‘Call of Duty’: Modern warfare’s Middle Eastern politics of ignorance

The latest title in the video game franchise misses a great opportunity to teach Americans a little about the world.

A map of Middle East between Africa Europe and Central Asia (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A map of Middle East between Africa Europe and Central Asia
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The coronavirus lockdown gave me some time to try a few new things. As a professor of political science who does most of his work on the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, I’m usually too busy teaching classes or traveling to the Middle East for research and conferences to play games. My 11-year-old son, along with legions of other kids torturing their parents at home while school was canceled, was bored and wanted to play the new 2019 version of the Call of Duty video game.
I needed to check the game out myself before giving him permission, of course. It turns out the mature content of the campaign is way too much for a kid his age.
Even worse in my eyes, however, was the impression that after being subjected to such a ridiculous story line, the kid would know less rather than more about the Middle East and the world.
Somehow, Infinity Ward spent millions of dollars creating a technically and graphically superb game, with consultants from the US Marine Corps making sure they got all the little details of weapons and smallunit tactics just right, but couldn’t come up with something less ridiculous than “Uzrikstan” as their setting.
Uzrikstan is their fictional country on the Black Sea (according to the in-game map), just south of the Russian town of Sochi and west of the Republic of Georgia. Unlike anywhere else on the Black Sea, Uzrikstan is also full of deserts and populated by Arabs – some 900 miles from the nearest Arab population centers of southern Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
In Call of Duty, crack teams of commandos from the United States and Britain go after Russian bad guys and terrorists (“al Qatala” – which means “the Slaughterers” in Arabic). In the process, they team up with good “freedom fighters” of Urzikstan who just want to free their country from Russian occupation.
That’s what al Qatala (AQ) wants too, though, so the only thing apparently differentiating the two are AQ’s willingness to engage in terrorism. AQ in Call of Duty has nothing to do with an extremist interpretation of Islam – that would be too close to reality. No, the AQ in this game are just “anarchist” freedom fighters (apologies to real anarchists everywhere).
So instead of a game that offered players valuable snippets of politically interesting conversation here and there (such as “I’m a good Muslim, but their Islam is different – they use it as a tool to try and take political power, to justify atrocities”), we are left incredulous that moral scruples regarding tactics cause these two “Uzriki” groups to fight each other to the death.
More puzzling is that the white characters in the game all get real nation-states to belong to (the US, Russia, Britain). But the brown folks? Who cares? Let’s make them be from a place called “Uzrikstan”! Last year, Polygon Magazine asked Jacob Minkoff, single-player design director at Infinity Ward, about this apparent double standard.
He replied that terrorists conduct attacks outside their home country because of foreign occupation or foreign interference.
“So, that’s why we can have countries like the UK being attacked by terrorists.”
WHEN IT COMES to the countries in the Middle East, however, “It becomes much more politically fraught, politically complex.... When you talk about spending a whole bunch of time in this Middle Eastern country, where we’re going to be tracking down the terrorist leader and working alongside freedom fighters in that country, we just didn’t want to get wrapped up in the politics of any specific real world country.
“That’s because, number one, we don’t know enough about the politics of any given country to be able to do it respectfully. And number two, it would tie our hands as developers where we have these ideas of emotionally impactful narrative moments, exciting game-play moments, and we want to be able to bring those to the screen without having to worry about, ‘Well, that’s not accurate to this conflict. That thing didn’t really happen.’” This answer amounts to nothing more than complete nonsense. Infinity Ward brought in consultants from the US military and others to get every aspect of the weaponry in the game just right, but they couldn’t bring in a single political scientist, historian or sociologist familiar with the Middle East? The company has other games set in real political contexts with fictional details, such as when Russia invades America in a prior Call of Duty game. That didn’t really happen in real life now, did it? Using Jacob Minkoff’s logic, why didn’t Infinity War ever have a fictional stand-in for America? Just like they fused elements of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Chechnya in the 1990s and Syria today to create “Uzrikstan,” the fictional America in earlier Call of Duty games could have looked like America, but with a population that speaks German and dresses like they do in France – “Gerfransica” perhaps.
But that sounds ridiculous, right? Does it sound more ridiculous than “Uzrikstan,” the mountainous Arab “Middle Eastern” state on the northeastern Black Sea coast that grows poppies and has no religion? It gets worse, unfortunately. The game developers told The Guardian newspaper last year that one of the protagonists for their single player campaign, “Farah Karim,” was inspired by the female Kurdish fighters in Syria today. Yet in the game, she’s suddenly Arab (because everyone in the Middle East is Arab and lives in a desert, apparently).
The Kurds in Syria have been badly oppressed by Arab nationalist regimes since the 1950s, and today most are proud that in contrast to Arab political groups across the region, women in many of their movements take on real leadership roles.
For Infinity Ward to take this example and flip it on its head seems plain wrong.
It would be a bit like claiming Anne Frank’s story inspired your game or movie, but making the Anne Frank character a German Christian girl hiding from the Russians in World War Two, and never even mentioning the Jews or the Nazis.
It doesn’t have to be this way. You can fictionalize the details of specific battle scenarios (although enough happens in the Middle East that you don’t even need to do this) while still situating the game in an accurate and interesting political-historical-social context.
An example would be the excellent film set in Iraq at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, Three Kings (1999), starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze. The details in this film are fictional (no American GIs ever went into southern Iraqi towns looking to steal Saddam’s hidden treasure hordes), but the setting truly captures the politics, mood and sectarian issues gripping Iraq at the time – from Saddam’s ruthless style to the American betrayal of Shi’ite civilians who, at the urging of George Bush Sr., rose up against Saddam’s regime in March of 1991.
So yes, a game can be set in a real political and historical context, even when dealing with countries in which brown folk live. Players could actually learn a thing or two about different sectarian identities (Kurdish, Druze, Alawi, Yezidi, Chaldean, Assyrian, Armenian, Arab, Turkmen and others) present in places like Syria, or at least get treated to snippets of dialogue and allusions to these identities and the actual politics of the area.
The writer is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University, and the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.