It might be true that art imitates life to a certain extent. When it comes to the wild world of videogames, this statement has one caveat or the other. Recently it seems, “the Russians” have become the new go-to guys when it comes to AAA video game villains. Taking a look at the tremendously successful Modern Warfare series, developer Infinity Ward sure did not start the trend, but put it on overdrive as far as these things go.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare pits “Russian Ultranationalists” as the main villains, scheming to throw the (US dominated) world into World War 3. As does the recently released CODMW-aesthetically influenced arcade combat flight sim Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. Thematically that’s the one thing those games have in common. The Russian—the crazy Ivan—has become en vogue again as the international whipping boy. They’re evil. They speak this harsh, hard, unfriendly sounding language. They represent a system that’s diametrically opposite to the American one.
Only that they don’t. First of all, the Cold War has long been over—Russia has long since been dominated by ultra-rich oligarchs, by a feral form of capitalism gone terribly wrong. Also, none of the games in question ever bother with the issue of “system” or “ideology”. The evil Russians are just “ultranationalists”. Like Nazis. Only that they’re now talking in a funny sounding faux Russian accent instead of a similar funny sounding German one. The motivations for the villains’ actions are rarely explored beyond maybe a personal level, a vague “hatred for the west”.
It’s as easy and morally just to slaughter these people and their numerous, numerous henchmen as it was to slaughter the good old Nazis in the past. And as evil as Nazis are, the true potential of those also has never been truly tapped. Video games haven’t seen something like Inglorious Bastard’s Hans Landa, or similarly well written Nazi scum who were more than just a barking uniform with some meat in it.
Also, Russia itself is often times depicted in a way that raises the question if the developers or the writers of the stories ever bother reading the news, checking on what happened in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Most of those plots read like that of Tony Scott’s 1995 submarine extravaganza “Crimson Tide”, where—surprise—Russian ultranationalists captured a missile silo, threatening to lop a few nukes at the US. At the time in the early 90s these things were plausible. Russia wasn’t the most stable of states, the Soviet era just recently put behind it. But modern day Russia? The Russia of Vladimir Putin? How likely is it, that Putin’s Russia will be overthrown by a ragtag band of army guys? Putin’s Russia, that’s in quite the iron grip of Gazprom, the oligarchs and the former KGB agent, whose list of achievements make Random Facts about Chuck Norris seem like a bunch of understatements?
Why is this potential left untapped? Putin’s Russia is a formidable antagonist, the Prime Minister and soon to be President again a villain so perfect few writers could’ve come up with him? Is it that Putin’s Russia is way too cautious to ever attempt something as blatantly stupid as incite another world war with the US? Is it that special ops missions tied to a truly covert war, maybe even an economic war, just don’t make for enough spectacle? Looking at the present day situation of Russia, there is enough potential for at least regional conflict. The Russian secret service has been rumored to cite unrest among the Russian minorities in Russian’s satellite states, with constant political upheaval in the Ukraine for example, whose eastern, Russian dominated parts might just break away to join Mother Russia again. How’s that for a scenario? War in the Caucasus? Did those writers hear about the South Ossetia conflict of 2008, that almost lead to Russia and Georgia going to war?
Maybe the problem with those scenarios is that while they are a lot more plausible than the old “ultranationalists overthrow Russian government, incite World War 3” shtick, they present much less spectacle, at least at first glance. It seems scenarios like those are better suited for less Shock-and-Awe-y games like Operation Flashpoint and it’s spinoffs. These scenarios make for good regional conflict, that could indeed see American (or Western) special forces go into action, but they are a lot harder to sell to the wide audience a Modern Warfare goes after. A Communist Nazi is a much easier sell than, say, an oligarch’s private army or Russian secret police seeking to incite a civil war in a neighboring country few of the target audience will have ever heard about. It’s much easier re-heating good old Cold War or rather post-Cold War / pre-Putin fears of the Red Scare rather than concocting something out of the strange, entangled brew that the present day former Soviet Union presents.