Affirmative Activision

Curator's Note

The latest Call of Duty game, Black Ops, was bound to be a hit no matter the advertising. The blockbuster success Activision enjoyed last year when CoD: Modern Warfare 2 was released predicted with some certainty a repeat performance. On November 9 Black Ops delivered, surpassing the MW2 record by nearly a million units. By the end of launch day, the game sold 5.6 million copies, earning $360 million. Clearly, flak about the “There’s a Soldier in All of Us” ad didn't hurt sales.

While Sam Machkovech at The Atlantic called the commercial “twisted” for its “troubling mélange of gun, grenade and rocket combat” and ESPN debated whether Kobe Bryant’s appearance was “insensitive” to active-duty soldiers, others heralded the ad for its diversity. Jezebel columnist Margaret Hartman praised Activision for “actually acknowledge(ing)” that women play videogames. The feminist game blog Border House applauded the ad’s “inclusiveness” by portraying “people of color, men, women, people of various body types, and even a number of professions” as gamers.

The first player we see is a shot of her stiletto heels. The camera cuts to the face of a black woman in professional attire, unloading an automatic assault weapon. Black female characters are grossly under-represented in videogames, and popular discourse about women gamers overwhelmingly focuses on white players, especially conventionally attractive, white female players. To that point, the second player we see in close-up is a fuller-figured, young white woman wielding a shotgun with apparent self-satisfaction. Her body is the antithesis of the thin, sexualized female avatars common to videogames.

There’s much to say about the militarization of play and gamification of war that first-person military shooters like CoD and Medal of Honor exemplify, and I am critical of the claim “there is a solider in all of us.” But, the uncommon representation of race/gender in this 60-second commercial for a hyper-masculinized game genre is worth noting. Now, if Activision and the entire industry would correct the lack of racially diverse female avatars in their games and amongst their creative workforce, I could celebrate their recognition of the gamer in all of us.


Nina, I'm glad that you wrote about this commercial and I'm going to be showing it on my first day of class.  It's a glorious aporia, one of those knotty texts that I'm not sure to do with.  It has Kobe Bryant!  and middle aged white ladies who are not conventionally attractive!  It kind of has everyone who is NOT a stereotypical hardcore gamer--no white boys between the ages of 18-25.  Everyone is coded by having a job of some kind or another, and in this way it reminded me of the Village People, a kind of pageant of occupations, some of them working class. The image of the cook and his dual wield handguns *looks* like some kind of working class rebellion moment (a similar moment happens in the movie Heat, when a disaffected cook on parole decides to walk off the job to resume a life of crime).  This commercial is ostentatiously about inclusivity, but rather than invoking multiculturalism like those old Coke and Benetton commercials, it seems to be about incongruity--people who decided to go to war without dressing for it.  The idea that you could wage war in sweatpants, a business suit, whatever is kind of being borne out by Xbox-controller controlled drones, which soldiers can use at a distance.  It deals with the idea of racial conflict online really elegantly by depicting a "free for all" kind of FPS where conflict is already built in, thereby diffusing it.  complicated! thanks for putting it up!

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