Call of Duty is adding women avatars to its multiplayer mode in this, te… seventh? iteration of the franchise. Some people are hailing this as a good thing, some people are hailing it as a bad thing, and some are making the case that it’s a half-measure. I recognise that it’s good that you can, now, finally play a woman in CoD multiplayer. I think there’ weight in the idea that it rings hollow that in 2013, games are starting to remember there’s more than one gender, and this is something to be celebrated. It’s like a child cleaning its room – and it needs to be examined to ensure that it’s not just all stuffing its mess under the bed.
Now, this franchise is probably the single most profitable game franchise – when controlled for lifespan – in history. There’s an argument that there’s room for a hugely successful person to spend some of their success doing daring things. Putting in female avatars is hardly a dealbreaker for the tech involved; they can render a goddamn dog, after all. The contrary cry that’s arisen is a reasonable voice recognising the CoD community: Now that women are in the game in multiplayer, they might become targeted and victimised, and hunted out explicitly because players like hurting women. While I recognise that this is a possibility (and a mean part of me assumes it’s likely), it reflects not on the game and its developers, but rather on the mindset that is associated with the Call of Duty playerbase. It’s problematic to assume something of a group of people; more problematic when that assumption is grounded in fact.
The issues about the separation of game from audience aside, though, what galls me about it is the lie being spread that women don’t exist on the battlefield under the current American military’s rules. That’s like saying because the rules say you can’t slack off KP, nobody slacks off KP, or because you can’t shoot prisoners in the head, nobody shoots prisoners in the head (an example I pulled because I know that one of the Call of Duty games has you do just that, as its ‘shocking’ moment). It’s even worse than those examples, though, because women do have front-line fighting roles, where they are in the front line areas, and fight and respond to the changing circumstances on the ground – but because they, officially, are not front-line troops, that service is not considered when promotions are brought up, and they aren’t valid for many of the medals and distinctions they deserve.
You could make a really interesting game around playing a crashed, female helicopter pilot, thrust into the front line, dealing with the tension betwen what the rules say about her and what everyone interacting with her knows. Instead, a game that purports to be modern and about the real modern military, produced by the country that helps to finance Israel’s real, modern military, wants to stick to a particular set of comforting lies.
No mark against the game, mind you. It’s not for me, but I don’t want to tell anyone anything about the game plays. I just wish there’d been some ambition in the story – some work put into crafting a narrative that is enriched by its device of integrating reality, rather than harmed by it.