'Modern Warfare 3' courts controversy with child death

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By Winda Benedetti
A bomb, a little girl and an explosion: Are the developers behind 'Modern Warfare 3' trying to get attention ... or trying to tell a compelling story?

UPDATED: Tuesday, Nov. 8

Warning: There is a "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" spoiler dead ahead. Stop. Go back. This is your last chance.

Still with me? OK then. So the new "Modern Warfare" game is about to launch (Tuesday, in fact) and — surprise! — it looks like a controversy could be brewing. Though, perhaps at this point it would be more surprising if a "Modern Warfare" game launched without some sort of controversy.

You see, over the past weekend, a leaked video reportedly showing disturbing footage from the highly anticipated "Modern Warfare 3" game began making the Internet rounds. The footage reveals a short scene in which a young girl and her mother are blown up by a terrorist's bomb right in front of the father's eyes.

The video has appeared on and off again on YouTube with the game's publisher — Activision — apparently demanding its removal. But for the time being, you can see a copy of it here:

Truth be told, it doesn't appear that a huge outcry has erupted ... yet. So far, video game sites have picked up on and reported that the footage exists while wondering if this will be the sequel to the big "No Russian" controversy of '09. Some have also expressed skepticism about the suspicious timing of this supposed leak.

But when it comes to big games and big violence, controversy is rarely far behind.

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You see, back when "Modern Warfare 2" was about to launch in 2009, a brouhaha erupted over a level in the game called "No Russian." In that level, players were given the option to shoot innocent civilians during a bloody massacre in a Russian airport. (See the scene below, but a warning: It's a gruesome affair.)

I played the game and found "No Russian" to be a rather ham-handed bit of game storytelling. As far as plot went, the scene was confusing, stilted and did little to advance things in an intelligent way. It didn't make for compelling or meaningful gameplay either and, ultimately, "No Russian" came off feeling as if the developers at Infinity Ward were gunning primarily for controversy and the free publicity that comes with it.

I'm not prepared to weigh in on this latest scene which may (or may not) have been included A) simply to stir up controversy or B) to add emotional depth and resonance to the terrorism-themed tale "Modern Warfare 3" is trying to tell. I won't weigh in here because I haven't played the game and it's not fair to judge one scene plucked out of the context of an entire game.

Still, it's worth noting a couple of things. First, children are rarely killed in video games. Even "Dead Island" — which first grabbed the world's attention with this heart-breaking trailer featuring the death of a young girl — did not feature a single child death or injury in its zombie-filled gameplay.

And yet, children die horrible, tragic deaths in movies quite frequently — all in the service of story telling and without controversy ever rearing its ugly head. And so I can't help but feel that games — many of which feature compelling, cinematic-style narratives — are unfairly held to some strange double standard.

Meanwhile, it must be pointed out that, unlike the "No Russian" scenario in "Modern Warfare 2," when it comes to this bit of "Modern Warfare 3" tear jerking, it does not appear the player has any kind of active role in what happens to the child. You simply see things unfold through the eyes of a dad filming a family vacation gone horribly awry. You see the terrible cost of a terrible war. And that's exactly the kind of thing you might see in a movie.

Though the folks at co-development companies Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer Games have not addressed the leaked footage specifically, VentureBeat recently interviewed Sledgehammer's creative director Bret Robbins. And this is what he had to say about how they have tried to handle blowing up cities and even civilians in "Modern Warfare 3":

How do you go about blowing up the world…? You just come up with scenes and moments that would make sense within the story. So you don’t do it just for the sake of blowing everything up, just for the fun of it. Does this make sense? Should the characters actually be here at this time? Does this fit the plot? You want it to be exciting, but you also want it to make sense. It can’t just be gratuitous, it can’t just be fantasy...

We wanted to show, certainly in some particular cases, we wanted to show the effect of war. What happens if a modern American city gets attacked? What would that be like, what would you see? If you were walking down the street, what would happen? Civilians are part of that, innocent people are part of it unfortunately.

Ultimately, only time — and Tuesday's launch of "Modern Warfare 3" — will tell if this scene was necessary and justified within the story ... or simply a gratuitous ploy to get our attention. Here's hoping it's the former.

UPDATE: In-Game editor Todd Kenreck has played "Modern Warfare 3." Check out the following video review for his thoughts on the game and on the scene involving the girl's death:

(Thanks to Kotaku for the heads up.)

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Winda Benedetti writes about games for msnbc.com. You can follow her tweets about games and other things here on Twitter or join her in the stream here on Google+. And be sure to check out the In-Game Facebook page here.