Call of Duty Modern Warfare screenshot 04

Call of Duty: Modern Warefare review-bombed over Highway of Death mission

This week in Games Are Controversial Because…, users on Metacritic have reduced Infinity Ward’s reboot review score to 3.4, claiming that it’s US propaganda. Which isn’t necessarily a controversial claim, exactly, even if some of the debate is less uncontroversial. LET’S DISCUSS.

That games like Call of Duty are, at least in part, US propaganda isn’t and shouldn’t be a controversial claim on its own terms. These are games that feature the US and its Team Democracy allies as the protagonists, and everybody else as the bad guys. That’s a political and ideological bias by even the most basic definition, and the space between political and ideological bias and propaganda is kind of fuzzy.

Like its predecesor, the new Modern Warfare makes some narrative concessions to the moral ambiguities of contemporary conflict, but the game isn’t making the most compelling case for the other perspective. That’s the studio’s prerogative, but it’s also subject to criticism because this is the internet, and we’ve got opinions about things.

And people have a lot of opinions about the game’s Highway of Death mission.

Urzikstan, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s principle venue, isn’t a real country – but some of its locations are very obviously based on real places. The Highway of Death, for example, is a real place, and – more significantly, perhaps – the site of a 1991 assault by the US and its coalition forces on retreating Iraqi military personnel and, according to some sources, civilians. The event has been subsequently described by some activists as a war crime. And The Highway of Death mission isn’t the only one with conspicuous parallels to reality – others referenced in the game include the 2012 Benghazi incident, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The game’s Highway of Death isn’t the same place, because Urzikstan isn’t a real country. But it also kind of is, implicitly. The name is the same, even the Arabic version “ṭarīq al-mawt” cited by Farah Karim in the intro cinematic is the same, and it looks the same. Except, as Farah explains, it’s not the same because this is the one “the Russians bombed”.


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s Metacritic user review page is now a series of red ones and zeroes, denouncing the game’s “propaganda” and “Russophobia”. Some of those reviews, however, make much less reasonable claims.

I mean, claiming that this is propaganda, and at the same time claiming that the “Russian army stops the way in Syria” is absurd. It’s a tragic irony that this is an opinion recognising propaganda, and informed by it, but I guess that’s how propaganda works.

Now, historical accuracy in games is, predictably, also controversial. For me, it doesn’t matter much because it’s a game, not a documentary, but for others, it’s a big deal. More opinions. But I think there’s a distinction to be made between teh wimminz (historically accurate, anyway) and totally reinventing what actually happened because it inconveniently makes the good guys look like bad guys – although I’d bet my lunch that some of the Historical Accuracy Defence Force complaining about women in games are also going to remind us that “URZIKSTAN ISN’T EVEN REAL SO HISTORICAL ACCURACY DOESN’T MATTER”. And maybe that’s a valid claim too, but for the next game, Call of Duty’s writers should probably make up fake substitutes for the US and Russia to keep things more consistent.

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