On drones, science fiction, and Oliver North: Treyarch Studio Head Mark Lamia talks Black Ops 2

On drones, science fiction, and Oliver North: Treyarch Studio Head Mark Lamia talks Black Ops 2

The early video and feature list from the upcoming Black Ops 2, the latest game in the monstrously successful Call of Duty series features a scary look at the future of warfare. The game tells the story of what would happen if the enemy got their hands on the keys of an army made up of unmanned drones, walking tanks, and computerized weapons. Call of Duty has ceased to be a video game and has become a part of pop culture that's impossible to avoid. During a recent event I had the chance to sit down with Treyarch studio head Mark Lamia for a few moments to talk about the future of warfare, Black Ops' place in pop culture, and the uncomfortable history of consultant Oliver North. Lamia is an impressive presence; he's clearly passionate about the games he creates and their impact in the world, but he's also a little too willing to play the “entertainment” card when some of the tricky issues of the game are brought up.

What did you learn doing research for Black Ops 2 about unmanned drones?

Mark Lamia: We learned how much more prevalent it is today than we were aware of and how advanced it already is. I remember getting conceptuals that the director would produce, and thinking it was a little more than a decade out. I didn’t want to get too science fiction with this thing, right? Did you see the picture of the drone that was captured by Iran? That thing is out of fucking Battlestar Galactica. What is that thing? I’ve never seen a drone like that. It looks slightly like… is it okay if I drop the F-bomb? That was basically my reaction. We’ve seen the Predator, we’ve seen the Reaper, but we’ve never seen anything that looks like an alien space ship. It illustrates the point that what we’re seeing is still in its infancy. You’re trying to think about things that are 10 to 15 years out, and you think about things like Moore’s Law, which says every 18 to 24 months processing power will double. It hasn’t been disproven since it’s been around. So for us, I have a hard time even thinking about what that means, 13 years out. We went to the past, if you look at the past… today, your 360 or PS3 is equivalent to a multimillion dollar piece of hardware, the most expensive multimillion dollar piece of hardware the military could use to run its operations 13 years ago. Now you can go down the street and buy it. Wrapping our heads around that, keeping it grounded, and making sure people didn’t think we were making some sci-fi game was something we had to strike a balance with constantly in this development.

We’re seeing conversations about unmanned strikes overseas, we’re starting to see drones used even in the United States…

Yeah, recently the FAA passed some laws. What are the implications of that? I don’t think people understand it.

Right, and you’re talking about this in a Call of Duty game, which will sell millions of copies and be a large part of pop culture. Do you think you have a responsibility to be a part of that conversation? For many people, this is going to be the first time they’ve ever heard of these kinds of drones.

First and foremost, we’re creating a piece of entertainment. A game. A fiction. But it’s also art, and I think art is thought-provoking. Yes, I think people will probably learn about things they didn’t expect to. We approach our fiction and try to ground it. People have been inspired to read up on some of the historical stuff we’ve done too, you know, this could have the same effect. We don’t sit back and think that’s our primary objective, but I think art itself has that aspect of it.

Do you worry about there being… are you familiar with the CSI effect?

I’m not familiar with the concept.

So juries go to court and they say they need to see the genetic markers, because they’ve seen CSI, and they think that’s how it works. The pop culture becomes so pervasive they think that’s how actual law enforcement works. Do you worry about doing that sort of thing with warfare? Where you have people growing up thinking this is what it’s like?

I think if you talk to anyone who serves or is in the military they will tell you Call of Duty is not what warfare is actually like. No, I don’t think the game is like real life.

What feedback do you get from people in the armed forces?

They love to play it for R and R. The feedback I get is that they love to play. I get that feedback from a lot of different segments, we’re fortunate that way. It’s a great game to connect to people. It’s also a social thing. They like to play it, it’s intense, and they find it fun. Which they don’t normally equate with their day to day jobs. I think people play Call of Duty because it’s fun, you know.

You’re working in some really politically odd waters some times. Oliver North is someone you’re working with. Do you worry about your game being politicized?

Our goal with Oliver North is to have someone who could help us with Black Ops authenticity in the 1980s. Especially as we try to create these historical scenarios and add brushes with historical figures… he seemed like a great choice for that, to be able to have those first hand accounts. Using him as an expert, just as we talked about using someone like Peter Singer who is an expert on future warfare, and Kiersey, who is our military expert. We bring experts for every facet of the game we can to help us create our fiction. Yeah, it’s not trying to make some kind of political statement with him. That’s absolutely not what we’re trying to do. He’s part of history. Which is what we do with our fiction, we take history and create our fictional stories on them. Using him in that way is very natural for our development process. We'd like to thank Mark Lamia for his time, and also note that one of my parts of covering the Call of Duty franchise is interacting with Hank Keirsey, the retired Lt. Col. with 24 years in the armed services who serves as the military adviser on the games. He's somewhat legendary in the world of gaming, both for his crushing handshake and his ability to completely stun reporters in conversation. One writer told me, and I can't vouch for the authenticity of what follows except as hearsay, that Keirsey explained that he better practice his push-ups because without upper body strength you might not be able to save any drowning women you encounter, and if you can't save them they can't fall in love with you and bear you sons. It has since become a very compelling argument for physical fitness around my house.