IS THIS THE RIGHT CALL OF DUTY?
By David Leonard
Monday, December 20, 2010.
Kobe Bryant has done it again. He has supplanted LeBron James. Whereas James’ decision to “take his talents to South Beach,” ESPN’s “The Decision,” his appearance on Larry King, and his recent Nike advertisement have elicited widespread debate, discussion, and consternation, Kobe Bryant, despite winning his second straight title with the NBA has been out of the spotlight. Yet, his appearance in a commercial for Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops has not only surely allowed for the commercial to naturally appear on ESPN and during NBA games but also has resulted in ample discussion about the meaning and appropriateness of his appearance within the advertisement.
The commercial, like other games in the genre, imagines war as a space of play, as a space of excitement, as space of harmless fun, and one without consequence. It likewise imagines a warzone as a space of unity, where irrespective class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, politics, or celebrity, people can and need to come together to defeat a common enemy. Promoting the game with the tag line, “There’s a solider in all of us,” Kobe Bryant makes an appearance as to illustrate that war, and the game is a place where superstar basketball stars can play alongside of waiters, Jimmy Kimmel, and others.
Not surprisingly, his appearance in the commercial prompted ample chatter. Mark Medina, on The LA Times blog who noted that he didn’t find the commercial “enjoyable,” wrote “I think the commercial featuring a happy-go lucky vibe with ordinary citizens pretending to be in combat downplays the seriousness that real combat entails.” Similarly, Sam Machkovech commented on The Atlantic.com that the "troubling mélange of gun, grenade, and rocket combat acted out by blue-collar workers, children, and celebs like Kobe Bryant and Jimmy Kimmel" resulted in a “disappointing game-related ad" . . .that equips people with real guns and simulates real-life, no-CGI combat . . .. The only things missing are the dead bodies on the receiving ends of each bullet and blast.” Others took the debate, given Kobe Bryant’s celebrity, and cultural meaning in a different direction.
In his blog post “In the crosshairs,” Paul Jones links Bryant’s decision to his responsibility as a role model, one who shouldn’t be promoting violence: “Like it or not, Bryant is a role model. Maybe I'm old fashioned but anything that promotes or glorifies that kind of violence doesn't float my boat. I know it's just a video game but it's not my cup of tea.” Likewise, Tim Keown uses the commercial as a way to talk about gun violence in Berkeley, California, linking the deaths and murders of young (African American – the article doesn’t say but also the rhetoric, images, and narrative leads one to belief as such) boys to Kobe’s appearance in this commercial.
Writing through Todd Walker, a football coach and funeral home worker in Northern California, Keown focuses on the destruction facing Walker’s community and how the glorification of violence within this advertisement is part of the problem. He describes Walker’s reaction to the commercial in the following way:
He was already disgusted, but about halfway through the spot, Walker did a double take: Wait! Wasn't that Kobe Bryant? Seriously, is that really Kobe Bryant carrying an assault weapon with the word "MAMBA" on the barrel? Did Kobe Bryant, the highest-paid player in the NBA, take money not only to advertise a shooting game but actually shoot -- or simulate shooting -- an automatic weapon while doing it? None of his people, not his wife or his agent or someone in the NBA offices, advised him against this?
"I couldn't believe it was him," Walker says. "What's wrong with him?"
Walker gives funeral-home tours to every team he coaches. He tries to hammer home the reality of death by putting kids in cardboard cremation boxes. He shows them the tools he uses to drain bodily fluids and the chemicals he uses to prepare bodies. It probably wouldn't play in the suburbs, but Walker's trying to fight a culture that glamorizes death with tattoos, airbrushed T-shirts and roadside memorials. He's fighting a culture that has desensitized death to the point where fantasy has overtaken reality. In the process, the permanence of death -- "That person is gone," Walker tells the kids when he closes someone inside the box -- is often lost.
Beyond the scapegoating, and the ways in which the article rehashes culture of poverty arguments alongside those that blame violence on choice and decision-making amongst those victimized by state violence, Keown does little to distinguish between the types of violence being displayed within virtual warfare (as glorious; as justifiable) with those images and narratives that consistently use the violence associated with and attached to the ghettocentric imagination to rationalize, justify, and otherwise imprison black bodies. The efforts to link virtual warfare and urban violence through Kobe Bryant, one of the more recognizable black bodies, demonstrates how blackness is circulated as threat, danger, and object of derision. Others, however, used Bryant’s presence, and the NBA’s non-response as evidence for the acceptability of virtual warfare.
On the “Grumpy Sociologist” Dave Mayeda asks the following about the commercial: “Should society be glamorizing war to make money, and turning to celebrities to peddle these products?” He further argues that these games (and by extension their commercials that promote and encourage play in/of these games) naturalize a war culture, erasing the cost and consequence of war. This argument merely echoes longstanding questions about the significance of war games. “What I find really frightening is that in our playtime – in our leisure time, we’re engaging in fictional conflicts that are based on a terrorist threat and never asking questions,” notes Nina Huntemann. Richard King and myself argued similarly in “Wargames as a New Frontier Securing American Empire in Virtual Space” (from Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games edited by Nina B. Huntemann and Matthew Thomas Payne):
“US efforts to establish neoliberal policies in Afghanistan, Iraq and throughout the globe, coupled with the overall movement to legitimize US global hegemony, have come through much ideological work from television and Hollywood, to news media and virtual reality. In fact, in a post 9/11 America, video games have become a crucial space of articulating American empire, providing a vehicle of interactive dissemination that allows for the transportation of citizen bodies from their homes onto battle fields, into political struggles, and into a global theater where US efforts to secure power is normalized and justified. We must therefore understand virtual warfare and the popularity of war games by developing a spatial understanding or a critical pedagogy that illustrates the connections, dialectics of warfare, and violence within virtual and real-time spaces.
Mayda’s and others discussion of the commercial as an entry point into the larger issue of the militarization of everyday life is important, especially as the defense of the commercial deployed the clichéd argument, “It is just game” and “a commercial.” Given the ways in which these games have proliferated over the last ten years, the ways in which militarization is evident in all forms of popular culture (and in toy stores), and how sports, from its language to its efforts to put military hardware on display during pregame festivities, and its ideological offerings, one has to wonder why a commercial featuring Kobe Bryant offers the only moment of intervention.
The specificity of race, Kobe, the NBA, and the commercial are evident as Mayeda goes on to argue, in response to the debate between Skip Bayless and Bomani Jones on ESPN’s First Take.
“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.
Jones, who uses the moment to talk about NBA "hypocrisy" given the league’s reticence notwithstanding David Stern’s propensity to control player image, arguing that had Kobe Bryant appeared in a commercial for Grand Theft Auto 57, it "would have [been] pulled [...] off the air” because the violence associated with war “doesn't scare people. Street violence scares the NBA's fanbase, or the ones that David Stern is trying to appease by stopping guys from arguing with refs."
In other words, Kobe, as a black NBA star, can exist inside the virtual theater of overseas warfare, but his presence in another context would elicit a far different reaction because his blackness, as signifier, as cultural symbol, and as cultural frame is inherently disruptive and problematic. In another context, his visible blackness would function as essentially disruptive, uncontrollable, as a source of “cultural degeneracy.” Blackness exists as “a problematic sign and ontological position” (Williams 1998, p. 140). The fact that Kobe appears in a war game ad and not a ghettocentric commercial says nothing about the relative acceptability or contempt for particular types of violence but rather where and how blackness can enter into the white imagination.
Having written extensively about video games, both international and domestic war games (Grand Theft Auto and other ghettocentric games exist in imagining domestic warfare), I am struck by Dave Mayeda’s analysis of the game and Bomani Jones’ analysis. Jones isn’t simply pointing to the acceptability of “ghettocentric violence,” that violence against a foreign other is more acceptable and permissible than games that imagine gang and inner city violence. Rather, both forms of violence, evidence in the popularity of games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, war films and those concerned with “Boyz” and “Menaces,” and the ubiquity of war and violence on the nightly news and in public discourse at large.
Violence, when directed at a foreign other, and when reifying dominant white racial framing about violent, dangerous youth of color, is quite permissible and acceptable within American media culture. Given the criticism directed at Bryant, Mayeda’s argument about “permissibility” leaves some pause. Kobe’s visibility within the commercial, his presence as a “role model,” as a black man enjoying warfare, and as a member of “Us” results in a commercial less permissible and thus more susceptible to critique. Moreover, Jones’ point doesn’t seem to be that displays of militaristic warfare are more acceptable than “ghetto violence.” Rather he is arguing that in the context of the NBA, given the constant fears about the blackness of the league, Bryant’s presence in a commercial reifying his blackness and the stereotypes associated with the white racial framing of hip-hop/urbanness, would prompt far greater outrage and likely intervention from the league office. In fact, the commercial with its emphasis on “shared nationalism,” and shared identity as “soldiers” within a larger war effort, irrespective of class, race, gender, celebrity, and physicality mirrors the efforts of the NBA to deemphasize the racial identities of its players, promoting a neoliberal, market-driven notion of identity.
Moreover, it is crucial to understand how fear plays out within the context of this commercial and how Bryant’s presence in a militarized zone doesn’t elicit the same sort of fears as his presence might in another context. Within war games, and in the commercial, there is an effort to emphasize the multiracialness of the nation as to imagine a national body coming together to battle, wage war, and otherwise destroy a foreign other. In other words, video games, whether set in the old West, the new Iraq, or the post-civil rights ghetto, offers a space to rehearse the central tenets of American imperialism, law and order, manifest destiny, and the benevolence of (white masculine) American Democracy.
Call of Duty: Black Ops, as evident by the commercial, replicates this mission. It assuages fear. However, Kobe’s hypothetical presence in Grand Theft Auto commercial would aggravate fear as a black body within a post-civil rights ghetto context. Beyond abstract connections and the links of fear, the surrounding discourse of reception -- the celebration of violence within war games (one manifesting through state powers) and demonization of violence when performed by state enemies (criminals and terrorists), Jones points to the ways in which symbolic (virtual) violence and these games in general distort, reify, and dehumanize, bodies of color in justification of state violence.
These games turn on dehumanizing racialized violence directed at bodies of color, pivot around a rhetoric of danger on insecure frontiers, and encourage a reworking of the contours of fear and victimization so that white consumers can occupy them. It isn’t that one violence is more permissible than the Other, it is that black bodies (evident by Kobe Bryant) can be visible as a cog within a larger state power but cannot exist inside a space where blackness is defined as a threat to domestic safety.
Moreover, the reaction demonstrates the limitations of redemption for bodies rendered as inherently suspect and dangerous. The fact that Skip Bayless offered the following illustrates the limited possibilities for redemptive black bodies: “He was smiling while holding an assault rifle in combat while we have troops overseas at this moment doing the same thing for real in combat.
It's completely out of bounds for Kobe Bryant, who I thought had completely rehabilitated his image after Eagle, Colo., but even the great Kobe Bryant is not that, so to speak, bulletproof.” The reaction to this commercial demonstrates that no matter how many successful years Kobe Bryant has on the court and no matter what he does off the court, he will always be viewed with skepticism and derision.
The media and commentary, discourse irrespective of the argument (condemnation/celebration of Bryant), focused much of discussion about the commercial on the NBA’s star and not the issue of virtual warfare. Just last year, I wrote about controversy surrounding a NIKE advertisement featuring Kobe Bryant with the tagline “Prepared for Combat” in Journal of Sport of Social Issues, amid the arrest and suspension of Gilbert Arenas:
The backlash and the legislating by the NBA, when read alongside those scholars who have argued that the structural and culture locality experienced by blacks renders them to be noncitizens in the national imagination, the encouraged and supported denial of their rights as citizens, whether in terms of guns, the right to earn a living straight out of high school, or the right of free speech/expression, fits their perpetual place outside the American citizenry. The centrality of black NBA ballers as dangerous criminals—abject noncitizens—is clear through the discursive logic: Criminals shouldn’t have access to guns. If Stern is discouraging players from carrying guns, it must because they are dangerous, irresponsible, pathological, criminal noncitizens.
This is made clear by this commercial and the various commentaries that Bryant’s presence as a “soldier” within a U.S. military context is acceptable because the location is one of control and disciplinarity, whereas blackness in other contexts continues to exist as Other, object, scapegoat, and abject noncitizen. It is all matter of what combat is being prepared for and who the imagined victim might be that determines whether or not violence, real or virtual, is acceptable.
With thanks to New Black Man
David J. Leonard is an associate professor in the Department of Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State University at Pullman. His next book (SUNY Press) is on the NBA after the November 2004 brawl during a Pacers-Pistons game at the The Palace of Auburn Hills. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, and he appears in both popular and academic mediums.