A Rebuttal to “Call of Duty is making us dumb”


Earlier, Ben Kuchera of Penny Arcade wrote a piece that says Call of Duty and modern shooters are “making us dumb.” This piece isn’t an attack on Ben Kuchera himself. He is a wonderful man with great writing talents, but I do believe his article is off base. To say modern shooters don’t require any skill when comparing them to their counterparts of days past is incredibly misleading.

[box_light]”Each level was a chess board, and we all began with the same skills. You could pick up power-ups, and find the best weapons, but those upgrades were available to everyone, and we all knew where they were located.

“In fact, controlling those areas, and using them to predict the movements of your opponent, were incredibly important skills. You could get into their heads, know that they were going after the quad damage power up or the rocket launcher, and use that knowledge to move into position to take them out.”[/box_light]

When talking about Quake and Unreal Tournament, Ben correctly stated that the map, power-ups, and weapons are all incredibly important in high skill play. I won’t deny that. Having devoted a fair amount of my middle and high school years to Quake 3 Arena, he is spot on. What he is missing, however, is that these things are just as important in Call of Duty, with even more to manage on top of that.

When a new CoD game comes out, the first few days online are a mess. The skill differentiation between high and low is much more compressed. Much of that is because most people have yet to learn the maps well enough to judge opponent tendencies and, in fact, the games can be a lot more fun for it. However, a couple weeks after release, things even out again. A great player will know there are only three paths through a building and can take advantage of choke points to terrorize the other team.

New players get killed by “random grenades” frequently. Those grenades aren’t random. They are the product of players knowing the routes others are going to take, and aiming a grenade into a (sometimes small) area to get a kill. To compound this, kill streaks can be used to section off other parts of the map to funnel the team in a different direction. Seeing kill streaks as something requiring no skill is foolish. Sure, any moron can drop an airstrike, but any moron in Q3A can fire the rocket launcher, too.

Kill streaks are available to everyone. It’s a matter of what you choose to unlock and use. If you want everything unlocked from the start (guns included), go to the League Play ladders in Black Ops 2. Those put everyone on a flat equipment level from the start, and allow you to smartly decide on your class. And so another skill arises: map loadouts. There are dozens of guns to choose from in CoD games. On any map, you can take any one of them. But should you? Absolutely not.

Each map is built in a specific way and gives different weapons the advantage. Small maps require SMGs, while larger ones require assault rifles and snipers. Within each of those categories are many guns to choose from, and being in tune with each map and the other players enough to choose which you need can be difficult.

Kuchera linked to an incredible Quake Live video of pro gamer Rapha explaining his play, and opined that strategy like his “simply isn’t possible in modern games.” This is just not true. As I explained earlier, a good CoD player knows what his opponent is thinking and will try to take advantage of the map whenever possible to score kills. Things like perks don’t dilute the skill needed to be great, they simply change it. It’s apples and oranges.

“We’ve traded our skill away for this sort of level playing field, however, and that’s hard to take if you grew up valuing your abilities with a rail gun.”

The CoD playing field is anything but level. If you have been in a public match recently, you must have noticed the top players on each team easily getting 25 kills, while the players on the bottom are lucky to get five or six. If this is level, I don’t want to know what uneven looks like. Look at some of those top players between matches. How does Jdog187 have a kill-to-death ratio of 3.5? Is that luck? And the bottom players with a kill/death of .45? Is that also luck?

Ben then goes on to cite John Gibson, the president of Tripwire games, the creators of the Red Orchestra games. Mr. Gibson talks about how Call of Duty requires little skill to play, something I’m sure has nothing to do with him talking about a competing product. Once again, it is apples and oranges. Two different games with two entirely different skill sets required to be good.

I’ve spent most of this article talking about Call of Duty because that is the game I know. I have played it extensively over the last decade and know there is a lot of skill required to be an elite player. I could tag in fellow SideQuester Ryan Gan to talk about Halo’s skill divide, or friend of the site Matt Champion to talk about Team Fortress 2, but I think I have made my point.

Modern shooters are not making us dumb. Great players in Call of Duty and other games require a lot of skill to be successful. If that wasn’t the case, Major League Gaming events would be overrun by weekend gamers, thinking they have a chance at competing. Whether you are playing Quake, Counter Strike, Call of Duty, or Halo, if you do not have the required skills, you will not be a good player.

Author: Eric Smith

News Director. Eric is an experienced freelance writer. He serves as a co-host of The SideQuest, the Lazy Sunday Gaiden, and plays far too many competitive games. When he isn’t thinking about videogames, he is probably watching TV or a movie. You know, productive stuff.

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  • Amateurs always say there’s no skill to Poker, either. The simplest rebuttal? “Then how do the same guys win tournaments over and over?”

  • matt

    I think the premise of Kuchera’s article, which you seem to reinforce here, is that character ability has taken precedence over skill. You “know” what to do in CoD, and you do it. Much closer to rpgs than a classic “shooter,” right? RPGs take skill to be rewarded, but you ultimately grind. As in poker (nice comment, by the way), you make the right decision on the decision tree–you aren’t rewarded for how you combine that with the accuracy of where you toss your chips. You fold when it’s correct. But then, that is a different game.

    Maybe today’s FPS’s aren’t “shooters” at all? Just tactic sims? Meh..

  • All shooters are just “tactics sims” once you get to higher levels of competitive play, because good tactics and instincts are what separate the wheat from the chaff in any game (including poker). Any casual CoD player can watch a YouTube video like the one attached to this article and experience improved performance, but what’s to stop anyone else for making the same argument in reverse for Quake 3 Arena and tournament footage?

    When you hear Rapha talk about his fight with Cooller in the video attached to the Kuchera article, there are a lot of formulaic tactics involved. The map is broken down into 3 critical item spawns: the mega health, the yellow armor, and the red armor. The two elite Quake players use rockets and rail guns to guard territory, and the lightning gun to deal easy damage. Good Quake players have to “grind” in order to hone their skills and perfect their map control technique. It all comes down to knowing the map and knowing what tools to use at what times. How is that different from CoD or Halo at all? It’s not.

    The main difference between classic and modern shooters is the “loud out” trend (customized sets of weapons and abilities that players spawn with) that makes predicting your opponents’ resource pool much more difficult. This evens the odds a bit, but not so much so that it robs players of their intelligence. It also doesn’t prevent skill gaps from forming within the bounds of matchmaking servers (despite the fact that matchmaking’s intended purpose is to eliminate skill gaps by cramming together players of comparable measured skill).

    In the Rapha vs. Cooller video, Rapha could predict his opponents exact health, ammo count, and relative level of field control at any given time. Why? Because so much of what creates the skill gap in Quake is simply a player’s familiarity with whatever map they’re playing on. Every resource on a Quake map is static. Every weapon and/or pickup respawns at regular intervals. Sure, Rapha is wonderfully talented, but if he had ignored the lessons he had learned from countless hours of practice on each map, he would’ve lost by a mile. No amount of twitch “skill” could have saved him.

    In fact, and this is important, Rapha wins his match despite missing multiple clutch shots.

    Classic arena shooters make us believe we can get into our opponents heads simply because each map is limited to a handful of winning strategies. If we know what the best tactics are, we can assume that our opponents are also aware, and we discover that our opponent’s head is also our own.

    So are modern shooters making us dumb? I really don’t think so. I think that if we all removed our rose-tinted glasses we’d see that beyond the flashy rocket jumping, bunny hopping, and rail gunning, Quake isn’t much different than CoD.