Modern Warfare 2 is something we're prepared to call a cultural phenomenon, and not just because it's a widely anticipated game that lots of people will play. The game forces you to think long and hard about two of my favorite discussion topics; violence in video games and society's responsibility to protect its young.
If you don't enjoy thinking about those things, move along. This post isn't for you. One more thing; I talk about an event that occurs fairly early in the game and has had extensive media coverage already - however, this could be classified as a spoiler, so consider yourself alerted.
Here's what you already know: you are an undercover operative who has infiltrated a gang of Russians. You and your East Slavic cohorts calmly walk into a packed airport and start firing automatic weapons into the crowd. Panic ensues (not a realistic amount, some would argue). It is, to put it lightly, extremely fucking disturbing. Paul said he couldn't bring himself to fire into the innocent throngs, while I remained true to the character I was playing and mimicked the actions of my murderous compatriots.
As I said, the scene is a disturbing one. Even though it is hardly the worst sight you will encounter in this game, being personally responsible for the movements of an electronic avatar who is mercilessly murdering dozens of helpless people will make most people queasy. This is what good story-telling is; a tactile transfer of experience from one person to another. Video games just do it better because we feel in control of our personal experiences. It seems like we guide our characters through the story, but in reality the act of running down a corridor and shooting the bad guy around the corner is precisely the same as turning the page of a book.
So, no, this is not worse than a violent movie or a violent book. It just feels that way.
I hate you! I hate you! Why won't you let me do what I want?
Because what you want is in no way connected to what is best for you.
I'm certainly not one to wax sentimental about the "good old days" (mostly because they weren't), but it seems to me that nowadays parents want to be their kids friend instead of being their, well, parents. In my experience, this leads to horribly undisciplined, obnoxious, self-important and self-entitled brats that aren't capable of being useful people.
Of course, this isn't always the case; sometimes, people who always get their way turn out to be productive and friendly members of society, and some people who grew up with nothing can be incredibly selfish and self-centered. I'm just willing to bet that the majority of cases don't shake out that way.
Paul actually did the whole midnight-release thing. He told me that he saw a 13 year-old child, with his parents, who were waiting to purchase this "categorically not-for-kids" game for their offspring.
I can't say for certain why they were buying this inappropriate game for their child, but I'm willing to bet its because by the time they both get home from work, the last thing either of them want to deal with is a whiny kid who wants a game that all the other parents bought for his friends. Why would they deal with that, when for the extraordinarily low price of $60, they can have peace and quiet while the child anesthetizes himself with simulated violence in his room with his Bose headphones on?
Yes, I stand in full support of the First Amendment. I do not believe that art should be censored by any organization under any circumstances. But I have no doubt that exposure to graphic violence without the proper context, be it on paper or in a movie or in a video game, is a manifestly bad idea for a developing mind. Yes, some kids are more advanced than others. Undoubtably, there are some 12 and 15 year-olds out there who can understand full-well the implications this game makes. And who knows? Maybe that kid Paul saw in line was one of them. But the laws we make have to protect the largest number of people while limiting personal choice as little as possible. If the kid isn't old enough to give a doctor the go-ahead on a procedure that might save his life, he isn't old enough to buy M-rated games.
I'm not suggesting that parents shouldn't be allowed to buy these games for their kids. I just think we should seriously examine why they think it's a good idea, or even just okay.
The Proper Context
My final thought on the game; some people may think it's tasteless to emulate the experiences of soldiers in combat, but those people seem to forget that these actions are things that we actually ask other people to do. Yes, a video game in which you hang upside down from a rope and stab an enemy in the chest while you muffle him with your free hand is unsettling, but there are people being trained to do it in real life, payed by American tax dollars. And that's perfectly fine with me - we need people like that to protect us, and I'm certainly not going to sign up. But to then say "You're making people more barbaric by exposing them to this kind of violence" is just plain naïve.
People compelled to do evil by their twisted interpretation of the world are not, I assure you, waiting for a video game to teach them how to do it. To commit even the most extreme acts of horrible violence requires little more than the will to do so, and no video game on the planet can make you want to hurt people.