Historical commentary is a balancing act in Black Ops II

Did we learn anything about America in BlOps 2? Scott Juster:

…Manual Noriega is an NPC, Oliver North gives you missions, and the game predicts that David Petraeus is (or, in this post-scandal world, was) in line to be secretary of defense. Clips of a jolly looking Reagan are juxtaposed with secret CIA dispatches to sketchy military strongmen. A huge chunk of the story is about the shady business that the U.S. government got into during the Cold War. Outside the independent space, are there any other games that even acknowledge real world politics?

Not that I can think of. Rockstar might be one of the few companies that is bold enough to tackle big issues, but it doesn’t touch much on the political or historical and focuses more on the cultural.

Noriega is a sleazy character, but the ways in which his sleaziness was enabled by the U.S. government are shoved off to the side. Oliver North’s cameo is little more than a walk on. Without doing any outside research, it’s conceivable that younger players might not know about his sordid history.

– – –

If you know the history you can appreciate this aspect of the game. If you know Noriega was a puppet for the C.I.A. and that the U.S. arrested him once they didn’t need him anymore, you can sympathize with those America has manipulated. If you don’t know about Oliver North and Iran-Contra or the vast reach of U.S. interference, you wouldn’t question your patriotism. 

In this way, Black Ops II’s approach to history is brilliant. It’s provocative for the people that care and innocuous for those that don’t. It manages to lionize figures like North while demonizing the monsters he helped create. It’s a political Rorschach test with a story that could be interpreted as critical of the U.S. military or proudly patriotic. Its careful balance of reality and fantasy appeals to everyone from rabid shooter fanatics to columnists that usually focus on niche games like Papo & Yo, and does so while also selling millions of copies. Even if I don’t agree with such a strategy, it’s hard not to be impressed.

From my perspective, the game touches on pieces of history that are too often forgotten in today’s world, but I know about this history already. If you aren’t familiar with it, these circumstances could easily pass for part of the game’s fiction.

The most accurate idea the game gives you is that the U.S. creates the bad guys, but we’ll kill them just the same. Like Call of Duty, this cycle of violence will repeat itself. This game is not so a criticism or a reflection, but an acknowlegement of a reality that most are not acutely aware of.