Friday, December 24, 2010

The Call Of Duty Effect

I found myself queuing on a bitter November night outside my local Gamestation, the clock crawling its way agonizingly towards midnight. It was a pretty long queue, a crowd of around 80 to 100 people had turned out in one of North London’s least glamorous locations for the event, and it would seem that about 5.6 million of us around the world had a similar plan. It could only be “The Biggest Entertainment Launch In History!” - Call Of Duty Black Ops.

The previous month I’d been to the midnight launch of Halo: Reach; an altogether more serene affair. There was less pushing, less perturbation and distinctly fewer people. Perhaps this might just have been symptomatic of this particular part of North London’s FPS allegiances, but the furore surrounding Black Ops certainly made Reach’s opening seem like a somewhat sombre affair.

In my social circle it would be fair to say that video games rarely creep into the conversation, let alone cement themselves as a mutually recognized pass time. In fact, I’m pretty much on my own when it comes my passion, meaning that any half-hearted invites to Halo: Reach’s launch were shot down faster than low flying Banshee.

I got on the Tube, walked to the shop, bought a copy of Reach and returned home to play it all on my lonesome. Fair enough, this may be more of a reflection of my friends’ disinterest in games, or at least a disinterest in Halo, than a meaningful statement, yet the same sense of solitude was exempt from my Black Ops launch experience.

A barrage of texts, Facebook messages and general hype mongering ensued from those, for whom the annual Call Of Duty instalment is by and large the one and only game they play - counting down the days, hours and minutes before midnight, November 9th 2010.

Its bizarre; they’ll disassociate themselves entirely from video game culture, and if anything, frown upon anyone that would openly classify themselves as a ‘gamer', yet when it comes to COD they’re completely obsessive.

Q -
“You played Dragon Age? It’s an RPG from Bioware”

A - “What’s a Bioware?, anyway RPGs are f**king geeky”.

Q -
“Fair enough, you thought about giving Bioshock a go if you’re into first person shooters?”

A - “Bioshock!? Sounds pretty gay to be honest…”

Q -
“What do you like playing then?”

A - “Just COD really, don’t really play much else, yeah, only COD…”

Ok, so I may have overstated the puerility of such conversations. However, these are the same individuals who were willing to trek out with me on a freezing cold night, queue for over an hour, and hand over 50 quid for strictly this game only, and play it relentlessly for the next year. They don’t even really like video games, but they love Call Of Duty.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here. The chances are that many dedicated gamers know people that wont even consider powering up a console unless there’s the allure of kill streak rewards, chopper gunners, level 15 prestige and general bloodshed as a result.

Why, for them, is sitting in for hours playing COD absolutely fine, yet doing the same with say, an RPG or an RTS deemed socially inept? It’s almost as if COD has become such a popular form of mainstream entertainment, that it has shifted from merely being a ‘video game’ into an acceptable hobby. Personally, I’m caught in two minds about if this is a positive or negative thing for the medium as a whole.

Not being blessed with an array of friends willing to pick up a controller without being incessantly pestered by myself, my initial reaction is one of satisfaction. After all, talking about the irritation of sprinting round a corner headlong into an RC-XD is at least a form of gaming discussion within which to eagerly participate.

So on the surface Call Of Duty is a good thing. It gets people playing games who’d otherwise shirk away in distain from the very idea of doing so. I’m very much in favour of gaming becoming an ever more celebrated pass time; and if any series has broken the barrier between successful video game and cultural phenomenon then COD is certainly it.

It would be fair to note that franchises such as World of Warcraft, Starcraft etc.. are played on a massive scale, yet there’s still a stigma that (at least here in the West) prevents them from being accepted, socially, into mainstream culture.

Maybe this says something about our collective outlook on acceptability. I might be sitting on a bus and overhear a group discussing which perks compliment which map types and kill streaks, but I can’t say the same for tips on ascending to level 70 as a Druid in WOW. There is undoubtedly an insane amount of discussion regarding the latter, but I’m sure it would tend to be more of a specialist nature rather than creep into everyday conversation.

That might come across as a sweeping generalisation which inevitably many will disagree with, but the point about Call Of Duty’s unwavering popularity is a valid one.
Activision Blizzard recently announced that Black Ops had grossed $1 billion worldwide, not bad going for a game that has only been out for two and a half months.

Of course, such popularity doesn’t simply materialise out of thin air without a degree of quality. And yes, (I’ll use the most recent example for the sake of not having to broadly refer to the whole COD franchise) Black Ops is a good game. It’s visceral, relentless and undeniably entertaining, yet it is not the crème de la crème of videogames; in fact, although it’s perhaps the most refined online COD experience to date, is it even really at the pinnacle of the FPS genre?

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve really enjoyed playing the latest COD. I queued up in the freezing cold for it, have beaten the campaign on hardened and veteran, and sunk a good 20 odd hours into reaching first prestige. However - and this is where the counter argument to celebrating COD’s success comes in - there are so many more fulfilling and praiseworthy gaming experiences out there. Why do so many people seem to think that video games begin and end with Call Of Duty?

I’m aware that I’m in danger of sounding like I’m adopting a holier-than-thou attitude here, but the limitations of adopting such a restrictive stance towards any other games is ridiculous.

Video games at their best can be deep, intuitive and emotionally engaging experiences. How many of the former can Black Ops truly claim to represent? Yes it’s entertaining, yet fundamentally shallow. After reaching first prestige, the longevity essentially lies in repeating the same process fifteen times. I’ve had some pretty extensive sessions on Black Ops, maybe seven to eight hours straight, and the entire process has simply washed over me. Sure, I was sufficiently immersed for the duration of that time, playing with robotic efficiency, yet was never truly captivated by the experience.

Ok, so people don’t buy Call Of Duty because it offers sandbox exploration, ingenuity or to emotionally connect with it, they buy it to shoot things. This is all well and good, and who am I to preach to people what they should and shouldn’t play? All I’m saying is that there are so many other games that deserve the same devoted attention that staunch COD fanatics give to their beloved franchise.

Generally speaking I don’t think we’d only watch action films or not read anything but crime novels. No, we’d branch out and explore the multitude of possibilities that both cinema and literature offer us, why can’t we do the same with video games?

The chances are that as you’re reading this on a games website, that your interest in video games extends well beyond Call Of Duty. You may love it, you may hate it, or like myself you might enjoy it for what it is and nothing beyond that; but there’s certainly no doubting the series’ full scale assault on our consciousness .

For me the jury is still out on whether COD is good or bad for gaming. It’s a relentless juggernaut of a franchise, but is it really representative of the undeniable creativity, talent and artistic vision that industry undoubtedly harbours? Probably not. Is it shallow, yet markedly entertaining? Certainly.

Enjoying video games is the whole reason we play them, and I certainly don’t begrudge COD for that. However, Call Of Duty devotees should acknowledge that there‘s so much more outside of the encompassing bubble. As the old phrase goes - there are plenty more fish in the sea…