I've seen the opening level for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Normally, I'd suggest you stop reading if you don't want any spoilers, but this is an unusual case. This is worth spoiling, and I'll explain why.
The game opens with you, the player, as one of the terrorists who are gunning down dozens of unarmed civilians in what appears to be a shopping mall. The killers are calm and indiscriminate. It seems like the player might be able to choose whether to help the terrorists murder people or just walk with them as they do it. Either way, you're part of it. At the end of the level, your terrorist comrades betray you by shooting you and leaving you to die.
It's a powerful scene. And, honestly, I have mixed feelings about it. But I'm inclined to think Infinity Ward made a bad decision with this.
What is gained?
That's the most important and perhaps most obvious question. What did Infinity Ward hope to accomplish? At this point, I can only speculate. If they wanted players to experience this sort of atrocity first-hand, why not give the player control of a child or other unarmed civilian who could hide near the killers? If it is only the terror of the situation Infinity Ward wished to communicate, then the player's role as one of the killers is clearly unnecessary.
I have read a first-hand account of a similar atrocity, the genocide in Rwanda, by Immaculée Ilibagiza. The book is called Left To Tell. Immaculée's account speaks of thousands of regular people -- including her own neighbors and friends -- trained by culture to refer to persons of her tribe as "cockroaches" and exterminate them as if they were faceless pests, rather than human enemies worthy of consideration.
In Modern Warfare 2's introduction, we see similar evil. Perhaps a video game can offer exceptional insight to such a mindset, since we gamers are used to seeing simulated enemies as impersonal objects. Perhaps such insight is what Infinity Ward hopes to achieve with this level. Honestly, I don't think we'll know how necessary or unnecessary to their goals it is until this segment of MW2's story is contextualized by the rest of the game. Ultimately, I'm holding judgment until release.
But what can we know now?
One thing I know is that some gamers are never comfortable participating in play-evil. I have no idea how many gamers are this way, but I have known more than a few... and war games seem to appeal to the personality type. The same effect I mentioned with sadness occurs in scenarios that ask us to act in contradiction to our morals. Some gamers will have trouble mustering the will to play through this level even if they are not shooting people. Others could do it, but won't.
Another thing to consider is the politics which will inevitably ensue from Infinity Ward's decision. The non-gaming news will definitely pick up on this sooner or later, particularly since Modern Warfare 2 will be one of the best-selling, most popular games of this year and next. The controversy might just mean a lot of the usual noise about violence and games. But I believe it might also lead to political posturing from liberals and conservatives alike, Obama included. Again, Modern Warfare 2 is not a run-of-the-mill or indie game. This is a major title and the news agencies will respond accordingly. I'm not predicting anything specifically, but I wouldn't be surprised if this generates enough general public interest that politicians use it to create new regulations for video games, in America and elsewhere.
As I said, I'm going to wait until I play the full game to decide whether this level's design was a good or bad decision. But without clarifying support from the rest of the game's story, it seems like reckless sensationalism. Let's hope there's more to it.
edit: see comments