Call of Duty is not a franchise that could be described as crucial to the development of gaming or a mature form of artistic expression. It’s the Transformers of the gaming world; hours of explosions and grunted dialogue that is popular for reasons that defy common understanding. Unlike Transformers, however, Call of Duty just became markedly more interesting because 80-year-old former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega is taking its creators to court over the use of his image in their 2012 title, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.
Noriega, who is surprisingly litigious for a currently incarcerated convicted murderer and former CIA informant, is claiming that the use of his image in these scenes was part of a calculated attempt by the game’s developers to heighten realism and therefore improve sales. It’s difficult not to feel that Noriega’s imprisonment from 1992 to 2007 on counts of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering, and subsequent conviction and imprisonment for 20 years (starting in 2011) for money laundering and murder might work against his claim that the game — in which he is depicted murdering and kidnapping several people — damaged his reputation.
So on its own this case is odd. But that’s before you consider that it is one of two cases that are defining the parameters of the gaming industry’s artistic licence, and the complainant in the other case is Lindsay Lohan. Once you consider that, you can appreciate the extent of the oddity with which we are confronted.
The Lohan case, lodged last year after the launch of Grand Theft Auto V, is about Lacey Jonas, a character in the game that Lohan alleges is based on her. Apart from anything else it says some pretty sad things about Lohan that when she sees a character whose defining characteristics in the game are anorexia and a violent relationship with the paparazzi, she concludes that it must be based on her own image.
Regardless of the oddities, between these two cases there are some extremely important boundaries being drawn up under which the gaming industry will have to operate in the future. In some ways it is disappointing that this has anything to do with Call of Duty. It would be like a legal precedent for a movie’s right to depict a real person being Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
There are also questions to be asked about whether games are currently pushing the envelope too far because of the lack of established legal precedent. But on the other hand this could not be less about Call of Duty. It’s about the progression of gaming as a medium; it’s about an artist’s right to draw from human history and from fact rather than having to hide behind fiction and half-truth in order to avoid prosecution.
The standard procedure in cases such as this seems to be to settle out of court to avoid long running legal entanglements and negative press. In these cases however it is imperative for the ongoing growth of gaming that both Activision (Call of Duty) and Rockstar Games (GTA V) don’t allow the entire medium to be boxed in by questionable, and in all likelihood opportunistic legal challenges. They have a responsibility to the gaming community to make it perfectly clear that gaming has all the same rights and privileges as any other medium.
If gaming is to continue to develop as an artistic medium through which people have the power to depict the society in which we live for whatever end they deem worthy of expression, it should have access to public figures in the same way TV and movies do. How else is anyone going to be able to make the eagerly anticipated GTA-style reboot of The Queen?