Do you recall? It was a few years ago now. Only three to be precise, but in today’s political climate, three years might as well have been the Pleistocene. It was Call of Duty: Ghosts. The mission: defend a giant wall along the US-Mexico border from hordes of Latin Americans bent on destroying the United States.
It was a big, beautiful wall. Thirty (maybe fifty) feet high. Ghosts gave no indication who paid for it. Perhaps that’s an Easter Egg.
Back in November of 2013, this mission had a different tenor — oh, it was bad alright, but not 2016 Presidential Campaign bad. Back then a US-Mexico border wall was an almost inherently satirical concept, a pie-in-the-sky solution championed by hardline Republicans and those who courted them in the primaries. (Ted Cruz supported building a barrier along the entire Texas-Mexico Border during the Texas primary in 2012.) Serious politicians and analysts knew that even a simple double-layer fence had proved an embarrassing failure. The logistical challenges proved too great, the terrain too harsh, and private landholders unwilling to cede land to the government without fighting it out in court. The stretches built in 2008 cost an average of $6.5 million per mile, and placed some unlucky Americans on the “Mexico side” of the barrier. Even Congress had essentially given up and refused to fund it — the full 700 miles of barrier mandated in the Secure Fence Act of 2006 would’ve cost more than Border Patrol’s yearly budget. And after all, it’s hard for a party based on fiscal responsibility and individual rights to justify ballooning costs and land seizures. (Ironically, British Prime Minister Theresa May is finding herself in the same situation, as her tough new immigration stance clashes with a severely under-funded border force.)
And the fact is, long border walls don’t do much more than symbolically denote that this part is YOURS, and this part is MINE. After all, a barrier’s useless if you don’t constantly garrison and repair it — turning even the most “beautiful” wall into a financial drain. And determined actors will always find a way dig under, sneak around, climb over, or bribe their way through. Ask anyone from Hadrian to the Ming Emperors — it’s not worth it. One century you’re building a world marvel, and the next someone’s pillaging the stones to build an outhouse.
Because of this, I didn’t mention the wall mission when I wrote about Ghosts — or to be accurate, I tried to write about the wall mission, but failed. The game was such a hodge-podge of James Bond rehashes and post-apocalyptic nonsense that I gave up trying to take its politics seriously. The narrative was an embarrassing half-assed affair. The team picked a shrug-worthy family narrative as the story’s emotional core, then wrapped it in an alternate future so thin and bland, I found it boring to even analyze. Playing it was like digging into a the mash potato crust of a shepherd’s pie, only to find out that the filling underneath was also mashed potato.
Instead of interrogating the game’s politics, I focused on how it leads the player through on a leash, subverting the very idea of military leadership. It was, I argued, a $60 game of follow the leader.
I always regretted ignoring the game’s unpleasant undertones, but never more than when “Build that Wall” became a rallying cry. Looking back, Ghosts eerily presaged the current wave of American xenophobia.
Call of Duty: Ghosts posits an alternate future where a nuclear war devastates the Middle East, allowing South America to emerge as an energy superpower and conquer all of Latin America and the Caribbean. The newly-formed Federation of the Americas then plunges into anti-American hysteria, killing expats living among them, devastating America’s border cities with a hijacked orbital super-weapon, and pouring across the border. Years later, the two countries fight a bloody stalemate, with the Federation sallying through the “Liberty Wall” to capture Dallas as the Ghosts battle to take back American streets. The Federation captures American Special Forces soldiers — who for some reason know how to build orbital weapons — and brainwash them with indigenous Amazonian drugs that sound suspiciously like “jungle magic.”
Not exactly subtle, is it?
Let’s be frank: if Latin America ever formed an EU-style mega-economy, it would have way better things to do than invade the United States (take, for example trading with the United States). Second, suggesting that anti-US hatred could unite Latin America drives an ugly narrative. Okay, I get it, this is a war game and Activision needed a war, but at least give the Federation the barest minimum of dimension, because this feels an awful lot like, “They hate us because we’re American.” It’s lazy storytelling, and advances ugly stereotypes that — though probably not intentional — come through loud and clear. There’s justifiable anger against the US in Latin America, true enough, but even if anti-Americanism was that bad (it’s not) Latin Americans aren’t going to drop their own regional rivalries, struggles with drug cartels, and nationalism just to march north and give Texans a bad day.
I have a few guesses how this theme emerged. Part stemmed from Call of Duty wanting a villain that was neither Russian nor Middle Eastern. Part came from wanting a scenario where US troops played the underdog. And yes, part came from taking the border fence as a starting point, and hoping that the writer who penned Traffic could elevate this material beyond dog-whistle racism. He couldn’t. The writing team mishandled the topic to the point that it came off like nativist propaganda (see also: The Division). No wonder Activision quietly dropped the Ghosts universe after release.
Certain readers might see this argument and shrug, reasoning that boneheaded right wing undertones in a Call of Duty game constitute a dog-bites-man story. Yet they’d be wrong. Ghosts represents a true outlier in the series, since most Call of Duty games try to address real military issues. True, that treatment isn’t always successful, but the series builds more nuance into its games than it gets credit for.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare — recently rereleased in HD — posits the idea that small-unit operations are successful at countering terrorist threats, while Iraq-style invasions lead to quagmire conflicts and unnecessary American casualties. That may sound simplistic, but it’s also the basic assumption driving Obama’s military policy. You heard this principle in Sunday’s presidential debate, when Hillary Clinton swore she wouldn’t put American boots on the ground in Syria. (Fun fact: Special Forces don’t count as “boots” in most political statements.)
The list goes on. Modern Warfare 2 read enough reports to predict the terrorist shift toward mass shootings and went so far as to cast an American general as a villain. Black Ops, while mostly a batshit amalgam of Cold War conspiracies and Vietnam movies, played with the idea that the CIA’s MKULTRA experiments made them indistinguishable from the Soviets. Advanced Warfare took on private military corporations. Black Ops III laid out a possible future where climate drives world conflicts, and soldiers serve as reprogrammable, half-human props in a geopolitical game.
Hell, Black Ops II built an entire game around the concept that America’s 21st century enemies stem from Reagan-era interventions gone wrong. The game even drives home this point by having the player fight alongside the Afghan Mujahedeen in the 1980s — and rescue a rebel leader who resembles Osama bin Laden. Try and tell me that wasn’t intentional.
Looking back, it’s clear the series — which launched right as the Iraq War began to sour — started out fairly skeptical of military power and diverged into two separate ideological branches. The Infinity Ward games represent more straight-line (but not unthinking) military adventures, while Treyarch regularly casts military power as inherently dangerous and even sinister. Sledgehammer falls in-between.
But Ghosts doesn’t contain even basic textual complexity or attempt to say anything with its material. It’s dead on the screen — or it was, until this campaign season. In the era of Trump, these dog-whistles sound like a foghorn. Revisiting the mission, it sickened me to fire at Latin American troops coming through the wall. As I walked through ravaged cities in California, I saw how well it fit into the “crippled America” themes of crumbling cities on the brink. Extremist politics have removed the sense I had three years ago that this plot point was so big and so dumb and so — well — so Call of Duty-esque that it constituted self-parody. What three years ago I dismissed as a tasteless, inept jab at relevance I know interpret through the lens of chanting crowds and banners that call for a real wall. When squad mates order me to throw the Federation forces back across the border, I see Trump’s promise of a military-style deportation force — patterned after Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback” — rounding up millions of people. After a decade of seeking military advisors and engaging think-tank planners, Activision managed to predict the future with its most vapid, unambitious, and lowbrow entry — though maybe that headspace was perfect for nailing the Trump era.
We live in a Call of Duty: Ghosts world now.
All in all, I’d rather have space combat.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp