The fear of the "bad Russian"

"This war was a lie. Years of bloodshed just to ignite the fuse in a secret war that has been fermenting for decades," those were the first words of the Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War reveal trailer. A few moments later we see the former US President Ronald Reagan. In his address to fellow Americans, he declared that a nuclear conflict would be the end of humanity.

In the fifth part of the Black Ops series, developer Raven Software also uses the historic Cold War period as the basis for the fictional campaign for his first-person shooter: locations, personalities and references to this time to underpin their own narrative. This calculation worked out even before the game was released. The aforementioned announcement trailer is now scratching the ten million mark on the official English-language YouTube channel of Call of Duty. The amalgamation of real history and black ops fiction is obviously well received.

What was the Cold War?

The Cold War describes a post-World War II conflict in which the Eastern Bloc, led by the then Soviet Union, and the Western powers under the United States were spider-warlike. The disputes already discussed in Black Ops, such as the Korean or Vietnam War, are so-called proxy wars. In these the main aim was to contain the power of the great enemy. The Cold War is particularly well known for the few times when it threatened to get "hot" – for example during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Historically, the Cold War lasted from 1947 to 1991, but had a lasting impact on generations and their understanding of the world. Motifs like "the bad Russian" are still stuck in many heads today and are reflected, for example, in the action films of the 1980s.

The Cold War not only served as a popular setting in the course of video game history, but also had a strong influence on the early days of the medium.






In Spacewar! (1962) two players fought against each other with their spaceships. In times of the "Space Race" an allusion to the climate between the United States and the Soviet Union.



In Spacewar! (1962) two players fought against each other with their spaceships. In times of the "Space Race" an allusion to the climate between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Source: ComputerHistory.org





Games and Politics
One thing must be said clearly at this point: video games emerged during the Cold War and it is not for nothing that they owe their origins to the arms race between East and West. Categorized as the first video game in many places Tennis for Two was developed in 1958 by the US physicist William Higinbotham at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Higinbotham's technical basis was an analog computer and an oscilloscope, which was otherwise used to measure and display electrical voltage. At five meters, the system was as wide as a wall unit and is considered a quasi-predecessor to Pong. Although the system caused a sensation, it is ultimately best known for its pioneering spirit.

But while Tennis for Two indulged in peaceful competition, Spacewar, developed by Steve Russell in 1962, goes! already in a warlike direction. In this space shooter, playable for two participants, two spaceships fight and have to shoot each other. A PDP-1 minicomputer at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was used as hardware.






The attack on the Russian Ministry of Defense, which was modeled on the real state museum, was viewed particularly critically at the time.



The attack on the Russian Ministry of Defense, which was modeled on the real state museum, was viewed particularly critically at the time.

Source: Moby Games




It was no accident that Russell programmed this type of title. At that time, the United States and the Soviet Union were in the early stages of the space race. A year earlier, US President John F. Kennedy promised that the US "before the end of this decade would "land" a person on the moon and bring them safely back to earth ". So the topic got people thinking, and so was Spacewar! a first indication of how strongly politics and world affairs should continue to influence and change video games in the future.

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Video games during the Cold War

To further shed light on the connection between the Cold War and video games, we need to make a small leap in time into the early boom in gaming. From the late 1970s to early 1990s, people still lived with the Cold War and the possible threat of major conflict. This fear manifested itself in the games of the time.

Missile Command by Atari, for example, from today's perspective is little more than a simple action game in which you have to shoot missiles with a crosshair. Ultimately, however, the arcade game, published in 1980, digitized the consequences of a "hot war". Graphically it only shows the silhouette of a city against a black sky and finally the approaching missiles and bombers. If you don't hit the highscore in the end and don't save the city, only "The End" appears on the screen. If you now realize that three years later a NATO maneuver almost ended in a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union, one becomes very different.






The microprose simulation Red Storm Rising (1988) was based on the novel of the same name by Tom Clancy. The player controls an American nuclear submarine. The task is to repel Soviet forces and prevent a missile attack.



The microprose simulation Red Storm Rising (1988) was based on the novel of the same name by Tom Clancy. The player controls an American nuclear submarine. The task is to repel Soviet forces and prevent a missile attack.

Source: Moby Games




The 1984 for the C64 Raid over Moscow, which was published and developed by Access Software under the leadership of Bruce Carver, took up current affairs even more drastically. In the role of a US astronaut, you have to fight off long-range missiles fired by the Soviet Union on board a fighter jet. In later missions you will attack the Russian Defense Center. The Moscow State Historical Museum was used as a template for the building. And even if you only fought against robots in a nuclear facility in the last mission, Raid over Moscow caused a bitter aftertaste in many places.

The American hero finally triumphs over the cowardly Russians and can be celebrated in a parade. In Germany, Raid over Moscow landed on the index in 1985. The Federal Testing Office for Writings Harmful to Young People (BPjS) stated at the time: "The tendency of this computer game to glorify or downplay war is not attenuated by the fact that the player pursues the combat mission in order to save the western domestic sphere." In 2010, Raid over Moscow was removed from the index after 25 years.






According to developers Dave Theurer and Rich Adam, Missile Command was born out of the nightmares of a possible nuclear war. (1)



According to developers Dave Theurer and Rich Adam, Missile Command was born out of the nightmares of a possible nuclear war. (1)

Source: Moby Games




In Finland, the game even made for a little political scandal. There was an official protest on the part of the Soviet Union to have the game banned. After all, it is military propaganda. That in turn generated the backlash – and Raid over Moscow became a sales success in Finland.

There have been a number of titles that went in a similar direction during this period. In the Konami side scroller Green Beret (1985), for example, you fight your way as an elite soldier through seeming hordes of Russian soldiers. Even a game like Street Fighter 2 made use of various clichés in 1991: Capcom, for example, portrayed the Russian wrestler Zangief as a dumb fellow fighting in front of cheering workers in a factory hall. Hammer and sickle – the symbol of Marxism-Leninism – are not too far away here. On the American side, Ken and Guile are fighting on the one hand, the model husband and father, and on the other hand, the elite soldier. If you end the game with Zangief, Mikhail Gorbachev, the then President of the Soviet Union, appears and congratulates "his" athlete on this success. Then both dance the Russian kasachok. More cliché is not possible!






If you fail in the final Red Storm Rising mission, the Warsaw Pact Alliance will take over Europe and the United States. Your own character ends up behind bars as a prisoner of war.



If you fail in the final Red Storm Rising mission, the Warsaw Pact Alliance will take over Europe and the United States. Your own character ends up behind bars as a prisoner of war.

Source: Moby Games





The Cold War dies away …
With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War lost its horror from 1991 and thus also lost its appeal for the games industry, which was then increasingly emerging. Other enemy images and real conflicts, such as the Middle East, have come more into focus over the years; the Cold War quickly became a glorified vision of the past. She stood for the years of the secret services, for special agents, crude technologies and characters.

There were always strategy games that seriously took up the Cold War, but Command & Conquer: Red Alert (1996) became really popular, primarily because of the relentless exaggeration of the East-West conflict. Here an Albert Einstein unceremoniously travels back in time to murder Adolf Hitler before he could start the Second World War. However, this in turn strengthened the Soviet Union, which was in a permanent conflict with the Allies. When the Soviets finally invaded Europe, war broke out.

Developer Westwood shamelessly exaggerates historical figures and connects them with their own characters. For example, Kane, the leader of the Brotherhood of Nod, acts as an advisor to the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The now iconic cutscenes bristled with biting humor. Command & Conquer: Red Alert and the two later successors were a kind of real-time strategy satire in which you not only liked the tactical gameplay, but above all wanted to know how the weird story continued. The Cold War no longer caused fear here.

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change of time
Since the turn of the millennium, the cold has appeared again more frequently in large productions, sometimes in satirical, sometimes serious and sometimes only in a performing form. Cate Archer, the smart leading actress in the agent shooter No One Lives Forever (2000), ends up in the Cold War in the second and so far last part of the series. Even if this part is no longer as shrill and squeaky as its predecessor, No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy In Harm's Way (2002) is based heavily on relevant James Bond films. Within the story, the adventure relates to the Cold War: a dispute over the island state of Khios begins between the USA and the Soviet Union. The terrorist organization H.A.R.M. keeps pouring fuel on the fire, and Unity agent Archer's job is to help H.A.R.M. to stop a started intrigue. No One Lives Forever 2 still has a lot of humor, but ultimately uses the motif of the Cold War to heighten the drama. The specter of the nuclear apocalypse is there, but because of the prevailing humor, it doesn't have the seriousness that one might expect.

In contrast, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, released in 2004, in which the Japanese developer icon Hideo Kojima uses the Cold War to tell the background story of Naked Snake, is different. The agent setting of a Metal Gear Solid goes perfectly with the Cold War scenario. On top of that, the inclusion of the real conflict gives the sometimes extremely overdone story a certain credibility.

Raven Software, the team behind Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, approached its earlier project Singularity in a very similar way. Released in 2010, the shooter revolves around the mysterious Russian island of Katorga-12, where time travel experiments were carried out. Of course, these went wrong, so that the Russian government hushed up the events there. Decades later, an electromagnetic pulse emitted from Katorga-12 draws the attention of US intelligence agencies to the island. So the fronts are clear. Singularity takes up the setting with at times pleasantly self-deprecating propaganda films and other elements.






The Cold War, the Soviet Union and a good helping of survival: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is considered the most unusual offshoot of the successful stealth action series.



The Cold War, the Soviet Union and a good helping of survival: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is considered the most unusual offshoot of the successful stealth action series.

Source: Moby Games




And that brings us to Call of Duty: Black Ops, released in 2010 and developed by Treyarch. Treyarch turns the Cold War into a hot shooter and sets up real locations such as Cuba, Vietnam or the Gulags in the Soviet Union as locations. However, Call of Duty exaggerates the events and the scenario significantly. And that's exactly what awaits us in Black Ops Cold War.

More stage than real story
The change in the approach to the subject of "The Cold War" in video and computer games remains striking. In the 80s, the titles published and developed there still reflected the zeitgeist and also the fear of the outbreak of a third world war.

With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, however, the situation relaxed and it wasn't long before one looked back at the time with a certain wink and sometimes even transfigured nostalgia. Later on, many Cold War games were used as a familiar stage to represent their own story and their characters. The Cold War still shapes the image of the gaming landscape today – and if you are honest, there are still some prejudices and "enemy images" in your head.

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