On Nov. 13, Activision Games released the latest game in the Call of Duty franchise, “Black Ops Cold War.” It will almost certainly fly off the shelves, the latest installment in a pop culture juggernaut that arguably exerts an influence beyond all but the largest Hollywood blockbuster.

While the popular success of this sort of first-person shooter game has occasioned a fair amount of anxious hand-wringing about the misplaced fear that virtual killings may translate into real world violence, there is also a very real danger in how Call of Duty’s marketers are using claims about history to construct fantasies about the world we live in.

The senior creative director at the software company that developed the game explained the connections between it and the original 2010 “Call of Duty: Black Ops”: “Something that both games have in common is their use of real-world history. . . . This was a critical element that made all the conspiracy so great in the original Black Ops and is something we couldn’t wait to continue.”

The history celebrated in the video game, however, depends on delusional conspiracy theories to simplify the world’s messy complexity. What we really need is a healthy antidote of actual history — one that rests on a critical investigation of primary sources and reminds us that the course of world events depends on the interactions of countless individuals navigating their everyday lives rather than secret decisions made by shadowy and omniscient political puppet masters.

The new game is set in the early 1980s, a period of heightened Cold War tension, when global nuclear war once again seemed a real possibility. In one trailer, a virtual Ronald Reagan enters a room and endorses the covert mission the players are about to take on. They are tasked with seeking out a Soviet agent code-named Perseus and thwarting his plans to threaten the free world and “shift the balance of the Cold War.” As he directs a virtual Secretary of State Alexander Haig to give the covert team whatever it needs, the game’s version of Reagan intones, “there is no higher duty, there is no higher honor” than seeking to defend “our way of life.”

The dialogue is stilted, but its embrace of violence to defend “our way of life” reflects some of the most extreme U.S. rhetoric of the time. In a 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” But just before that phrase for which the speech is generally recalled, Reagan painted a much darker picture of a fantasy of heroic sacrifice in the service of total war, one in which a young father would be willing to sacrifice his two little girls rather than have them “grow up under communism and one day die no longer believing in God.”

Yet more fanciful than this hyperbolic sense of the existential stakes of the geopolitical conflict is the presumption that U.S. leaders had a clear understanding of what they were doing, and that everything they did was right. From Nicaragua to Vietnam to Afghanistan, the local complexities of Cold War conflicts again and again proved that neither the Americans nor the Soviets controlled as many of the pieces as conspiracy theorists like to imagine.

Even in Berlin, the divided city that served as the backdrop for so much Cold War melodrama – and which functions as the hub from which players depart on their various missions in “Black Ops Cold War” – local conditions consistently contradicted the explanations U.S. and Soviet leaders sought to impose on this central Cold War battleground. Whether it was Soviet Zone farmers providing produce to West Berliners during the 1948-49 Berlin Blockade or U.S. Army shopping tours looking for bargains in 1980s East Berlin, the Iron Curtain’s most recognizable dividing line was never as absolute as presidential speechwriters imagined. In fact, the rhetorical flourishes on which the Cold War depended (think of Reagan’s 1987, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”) relied on the ways that Berliners, East and West, had so successfully integrated the Wall into their everyday lives. As is the case with “Black Ops Cold War,” an embrace of Cold War confrontation and violence depended on exoticizing the practical realities of life on the ground.

But by promoting the game as an opportunity for players to “blow up a Cold War conspiracy decades in the making,” marketers are endorsing a dangerous idea, one that has fueled violent white power movements that imagine the need to “bring the war home.” As historian Kathleen Belew has explained, the growth of conspiratorial right-wing movements in the wake of the U.S. war in Vietnam imagined that defeat by a communist enemy abroad could be overcome by taking on new versions of the same enemy, this time on American soil. The racist undertones of the Vietnam War lent themselves to racist and anti-immigrant violence in the United States. Ultimately it was the practice of spectacular violence such as Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that served to bind the movement together.

The Call of Duty advertising campaign links Soviet-era ideology and political protest in the United States, suggesting that leftist protesters were undermining American willingness to face up to Soviet “active measures” that sought to destabilize the United States. And the game provides the opportunity for players to deliver repeated violent spectacles as a means to overcome that threat.

In fact, war fantasies were consistently a core component of Cold War practice — but this is not something to celebrate or romanticize. During the Cold War, the two sides uncritically embraced a mentality of total war in which no element of politics, society or culture was allowed to remain outside of a global life-or-death conflict. That commitment to total war mattered more than any ideology, a fact that helps to explain how that practice has evolved so smoothly since the Cold War ended.

Since the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States has continuously expanded the scope of the problems for which it might offer military solutions, a process that accelerated following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which ushered in the so-called Global War on Terror. While that war has evolved, it nonetheless remains ongoing, and the threat of “terror” now encompasses a nebulous enemy that requires constant mobilization at home and abroad.

One industry observer has already criticized the way that Activision’s willingness to peddle Cold War paranoia has resonated with contemporary proponents of far-right conspiracy theories. But the real threat posed by an ad campaign that asks viewers to “know your history” is more mainstream if no less pernicious.

In the same way that game designers have promoted the “haptic feedback” delivered by new game controllers as a way to convey a better sense of the different weapons players use during the game, the marketing campaign for “Call of Duty” seeks to bolster its appeal with claims to the series’ historical authenticity. But as they sell a game that will reach tens of millions of consumers around the world, they are really promoting a cultural embrace of endless war by means of a dangerously inaccurate interpretation of complex history.

Paul Steege is associate professor of history at Villanova University.


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