In a few days, Activision will launch the 18th installment of Call of Duty, plunging players back into World War II. To market the game’s new mode of photography, two conflict photographers were immersed in the virtual world and tasked with photographing it. The resulting publicity portrays mankind’s most brutal act of self-destruction as little more than a football match.
For its publicity, Activision invited two respected conflict photographers to walk into its motion capture studio and experience the reenactment of WWII, taking photos on a virtual camera – “a portal to the engine of game, ”according to the game’s senior visual director Michael Sanders. “Not only does it transcend them in the game engine, but over time, as if they were photographers there at the time.”
In-game photography is nothing new, and while Activision’s decision to use the feature as a marketing gimmick is not unusual, its presentation reflects how video games can trivialize brutality and annihilation. . “What war would you like to be able to photograph,” the photojournalists ask, making the deaths of 20 million soldiers and 40 million civilians look like a legendary football match. The idea that anyone could “wish” to be in a war zone to take cool photos demonstrates how popular culture has turned war into a harmless spectacle designed for mass consumption.
“As someone who spent a decade photographing war and conflict for Reuters and the PA from 1989 to 1999, it is very disturbing,” wrote former photojournalist Santiago lyon in response to the advertisement.
Historically, the distance of war has often made it seem unreal or imperceptible, and on many occasions photography has played a pivotal role in the evolution of public consciousness. Somehow, the still image brings a degree of reality to the conflict as stasis on the page, giving it a weight that cannot be ignored. Image by Nick Ut The Terror of War – also known as the Napalm Girl – is one example, one of many images that brought the reality of the Vietnam War into American homes.
As a video game, the latest iteration of Call of Duty is nothing new. Game designers have always embraced the violence, depersonalization, and gamification of war, and while they can be criticized for glorifying the bloodshed, these games perhaps also act as a useful substitute or even as a a way for society to deal with trauma.
What differs is how Activision’s ad co-opted war photography, a medium that has long sought to make us feel. By mistaking the work of true conflict photographers for a video game that loves its violence, the ad threatens to undermine the embarrassing and oft-avoided truth that war is a futile mixture of pain, suffering and death on an unimaginable scale. These unreal images of war convey all of its fear and none of its horror, and photojournalism is reduced to little more than a trivial trophy hunt.