For decades, historians of the twentieth century have debated why, exactly, the United States fought a protracted, destructive, and ultimately pointless Cold War with the Soviet Union. Some have claimed that the United States was simply reacting rationally to Joseph Stalin’s provocations; “the brave and essential response of free men to communist aggression,” in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Others, including Stephen Wertheim and myself, have pointed to the traumatizing experience of the 1930s and 1940s, when the struggle with Nazism persuaded a generation of American elites that peace and prosperity depended on global U.S. supremacy. For their part, Marxist historians have insisted that the Cold War was, to borrow the conservative scholar John Lewis Gaddis’s description, about “an aggressive search for markets and investment opportunities overseas, without which the capitalist system in the United States could not survive.” And in the last two decades, a generation of scholars inspired by the work of Odd Arne Westad have argued persuasively that ideology was the key to understanding American and Soviet motivations, and that the Cold War was at base a struggle between capitalism and communism for the hearts and minds of the world.
History is always in flux, reimagined by each new generation of scholars, and the process by which it filters down to American students in schools can be contentious. Most recently, The New York Times’s “1619 Project” sparked controversy when it established the basis for high school curricular reforms intended to “reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation’s foundational date.” The administration of President Donald J. Trump retaliated with its own “1776 Report,” which maintained that “distorted histories” like the “1619 Project” disrespect “students’ independence as young thinkers trying to grapple with social complexity.”
But these debates among historians, liberal journalists, and right wing politicians exist apart from the ways that knowledge of American history is actually disseminated to most “young thinkers.” Indeed, if historians, educators, commentators, and politicians really wanted to shape how youth understand U.S. history, they’d focus on the fact that an overwhelming number of people under eighteen generally first confront extended historical narratives not in the classroom, but at home, as they zonk out in front of the television and while away the best years of their lives playing video games set in Ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, or World War II.
Video games are indisputably a dominant form of entertainment in the United States. According to the (possibly generous) estimate of the Entertainment Software Association, an industry lobbying group, around 214 million Americans, roughly two-thirds of the total population, currently play them, including about 70 percent of all Americans under eighteen. As technological advances have bled other sectors of media dry, gaming has thrived, even and especially throughout the pandemic. As one Hollywood Reporter article underlined, in the third quarter of 2020 consumer spending in the gaming industry surpassed $11.2 billion, an increase of 24 percent from the previous year. For the sake of comparison, in February 2020, the month before the Covid-19 lockdowns began, domestic theater box office receipts barely topped $634 million. What movies were to the twentieth century, video games are to the twenty-first. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these games have become the primary medium through which many young Americans first encounter complex narratives about U.S. history.
For eight out of the last eleven years, a Call of Duty game has been the top-selling video game in the United States. Call of Duty is a “first-person shooter” (FPS), a type of game in which players assume the perspective of a “shooter” who travels through varied environments killing enemies. The genre stretches from pixelated shoot-’em-ups like Wolfenstein 3D to nostalgic classics like 1997’s GoldenEye 007. And as the former’s Germanic title suggests, for decades FPS games have taken inspiration from history, with World War II — a conflict that clearly pitted “good guys” against “bad guys” — serving as a particularly common setting.
The first Call of Duty was released in October 2003, two years after the United States invaded Afghanistan and seven months after the country invaded Iraq. The game, which was set entirely in World War II’s European Theater of Operations and which involved killing thousands of Nazis, was very much a product of the post-Cold War and post-9/11 eras. Similar to other successful cultural products of the 1990s and 2000s, from Saving Private Ryan to Band of Brothers, the first Call of Duty returned to the founding moment of the modern American Empire to justify its post-Cold War claim to being the world’s “indispensable nation.” And it was an enormous success, selling around 4.5 million copies, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars, and setting the stage for a series that now includes dozens of games that allow players to shoot people in many different times (The 1940s! The 1960s! The 2060s!) and places (Vietnam! Cuba! Southern California!). Call of Duty is that kitschy t-shirt slogan about the Marines — “Travel To Exotic Places. Meet New People. Then Kill Them” — come to electronic life.
The recently released Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War was just named the top selling game of 2020. Right now, this one game is teaching millions of young Americans about the epic struggle between their government and the Soviet Union, a century-defining cataclysm that resulted in tens of millions of deaths, reshaped world history, and engendered the ideological struggles that presently bedevil the public sphere. But where the original Call of Duty was all rah-rah patriotism, the latest entry in the series evinces how cynical the franchise — and, by extension, American politics — has become.
As the United States remains mired in a series of endless wars that show little sign of abating, as the nation continues to spend more on its military than the next ten countries combined, and as the country maintains access to hundreds of military bases that do little but threaten smaller powers, Americans have become willing consumers of stories that portray their nation as fallible, foolish, and maybe even a little bit evil.
The Call of Duty universe is broken up into three broad strands: World War II, Modern Warfare, and Black Ops, the last of which centers Special Operations Forces and spans from the Cold War far into the future. Whereas the World War II games largely adhere to the treacly tracks laid by Steven Spielberg (“America? Good. Nazis? Bad. War? Mezzo-mezzo.”), the Modern Warfare and Black Ops series are forced, by dint of their contemporary settings, to engage in some actual politics. A recent Modern Warfare title, for instance, fictionalized the infamous “highway of death,” a real-life Iraqi road bombed by the United States during the Gulf War’s final stages, as a Russian atrocity rather than an American one. In the Modern Warfare universe, war is hell, but at least the United States is (mostly) good.
But where Modern Warfare is vanilla and self-serious, Black Ops is lurid and kooky. The games star grizzled reactionaries with tenuous government allegiances who do whatever’s necessary to protect the American way of life, and for whom the vicious immorality of that violent project is its own reward.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War begins just after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981. Mindful of the humiliation the United States has suffered during the Iran hostage crisis, the new president has “authorized a black operation to take down two [of its] suspected masterminds.” You play as various members of the CIA team charged with this and other operations.
After a number of twists and turns that take you from Amsterdam to Turkey to East Germany, you learn that a Soviet secret agent, codenamed “Perseus,” plans to detonate several neutron bombs earlier placed by the United States under European cities to ensure the latter never fell into enemy hands. Perseus predicts that, when he explodes the nukes, the international public will assume the United States did it, which will turn the nation into global enemy number one and spur the Soviet Union on to victory in the Cold War.
Upon discovering this nefarious plan, you spend the rest of the game trying to find out where Perseus is located. This is when the plot takes a bizarre turn, as you are instructed to do things like infiltrate the Lubyanka Building, better known as KGB headquarters. Based on the intelligence you gather from the KGB, you eventually learn that Perseus is hiding on the White Sea’s Solovetsky Islands. In the final mission, you travel to the islands and prevent Perseus from detonating the nukes, though the secret agent himself escapes to fight another day.
In Black Ops Cold War, players assume the identities of a number of characters, including Alex Mason, a CIA operative, and Dmitri Belikov, a KGB agent on the U.S. government’s payroll. But you spend most of your time as “Bell,” the codename of the game’s protagonist. (My official character name was “Daniel ‘Bell’ Bessner,” so it was sometimes fun to imagine that my avatar was the well-known mid-century sociologist who authored The End of Ideology.)
Bell’s backstory is a tragic and confusing one. By the game’s end (spoiler alert!), you learn that he was an associate of Perseus whom one of the Iranian “masterminds” from the very first mission attempted to murder. The CIA, however, saved Bell’s life and used mind-altering drugs taken from the top secret Project MKUltra to trick him into thinking he was a long-standing CIA operative. Bell eventually learns the truth, and, though he was manipulated by the CIA, nonetheless decides to tell the Americans where Perseus is hiding, saving millions of lives. (At least, that’s the choice I made; one can also decide to lie to the Americans, which ultimately results in Bell detonating the neutron bombs hidden under Europe.)
In telling this story, Black Ops Cold War repeats, and refigures, one of the classic tropes of Cold War-era fiction: brainwashing. As Scott Selisker notes in Human Programming, during the Cold War thinkers and intellectuals across the political spectrum deployed the idea of brainwashing, though to different ends. For the center and the right, describing Cold War enemies, whether Soviet, Korean, or Vietnamese, as brainwashed ideological pawns “allowed Americans to imagine that the citizens of totalitarian states had been somehow conditioned, such that they became masses of human automatons, will-less and therefore less human.” Such a perspective presented the battle between capitalism and communism as a necessary struggle between a “free” world and a “slave” world, making it easier to manufacture consent for the Cold War.
Nevertheless, at the same time that Cold War propagandists presented “totalitarians” as programmed simpletons, more progressive thinkers like Ralph Ellison (in Invisible Man) and Betty Friedan (in The Feminine Mystique) turned this image on its head, claiming that it was actually oppressive American institutions that transformed people (be they African Americans or housewives) into brainwashed automatons. To take one example, and to borrow Selisker’s phrasing, Friedan’s “image of the housewife as robot [was] a way to imagine that life as subhuman.” According to Friedan, Ellison, and others, the true struggle for freedom was not found in the geopolitical arena, but at home.
As its story unfolds in a scattershot, non-chronological fashion, Black Ops Cold War combines elements of both the left and right wing perspectives. Bell began his career an avowed “totalitarian,” an unrepentant ally of Perseus bent on destroying the United States and its freedoms. So, from the view of the center and the right, his brainwashing at the hands at the CIA was deserved and, perhaps, benevolent — at least he was now on the right (pun intended) side of history. But Black Ops Cold War simultaneously takes pains to present the CIA as morally corrupt, willing to kill Europeans with neutron bombs rather than allow them to live under Soviet domination. In the world of the game, not only is the CIA fine with murdering tens of millions of innocents, but, by virtue of its brainwashing of Bell, it is also willing to upend democracy — which by definition depends on the ability to think freely — itself.
Black Ops Cold War reflects the cynicism of the era of endless war in which it was produced, in which few people (possibly not even President Joe Biden) really think the United States remains the world’s indispensable nation. Both a perpetrator of violence and a victim of institutions beyond his control, Bell is neither a good guy nor a bad guy, just a soldier fighting wars that will one day be forgotten, based on choices over which he had no say.
So what message would the average fourteen-year-old take away from Black Ops Cold War? To riff on a phrase coined by Mark Fisher, the game evinces an “imperialist realism” that can’t quite justify American actions abroad, but also can’t imagine a world outside of a militarily dominant U.S. empire. This idea is clearly expressed in Bell’s trigger phrase (“We’ve got a job to do”), which implicitly affirms that in the Cold War, and perhaps in every war, all a soldier can do is put his or her head down and get to work. Though nothing — not the CIA, not the Soviet Union, not even one’s own mind — can be trusted, no other world is possible, so you might as well support your own empire.
After finishing Black Ops Cold War, our hypothetical young American will have learned very little about the actual Cold War itself. Historians have spent decades underlining the importance of ideology to the battle between the United States and the Soviet Union, but the game’s players never learn what, exactly, the two sides are fighting over; the words “capitalism” and “communism” are barely uttered. Instead, the game presents geopolitics as being about nothing but power, accepting the rather blinkered vision of so-called “realists” who reduce international relations to a struggle of might. This perspective is not just wrong — ideas, as innumerable scholars have demonstrated, inform how countries act in the world — but it also teaches young people that the only thing that matters in global politics is strength, and that they therefore must support the grotesque structures of the American empire: the 750 overseas bases, the enormous defense budget, the hundreds of thousands of troops stationed abroad. After all, the game argues, if they don’t, some other antagonist will arise to defy, and ultimately overtake, the United States.
Black Ops Cold War thus embraces an incredibly pessimistic theory of human nature, one in which people don’t fight over ideas, or even interests, but because fighting is what people do. While on its surface, Black Ops Cold War appears to offer a critique of U.S. foreign policy, the game’s profound cynicism ensures that it can’t offer a positive program, a way out of the present stagnation. It ultimately presents conflict as a necessary feature of American, and international, life, subtly endorsing the status quo position of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, which for almost a hundred years has claimed that the only way to keep the United States safe is to build a world-spanning empire that prevents other nations from becoming too powerful. The game takes a look at the Cold War, throws up its proverbial hands, and insists that it couldn’t have gone any other way. To paraphrase Fredric Jameson: Black Ops Cold War finds it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of American imperialism.
Perhaps this is why the Pentagon has embraced the game as a recruiting tool.
The connections between the military and gaming communities span decades, going all the way back to 1962, when MIT students created the first modern video game on a computer funded by the Department of Defense. These links have remained remarkably stable over time. In 1999, the U.S. Army granted the University of Southern California $45 million to found the Institute for Creative Technologies, whose mission, in the reporter Adi Robertson’s words, “was to draw on new entertainment tools to build military training simulations.” Then, on July 4, 2002, the military released America’s Army, which, according to the deputy director of Army Game Studio, “allows players to learn about being a Soldier by taking on the role of an American Soldier participating in force-on-force operations as part of a team.” (The most recent edition of America’s Army, Proving Grounds, came out in 2015.) Moreover, military veterans have regularly consulted with game developers to make first-person shooters more realistic and, in the process, valorize and romanticize the U.S. Armed Forces. Most infamously, Iran-Contra plotter and one-time National Rifle Association chief Oliver North appeared in the second Black Ops game, for which he was a paid consultant.
In recent years, the military has also turned to video games to recruit the next generation of troops. Officers are well aware that, as 1st Sergeant Glenn Grabbs told the Army Times in November 2018, when not in school “a big section of the [youth] population … goes into some sort of e-gaming interest.” In order “to create awareness about the Army and the opportunities it provides” and to “help make our Soldiers more visible and relatable to today’s youth,” the Army formed an eSports team. (The Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Space Force have likewise fielded eSports teams.) In collaboration with the Call of Duty Endowment — a 501(c)(3) non-profit co-founded by the CEO of Activision Blizzard (the company behind Call of Duty) to aid veterans — the military recently established the CODE Bowl, where military eSports teams play Call of Duty against each other.
Even more important, military recruiters and affiliated eSports teams have started to play games on popular streaming platforms like Twitch. As Jordan Uhl has described a typical military stream in The Nation:
“A recruiter, usually a man in his 30s, sits comfortably in his gamer chair inside a dimly lit room illuminated by a monitor and the colorful LED lights of his computer tower. An American flag hangs on the wall behind his right shoulder, an oversized stuffed animal sits to his left. He’s playing Call of Duty or Valorant. He’s friendly, and talks about how much he loves being in the Army.”
The reach of these and other efforts is expansive. In 2019, the Army’s eSports team was seen by millions of people and, according to the Army News Service, “the team has garnered 8,500 [recruiting] leads in the first four months of fiscal year 2020, more than doubling the 3,500 leads they got in all of fiscal year 2019.”
The U.S. military, it seems, is not especially concerned about the critical messages offered in games like Black Ops Cold War. The latter, in fact, was the game played at the 2020 CODE Bowl (won by the Space Force team). To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the genre of “first-person shooter” is more important than the specific themes evident in individual products. It’s not difficult to see why: after I beat the latest Call of Duty, I was far more impressed by the exhilarating (if morally abhorrent) experience of mowing down thousands of enemies than I was by the confusing and elliptical story I had just been told. No critical narrative, no matter how well-constructed, can hold a candle to the visceral thrills of digital murder. And the narrative in Black Ops Cold War is not well-constructed.
When it comes to gaming, genre matters more than content. It may not be all that important what story Black Ops Cold War — or, really, any first-person shooter — tries to tell. (Indeed, the game’s single-player campaign is designed to last only a few hours; most of the game’s players sink the majority of their time into its multiplayer offerings.) Even if a game portrays war as hell, the thing that matters is that the player is rewarded for using cool guns to kill faceless people. Simply put, the most important fact of any FPS is that the player is required to murder with abandon, which necessarily reinforces the militarism that permeates American popular culture. The FPS genre might, in fact, be unavoidably reactionary; even an “anti-imperialist” shooter that allowed players to assume the identities of anti-colonial forces would be premised on wanton murder.
This is what the U.S. military understands, and why it’s willing to promote games like Black Ops Cold War that offer some critique of U.S. foreign policy. In the final analysis, it’s the murder, and not the message, that matters most.
Daniel Bessner is the Joff Hanauer Honors Associate Professor in Western Civilization in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and author of Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual (Cornell, 2018).