Taking Call of Duty seriously

London’s Evening Standard asked me to write a comment piece for release day about Call of Duty: Black Ops, and I was happy to oblige.

If you’ve always fancied re-enacting covert Cold War commando operations, you’re in luck. This is what’s on offer in Call of Duty: Black Ops, seventh game in the Call of Duty video game series, released today.

Expect the now standard reception for it: huge acclaim in games reviews, some disapproving newspaper articles, and hundreds of millions of pounds of sales to add to the £2 billion-plus the series has grossed to date.

No medium is more divisive than video-gaming; and no genre of games embodies this divide better than first-person shooting games, of which the Call of Duty series is a supreme example. To watch someone playing them is, for a non-gamer, potentially unsettling. A player spends hours staring at a screen — hands twitching, facial expressions churning — interacting hundreds of times per minute with what appears to be a relentlessly savage war movie.

It’s a little like watching someone play bridge when you’ve never seen a deck of cards before. If, of course, this game of bridge were being played in trenches by grim-faced mercenaries.

Modern video games are becoming increasingly cinematic experiences, and it’s this visceral realism that underpins perhaps the most understandable objections to the medium. Black Ops itself has an 18 certificate, and boasts a cast of voice actors fit for any A-list Hollywood thriller: Gary Oldman, Ed Harris and Sam Worthington, among others. It also has a production and marketing budget running to hundreds of millions.

Yet the movie analogy is deceiving — for the secret to understanding modern games lies not so much in looks or sounds as in how they are constructed.

The best analogy is not film but architecture. Video games are spaces within which things happen. These spaces may now look stunningly realistic but at their heart lies a function that has changed little since Space Invaders: the creation of miniature worlds which players experience actively, learning as they progress, mastering tasks and challenges. A successful game is one within which actions, challenges and opportunities are meaningfully balanced; and where, from simple rules, complex behaviours emerge.

In Black Ops, these behaviours revolve around spatial geometry, lightning reactions, teamwork and the management of limited resources. Visceral thrills are there but they are not enough to explain what is happening — or its appeal to millions of gamers, not all either teenage or male.

Unlike cinema, every aspect of a game’s world must be crafted from scratch: not only its buildings, vehicles, landscapes, characters and sounds, but every frame of their movement and of the physics governing their behaviour. Hundreds of experts work to create this environment and its mechanics, building on the software engines that underpin previous games: programmers, artists, testers, musicians, animators, modellers, interface designers, sound designers, actors, managers, directors.

All of this matters. Games such as Black Ops offer some of the most popular cultural experiences of the 21st century. If we wish to critique games — as we should, if we hope to engage with the world’s fastest-growing medium — it is no longer enough to snipe from the sidelines.