The Call of Duty series, which is published by Activision Blizzard, the second largest American game company, combines military-grade firearms with the Rambo-grade fiction that a white man with a gun can obliterate an army of foreigners. Although the games borrow the aesthetics of real-world conflict (their settings have included America’s war in Vietnam and the Second World War), they tend to simplify context and forgo commentary. The results are huge sales and inevitable controversy. This year’s kerfuffle centered on how Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the series’ latest installment, allows players to use an incendiary version of white phosphorus, a chemical weapon prohibited under international law. (Such weapons can melt human bone and were allegedly used against Syrian children earlier this year.) Critics complained that including the weapon was irresponsible. John Phipps, a former U.S. marine, wrote that the game was a “nearsighted glorification” of an illegal weapon, and that it didn’t depict the effect that white phosphorus “has on the human body in any kind of realistic way.” Others waved away the concerns. In the Military Times, a writer argued that it was a “curious place to finally draw the line in the sand,” given that the premise of Call of Duty revolves largely around killing people.
In November, Bobby Kotick, the C.E.O. of Blizzard (and, curiously, a bit-part actor in “Moneyball”) told a journalist from CNBC that he didn’t think his company’s games should be political. It was a reasonable response, perhaps, from an executive who believes that his job is to sell toys to teen-agers. For anyone who believes that the medium has the potential to be something more ambitious, though, it was a dispiriting refrain. It also exposed the often opportunistic beliefs of video-game supporters. In the face of criticism, one can say that games are mere entertainment, incapable of causing harm; in the face of praise, the same games can be presented as ways to change hearts and minds for the better. These contradictions inhere in every medium, of course. But, for those who think games have the capacity to take us to novel, joyous, or illuminating places, here are eleven that, this year, seemed to light a way forward.