What can the viral marketing around Call of Duty: Ghosts tell us about the game itself?

The Call of Duty series is no stranger to innovative marketing efforts. They’ve reached out to stars like Jonah Hill, Sam Worthington, and Robert Downey Jr. to appear in big-budget commercials. They’ve created viral videos featuring the scientific research of zombies. They’ve even worked with the Chrysler car company to create a limited edition Call of Duty Jeep. And the upcoming Call of Duty: Ghosts features an intense music video starring Eminem.

More than a means of seducing customers, however, these marketing strategies also illuminate how these games are intended to be played, understood, and internalized. Whatever ideologies are conveyed through in-game constructions of the military and politics are first deployed through carefully choreographed promotional efforts. And those efforts—those ideologies—do not always fly a simple pro-military flag, Ghosts included.

These marketing strategies also illuminate how these games are intended to be played, understood, and internalized. 

Let’s back up briefly to 2012 for an earlier example to see how these ideologies manifest in practice. Call of Duty: Black Ops II was just coming out. Set in 2025, it offered a nervous descent into a world where military might derives from drones and robots. Of course, a terrorist hacks into the network that controls said robots, directs the drones to attack major cities worldwide, and aims to incite a war between the United States and China.

The marketing of the game intensifies this foreboding story of the dangers of technopower. Preceding the game’s release was a two-minute pseudo-documentary film starring former Lt. Colonel Oliver North and political-scientist-slash-robotic-warfare-specialist P.W. Singer, both of whom served as consultants for the game. The film offers an unexpectedly ambiguous projection of a future beneath a drone’s gaze and guns. These technologies, say North and Singer, will change warfare for the worse. Weapons are becoming stronger, faster, more independent, and more violent—and we are not prepared. We created this technology to defend ourselves, but they have made us much more vulnerable.

Even as the video subtly advocates strengthening our defensive posture—we see images of quaint suburban homes, suggesting that threats encroach upon our collective doorstep—it also raises concerns about this technomilitary. In other words, maybe we should back off from using unmanned aircraft. Sure, they can fly longer and move faster than humans. Sure, they keep American soldiers out of danger. But humans can’t be hacked. Big advantage.

The threat technology poses to the future of the military also looms in Ghosts, set in 2023. Once again, a sophisticated military technology—ODIN, a weaponized space station—gets hacked by a collective known as “The Federation.” Once again, the hackers turn technology against American soil. The Federation destroys more than a few U.S. cities, leaving the nation open to social disarray and invasion thanks to an almost entirely crippled military. Chin up, though! Although the military has collapsed, a few surviving soldiers band together and create a paramilitary force known as the “Ghosts.” Cue the revenge fantasy; say farewell to the Federation.

Ghosts is thus ostensibly a classic tale of rugged individualism that has its roots in early American mythology. 

Ghosts is thus ostensibly a classic tale of rugged individualism that has its roots in early American mythology. Think vaunted figures like Theodore Roosevelt, a cowboy-style statesman who would put Dubya to shame. Or Davy Crockett, whose brief shining moment in politics as a U.S. Congressman ended with a huffy departure for the wild frontier of Texas. Such figures—again, heavily mythologized—eschewed working within sluggish, stodgy institutions in favor of manly action exercised through aggression and occasional violence.

A glance at the marketing of Call of Duty: Ghosts suggests that the game can firmly be placed in that continuum of individual prowess, but with a more menacing twist. Here’s where Eminem comes in. After meeting with members of the Call of Duty team and catching a glimpse of Ghosts gameplay footage, Eminem purportedly retooled one of his songs, “Survival,” so that it meshed more cleanly with the game’s narrative. The final music video can be seen on the Call of Duty website, where the rapper performs in front of projections of in-game video footage of guns, soldiers, and death.

“Survival” is a Darwin-esque story of rogues roaming the dark, deserted streets of an unnamed city. Eminem is one of those vigilantes, trekking through the shadows to spray-paint images of skulls and ghosts (the rogues’ insignia, as it becomes clear) surreptitiously throughout the city as the chorus chants, “This is survival of the fittest / this is do or die.” The every-man-for-himself mantra is a must in this dystopia. There are no cars. There are no cops. There are only a few lights, which flicker ominously. Not even the electric company remains in this post-apocalyptic world.

Thematically, again, this story trumpets tough individuals on society’s fringes who create a hodgepodge collective of erstwhile freedom fighters. The inheritors of a Rambo-esque mantle, they take survival and political action into their own hands in spite of the wasteland they inhabit. Don’t bother counting on a strong military or drones or any kind of defensive organization to protect the nation anymore: they’re all gone. We only have the leftovers.

This nouveau political power takes individual agency to its extreme, far past what the military itself has promulgated. Power is displaced from the ranks of a massive, disciplined military machine to a smattering of operatives. Our future protectors are descendants of the cowboys of America’s past, but they are outfitted with 21st century technology and have no one to answer to.

Our future protectors are descendants of the cowboys of America’s past

This is not, of course, to say that the military would turn its nose up at these kinds of narratives. Far from it. Past slogans of the U.S. Army that still resonate, “Be all that you can be” and “An army of one,” trumpet the mythic appeal of individual power. Same story goes for the Navy, which has offered slogans like “You are tomorrow, you are the Navy” and “accelerate your life.” Joining is about individual heroism and hacking it like a badass in a militarized frontier, not comradeship.

The extension of heroism into a future world where widespread soldierly solidarity is no longer possible is nonetheless a worrisome prospect, particularly in the face of violent technologies whose power far exceeds that of individual fighters. It certainly does not bode well for the future of the military as an organized institution. But perhaps, like the Ghosts, the armed forces will find a way to adapt to the darkness.