The video game business continues to thrive in first-world societies, particularly in America. Sony recently announced the development of a PlayStation 4 that will hit store shelves in late 2013, and Microsoft is expected to follow that up with the release of the Xbox 720. There’s seemingly no slowing down this business that, according to the Entertainment Software Association, earned about $25 billion in 2011. For the past four years, the top selling video game has been from the “Call of Duty” franchise, a war simulation that has sold more than 100 million copies since its original release in 2003. But what does it mean that America’s favorite video game is nothing more than a first-person shooter with good graphics and gameplay that entices users to spend hundreds of hours playing?
Twentieth century German philosophy Herbert Marcuse wouldn’t be too pleased. Not because the Call of Duty games often shed a bad light on Germans and glorify the killing of various Europeans, but because COD seems to find its success in taking advantage of society’s growing proclivity to find enjoyment in simple and gory things that hardly make us think. While the incredible technology and realistic graphics that allow COD to develop such a following are impressive and would be considered by many to be a significant artistic achievement in modern society, others would say that putting so much research and effort into a video game for nothing more than profit hurts our culture.
Would Marcuse call Call of Duty “art”? Probably not.
In chapter three of his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse says that “art contains the rationality of negation,” and he goes on to argue that true art offers some insight into what our world could or should be, a “Great Refusal” as he dubs it (Marcuse Ch. 3).
What “Great Refusal” does Call of Duty suggest when it leads players on a mission to kill appearing zombies for as many levels as possible? How does 10 online gamers on the same map running around trying to kill each other in virtual reality stimulate our minds and require us to think about improving society?
The answer is easy: It doesn't.
As someone who frequently plays video games, including the COD series, I agree with Marcuse’s probable answer by saying that there is little-to-no cultural positive result from the Call of Duty games. Video games like COD take advantage of our need for instantaneous entertainment and communication—I play the games mainly as a means to stay in touch with my friends who attended other colleges. The other cultural significance I can think of resulting from the Call of Duty franchise is the brief, largely distorted history lessons about past wars that occasionally pop up in the game’s storyline. Meanwhile, the often-discussed negatives—addicting kids to video games instead of activities like playing sports or reading, limiting actual face-to-face interactions with family and friends, and, most worrisome some would argue, creating a culture of violence that has led to more mass gun shootings in recent years—far outweigh any potential benefits that COD produces.
But although he would undoubtedly be infuriatingly annoyed by the prevalence of video games such as Call of Duty in the twenty-first century, Marcuse was willing to accept, even 50 years ago, that type of popularity is to be expected in a capitalist society dominated by rapidly increasing technologies that have essentially made true art irrelevant.
“Now this essential gap between the arts and the order of the day, kept open in the artistic alienation, is progressively closed by the advancing technological society,” Marcuse said. “And with its closing, the Great Refusal is in turn refused; the other dimension" is absorbed into the prevailing state of affairs” (Marcuse Ch. 3).
The other dimension being the zombie farm on Call of Duty: Black Ops II.