Call of Duty Trivializes War Photography

In a few days, Activision will launch the 18th installment of Call of Duty, returning players to the Second World War. To market the game’s new photography mode, two conflict photographers were immersed inside the virtual world and tasked with photographing it. The resulting commercial portrays mankind’s most brutal act of self-destruction as little more than a game of football.

For its ad, Activision invited two respected conflict photographers to wander through its motion capture studio and experience the recreation of World War II, taking photographs on a virtual camera — “a portal into the game engine,” according to the game’s senior visual director, Michael Sanders. “Not only does it transcend them into the game engine, but back in time, as if they were a photographer there, in the period.”

In-game photography is nothing new, and while Activision’s decision to use this feature as a marketing gimmick is not unusual, its presentation is a reflection of how video games can trivialize brutality and annihilation. “What war do you wish you could photograph,” the photojournalists are asked, making the death of 20 million soldiers and 40 million civilians sound more like some legendary game of football. The idea that anyone could “wish” that they had been present in a war zone to take some cool photos demonstrates the extent to which popular culture has transformed war into a consequence-free spectacle designed for mass consumption.

"As someone who spent a decade photographing war and conflict for Reuters and the AP from 1989-1999, this is very disturbing," wrote former photojournalist Santiago Lyon in response to the commercial.

Historically, war’s distance has often made it seem unreal or unfelt, and on many occasions, photography has played a critical role in shifting public consciousness. Somehow, the still image brings a degree of reality to conflict as its stasis on the page, giving it a weight that can't be ignored. Nick Ut's image The Terror of War — also known as Napalm Girl — is an example, one of many images that brought the reality of the Vietnam War into American homes.

As a video game, Call of Duty’s latest iteration is nothing new. Game designers have always embraced violence, depersonalizing, and gamifying war, and while they might be criticized for glorifying bloodshed, these games perhaps also act as a useful surrogate or even as a means for society to process trauma.

What differs is how Activision’s commercial has co-opted war photography, a medium that has long sought to make us feel. By conflating the work of real conflict photographers with a video game that enjoys its violence, the commercial threatens to undermine the inconvenient 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 awe and none of its horror, and photojournalism is reduced to being little more than a trivial hunt for trophies.

Andy Day's picture

Andy Day is a British photographer and writer living in France. He began photographing parkour in 2003 and has been doing weird things in the city and elsewhere ever since. He's addicted to climbing and owns a fairly useless dog. He has an MA in Sociology & Photography which often makes him ponder what all of this really means.

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How about we start looking at books that portend violence? Big Mitch Rapp fan here (RIP, Vince Flynn). Now there's some unadulterated, rip snortin', politically incorrect reading. I'm quite certain that in today's climate, there are a lot of people that would be thrilled if books like these were taken off the shelves. I just shake my head.

They aren’t bad books but a little cheesy for my liking. Didn’t manage the last couple as I was all cheesed out.

I get that. I like this genre because it's 'escape' reading. I'm in the midst of Matt Rogers' Jason King series and finished the Will Slater series. If any human was beat up and injured as much as those two, they'd be slobbering all over themselves. :-) But, it's enjoyable reading. I also read stuff like Thomas Sowell's biography and WWII history.

I’ve just about worked my way through the Elvis Cole series after wanting an alternative to Bosch, it’s obviously nowhere near as good but was definitely passable.

Just this week I bought a British spy novel by Charles Cumming and it’s pretty good, like a poor man’s Le Carre I would say.

I took a break from the more military style stories after wading through lots of different ones like the Rapp books and a few others.

I do agree though it’s good escapism.

Always fun to contribute to thread drift! :-) I just checked to see if the Vince Flynn/Mitch Rapp series had any additions and found that a new story is out there. I placed a hold on it at our local library. I also have 'Behind Enemy Lines....' on hold. It's about a French Jewish spy during WWII.

Ah nice:) and lets be honest, our conversation has far more value than getting our knickers in a twist over some video games haha.

Reacher was another series I gave up on, not read the last 3 now, using that short arse for the film role was about the final nail in his coffin lol.

Good point! Knickers getting twisted seems to take a lot less effort these days.

Photojournalism's late stage capitalism. Extremely disappointing that two working photojournalists are part of this gameification of tragedy. Maybe Piccolomini & Potter should also have been reached out to for comments.

Do you really think it matters? It's an ad for a game that comes out yearly. This ad will be in circulation for maybe 2 months and no one who plays the game is going to care about it.

I think it's way more concerning that Call of Duty, a war game is one of the most popular games worldwide. At this point I think war is about as commercialised as it can be, these 2 photographers doing an ad is kind of irrelevant.

I mean... You do realize the other part of the game has you holding a weapon and killing people? Seems strange to single out the part where you can hold a camera. The part I find strange is that anyone would want to walk around taking screenshots.

But what is wrong with wishing to be photographers of a particular conflict? Of course no one wants conflict to take place.

I'd say it's far less psychopathic than wanting to be a soldier in a particular conflict... like EVERYONE who will buy this game and bought all the past ones. Also war cosplayers, whats up with them?

You need to check Grand Theft Auto out if you think this game lacks morals.

Heck i play GTA BECAUSE it lacks morals lol. no morals in a virtual world is hilarious fun. IRL it's pretty bad D:

Haha yeah, the author probably needs to recognise the difference between virtual and real world... I love Assassins Creed, but last time I checked I wasn't heading out the door with wrist mounted blades for ending peoples lives at will.

War....War never changes...

EDIT: Oh yeah any one remember that scandal with COD MW2 where you got to shoot up an air port as terrorists? You could literally just mow down virtual innocents with AK's and Light machine guns. That was WAY more scandalous than this.

Big “video games will rot your brain” energy in this post.

We need to stop being so sensitive toward everyone that has had traumatic experiences or been disadvantaged in some way. I quite enjoy movies and other forms of entertainment that use horrible crimes and tragic events to entertain us.

If all bad things were "off limits" to TV, movie, and video game makers, then the content available to me wouldn't be anywhere near as entertaining as it is. And to me, entertainment is every bit as important as safety, security, justice, etc. Probably even more important than those things, if I am honest. I mean, for many of us, entertainment is right up there at the very top of life's priorities, whether we like to admit it or not.

"If all bad things were "off limits" to TV, movie, and video game makers..."

I think all we would have would be the yule log videos that are shown on Norwegian TV.

The more I think about this article the more I think that the title could relate to literally any game.

*insert game title* trivialises *insert subject of game*

FIFA trivialises football

Farming simulator trivialises farming

Assassins creed trivialises historical events

Forza Horizon trivialises car racing

COD just happens to be based around conflicts.

The advert presents conflict photography as noble and exciting; and it will likely inspire some people to become interested in the subject.

I don't necessarily agree with your thesis, but I get where you're coming from.

It’s a video game , so it’s not meant to do anything else other than entertain . It’s not meant to be a moral guide or commentary on the complex issues war poses to humankind . I’m a 24 year retired vet and I’ve seen a lot of suffering and experienced the loss of some of my buddies I served with, but I’m ok with a little escapism . Don’t take Yourself so seriously.

I'm on the fence about the issue. As a former U.S. Army combat photographer that covered the Iraq War from the Invasion in 2003 until the drawdown in 2009 and having run around 450 combat missions over the course of 36 months combined time boots on ground. I see where they are coming from but at the same time, I feel that it may spark interest in the career path and get the next generation's combat/war photographers and photojournalists shoes filled.

Hard to know anymore . It probably damages their credibility more than anything. It's really pretty harmless. What I object more to is the military photography that pops up here from time to time showing glorious images of planes and tanks and troops and not the reality of war. They skip the lost limbs, innocent civilians blown apart, countries torn apart and spending 2 trillion to replace the taliban with the taliban.

That's because those images are typically labeled "FOUO" for official use only.