Developers have insisted over the years that their games aren't political, despite them obviously being political in most cases. But Infinity Ward's Jacob Minkoff and Taylor Kurosaki, respectively the campaign gameplay director and studio narrative director on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, took the art of dubious insistence on apolitical narratives to new heights in a recent interview with Game Informer.
"Do we touch topics that bear a resemblance to the geopoltics of the world we live in today? Hell yeah, because that is the subject matter of Modern Warfare," Minkoff explains. "Are we telling a story that has anything to do with the specific governments of any countries that we are portraying? No. So if you're asking, like, is Trump in the videogame, no, he isn't."
"These are the types of questions that have been asked for the last 50 years," Kurosaki interjected. "We do talk about concepts like colonialism, and occupation, and independence, and freedom. We don't maybe say those words specifically, but that's the realm that we are in. But you could have a game that takes place in revolutionary America talk about those exact same concepts."
Or it could be set in Afghanistan in the 1980s instead, "and you'd have the same story," Minkoff said. "Is it political?"
"In a world where superpowers vie for influence around the world, and where those superpowers butt up, they don't directly fight each other. They utilize proxy allies on the ground to sort of do their bidding," Kurosaki said. "That's a real thing that happens, and that's happened for the last 50 years. But what happens when those allies, who are funded and armed and supported by the superpower, what happens when that support is abandoned or withdrawn? What happens to those local people then?"
All of these very non-political questions could just as easily have been asked about other entirely non-political settings like Vietnam, or Afghanistan, or colonial India, he pointed out: It's the themes of power imbalance and the asymmetric conflicts they spark that Infinity Ward wants to delve into in Modern Warfare—in an entirely non-political way, of course.
The interview concludes with Minkoff echoing a concept that Ubisoft expressed last year: The developers want to present "different perspectives" to gamers, but doesn't want to commit to saying that any of of them is "correct."
"What we want you to come away with at the end is an understanding of why all these different groups fight, or groups like them, and to have empathy for I think all of them," he says.
In a game about governments and soldiers and war, it's a stretch to claim that there's no political message. Modern Warfare's may not address the politics of today head-on, but a game that features the CIA, British special operatives, and a rogue Russian general as its main villain inherently makes a statement about conflict, violence, and who's considered a bad guy on the global stage.
If, as Minkoff says, the goal is to teach the player about global politics, a point of view is doubtlessly going to come through. Over the years, Call of Duty has relied on real "ripped from the headlines" anxieties to build its plots, and on controversial political figures: Oliver North, a former US Marine Corps colonel who was convicted in 1989 for his role in the Iran-Contra affair, consulted on and appeared in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. It goes both ways: The US government asked a former Call of Duty producer to advise it on warfare (opens in new tab). If the government is interested in your work, maybe it's political?
Modern Warfare may not feature real-life political figures in the way that previous entries in the series have, but if your game is engaging with topics like imperialism and proxy wars, and you're comparing it to the Vietnam War or the British Raj, you may want to rethink your definition of "politics." What's really being said here is that Infinity Ward doesn't want us to think of Call of Duty as being left-wing or right-wing, because that would limit their audience.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare comes out on October 25.