There’s a Soldier in All of Us? Gender in Call of Duty’s Live Action Trailers

It’s said in life only three things are guaranteed: death, taxes, and a new Call of Duty (CoD) release each year. The imminent arrival of each subsequent installment of the juggernaut first-person shooter franchise is heralded by entertaining live action trailers featuring fantasy gunplay and celebrity endorsements. These short but bombastic videos capture the high-octane gameplay that gamers have, for better or worse, come to associate with CoD games.

Yet the advertising of CoD in live action trailers arguably represents the systematic gender-biases present in video game marketing at large, especially for genres that assume an overwhelmingly male audience, as often the case for first-person shooter games. Even prior to the development of the live action trailers, masculine themes that marginalize women and homosexual men were emphasized in other CoD promotional videos. Let’s not forget the time Infinity Ward released a YouTube video in 2009 that disparaged the use of random grenade throws in the game’s online mode as a phony public service announcement sponsored by a ficticious organization called Fight Against Grenade Spam, or FAGS. While the video was quickly removed for its insensitive language, official promotional videos with homophobic undertones clearly stigmatize minorities from the CoD online community.

15091-399365-mw3jpg-noscalePerfect soldiers? “The Vet and The n00b” specifically hails a male demographic.

Activision, the publisher of the CoD franchise, has consistently advertised new releases for a predominately male demographic at the expense of female representation. I genuinely applaud the original live action CoD trailer for Black Ops (2010) for featuring a diverse range of male and female actors engaging in fantasy gunplay. The trailer showcases a diversity of body types and ethnicities equally kicking ass in an absurd abstraction of both authentic reality and actual video gameplay. Recent live action trailers, however, are noticeably (and unfortunately) less egalitarian. Modern Warfare 3’s (2012) live action trailer started the trend in “The Vet & The n00b” which starred Sam Worthington and Jonah Hill in the respective roles of the “veteran” and “noob.” Their relationship, in which the veteran trains the novice player/soldier in CoD tactics and weaponry, values skilled performance as a masculine ideal.

15091-399365-meganfoxcallofdutyjpg-noscaleMegan Fox’s brief appearance in “Epic Night Out” might be boiled down to eye candy.

Indeed, men are typically active subjects in the narratives of the live action trailers while women are subjected to a male gaze that frames females as objects to be gazed upon. Actress Megan Fox was briefly featured in a CoD: Ghosts (2013) live action trailer titled “Epic Night Out.” While Fox is depicted as a tough, competent, and fiercely independent a male character blatantly flirts with her, emphasizing her role as a mere object for male pleasure. The men exit the scene after the male character’s unsuccessful attempt at chatting her up and she’s quickly forgotten about.

15091-399365-codawpng-noscaleEmily Ratajkowski in “Discover Your Power” is selling sexiness – not CoD. 

Roughly a year later, the CoD: Advanced Warfare (2014) live action trailer positioned a male viewership to “Discover Your Power” from the first-person perspective. While the actor’s face is never seen the hairy arms are noticeably masculine when the actor runs and guns across an advanced battlefield of the future. In the same video, the heterosexual male gaze is catered by the quick appearance of model Emily Ratajkowski, clad in tiny shorts and a belly shirt, after the character-viewer temporarily blacks out. The scene is used for humor when it turns out that the sexy visage is actually a slobbering goat – in other words, the trailer’s only female representation is actually a hallucination. In the world of Advanced Warfare’s trailer, power is the exclusive domain of men.

15091-399365-codblops3png-noscaleCara Delevingne’s role in “Seize Glory” is an improvement on the formula.

Fortunately, the trend of objectifying women in CoD trailers is shifting, if somewhat gradually. Actress and model Cara Delevingne ultimately dominates the subject of the narrative, a male character named Kevin, in the CoD: Black Ops III (2015) trailer “Seize Glory” but only within the video’s final seconds.Some women viewers may certainly enjoy strong heroines like the ones portrayed by Delevingne and Fox. Indeed, they are framed as tough, badass, and capable of keeping up with the men (Ratajkowski’s sexualized appearance more the exception than the rule). Yet it remains that these advertisements offer a variety of masculinities on display – black, white, and overweight – while a particular type of woman, who is beautiful and conforms to a thin ideal, is given enough time and space in the trailers to please a heterosexual male audience, first and foremost.

15091-399365-codghostspng-noscaleMale victims of CODnapping receive access to games, big comfy chairs, and beverage service in “CODnapped.” Women are framed as potential obstacles to accessing these privileges. 

A trailer selling downloadable content for Ghosts, titled “CODnapped” (a play on CoD and kidnapping), is the most egregious example of CoD as exclusively a “man’s world.” The trailer depicts a fantasy scenario in which several men are relieved of their everyday burdens by a clandestine military group who abscond them from the likes of attending a business dinner and shopping with a wife and baby. The objective of CODnapping is that these men might have uninterrupted time to play CoD: Ghosts away from their families and girlfriends. In this world, a variety of masculinities are interpellated as subjects while women are not even considered a group who might want to be “CODnapped” from their own mundane existence. Surely the women featured in the video – the female student driver, the wife and mother of a toddler, the girlfriend fussing over her appearance – might also need a relief from their daily pressures?

This November’s release of Infinite Warfare (2016) introduced a new live action trailer titled “Screw It, Let’s Go to Space.” While initially showcasing a number of diverse characters prior to the combat scenes, once the actual fighting erupts women appear far less frequently than men in the one minute and forty-six second trailer. The trailer is a welcome departure from objectifying women yet does little to increase female visibility compared to past commercials.

15091-399365-codiwpng-noscaleOne of two prominent women soldiers who appear in Infinite Warfare’s “Screw It, Let’s Go to Space.”

So, why is this important – why scrutinze gender portrayals in CoD commercials? Especially given the fact that many gamers no longer take seriously CoD as more than just a cash cow? Representation in any medium is always important given that as humans we naturally identify with similar others. And given the contentious status of women in online gaming communities, where harrassment and hostility is not uncommon, would it really harm the franchise to acknowledge women players more broadly, to represent women in ways that disrupt stereotypes? To consider the female demographic as more than just an afterthought? These trailers started strong with Black Ops, dipped to an all-time low with Advanced Warfare, and addressed previous wrongs in Infinite Warfare’s recent commercial – but there’s still room for improvement. For CoD to diversify the range of representation within the live action trailers would go a long way towards conceptualizing CoD as a game for the “solider in all of us.”

Note: Gender and Call of Duty is currently a topic I am developing and wrestling with for a book chapter on the series. This discussion was originally going to appear in condensed form in the book chapter, which is actually more specifically about gender in the Modern Warfare games and associated fandom, but due to word-count limitations and a desire to have this conversation more broadly, I’ve decided to share this piece in blog format. And a disclaimer: I acknowledge that I am by no means an expert on the Call of Duty series at large. I’ve only played Black Ops, Modern Warfare 1-3, and Ghosts.
Originally posted on Destructoid.

Children, Call of Duty, and Lack of Parental Involvement

After reading Jonathan Holmes’ (via blog post in which he thoroughly analyzed why the Call of Duty franchise appeals so strongly to the younger demographic (children under the age of 12), I had to acknowledge that I agreed with many of Mr. Holmes’ points. The series is effectively “cool” among 6 to 12 year olds due to the addictive simplicity and competitive nature of the game play, which is only strengthen by it’s incredible flash, flare, and good ol’ fashioned American military whoop ass mentality (which in particular caters to young boys who may idolize family members in the army/military, GI Joe, or the military lifestyle in general).

What I found somewhat lacking in the article, however, was a discussion on whether or not this is a problem. Should we (gamers, the general public, parents with young children, etc.) be concerned over the fact that young children have access to Call of Duty and become engrossed, obsessed, and enthralled by these titles?

I for one, to a degree, think so. Not only does Call of Duty glorify combat to the degree that a child may not understand, but any addiction for young children is not healthy, especially when parents notice and try to remove the source. The result is often defiance, anger, and an explosion of “I hate yous!” I would like to state that I do not find Call of Duty offensive and that I am actually something of a fan of the series myself, but I do believe overexposure to a child could be detrimental and have negative consequences as mentioned above.

My First Hand Experience
I worked at a local GameStop this past holiday season, and of course, I sold a TON of copies of Call of Duty: Black Ops (also, worked the midnight release, which was just plain INSANE). At my particular GameStop, we always carded anyone who looked under 30 for ID since my boss didn’t want to receive any negative consequences for selling an M rated game to a minor (it’s the law, apparently). And if anyone purchased an M rated title we always had to make certain that the consumer was aware of that just to be certain that they were okay with the rating, just in case they were actually purchasing the game for a minor.

During the month of November, I lost count of the number of mothers who came into the store to pick up Black Ops. With their young son standing quietly at their side, grinning ear to ear, I would always give them my spiel before they made their transactions final: “Just so that you’re aware, this game is rated M for mature for containing blood and gore, violence, and strong language.” Most of these moms would shake off the sentence before I even completed it. “Yes, yes, I’m aware– but my son really wants it,” they would interrupt with an air of submission, as if they had no other choice but to purchase the game. Handing the game over often resulted in the child smiling or exclaiming “yes!” with intense excitement and a sense of thrill. This scenario repeated itself on an almost daily basis for several weeks after the game’s release. Closer to Christmas most “moms” would pick up games for presents, shopping solo, though always responding in a similar manner.

I’m not going to say that this is solely a “mom” or parent problem, but it certainly plays a substantial part as to how Call of Duty became so popular among children in the first place: providing accessibility.

I know a boy, about 7 years old, that I had babysat regularly from the age of 2 to 5. Periodically I still go to this boy’s baseball games or babysit him and his older sister on occasion. At the age of 7, he’s already turned into something of an avid gamer. I may have had a bit on influence on him, I gave my old PS1 to him and his sister when he was about 4, but only handed over age-appropriate titles along with it, including Spyro and Crash Bandicoot. A year or so later his mom bought him a PS2 and loads of games, exposing him to games various genres and ratings. Presently, the family owns a Wii and 360 with Kinect as well. The last time I went to babysit him about a couple months ago, his mom was expressing how she was concerned about some of his gaming habits. She told me explicitly that he wasn’t allowed to play a game called, you guessed it, Call of Duty, and was concerned about how “mean” he could get when she tried to take certain games away from him. That night, I wasn’t just babysitting him, but two of his friends. I walked over to find all three of them huddled around the Wii playing none other then CoD World at War. “Umm… ma’am, you do know that they’re playing Call of Duty right now, right?” The mother gasped exasperatedly, “That’s Call of Duty?”

Needless to say, I was somewhat dumbfounded by her ignorance. If you don’t want your son playing a particular game, shouldn’t you be more informed about it? In order to alleviate this issue, I would like to share some possible solutions to the lack of communication facing parents and their children who play games such as Call of Duty.

Be Informed
Parents/guardians/supervisors should take the time to become informed about WHAT their children are playing. Take the time to watch trailers and gameplay footage on youtube. Each parent raises their children differently and has different standards for what is and what is not acceptable for their children. Some find Call of Duty offensive, while others say “it’s just a game!” In either case, just be aware of what your child is playing, and if you choose not to let them own a copy, explain your reasons rationally and calmly. Parents often try to dumb things down for their children, but the reality is, you can talk to them like adults.

Be A Part Of Their Hobby
If you think your child is mature enough to play a CoD title, get involved with them. Take turns swapping the controller every half-hour or so, and play along. Observe their gaming habits first hand. If you find that you’re not happy with how your child responds to the game (bad language or violent reactions to killing or being killed), find a solution to curbing these responses. Explain how getting mad does not bring about any actual solution, and that they’re able to get the bad guys “next time.”

It Is Just A Game
While a child’s actions in a game like Call of Duty may not reflect behavior in the real world, make sure that your child understands the implications of taking another person’s life. Explain to them that in real war, people actually die. They are no “saves” or “check points.” Once you’ve been shot, you don’t come back. It’s grim to contemplate, but any child should not take the idea lightly. It may seem silly and parents might think this is a “no brainer,” but there’s no reason why the concept should not be reiterated. There have been too many cases in the news where a child has shot either a parent or friend either by mistake or out of anger and were labeled as active gamers. Call of Duty is a game, but killing certainly is not. In war, it’s either kill or be killed, but Call of Duty “glamorizes” the military life style and almost romanticizes modern warfare. Explain to them that real war is far more grim, brutal, and just plain terrifying. If anything, a child playing Call of Duty should be imbued with a sense of respect for those who do sacrifice their lives in real life to keep the world a safer place.

Strike A Balance
If you find your child might be using Call of Duty to unleash pent up anger or frustrations, turn that energy into something your child can benefit from. Encourage them to take up a martial art, or turn their love for military shooters into a hobby that allows them to enjoy the outdoors, burn calories, and feed their need to compete: take them to play paint ball or airsoft. While not the most cheapest of hobbies, both will satisfy your child’s interest but do so in a manner that encourages team work and camaraderie.

Call of Duty is not going anywhere anytime soon. It’s a blockbuster behemoth of a franchise that practically over saturates the market and gains exposure to every consumer through online, TV, and in-store advertising. The current generation is essentially growing up on this franchise, and I was only just made aware of how popular the series was among minors until I worked as a GameStop employee firsthand. I will openly admit that I do not believe that games or Call of Duty in and of itself is necessarily bad, evil, or corrupting anyone, even children. I do believe, however, the over-exposure and lack of balance between gaming and other activities is where issues (bad behavior, lack of interest in school, increased tantrums e.g. “but I wanna play more!”) stem from.

Hopefully, the above advice will encourage parents to be more involved with child gamers in general and enervate some of the negative behavior and feelings associated with children playing Call of Duty games.