(SPOILER WARNING: This feature contains explicit details about the plot for Modern Warfare 2)
You're greeted by the screen above when starting a new campaign in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It's designed to give a heads up about the much-discussed "No Russian" mission.
"Some players may find one of the missions disturbing or offensive. Would you like to have the option to skip this mission? (You will not be penalized in terms of Achievements or game completion.)."
There are two ways to respond. "Yes, ask me later" or "No, I will not be offended." For now, let's set aside the obvious problem that unless you've been closely following the game's development, you don't even know what you're agreeing to not be offended by. But Infinity Ward wants to make sure you're confident about that decision, so they ask it a second time.
"If you answer yes you will never be asked about skipping levels again. (The skip level option will be available in the pause menu.)"
Neither warning provides any context for what constitutes "disturbing" and "offensive" in the typically realism-slanted Call of Duty universe. There is no reference made to an opportunity to mow down hundreds of innocent virtual citizens during a simulated terrorist assault on a Russian airport. When I stood in line at GameStop to pick up my copy of Modern Warfare 2, not only did I wonder how many parents actually read those screens for their kids not old enough to pick up Modern Warfare 2 themselves, but if any would've changed their minds after visiting the ESRB's website.
See, the ESRB's description of Modern Warfare 2's content is a little more explicit:
"The most intense depiction of violence occurs during a "No Russian" mission where players take on the role of an undercover Ranger: Several civilians are gunned down at an airport as players are given a choice to participate in the killings (e.g., players can shoot a wounded civilian that is crawling on the ground), or walk by and observe without opening fire. In either case, civilians scream and emit pools of blood as they are shot to death."
Certainly, it's not just parents who should have been made aware of the mission's content. There very well could have been plenty of independent adults who said "hey, this isn't for me" as "No Russian" started. It's not a commentary on whether "No Russian" was properly executed, if it's an issue that it's nearly impossible to finish the mission without actually firing a shot from your own gun, or if games should even be touching this kind of material (the "it's just a game" argument).
Rather, it was irresponsible not to provide an opportunity to discover what the definition of "disturbing" and "offensive" was before actually having to experience the content, or practice blind self-censorship and preemptively stop yourself from viewing the content entirely. Games have put us in compromising situations before, but prior to Modern Warfare 2, no other game has attempted to comment on the experience of being a modern day terrorist. In a post-9/11 world, that's precarious, life-altering territory.
I applaud Infinity Ward for including the mission. Whatever you think of it, it's powerful. But Infinity Ward always knew the intention of "No Russian." The game's own writer admitted its purpose.
"People have really strong reactions to the airport scene and it's been fascinating because we all wanted to make it something that would be upsetting, disturbing, but also something people relate to," said writer Jesse Stern to GamePro.com. "There's something instantly identifiable about it when it happens, when you're in that situation and the level begins. Ultimately, our intention was to put you as close as possible to atrocity. As for the effect it has on you, that's not for us to determine. Hopefully, it does have an emotional impact and it seems to have riled up a lot of people in interesting ways."
It's impossible to say if more or less people would have agreed to play "No Russian" if Infinity Ward had been upfront
Even Stern used the word "disturbing," as the game did. Given the evidence, it seems Infinity Ward wanted more people to experience "No Russian" than not. It's impossible to say if more or less people would have agreed to play the mission if Infinity Ward had been upfront about its content, but the reason it's impossible to know is because Infinity Ward never provided the opportunity to become properly informed.
The argument that players could have hopped online and found scenes from "No Russian" isn't valid because the sequence's leak was never sanctioned from the parties involved in the development of Modern Warfare 2. At no point did Infinity Ward or publisher Activision come forward when footage appeared and give people some context.
It's not like Modern Warfare 2's story was a well-kept secret, either. Earlier this year, a much-hyped trailer for the game quickly blew one of the plot's pivotal turns, as the invasion becomes personal and Modern Warfare 2's Washington D.C. becomes a prequel to Fallout 3 as World War III unfolds on the homefront. If consumers were allowed to know about the decimation of our nation's most honored landmarks, why not a heads up about becoming a willing member of a terrorist outfit?
"No Russian" is an important step forward for games as a medium. Rock Paper Shotgun's Kieron Gillen argues Infinity Ward blew what should have been an amazing opportunity. He might have a point. But whether it's done well or not, more people should been made aware of what they were in for.
Optional spoilers next time, please.