This past week was hard for a lot of Americans to get through. There was a narrative built up in many Americans’ minds that we had, in some way, conquered a lot of the challenges of our past — racism, sexism, ablism, homophobia, and so on. There was a feeling that, finally, the vast majority of us had unified behind an opinion that everyone truly is entitled to equal opportunities, rights, and most of all respect, whether they’re quietly speaking Arabic into their phone on a train, toiling away in a strawberry field to support their family back in Mexico, or holding their same-sex partner’s hand at the altar.
The illusion of societal unity a lot of us had was shattered last Tuesday, November 8th, 2016. We had our second presidential election in 16 years end in a split between the electoral and popular votes — the candidate who won the electoral vote got less total votes than his main opponent. Moreover, the victor represented, to many people, a physical embodiment of sexism and racism — an old, rich white man with a loud mouth who shamelessly admitted to blatant sexism and ran on a platform fueled by fear of minorities and immigrants.
This event was distressing to many people, including myself. As I sat Tuesday night with one of my best friends and witnessed the results start to pour in, I kept telling her, “It’s going to be okay. She’ll win. They haven’t counted all the counties yet.”
But she didn’t. And my friend’s anxiety became increasingly visible as the night went on. Her son and daughter, 10 and 12 years old respectively, kept coming into the living room with the specter of doom hanging over them.
“What are we going to do?” her son asked around 9 o’clock. “Are we going to move away?”
For my part, I admit to being surprised that night. I suppose I had bought into the illusion at some point. It’s easy to think the illusion was closer to reality than it truly was from my home in the melting pot of Silicon Valley. I was also angry, though I didn’t let it show to my friend. I was angry that the people of this country would, in my opinion, vote so clearly against their own personal best interest.
I’m not a Democrat or a Republican. I’ve never been a member of a political party. I’ve been an Independent my whole life, and I’ve voted on both sides of the ticket when it made sense to me to do so. I credit my upbringing in New Hampshire for my “live free or die” attitude. I am a scientist and a free-thinker, and I use my vote pragmatically and strategically. I support the idea that a congress belonging to one party should be balanced by a president belonging to the other. Perhaps most importantly, I strongly believe in protecting the rights to freedom and equality for all people, and statements the president-elect said throughout his campaign represented a great threat to that belief.
Sufficed to say, the results of Tuesday’s election stressed me out.
In the past, I may have turned to an old friend to help me get through a stressful and depressing time: alcohol. On election night, I drank four beers — more alcohol than I’d drank in the entire month before that. I had dramatically cut back my drinking earlier in the year as I recognized that using it as a method of dealing with stress was not healthy for my mind and body. In the days since the election, I haven’t had a single drop. Not that I haven’t been stressed out by the election results, or the news of racism and hatred being validated (or responded to in kind) by his election, or the descriptions of his plans amounting to, essentially, zero progress on climate change, regressive policies towards gay rights, and increases in taxes for many middle and lower-middle class people. Those things absolutely stress me out. But instead of drinking to deal with it, I’ve learned how to meditate. I’ve learned how to perform breathing exercises and practice mindfulness. I’ve learned how to talk it out. And I’ve learned that escapism is a powerful form of stress relief as well.
My escape of choice is to engage with one of my hobbies: reading, writing, or playing video games.
By chance, I had just acquired a copy of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare two days before the election. Call of Duty is an iconic first-person shooter game franchise with annual releases. Infinite Warfare is this year’s new game in the series. It’s also the first Call of Duty game I’ve ever played.
When I pictured Call of Duty, the image that came to mind was one of “bros” — mainstream gamer dudes who are super into guns and the military and shooting stuff and smoking weed killing each other over and over again to talk shit on the Internet and earn prestige ranks (whatever those are). What I did not picture was a story that would illicit a truly emotional response within me multiple times over its course.
Aside: There’s an almost humorous quality to the fact that my first exposure to the long-running Call of Duty series happened to occur simultaneous with this controversial election, and that it happenes to be called “Infinite Warfare”. As if I needed a bigger sign of how naïve it was to think we’d already largely crested the hill in the fight for freedom and equality in our society. That struggle is never going to be over and it was foolish and privileged of me to think it ever could be.
In Infinite Warfare, you play as a member of the Earth’s international space navy named Nick Reyes. From the beginning of the game, you’re faced with a plot that’s dead simple to understand: humans from Mars, who are part of a ruthless military culture, have decided to attack and conquer Earth, and as a prominent navy officer (in the aforementioned space navy), you-as-Reyes are going to fight back against them.
It might seem, at first blush, like there’s no good reason a story like that would help me get through a week like last week. But the story really just functions as a backdrop for the character interactions on Nick Reyes’ naval spaceship, the Retribution.
In every single mission that Nick Reyes goes on throughout Infinite Warfare, he’s accompanied by his closest ally, Nora Salter (“Salt” for short). When Reyes becomes the captain of the Retribution, one of the last big battleships in Earth’s space navy, Salt is his XO. Salt has Reyes’ back in every last mission right up through the very end of the game. She’s strong, she’s compassionate, and she’s confident. The actress who played Salt, Jamie Gray Hyder, did an amazing job bringing her to life — her body movements and delivery made her a believable female character without betraying her in any way.
To the writers’ credit, there’s no sexual tension between Salt and Reyes. There’s no cheap jokes at Salt’s expense because she’s a woman. There’s no mansplaining throughout the game towards Salt or any of the other female characters. I noticed these choices by the writers of Infinite Warfare and I thank them for it. Because this game is showing a vision of the distant future, and in that vision of reality, women and men are on an even surface, treating each other with respect and not engaging in banal sexism.
My two favorite characters in the game are emblematic of another hopeful vision of the future.
The first is Sgt. Omar, who leads the marines on the Retribution. Sgt. Omar is British (which is evident from the British flag patch on his coat — all of the soldiers in Earth’s space military wear the flag of the country they come from). He’s a brash, even harsh, critic of Reyes’ decisions throughout the story. But he’s also very experienced, loyal to the very end, and gives strong, memorable advice that Reyes and Salt take to heart.
He’s also black, and he carries an Arabic name — Usef Omar. Usef is the Arabic form of the name most of us would know in its English form — Joseph. His race and his religion are never directly addressed in the game, but it doesn’t take a lot of logical hoop-jumping to draw conclusions about him: Usef Omar, a black British man with an Arabic name. Also, a space marine who’s treated with the same level of respect as everyone else.
Sgt. Omar is one of my favorite characters in the game in no small part because of his interactions with my other favorite character: Ethan. Ethan is one of the first characters met in Infinite Warfare. He’s also a robot. Ethan is an artificial intelligence programmed to be the perfect soldier with everything that entails, including a personality to “fit in” better with a squad.
Througout the game, Ethan is “othered”. He’s the one character who experiences prejudice from the Earth-based human characters in the game. Sgt. Omar in particular won’t even directly speak to him during their first interaction. The irony of that — the black British Arabic guy not willing to give the robot the time of day — feels intentional. I reflected on the way someone like Omar might be treated in some places in the countryside of England today — possibly not unlike how he initially treats Ethan in Infinite Warfare.
Reyes decides throughout the story to pair up Sgt. Omar and Ethan and as the story progresses, it’s clear they become closer as squadmates and even friends. While the improvements to their relationship are telegraphed pretty strongly, seeing it play out in the fictional military setting is still immensely fulfilling. Without spoiling the events of the story, I would only say that the connection between Omar and Ethan is very strong by the end, and just thinking of it brings a tear to my eye as I write this.
Ethan is a truly inspired character despite the fact that he’s fulfilling what at this point has become a classic sci-fi trope (a trope so common, in fact, that another big military shooter released almost simultaneously with Infinite Warfare called Titanfall 2 has a robot military companion as well!). At first, he’s treated with skepticism by many of the members of Reyes’ team. Over time, he is fully integrated into the team and, in fact, is one of the favorites of all the team members.
While all this may seem a little bit idealistic, that’s essentially my point. I found comfort in Infinite Warfare’s story because it describes our future, as humans on earth, as one of true equality. Even the robot character, who is by his fundamental nature utterly different from the human characters, is treated as an equal and valued as highly as anyone else. Ethan isn’t treated as expendable just because he’s an artificial intelligence in a robot body. Yes, he’s the one you go to when you need someone to ram a door down. But he’s also worthy of the same respect as everyone else. And that goes for all of the women in the story as well.
Perhaps the greatest feat of the story, and the thing I found the most comfort in, is how natural it all seemed. The character interactions were believable. The way they treated each other with respect wasn’t strange. The way the male and female characters interacted was free of the baggage of sexism we’ve so come to expect from fiction generally, and felt more realistic for it.
The character interactions in Infinite Warfare are emblematic of an ideal future, yes, but they also feel attainable. And I so badly need to believe that is our possible future right now.
The past week has been hard. It has been stressful and depressing and frightening and distressing.
In 1927, famed Japanese author Akutagawa Ryūnosuke committed suicide. He left behind a death note explaining that he took his own life because of “a vague sense of anxiety about my own future.”
I think many of us in the United States of America are feeling a vague sense of anxiety right now as well. And there are many ways of dealing with that type of anxiety.
I read. I write. And I play video games.
And now, after cleansing myself of much of that stress and worry, I feel strengthened. I am ready to fight against prejudice and hate and distrust, and to fight for the future where equality and freedom are valued above all else. A future where people treat each other the way the characters of Infinite Warfare treat each other — with respect and decency regardless of their appearance or sex or gender.
It feels strange to be praising a video game in the week following this particular election, but there it is. It helped me get through this, emotionally. It helped me strengthen my resolve.
And what better reason to play a game and talk about it than that?
Thank you for reading. I am M.J. Yamaguchi, PhD. You can always find me on Twitter, my handle is @mjyams. This article first appeared on my Medium page. If you have any questions or comments, they are always welcome, so please post them here or on Medium or tweet them at me! If you don’t like reading about politics, then you probably wish I had put a trigger warning at the top of this essay. Sorry!