Even if you’re not into video games, you will have heard of Call of Duty. It’s one of the most popular titles ever made. Fans have devoted more than 25 billion hours to the first-person shooter game — that’s 2.85 million years. It’s a product with an enormous amount of power — and, some say, the potential to be weaponised. Last year, Alan MacLeod, who has written two books about propaganda, suggested that the most recent edition of Call of Duty — Modern Warfare: II, last year’s biggest-selling title — is nothing more than a US government “psychological operation”, or “psyop”.
The purpose of a psyop, according to the US Department of the Army, “is to create in neutral, friendly, or hostile foreign groups the emotions, attitudes, or desired behaviour that support the achievement of US national objectives and the military mission”. But there’s no reason to only target “foreign groups”.
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The British-American writer Alistair Cooke called Hollywood “the most effective and disastrous propaganda factory there has ever been in the history of human beings”. And for several years during and after the Second World War, the film industry worked very closely with the US military to push certain narratives to domestic consumers. Today, however, the movie industry has lost much of its reach. It is now worth a rather trifling $29 billion. The video game industry is worth $365 billion; by 2030, that figure is expected to jump to $470 billion. So, much as Hollywood once served as the primary vehicle for Pentagon-approved propaganda, why wouldn’t those in power utilise video games to spread particular messages and influence the masses? After all, in the United States, a country of 331 million people, 215 million now play them on a regular basis. Tens of millions of these gamers play Call of Duty religiously.
Take one of the very first missions in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II. It shares a number of striking similarities with the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian military officer who was killed by the US military in 2020. Sporting a big white beard, “Ghorbrani”, the Iranian general in the game, even looks like Soleimani. He is, the player learns, a Russian-controlled puppet. Your job is to kill him. The mission reminded me of another, in Call of Duty: Black Ops, released in 2010, in which players were ordered to murder Fidel Castro. Like the order to kill “Ghorbrani”, the order to kill Castro sounded like it was coming straight from the Pentagon.
Call of Duty wouldn’t be the first video game to have a storyline based on real events — so no wonder there are parallels with US army operations. It’s what the public wants. But is there more to it than realistic entertainment? The connection between the US national security state and the entertainment industry is incredibly strong. When Edward Snowden disclosed thousands of state documents a decade ago, it quickly became clear that agencies such as the CIA and the Department of Defense have for years used video games for counterterrorism operations, with spies conducting surveillance operations inside World of Warcraft.
Video games are also frequently used for military training purposes. Tank crews use virtual-reality systems to simulate the realities of war. The US military even created its own multiplayer shooter game — America’s Army — to train recruits, before working directly with game makers behind franchises such as Doom and Call of Duty. So, is it a stretch to imagine that the US military might use Call of Duty, a game that has more than 118 million active users worldwide, to influence young, highly-suggestible gamers?
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Tom Secker, an independent researcher, appear to shed some light on the connection between national security and the video-game industry. One, shared with MintPress News, purports to show that in September 2018, the United States Air Force flew Coco Francini, an executive producer with close ties to Call of Duty, to their headquarters at Hurlburt Field, Florida. There, the Air Force demonstrated its hardware, the aim being to make individuals like Francini more “credible advocates” for US military propaganda. Francini, alongside other powerful individuals in the entertainment industry, were shown AC-130 planes and CV-22 helicopters. Both these aircrafts feature heavily in the Call of Duty franchise.
Other documents show that the military’s partnership with Call of Duty started long before 2018: the United States Marine Corps (USMC) collaborated in the production of Call of Duty 5 in 2008. Actively working with the video game industry, Secker argues, enables the US military to reach recruitment targets, with the game acting as “a recruitment portal”. There are now so many professional gamers in the US military that it has its very own Esports team, divided into the following divisions: Fortnite, League of Legends, Overwatch, Magic: The Gathering, and Call of Duty, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. These military gamers presumably communicate with civilians — who might, one imagines, make fine recruits.And the latest Call of Duty instalment comes at a time when the military is desperately struggling to find capable individuals.
The company behind Call of Duty, Activision Blizzard, has a long history of crossover with the military. From 2004 to 2008, Frances Townsend, Activision Blizzard’s senior counsel, worked as an assistant to then-president George W. Bush, advising on homeland security and counterterrorism. Townsend also sits on the boards of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Atlantic Council, which is has ties to Nato. Then there’s Brian Bulatao. Before becoming Activision Blizzard’s Chief Administrative Officer, he was the CIA’s Chief Operating Officer. Now, in addition to “key administrative functions”, Bulatao also oversees the Call of Duty Endowment, a charity closely tied to the military, which “helps veterans find high quality careers”. Although its goal is undoubtedly noble, it’s yet another example of Pentagon-Activision overlap.
Dr Matthew Alford, an expert in communications who has spent years investigating the Pentagon’s propaganda campaigns, shared a number of documents with me, all of which were obtained through FOIs. In one, an individual associated with the Pentagon discusses the fact that Activision Blizzard is interested in creating new characters. Pentagon officials, according to the report, plan to meet with Activision Blizzard representatives and offer advice on what the “US Army of the future” will look like. “Our interest,” reads the document, is “to correctly establish and frame the brand within the game.” One scenario being considered, it continues, “involves future war with China”. This means, when the next instalment of Call of Duty is released, players will will be tasked with the assassination of a Russian scoundrel who looks eerily similar to Vladimir Putin and maybe even told to take out a rotund Chinese character called “Xi Pijing”.