Last week I bought Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. A big fan of the original, I didn't hesitate to pick this one up, hearing as I did that people lined up for nine hours until midnight to buy it.
The result? I'm not disappointed. It is by turns the most violent, disturbing and exhilirating video game I have ever played.
You're Private Joseph Allen, a U.S. Army Ranger stationed in Afghanistan and a gunner for a unit that makes a big assault on an Afghan city. You impress so much that your General recruits you for a very special mission.
But the game only tops itself from there. (Spoilers alert!)
Private Allen becomes "Alexei Borodin," an undercover operative who has infiltrated a Russian terrorist organization led by Vladimir Makarov, a man with no rules or morals. And there follows the most disturbing experience ever in video game history. You arrive at an airport alongside Makarov, calmly off the plane and into a busy security lineup. Then your terrorist cohort opens fire on defenseless civilians and you're given the choice whether to do the same.
Your actions have no bearing on the rest of the game. Whether you shoot one or 20 civilians has no impact on your fate, and if you don't fire a bullet your terrorist buddies won't turn a gun on you. The choice is yours.
The game warns this is coming. At the start you're asked whether you wish to carry on through a particularly offensive level. There's no gamer who's bought Call of Duty who'd say no to that.
You literally move through an airport and become complicit in a massacre.
On seeing this level, right away you wonder what the developers were thinking. How could they stage a massacre like that? The fact is that gamers are as complicit in the massacre as the perpetrators, whether they fire or not.
The sequence poses a very interesting moral question - given a gun in a world with no consequences, do you fire? Do you have it in you to unleash bullets on virtual innocents? And what does it say about you if you do? Or don't?
In a way the game's creators, Infinity Ward, are a little like Satan. They put a fatal choice in your hands and it's up to you what your next option is. Satan was never evil on his own - the evil is in you, there for you to indulge if you so choose.
Me? I couldn't do it. I fired plenty of shots at security officers and Russian swat teams, but only when they held guns themselves. Once you touch a gun you're in the game, and once you're in it you're par for the course.
But what does that say about me? Am I trying to prove to myself that I can't kill anyone? Am I so smug that I'll run off and brag to people later that I never unleashed upon a single civilian? Yes, apparently, because that's exactly what I did soon after.
And then the shooters - what does it say about them? Shooting a civilian in any platform is cause for concern, whether real or virtual. But are you any better if you don't shoot? You can't do a thing to prevent the massacre, other than turning off the game. But then you've wasted upwards of the $60 you spent on it.
More than anything, I think the game poses a pertinent moral question: given all the tools and none of the consequences, do you shoot? To say yes suggests you're a sicko. To say no means you're simply enabling it by watching from afar.
Censorious parents will no doubt try to ban the game. They're already trying in Australia. They needn't bother. This game provides a good litmus test for your child's character, and witnessing his or her choice will tell you a lot more about them than any psychologist.