Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Permissible Violence: Kobe Bryant, Jimmy Kimmel, and Call of Duty: Black Ops

In 1997, Hutchins and Phillips published an important article in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, titled "Selling Permissible Violence." The article utilizes Australian rugby to illustrate that standards of violence fluctuate in society. These fluctuating standards of violence are contingent upon the market's commodification of violence, evolving technology and media, and political ideology. And while Hutchins and Phillips's article centers on sporting violence, the concept of permissible violence can be extended to other forms of popular culture, as well as war.

To this end, recently, National Basketball Association (NBA) icon, Kobe Bryant, and television late show host, Jimmy Kimmel, were featured in an XBOX 360 advertisement for the recently released game, "Call of Duty: Black Ops," re-enacting combat in war. Here's the commercial:

Link to commercial here:

It is important to note a few other dimensions of the commercial. First, it makes a concerted effort to include a very diverse array of additional characters -- men, women, younger people, older people, those from different ethnic and occupational/class groups. This diversity tactic then leads to an ending slogan: "THERE'S A SOLDIER IN ALL OF US." In other words, all of us (supposedly) have the innate capacity and desire to partake in war (or at least buy the video game).

The commercial has generated a small degree of controversy. On ESPN, sports pundits discuss whether or not Bryant's participation in the commercial warrants a response from NBA Commissioner, David Stern:

Bomani Jones hits the nail on the head. With approximately 1 minute left in the video, Jones points out that if Bryant was re-enacting what's portrayed in the video game, Grand Theft Auto (e.g., murder, assaults, prostitution), he would be reprimanded by Commissioner Stern. However, because Bryant, Kimmel and the other actors are re-enacting war against each other, and presumably against American enemies in the game, the portrayed violence is at the very least permissible, and more likely glorified as a kind of American patriotism.

And this is the problem with America's blind fascination with war -- the general public only sees what our media wants us to see. We see the most extreme violence (death) glamorized and commodified in "benign" video games, leaving the public completely misdirected from the realities of war.

Bryant and Kimmel's participation in the commercial, and in turn support of this war-based game, speak nothing to the physical and mental health concerns soldiers (including American soldiers) experience because of war (listen to Terry Gross's fantastic interview for a discussion on soldiers' mental health concerns: Psychologist Craig Bryan: Treating Vets For PTSD).

Likewise, "Call of Duty: Black Ops" speaks nothing to the alleged war crimes that American soldiers have been accused of committing in Iraq and Afghanistan (Leaked U.S. Video Shows Deaths In Baghdad; A Murder Controversy in Afghanistan).

What we see in this commercial, is that war is not just permissible. It is cool. If Kobe Bryant and Jimmy Kimmel can have fun re-enacting war games and show "they have a soldier in them," video gamers should likewise view war-based video games that bring death upon others in fiction uncritically. But in real life, these media blitzes simultaneously and covertly also support American military efforts, without problematizing the tragic outcomes of war on all sides of the battlefield.

Should society be glamorizing war to make money, and turning to celebrities to peddle these products? I wonder, how many of the marketers for "Call of Duty: Black Ops" have been in combat, lost a limb, dealt with severe war-related mental health problems, killed someone, or had a loved one killed?

Photo via ESPN; more from The Orlando Sentinel: ESPN shot down by Call of Duty Black Ops creators over Kobe Bryant ad, Activision denies ESPN use of COD: Black Ops commercial with Kobe Bryant, 'Call of Duty: Black Ops' video game commercial controversy, Media Bistro: Activision Shoots Down ESPN’s Request To Air Kobe Bryant Commercial.

Academics Blogs


  1. hey your blog design is very nice, clean and fresh and with updated content, make people feel peace and I always enjoy browsing your site.
    wholesale wigs
    wholesale wigs online

  2. Love it. Sharing it on my blog right now, Dave!


  3. War is not cool; however, idealized video games in a war setting can be cool. They were not glamorizing war, they were glamorizing the video game.

    Heck, if the video game was accurate players would spend most of their time staring at an empty terrain nervously waiting to see if anything would happen.

    I think it is amazingly cynical to think that the intention of these is to "covertly" support the war. That is the sort of thinking of someone who is looking for patterns to match their predisposed opinion.

    The real story here is not celebrities selling war; it's op-ed persons reading more into this than what is really there.

  4. Gotta agree with the above. This blog was painful. No rational person believes war is like this anymore than they believe it's like Unreal Tournament 3, a game that this commercial has more in common with than it does with war.

    Frightening misuse of intellectual powers here.

  5. It's hard to want to validate this ridiculous blog with a real response, it's so devoid of wisdom and logic.

  6. I'll agree with one thing: war is a terrible thing. However, war did stop the greatest evils of the 20th Century. The threat of war and a powerful military is what keeps us safe today from those who would love to see us dead and mutilated.

    I do not see anything wrong with people enjoying harmless reenactments of war via paintball matches, playing Cowboys and Indians, police vs robbers, or through video games. Humans can separate fantasy from reality.

    Of course, there is a line that can be crossed. Games like Grand Theft Auto, Bully, and others I would argue cross that line.

  7. I'm not a gamer, I don't care about games, but this is very poor thinking.

    How is this commercial anything more than a glorified version of paintball?

    What a horrible, poorly thought out, reactionary, knee-jerk argument.

  8. I don't think that violent video games cause violent behavior among most young people, at least the empirical literature suggests playing violent video games only holds a relationship (maybe not even a causal one) with heightened aggressive attitudes (not behavior). I never suggested in the piece that this game actually represents "real life" war or perpetuates violent behavior.

    When I wrote, for instance, "But in real life, these media blitzes simultaneously and covertly also support American military efforts, without problematizing the tragic outcomes of war on all sides of the battlefield," the point I was making is these types of marketing add to an overall American culture that does not question or even think about the attendant social problems that stem from war. These marketing strategies make fantasy war (the games themselves) look cool and fun. And subsequently, we are less inclined to recall that there are tons of social problems war brings. We as a society become less skeptical, and less likely to engage in constructive discussions about the pros and cons of war. This doesn't even mean one has to be anti-this or that war. It means even if one is in support of a particular war, s/he should also admit there are war-related problems (war crimes, collateral damage, injured/killed soldiers, etc.) that we continuously need to address. These "fun" fantasy-based re-enactments of war perpetuate a culture that does not scrutinize different forms of violence as a whole, in this case war violence.

  9. If this was merely a post on a "Call of Duty" forum, it would likely be called out for trolling. The fact that it's a blog post doesn't necessarily invalidate that conclusion.

    A few points of fact which you may have missed, or simply chose to overlook:

    1) "CoD: Black Ops" doesn't speak to or confront any of the issues in the Iraq/Afghanistan wars because it's not set in those conflicts. It's not even set during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It covers the 60's, including Vietnam. The use of The Rolling Stone's "Gimme Shelter" in the ad is a hint.

    2) To stop the next most likely complaint, no, it's not going to rehash the My Lai Massacre, an atrocity which was carried out by regular US Army troops, not members of the Special Operations Groups (SOG). SOG units in Vietnam regularly linked up with and provided assistance to Hmong and other Montagnard tribesmen that were resisting the North Vietnamese during the war. As the game puts you in the role of an SOG soldier, it's unlikely to be indulging in those sorts of atrocities.

    3) If there has been any lesson learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, it's that human beings as a species DO have the innate capacity at least for war, and a sufficiently powerful event can (for good or ill) spark a desire to wage war. 9/11 sent hundreds of thousands of American men and women into uniform. The arguably misguided 2003 invasion of Iraq and subsequent overthrow of Saddam Hussein motivated countless Iraqis to take up arms, fighting each other as much as they were American troops. Go back even further, Communism dies not with a nuclear bang but with an economic whimper, and you find the coup attempt against Gorbachev and the horrors of Bosnia and Kosovo. As you go back, you find there's one thing that humanity as a whole is truly equal opportunity about: the ability to kill. If it's not plants to make flower arrangements and vegetable side dishes, it's animals for fashion and the main courses of our meals, and if not animals, we kill each other for a range of reasons that go from selfishly petty to selflessly grand. This is not new. We've been doing it since we figured out how to throw rocks and swing tree branches.

    4)The "Call of Duty" series, particularly the more recent entries, has never claimed to be an accurate or even particularly realistic portrayal of armed conflict. The last entry in the series, "Modern Warfare 2," is closer to a Michael Bay movie than a CNN or Frontline documentary. Any game that has an alternate mode for zombie killing a la "Night of The Living Dead" simply cannot be taken too seriously.

    5) Favorite video game series among American troops, currently serving or having recently served: "Call of Duty." From the lowliest grunt to the most elite Special Forces operator, they enjoy "Call of Duty," particularly "Modern Warfare 2." The fact that it is so thoroughly unrealistic is part of the charm. For guys who are out on the sharp end all the time, being able to come back and play a game that has a decidedly Hollywood approach to warfare is a major stress reliever.

    Next time, do your homework. It'll make you look like less of a troll.

  10. As an addendum (it took a while to write out the first comment), your argument that video games basically don't make Americans ask questions about war doesn't really seem to hold water. Even as far back as 2003, before and just after the invasion of Iraq, there were people who questioned the wisdom of starting a second war when the first one in Afghanistan wasn't finished. And that was well before some of the games in question came out. Even so, Americans (and probably civilians in all nations with standing armies) don't necessarily start out asking questions about military policy and issues because those are properly the province of the military. The guys with tons of braid and a chest full of medals have spent years, if not decades, trying to figure these things out and how to implement them. Civilian control of the military, through elected representatives and executive appointments, may ask questions and often have. If the officers give bad information, or if the civilian authorities misinterpret the information given, issues like prisoners abuse and excessive collateral damage can arise. The populace as a whole does not dictate military policy. We trust our armed forces to act responsibly, and we voice our displeasure when it becomes apparent that our trust has been betrayed.

    It might surprise you to know that there is a game series which does take into account issues like collateral damage and the effect of civilian deaths. The "Armed Assault" series is actually closer to a high end military simulation rather than a mere "game." It's a decidedly different prospect from "Call of Duty" and I would recommend it for anybody looking for something more advanced and substantive.

  11. War video games is fun. War in real life is not. That is why people play the video games instead of shooting people in real life.

    "It is good that war is so horrible, or we might grow to like it."
    -Robert E. Lee

    Think a little bit before writing posts like this.

  12. There is no starting point for this argument other than the fact that you believe gamers and young people to be ignorant and just plain stupid.
    The brain is smart enough to comprehend topics like calculus, chemistry, physics and the human mind to name a few examples, but its not good enough to tell a video game, a clever organization of 1s and 0s, from reality???????
    Give celebrities a break, they are just human beings... and we all do have a soldier in us, human beings are capable of doing anything with a little bit of effort and dedication...

  13. The lack of thinking charges that you're receiving from all these readers show a simple principle, Dave...keyboard warriors defend their gaming with a vengance against any who would make them think. Keep it up, man.

  14. Very nice blog useful for me,if more information please check it once
    Video game testing company