Call of Duty: WWII’s ‘diversity’ is nothing more than marketing

Sledgehammer Games/Activision

Since American pop culture took control of World War II as a narrative, it’s always been presented as a white man’s war. From Sands of Iwo Jima to The Great Escape, The Thin Red Line to Saving Private Ryan, that’s the perspective you get. Call of Duty: WWII isn’t going to change this, but it sure wants credit for trying.

Activision and Sledgehammer Games pulled the wrapper off their glamour franchise today, and despite the exclusively white and male makeup of those doing so on stage, they want you to think this is a more inclusive tale of World War II. It may yet be. We won’t know until Nov. 3.

For now, the tone-deaf manner in which this all-white production checked all the diversity boxes — “women, an African-American unit and even a child” — reduced everyone else to a bullet point on the back of a box, yet another feature. We’ve got a private multiplayer beta; we’ve got zombies; we’ve got black people, we’ve got women, we’ve got a Jew.

It reads like a marketer’s checklist for suitable diversity, a roster of token characters that pats the publisher on the back more than it acknowledges their experiences. Sledgehammer staffers’ repeated references to “brotherhood” also speak clearly to the fact this game will be told from a very traditional perspective.

From what we saw and heard about this game today, that tradition doesn’t genuinely include brothers of other races, or brothers who don’t identify as male. It’s important to note that segregation was still very much enforced during the time period, including within the American military. And judging by the attention Sledgehammer is paying to period firearms and the sounds they make, Call of Duty: WWII is all about preserving historical authenticity.

Playability is the special obligation of interactive entertainment.

That leaves fighters of color, fighters who are women, in supporting roles. It’s not even known if they are playable. Playability is the special obligation of interactive entertainment in telling a story, an obligation that movies like The Guns of Navarone or The Longest Day don’t face, even in hindsight 50 years later. A lot of different people are going to play Call of Duty: WWII. Just because brothers of different races didn’t fight alongside each other doesn’t mean that players in the year 2017 shouldn’t inhabit and absorb all their experiences.

Sledgehammer Games’ top studio brass, Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey, talked up Call of Duty: WWII’s new features, improvements over previous iterations and all the other stuff Call of Duty fans want to know. Then came, like an awkward Thanksgiving dinner conversation, the conspicuous and almost patronizing mentions of race and gender, again reflecting back to the white male perspective.

“We also fold in a story of diverse and global characters,” Condrey said of the cast of characters after talking about its largely American male cast. He proceeded to talk about … a British male soldier.

Schofield followed this with a reference to the game’s female lead. “Rousseau, the powerful female leader of the French Resistance,” he said, as if reading from a cue card. Powerful female. We get it.

And that was it. No other “diverse and global characters” were referenced. Instead, Schofield and Condrey were swapped out so that the game’s true stars could be shuffled on stage for their scripted interviews, each one armed with buzzwords. Three white actors, including B-lister Josh Duhamel, replaced the two white men who previously steered the conversation.

White men get the solemn treatment of brotherhood. Everyone else? ‘Hey, we’ve got them, too.’

Why mention the female leader at all, only to shift gears and de-prioritize any importance she holds in the narrative? Nothing about this big reveal event was shy about telling Call of Duty: WWII from the white, American front line of combat. It came across as a gross attempt to assuage any concerns about Call of Duty’s overwhelming whiteness, something that last year’s entry — Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, set in futuristic space — actually addressed, but probably because it wasn’t burdened by a conflict grounded in segregated history.

References to the experiences of persons of color and women in the Second World War are well and good. But when white men get the solemn treatment of brotherhood, and black men and women get the “hey-we’ve-got-them-too” marketing cadence, it all reeks of insincerity. Especially when not a single woman or person of color was presented on stage, which would have given some weight to the important roles they are said to play in Call of Duty: WWII.

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