Manuel Noriega, the former dictator of Panama, is mounting a legal challenge against the publishers of computer game Call of Duty: Black Ops II because he was depicted in its narrative and thus played a part in boosting sales.
His case has caused some to mock him but it throws up an arguably more important issue – war games regularly depict historical figures and rescript politically contentious events to retrospectively justify military action.
On the surface, Noriega has a prima facie case. When a basketball or football star’s likeness is used in a game, they get paid according to legally sanctioned intellectual property rights. Why should Noriega be any different?
But his claim runs deeper than image rights. Call of Duty: Black Ops II is part of a tradition of games that depict real-life historical figures within real-life historical events to engage with what might be seen as problematic periods of American history. This game focuses on the invasions of Panama but its predecessor, Call of Duty: Black Ops centred around the Vietnam war and the Bay of Pigs invasion and the 2010 game Medal of Honor retold the recent conflicts in Afghanistan whereas the 2008 game Army of Two had missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Each provides a narrative that justifies American military action.
Re-scripting the past
Black Ops II covers a narrative arc that includes the 1980s and the 2020s. Suffer with Me, one of the missions in the game, depicts the US invasion of Panama in 1989, which is widely seen as highly controversial in international law. In the game, the invasion is justified by Noriega’s duplicitous actions during the 1980s. Crucially, the game portrays Noriega as betraying the CIA and aiding the escape of the games main antagonist, Nicaraguan terrorist Raul Menendez.
This re-scripting of Noriega’s relationship with the CIA is politically significant given that he was legally prevented from speaking about it during his original defence in the US following his capture in 1989. In the game, the escaped Menendez re-emerges as a populist figure in 2025 to ferment a cold war between China and the USA. The past has been re-imagined to make Noriega the cause of a fictitious future war.
This is not an isolated incident. Released two years earlier, Call of Duty: Black Ops was similarly embroiled in controversy. Set in the late 1960s and told via a series of flashbacks, Black Ops casts the player in the role of Alex Mason, a former US Special Forces operative.
In the first mission in the game, Operation 40, you play as Mason with the objective of killing Fidel Castro. At the end of the mission, you kill a man who, initially at least, appears to be Castro but is later revealed to be a decoy. Castro turns out to be working with Russian ultra-nationalists and a former Nazi genocidal scientist to develop a nerve agent that will be used to kill millions of civilians in the USA.
The game essentially seeks to affirm the CIA’s historical obsession with killing Castro. It tried many times to do so but failed again and again. In the game, Castro was only able to survive assassination attempts because of his duplicity – another consistent theme in US portrayals of the Cuban leader.
Later missions place the player in the Vietnam war. In its version of history, Russia is actively working alongside Vietnam against the Americans. This again justifies the US take on real-world events – the supposed partnership between communist states is just how the war was sold to the US public in real life.
In both games, a regrettable period of history which is still the subject of controversy becomes neutralised. The military actions of the US in Panama and Vietnam are ethically and politically justified using additions to the narrative.
And this tendency to re-script the past in videogames has even bled into depictions of the present. The insistence on the part of the US and UK that Iraq was harbouring weapons of mass destruction just over a decade ago was the central justification for their invasion, yet a satisfactory answer as to whether they were really there has never been forthcoming and many doubts have been raised.
In Army of Two, however, the issue is cut and dry. The game constructs an alternative, convincing version of events in which weapons of mass destruction existed in both Afghanistan and Iraq and in which a figure akin to Osama bin Laden leads a highly organised network of terrorists with sophisticated command structures and extensive military facilities.
This game is typical of many military combat games. They often not only depict real-life scenarios which we now know to be untrue but they also often suggest that the only solution to the political problems of states like Afghanistan and Iraq is the use of force. The message is clear: the war on terror is only to be won through indiscriminate killing.
Such plots may seem fanciful – these are, after all just games – but they raise important questions about what we might learn from depictions of recent and historical “enemies” and how our understanding of real events might be coloured by that depiction.
While films like the Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now or TV dramas like Generation Kill often seek to open up spaces for reflection on past military action, the narratives of the vast majority of military videogames work to deny or efface such ruptures. They effectively write out tumultuous events or US foreign policy catastrophes from their narratives and thus remove the need for any retrospective introspection or ethical questioning of past actions.
Noriega is not the first to feel that a videogame misrepresents the truth and he won’t be the last. Perhaps it’s time we thought about the wider implications of this trend.