Actively Measured, Passively Advertised – Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War

Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War’s Controversies, Catharsis and Contributions to the Gamer-Gate Conversation

I imagine it was an intense silence that consumed the creative boardroom at Treyarch while they tried to conceive of a new scenario for players to run about shooting at things repetitively. Then, one of the employees suddenly brightened up with a totally original and never before thought of the idea and stood triumphantly to announce that they should just reboot something they’ve already done! And hence, developers were back at work like elves in Santa’s workshop as they went about crafting a triple-A game that would be just different enough but not too different from previous installments to warrant the proverbial shelling out of the cash.

Released just a few days ago, Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War has managed to accomplish its mission once again, breaking record sales of digital downloads upon its Friday the 13th release. I recently managed to work my way through its intensive campaign, insisting on doing the job in ‘realism’ mode, where your health is minimal and the enemy AI is armed with player-face-seeking bullets.  I must say that I am happily satisfied with the experience though a little miffed at what feels like a missed catharsis of intellectual tension drummed up by the advertising campaign. I’ve long been a Call of Duty fan, from the fourth installment’s bout of crawling about disguised as a shrub, to committing war crimes in a Russian airport, and even the franchise’s identity crisis of fighting Kit Harrington in space, but 2020’s summer was punctuated by a controversial teaser trailer which had my immediate pre-order and subsequent anticipation.

Previously, the immensely successful Modern Warfare, a reboot of the aforementioned fourth installment, let us play along the line of controversy in combating terrorism amid beautiful graphics. Cold War shifts us through history to covert intelligence operations in the 1980s. However, it was the teaser trailer which raised our collective eyebrows when rather than feature gameplay of any kind, we found ourselves presented with crisis footage from real-world historical events, cut dramatically with clips of an interview with Yuri Bezmenov where the former KGB propaganda agent discloses and explains ‘Active Measures’. At any other time, the trailer might have fallen flat, but during 2020’s political chaos it stood out as a blood pressure raising and conspiracy theory trafficking revelation. I am attracted to controversy like a fruit fly to sweet sticky paper. My fascination heightened when the original trailer had to be re-edited and rereleased to exclude footage of the protests in Tiananmen, cough cough China cough cough.

Bezmenov explains a KGB strategy to undermine and weaken political enemies in his real-life interview with conspiracy theorist G. Edward Griffin. An interview that circulated gamer Youtube rapidly along with Bezmenov’s full lecture on the ‘Modern Political Scenario’. ‘Active Measures’ is a covert intellectual strategy that manifests itself in four stages: Firstly, ‘demoralization’, where mistrust in common values and institutions is sown. Second, ‘destabilization’, where the mistrust was sown erodes at the systems themselves. Then, while the systems are most disputed, a ‘crisis’ is introduced, providing an opportunity for total system dissolution. Lastly, ‘normalization’, where the Soviets roll in and institute newer, shinier systems while high-fiving and popping champagne. Interested fans suddenly found themselves with a conspiracy theory on their hands which correlated in frightening ways with modern events. Cultural shifts including and not limited to those of an election year and critical theory seemed to exemplify ‘demoralization’ and ‘destabilization’ along with riots and a global pandemic which seemed well on the nose in terms of a ‘crisis’. All that and the growth of the term ‘normalize’ on Twitter and culturally minded social circles had gamers double-taking at the conspiracy boards from the news channels with the air of having at last located the elusive ‘Pepe Silva’.

As the credits finally rolled and my carpel tunnel throbbed however, I found that this angle of cultural commentary seemed to be largely just an advertising scheme rather than core to the plot of the game itself. Well, of course it was. When the chips were down, Modern Warfare, much like all other major corporations presented its players with the token placard: BLACK LIVES MATTER, press ‘x’ to continue. One couldn’t exactly expect edgy cultural commentary from a mainstream developer that truly just wants to make money. Though it did for a while inflame the old intellectual sentiments and instincts still within communities from earlier. Many in gaming journalism were upset, claiming that the featuring of Bezmenov in the trailer was a promotion of ‘Far-Right’ conspiracy theory. How dare they show footage and talk about real things that happened!

 Gaming culture, being very closely tied to internet culture was once and now forever drawn into the left/right political conversation back during ‘Gamer-Gate’ in 2014 when the industry and community were confronted with social and cultural progressivism. Cold War’s advertisement pushing Bezmenov into mainstream limelight appeared to have reignited internet comment sections, this time with a more fervent focus towards debating the merits of capitalism and Marxist values. The teaser trailer was firm with the slogan, “Know your history, or be doomed to repeat it.” Providing curious minds with a similar invitation to political awakening as the “Gamer-Gate” controversies also once had.

When all was said and done, however, an advertisement is just an advertisement, and it managed to sell the game well. Treyarch had me hook, line, and sinker from the Alpha, to the Beta and through the campaign. The game was a lot more narrative-focused, with returning elements from the original Black Ops (the seventh Call of Duty). Call of Duty has once again managed to employ controversy as a vehicle for sales and one must credit their success. Despite server and bug issues at launch, they managed to break records and stoke excitement in much the same way they had a decade ago. I only wonder what will become of the cultural clashes created in their wake; only time will tell if we are really doomed to repeat history. Press ‘x’ to continue.

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