimes you’re deep in tactical analysis and shouting out the shorthand commands you’ve developed through playing over and over again with your crew. It allowed me to reconnect with friends from across the country who I’d almost never be able to casually hang out with — an intentional, formal phone call is one thing, but socialization happens just as much in the occasional silence of companionship that can’t really happen over phones or FaceTime. Sometimes there’s even a kind of respect that develops between unknown players, rather than aggression. If you wait around and watch until the end of the game, you can hop on mic with the other players who are still online. Warzone led to new inside jokes with old friends, while also making me feel alert, energized, and filled with adrenaline in a static time where it was easy to feel dead inside.
All the while, I felt confident that I was maintaining a critical distance — that I’d marshaled my cognitive defenses against the game’s propaganda. Call of Duty is swarmed with racists and Nazis, but, with a group of ideologically-aligned friends, it’s easier to laugh off the fascists, or to feel like you’re somehow taking up virtual arms against political opponents. It gives me a jolt of satisfaction to charge someone with a slur in their username, as it does to rip a racist a new one on Twitter — attacking virtual reactionaries offers the glee of shitposting. But it’s hard to deny that I’m drawn to the feeling of control and mastery over a landscape I’ve surveyed and colonized. In spite — or because of — my awareness, the game was working on me just the way it was meant to.
Soldiers are programmed to master their senses and taught to control their bodies, so the nations they fight for can master and control other lands. Over a period of months, I could physically feel myself improving at Warzone: my aim sharpening, my trigger finger steadying. Soon I was capable of surviving close-quarter altercations that would have overwhelmed me; the experience of gameplay felt more seamless and, most of all, more in my control. Competitive multiplayer shooters, maybe more than any other game genre, make you truly feel like you’re the master of your domain. But it hit me one session, as I quickly swiveled around and made an instinctive headshot when a teammate called out that an enemy was right behind me, that I’d basically undergone a form of basic training.
In Warzone your avatar is mainly a vehicle for carrying a weapon — weapon customization has been an integral feature of gaming for years, and playing endless quick multiplayer matches allows you to level up, unlock upgrades, and modify your arsenal, which can then be used to an advantage over more novice players. In Fortnite especially, but in Warzone to a lesser extent, competition happens on an aesthetic level too, as you show off the detailed skins or rare weapons you’ve unlocked through various challenges or by investing digital coinage. Though gun enthusiasts of course fall across the political spectrum, it’s hard not to see a correlation between the multi-colored assault rifles and tropical prints of the Boogaloo Boys and the digital guns you can emblazon in snakeskin, skulls, or psychedelic swirls.
There is an obvious thrill to sniping or shoot-outs, but the satisfaction of winning a match often comes from working together as a unit. That is, of course, exactly the point pressed by military recruiters
Gun customization is something of a two-way street: recruiting real-life gun enthusiasts who want to build out fantastical contraptions they might not be able to afford in real life (or that might be illegal), and turning average gamers into detail-obsessive firearms experts. It’s a strange feeling watching action movies now and being able to identify when a henchman with a submachine gun is carrying, say, an Uzi versus a MAC-10. The socialization of Call of Duty is almost inseparable from the gun culture it encourages and depicts.
For the most extremist minority of players, having a tight-knit clan with a [MAGA] tag might fulfill the same function of Brownshirts stomping those they deemed enemies in the streets: decking yourself out in the most intimidating equipment possible, making a lot of noise, and hurling as many slurs as you do punches. While many, or most players would find this repugnant, Warzone still proposes a social relations in which the only way to relate to other people is through violence. The game rewards you for the labor of looting and exploiting value from the map: finding and opening crates, completing contracts, and pilfering bills from players you’ve killed.
There are always ways to use it “wrong,” to subvert what the maker intended — within the same game lies room for more constructive socialization, one founded in positive encouragement, clear communication, and the intuitiveness of collective teamwork. There is an obvious thrill to sniping or shoot-outs, but the satisfaction of winning a match often comes as much from working together as a unit: sharing equipment or weapons, healing each other under enemy fire, and successfully watching each other’s backs. That is, of course, exactly the point pressed by military recruiters.
The battle royale genre grafts the first-person shooter onto the “open world” genre — games like Breath of the Wild and Grand Theft Auto — which makes the colonial instincts of the form most apparent. These games offer the an illusion of an endless landscape with no law or limits, a map with invisible borders for you alone to tame. Game environments, even nonviolent, seemingly benign ones, condition open-ended sociality on tasks of resource extraction and zero-sum competition. In Animal Crossing, you cultivate farms and gardens, exchanging your produce and products for tokens that help pay off a debt to your landlord, but also allow you to upgrade and customize your avatar and their residence, with the intention of showing it off to friends who can visit your island, or the followers who might see your screenshots on social media. It’s still a form of competition, which takes a colonial mentality for granted. Even if your play style is different, you’re all still bound by whatever rules have been set by the game’s designers. In the case of both free-to-play multiplayer games and free-to-post social media platforms, the rules are set by powerful corporations.
So there we were, the capitol police officer and I, understanding each other too well. Playing Call of Duty, I like to tell myself I’m subverting the game, but in the end I have to admit I’m internalizing the same terms of engagement, and the same structural outlook as my ideological opponents. It’s easy to fall prey to the conditioning the game encourages — to feel too good about how precise your aim has become, or how many kills you’ve racked up. I don’t believe that war is natural and right. But I’ve found myself acting as though I do; and finding real friendship, and real belonging, under a set of circumstances I would otherwise abhor. Just like the invisible walls of a rendered landscape, you often don’t know you’ve hit the boundary until you’re up against it and booted from the game.
Nadine Smith is a writer, DJ, and co-host of the podcast Hotbox the Cinema. Her work has appeared in publications like the New York Times Magazine, Pitchfork, the Outline, Bandcamp Daily, Observer, & the Nashville Scene.