Thanks to Fritz Wolfmeyer who alerted me to a remarkable TV commercial for Xbox's Call of Duty: Black Ops. Check this out:
Chris Hedges, in his already classic book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, writes that the "myth of war" portrays armed conflict as something that offers us access to "a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty" -- one filled with "excitement, exoticism, power" and "chances to rise above our small stations in life." (p. 3) After watching this spot, I started to wonder if it's creators had actually read Hedges book.
The spot also captures another aspect of war that Hedges says contributes to its almost addictive power: the "warm, unfamiliar bond" it creates with other warriors -- those people from whom we're normally alienated. (p. 9)
In fact, the commercial goes out of its way to present its war games as having universal appeal: men and women, of a variety of ethnicities and classes -- construction workers, professionals, blue collar types, NBA stars and even a TV talk show host -- all join together to blast away.
But what really struck me about the spot was the clear presence of an emotion I don't normally associate with war, real or virtual: happiness. After the characters fire their rounds, some break break out in smiles.
They almost look relieved. But about what, exactly?
To Keep It Real, You've Got to be Fake
Despite the realism such games promise through their imagery, it struck me that this TV spot also assured you that Black Ops would really be fake as well. The violence gets so over-the-top at times that it resembles, say, Tarantino films, more than it does any sort of documentary.
The guy with the mustache, dressed in what looks like a fast-food server's uniform, blazing away with a gun in each hand while walking triumphantly from the explosion in back of him, ends the spot with a real comic touch.
And then there's the presence of the celebrities. No one in their right mind believes mega-millionaires like Kobe Bryant or Jimmy Kimmel would ever end up fighting in an actual battle. Aside from mere cool (not enough anymore!) their presence adds a real kookiness to the aesthetics.
This exaggerated, unrealistic -- and funny -- side to the commercial made me think of something else Hedges wrote. This time, on the appeal of Pro Wrestling:
"The success of professional wrestling, like most of the entertainment that envelops our culture, lies not in fooling us that these stories are real. Rather, it succeeds because we asked to be fooled. We happily pay for the chance to suspend reality." (pp. 5-6)
In connection with all this, I remembered something I read about the techniques of promotion that were discovered by that original guru of pop culture entertainment, P.T. Barnum. Barnum found that the exhibits of his that drew the largest crowds were those whose authenticity was most controversial.
In fact, he would plant letters in newspapers, under assumed names, that accused his freakish people and creatures of being absolutely faked (which, of course, they were).
The fakery of Xbox foregrounds the fact that, as real as all the explosions look, you're entering a virtual world -- perhaps the only place you really can "be all you can be" (or, to paraphrase the tagline, find a little bit of the soldier in yourself).
So, on the one hand, I read the smiles I see as expressions of how much fun it is to escape into an unreal, and because of that, exciting world. But the relief I sense, I think, resonates with something more socially significant.
For me, the spot revolves around a feeling of tension and release. As it opens, you see "all walks of life" -- "the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker", not to mention the NBA star -- looking serious as they grip their weapons.
As the spot progresses, each lets off an absurd number of rounds and then experiences pleasure, mock-triumph, or some mix of the two.
Because we're living in what might be called a "populist moment", I couldn't help but think of this scenario as an allegory about "popular rage." People share a bond; many, it seems, are mad as hell. But, what they're mad at, and who the enemy exactly is -- are seen, if at all, through some pretty strange lenses.
The spot mirrors this mystery and confusion. For a non-gamer like myself at least, it's hard to really tell who's shooting at who. Or to see the enemy's faces. But clear or not, the spot promises viewers a way to discharge some of their angst. Fast.
Thanks to Xbox, anyone can open fire right now. And you don't even have to wait until you see the whites of their eyes.