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Glamorous games: Call of Duty – blood, guts and gambling for kids

A few days ago I jotted down some notes describing a view on the motivations of some games, that there were games pretending to entertain but instead they were in the business of raising ‘engagement rates’ getting you to do something in the interest of the developer rather than to entertain yourself. I called them glamorous games because I believed they were hiding their true identity.

At the time I was writing with education on my mind, I could see a worrying trend that everything that needed some student engagement was being gamified and that there must be a point where the positive feedback loop of ‘do this for some feedback, the feedback is you should do some more game stuff’ had to come to a head. When I wrote the notes I didn’t really have conventional games in my mind although they often do try to convince you to do things in the interest of the developer.

Since jotting down these notes I played Call of Duty Black Ops 3; which I also feel hides quite a bit about itself; altough this time I think it is trying to hide who the game’s core audiance really is.

For those who don’t know Call of Duty is a massive franchise, perhaps the biggest gaming series currently going. A game is released yearly and some years, like the last, it will will become the best selling video game. As you can guess, the game is combat based, you shoot people before running around a corner and shooting some more people. The first Call of Duty game I ever played was just over 10 years ago and its purpose according to Wikipedia was to simulate the infantry and combined arms warfare of World War II. You could say there was some success in that, while it was definitely gloried combat it was grounded somewhat in reality, I remember checking out Operation Tonga at my library after playing. Think Saving Private Ryan as a game.

Shift in business model

In the latest game this shady character gives you random unlocks for tokens you get from playing (time based) or through cod tokens (purchased). You don’t know what you will get; but the chances are it is better if you paid – and it makes that clear.

Back in 2003 when the original game was released the business model was so; gamers would go to the store and buy the game and play it. The developers would then develop the next game and perhaps some extra purchasable add-on pack and so on; content for cash. Now games are much different and purchasing a £40 game is like purchasing a ticket to a theme park where you still have to play to go on the rides. Gamers pay for the game but they are not given all stuff. Things such weapons, upgrades and abilities have to be purchased; either with time by playing the game or with cash. The game does a good job of giving the player far to many options to unlock stuff, infact unlocks using COD points (which are purchased with real cash) are done so at random, meaning that unless you are a hardcore player you will never really know the most effective way of unlocking the content you want. A quick Google search couldn’t give me a solid number on the amount of things you unlock or the most effective way to do it.

Hiding your core audience

The latest game, released in November 2015 is a long way from the original game; think a Michael Bay film, Transformers if your being generous or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles if not. I have only played two missions so this is very much first impressons. The first was a involved fighting giant robots and the second involved being thrown through virtual reality and running across walls doing parkour tricks. There was very little to entertain an adult was squarely aimed at children, which makes sense from a market point of view; young gamers have the most time to play games, they are more likely to get caught up in the time VS cash confusion for unlocks and have nag power to their parents. The trick seems to be that while the unlock and gambling system is confusing to those who don’t have the time to play it (parents), the system is fully understood by the audiance (children) themselves, so it is easier to hand over a credit card than actually understand the sentence ‘I need cod points for a rare supply drop; I might get a rare action for when I’m in the winners circle!’ (that is an actual thing – I think).

The problem is that the morals when it comes to target these things at kids, so Call of Duty Black Ops 3 pretends it is aimed at adults; the rock and sock ‘em robots style first level felt to me it was clearly aimed at a transformers audience; however it was is also littered with explicit scenes of waterboarding and tortue. The second level is full of profanities, but the sort you would expect in a playground; “the sergant is a dick, tee hee just joking” jokes the first squadron member you fight along side in virtual reality- it is either aimed at kids or pathetic scripting.  Jumping on a online server and listening to the voices you can tell that a good chunk of the audience that plays this game are most definitely a lot younger than 18 and why wouldn’t they want to play a game with themes  aimed at them.

The juxtaposition of content aimed at children with content that only adults should be seeing is confusing at first; but I could only come to the conclusion that it is a lazy way for the developers to justify forcing an manipulative and almost gambling like business model on a core audience where it is immoral to do so; by getting an 18 rating certificate it’s not the developers problem if children play it (although it would be their problem if they weren’t playing and paying).

Children are playing this game because many of the themes are clearly aimed at them. It made me think that Call of Duty is a glamorous game because it pretends to be for adults; it hides behind blood, guts and profanity to get an 18 certificate so that its publisher, Activision, doesn’t have to answer to the EU as to why in-game purchases and gambling-like mechanisms are being pushed on to children, the most vunerable to this kind of monetization.

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