In the first 24 hours of launch, Modern Warfare 3 – a first-person computer game by Activision Blizzard – has sold 6.5 million copies, earning the game’s publisher $400 million in sales, and enabling them to taut it as the “biggest entertainment launch of all time in any medium”.

Two things.

First, this is utterly inconceivable, when the game was only launched in two territories: the United States and Britain. And on three platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. To put this into perspective, the highest grossing film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 raked in $483 million – but that took a whole weekend, with only around $80 million made from the first 24 hours.

This took some doing too. Reports are suggesting that up to 13,000 retail stores opened at midnight for the launch.

A trend seems to be appearing: the two previous versions sold a reported 5.6 million units (2010) and 4.7 million units (2009).

Game developers Activision have an interesting view as to why war sells better than sex, drama and romantic comedies. Modern Warfare 3 is “is more than a game,” CEO Eric Hirshberg says, “It’s become a major part of the pop cultural landscape”.

I’ve not played the game or its predecessor, however this guy over on Wired.com has, and he seems to like it:

“It’s easy to see why these games are so attractive and, in a way, addictive. When you play them, you’re in a constant state of arousal, complete with elevated heart rate and dilated pupils. I sat in front of a large monitor with my headphones cranked way up, and my body was continually in the thrall of the fight-or-flight response. It’s adrenaline on tap.”

He goes on to say even more alarmingly:

“The game’s live-action trailer highlights this feeling, and it makes war seem like the ultimate thing for buddies to do together, a skill you can learn in order to have fun with violence. The disconnect between the brutality of armed conflict and the use of these images in games meant for amusement is nothing new, but Modern Warfare puts these two realities in contrast directly, without reservation.”

Which brings me to my second point: what does this mean for the way in which human society is beginning to engage with technology and violence?

Much is often made – and rightly so – of the psychological and sociological effects of warfare being conducted by drones and other robotic instruments. Already best estimates put the ratio of human to robot in the US military at 50:1. Unlike those at the Lowy Institute (they triggered the most active debate on this), I don’t think any confident assertions can be made yet as to the real impact of such widespread and advanced technology. Nor do I believe it’s feasible to debate the “morality” of drones by focusing solely on the impact of machine operators – there is, shall we say, another “player”.

What is clear, is that video games such as Modern Warfare 3 are not waiting for a verdict.

The video embedded below – advertised by the game developer as “death from above” from Call of Duty 4 – plays out eerily similar to the WikiLeaks “collateral murder” video in which the Gatling Gun of an Apache helicopter infamously executed a number of civilians and Reuters journalists.

I’m unsure how the game is played, whether it requires a glove, gamepad or joystick, but in real life these Gatling Guns are synced up to the helmets of personnel so that the gun trails the operators line of sight – that is, you kill whatever you see, not see and then manoeuvre to shoot. Man is literally part of the machine.

Perhaps this is what prompts that gamer over on Wired.com to describe his unease at feeling joy in, and addiction to, killing. Regardless, at times his review is clearly more reflective than it is reflexive. He appears changed by his experience ‘of battle’ much in the same way as J. Glenn Grey was when writing The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle a decade or so following the Second World War.

“This is a game that doesn’t glamorize war as much as it wants to canonize it, and with it every soldier,” the reviewer suggests, before adding, “Call of Duty [in] general, and Modern Warfare specifically, aren’t interested in exploring the subject of war”.

Seems not, but they sure know how to commercially exploit it.


Postscript 3:44pm: I must apologise to my three eldest nephews for providing your mother with fodder that might disuade her from buying the game. Twas an unintended “harm”, yet entirely necessary.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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