Activision's drumbeat of marketing for Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War has a new figurehead - the digital ghost of former American president Ronald Reagan. America's 40th president will apparently be giving players mission briefings in the game's single-player campaign, casting him as "the boss" of the player's Black Ops team.
For developers less drenched in American politics and history, this casting decision may come off as a mostly harmless curiosity. But already journalists who attended a digital preview event for Black Ops Cold War are expressing some concern and skepticism about the portrayal of Reagan. But why?
Over at the Washington Post, Gene Park points out that Reagan's presidential legacy remains a hotly debated topic in 2020. Activision seems to understand this. When the Post tried to ask developers "Given the real world political climate and prominently featuring Reagan, what considerations did you have in portraying the longtime GOP standard-bearer?" Activision instead rephrased the question for the developers to read “What considerations did you have in portraying not only Reagan but other real-world people that you engaged in?”
Ronald Reagan's era as President of the United States can be viewed through a number of different lenses depending on your political alignment, or just your general understanding of history. Conventionally, Reagan is often cast as a standard-bearer of American conservatism. He was the champion of "small government," he advocated for "traditional values," and waged the final battles of the Cold War that would lead to capitalism's triumph over Soviet communism.
If you're a conservative in America, these are all positive traits, though you might resent how Reagan enacted "the biggest tax increase ever enacted during peacetime" in 1982.
If you're liberal or left-leaning, you are probably wondering why I haven't brought up the Iran-Contra scandal, the AIDS crisis, the war against the welfare state, the war on drugs, the Neshoba County Fair state's rights speech, or the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
(Don't worry, I'm getting there.)
I'm trying to write this op-ed in a fairly evenhanded tone, because I respect that our readers have different perspectives on Reagan. What worries me, and why I support much of the preliminary criticism of his inclusion in Call of Duty, is that the more noxious elements of his legacy are again being whitewashed in favor of reviving the myth of Reagan as a Cold War hero.
To a lot of Americans (and Iranians. And South Americans.) that whitewashing can feel deeply personal. Reagan's domestic and foreign policy left a long trail of bodies, some intentional, some unintentional, in a decades-long war against communism and socialist ideology. In Reagan's administration, there were clear winners and losers, Americans who were more valuable than others, right-wing governments to be prioritized, and laws to be ignored if it didn't fit the policy.
My household was spared that violence, so I can't personally speak for its impact. It was not spared the whitewashing. The values that Ronald Reagan espoused were some of the first political values I was taught. These were values based around individual rights (especially when it came to gun ownership), a need for border security, and the value of small government.
But as I grew older the real impact of those values entered my life in ways that were impossible to ignore. My classmates in high school had family members who fled violence in El Salvador, crisscrossing both Reagan's immigration laws and his administration's funding and training that led to the El Mozote massacre. I haven't spoken with those classmates in a while, but I don't think things are much better on that front.
In late 2016, I was speaking with a former professor of mine who survived the AIDS crisis. He's written several times about the pain of watching his friends die, how a generation of LGBTQ+ lives evaporated while the President acted like it wasn't happening. He mused that "things are better now" because such a crisis probably wouldn't repeat itself under Donald Trump. That escalated quickly.
And the welfare state? That was probably the biggest "enemy" I learned about growing up. The government shouldn't help people! If the government offered people money, "welfare queens" might just take all that money, have children, and live off the teat of the state. Except Reagan's "welfare queen" of choice was an established con artist, and Reagan's rhetoric about laziness and refusal to work echoes today in politicians who won't fund a social net to blunt the impact of COVID-19.
Wow, it's been a few paragraphs since I mentioned video games! I don't think we're going to have time to talk about how Activision's marketing campaign invokes Yuri Bezmenov, a Soviet defector popular with modern right-wing conspiracy theorists. Or that they've scrubbed footage of the Tiananmen Square massacre from the game's teaser trailer.
In some ways I am being hoisted on my own petard here. I have previously egged developers on and encouraged them to make their games "political," knowing that in writing as much, I was encouraging developers with views that differ from mine to inject these themes into their games.
Any game that chooses to drive gameplay from a point of view and perspective is broadly better than generic, apolitical mush. But to some extent, we all agree there are boundaries of what should be portrayed in video games, and those boundaries reflect our values and the values we impart on players. Fallout 3 does not let you kill kids. Assasin's Creed games punish you for killing civilians. The Last of Us Part 2 lets you kill everyone but wants you to feel bad about it, or something.
It isn't so much that I'm saying Ronald Reagan shouldn't be portrayed in the Call of Duty series, it's that his inclusion, especially as a mission briefer, creates a set of values that are informed by his legacy. The violence of Call of Duty, which has always struggled to contextualize less "moral," post World War II conflicts, now is ordained by conservatism's patron saint.
Even if every conflict in the game is fictionalized and justified in context of the plot (Park's article mentions a character named Russell Adler developers referred to as "America's Monster," indicating we may be in for a repeat of Modern Warfare 2 and other earlier entries that used American villains), it can't escape the real conflict that tore apart the lives of real people.
It's violence whose ripples are still echoing today, violence that has never faced any proper accountability, violence that was eventually picked up and maintained by members of the opposing party. Some folks in the comments might be writing "this writer would never write this op-ed if Obama was featured in Call of Duty." Believe me, if I'm still doing this when Call of Duty 44 comes out and his digital recreation is presented, I will try to.
Because let's be honest, almost every American president in some capacity deserves this kind of scrutiny if they're to be included in mass media. Most of them oversaw some supremely fucked-up violence! Every historical figure deserves a reckoning with how their public imagery reconciles with the acts they oversaw. (We can cut William Henry Harrison some slack. He died 30 days after taking office).
And video games can do this! Ronald Reagan is not the first president to appear in a triple-A video game. I can't quite identify who that is, but it's worth recalling that George Washington was a central character in 2012's Assassin's Creed III.
Different historians might take issue with Ubisoft's depiction of George Washington, but the game still swings for the fences with one historical story point: George Washington fought for freedom for the British colonies, but also waged war on native tribes like the Mohawk and other tribes of the Iroquois confederacy, and owned hundreds of slaves.
Washington serves as mentor and friend to the player character Ratonhnhaké:ton, but their friendship ends when Ratonhnhaké:ton learns that Washington ordered an attack on his village during the French and Indian War. Washington tries to attack the village again (because plot), and the player must work to stop the battle from taking place.
This does not save the village. In the game's finale, Ratonhnhaké:ton returns home to find it abandoned, its inhabitants forced out thanks to the growing colonial cities. It isn't a holistic depiction (again, he owned slaves, that's barely touched on), but it's a tougher look at the American Revolution than you get in other mass market media.
The sky did not fall when Ubisoft did this. Nobody but Fox News took any issue with George Washington as a complicated historical figure. Games (even commercial games!) can embrace the complicated. They can deal with the fact that history is violent and messy.
But if we're going to do that with Ronald Reagan, maybe it's worth starting with the notion that the values he stood for were a fig leaf for awful, often race-driven violence, and the America he was defending was not necessarily a country all Americans have gotten to live in.