This year's most sought-after video game is "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2," a very M-rated -- as in military -- combat simulation released last week in which players control special-ops soldiers, running and gunning their way through realistic 3-D environments.
The game sold 4.7 million copies, generating $310 million, on just the first day after it was released, said publisher Activision.
But parents interested in picking up this game for their kids should remember this caveat: It's also one of the most controversial games of the year, due to one short, five-minute segment where the protagonist is forced to gun down scores of innocent people in a crowded airport. Not exactly the kind of image and interactivity players are ready for after the Fort Hood massacre.
Early in the game, you play an anti-terrorist soldier who has infiltrated a Russian group about to unleash a fury of bullets in an airport.
Not only do you witness the killing, but the game allows you to participate in the shooting spree as well, gunning down screaming bystanders, even wounded ones begging for their lives. If you try to stop the terrorists in any way, the game ends and you have to restart the mission. In fact, you can't progress to the next chapter unless you kill riot police (at one point, the game tells you how to use a grenade launcher on them).
Activision claims it's an important part of the story and helps convey the horror of their acts. I agree -- to a point.
As my review on the front page states today, I like the game for its otherwise outstanding gameplay and graphics. But for the same reason film critics used to complain about mad-slasher films such as "Friday the 13th" always putting audiences in the point-of-view of the killer, I have a problem with conveying an airport massacre through the eyes of a player who must murder innocents.
Why not make the player a horrified observer? Couldn't it have been told just as effectively as a non-interactive cut scene? Or shouldn't the player at least have the option to try and stop the killing at the risk of dying himself? That is one wholly unrealistic aspect to the scene: No undercover agent would even allow that kind of mass killing to occur -- let alone participate in it -- just to keep his cover.
Though the game's developer, Infinity Ward, gives players the option to skip what it acknowledges might be an "offensive" part of the game, that's more of a cop-out.
Game makers have always pushed the idea that interactive entertainment takes storytelling to the next level. Yes, it does. It also makes violence in realistic scenarios feel that much more troubling. Game creators should be more responsible in how they portray it.