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“Remember – no Russian”: The Impact of Violence in Call of Duty

“Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2” game poster.

At 8:40 AM at the Zakhaev International Airport in Moscow, Russia, private first-class Joseph Allen, AKA Alexei Borodin in disguise, waits patiently in the elevator with Vladimir Makarov alongside his associates, unzipping their duffle bags, equipping their military bulletproof vests and loading their Russian assault rifles and light machine guns. As the group reaches the main floor, Borodin takes an unexpected breath.

When the group finally arrives on the main floor by the usual ding of the elevator, Makarov stresses the importance of the operation by saying, “Remember – no Russian.” Borodin, Makarov, and his associates would slowly walk out of the elevator, forming a line side-by-side with their automatic weapons. 

As soon as people began to turn around in fear, Makarov, Borodin, and his associates would open fire upon a crowd of innocent Russian civilians and massacre everyone in the airport, hearing the screams and cries for help from victims.

Gunfire, explosions, sirens, and screams are only heard as the group slowly walks through the puddles of blood on the airport floors. Once the team reaches the escape point, Makarov maliciously fires at Borodin, knowing he was a CIA operative the whole time; upon the Russian police finding the body, the war between Russia and the United States commences.  

To many gamers and critics worldwide, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” mission would spark massive controversy surrounding violence in video games. Even the Infinity Ward team that initially developed the game in 2009 and its story remains divided on its inclusion within the campaign.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” remains relevant in the media as Call of Duty’s newest title, Modern Warfare III releases this week. However, developers at Infinity Ward hint of a possible reboot of “No Russian” in the game as they brought back the fan favorite antagonist, Vladimir Makarov.

Professor Gullen, Chair of the Communications Department at Westfield State University, when asked about his first encounter with the mission online, responded strongly to its inclusion.

“Honestly, I was horrified… It wasn’t just the level of violence that disturbed me because, let’s be frank, I grew up in the era of Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto, but the simulation of a mass shooting when we are living in the era of these incidents in the news, was at least for me, a step too far,” said Gullen.

In 2009, Steve Doocy, a newscaster for Fox & Friends who ran the story “Modern Warfare 2: Players Can be Terrorists in New Video Game,” found the “No Russian” mission disturbing in allowing the player to become a terrorist. Later in the story, Doocy would bring attention to the ethics of its inclusion. 

“At what age, is it [the mission of “No Russian”] appropriate? Then again, is it ever appropriate to assimilate killing people?” said Doocy.  

Even though the mission doubled down on portraying Makarov, the main story’s antagonist, as a war-monger, human trafficker, and war criminal by having the player watch and participate in killing hundreds of Russian civilians that created a fictional all-out war between Russia and the United States, game’s defenders say the mission is legal because it falls under freedom of speech protections. Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media at the time, would speak about the violence in Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 on Fox News in 2009.

“We live in a world of free speech, and the developers can make their games however they want. The real issue is how old is the user playing the game,” Steyer said.

Before you enter the mission, General Shepherd debriefs the user that you are a CIA undercover agent trying to gain Makarov’s trust, but “No Russian” poses a significant challenge to the player: Would you rather sacrifice hundreds of people to stop Makarov’s reign of terror on the world or lose the only opportunity of getting close to Makarov? Sometimes, many players forget that moral component to the level, and throughout the level, the sole objective is to follow Makarov’s lead. 

In a 2019 interview, Game Informer spoke with Infinity Ward’s former lead artist, Joel Emslie, who helped design the “No Russian” mission. Emslie would go in-depth into how the mission created a divide in the studio.

“There was a side of the studio that felt that it should be played from the perspective of a security guard that got caught up in it, then there was the other side that liked the way it was going. I remember doing all the civilians for ‘No Russian,’ and I just wouldn’t…there was a point in time where we were discussing how gory we would get with the people who were getting shot,” said Emslie.

Another Infinity Ward former developer, Mohammad Alavi, had an alternative perspective in creating the mission. There was great importance in producing high tension and shock while not going overboard with violence in the mission.

“The massacre originally ended after the player killed the group just outside of the elevator at the beginning of the mission before jumping forward to a firefight, but it felt too gimmicky with the sequence flirting with doing something raw and uncomfortable, then shying away,” said Alavi.

Since the release of “No Russian” in 2009, most current and former Infinity Ward developers have remained silent on including “No Russian” in the game’s campaign. Few developers have spoken only about alternative plans on how the mission was initially designed but lacking the purpose of its inclusion.

In the conversation of whether the mission of No Russian should have stayed in the game or not, Gullen was critical of its purpose in the campaign.

“With that level of talent, I refuse to believe that there wasn’t another way they could’ve continued the narrative of the game…It felt like the developers were really trying to shock the player and for that matter shock the public into selling more copies, and to the best of my knowledge, no other game has a level like this so they knew that people would want to play it just for this level,” said Gullen.

In March 2020, Activision and Infinity Ward would release Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 Campaign Remastered for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Microsoft Windows. However, not only would Infinity Ward significantly upgrade the graphics and immersion of the game, but they would make the “No Russian” mission more disturbing for gamers.    

On Call of Duty’s Subreddit, the user No-Car434 posted a video of discovering an added detail outside the original version of “No Russian” that went under the ears of the general public. In their video, if you went near the airport bathrooms, you could hear the sound of a crying baby.

One game critic, Matthew Seji Burns, stated that the mission was a complete failure in trying to build the antagonist, Makarov, as a villain. He found the storytelling lazy as the story required the player to follow Makarov’s lead to understand his motivations mindlessly.

“They try to accomplish this by shooting civilians at an airport and the player stands next to the terrorists as they indiscriminately fire into crowds; he or she can contribute to the fire if he or she chooses, or stand idly by. Either way, the scene is horrific and disturbing: in the mayhem, you watch as a middle-aged man in a purple shirt tries and fails to crawl away from a pool of his own blood…He was not a combatant and he could have been a bus driver or an accountant or a teacher,” said Burns.      

Since Call of Duty Modern Warfare II’s campaign inception last year in November, fans and critics were shocked when the alternative version of “No Russian” was hinted at in a post-credits scene.

The post-credits scene would involve an individual passenger mechanically assembling a pistol piece-by-piece from various hiding spots. When the suspicious passenger finishes building his pistol, they reply “Ready” to Vladimir Makarov on a burner phone. 

Makarov responds with the expected phrase, “No Russian,” having the suspicious passenger and two other associates attempt to hijack a plane. However, the cutscene ends when the unknown passenger places the burner phone in a glass of water, hiding the evidence.

Two months ago, the marketing team for Call of Duty released two trailers related to Call of Duty’s newest title, Modern Warfare III, with a Makarov Reveal Trailer and a Gameplay Reveal Trailer both continuing to hype and hint at an alternative version of “No Russian.”

Does it serve more harm in continuing to let the mission – or alternative version – of “No Russian” live in our current media? Or are there more repercussions of out-right removing the mission entirely from the game and media?

In response to this question, Professor Gullen advocated for the “No Russian” mission to be outright banned.

“There is a vast, night and day difference between shooting at a gaggle of monsters with a laser pistol in Halo: Unlimited and gunning down a group of innocent civilians in an airport with graphics so good that the level looks right out of a newscast. The level should be scrapped and I would even go so far as to say the developers need to release a statement,” said Gullen.

On November 10th, Call of Duty Modern III will launch on the PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One and X, and Microsoft Windows listed for $70. If you preorder the game, you will have a week of early access starting November 2nd to play its campaign.

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