"No Russian" is a controversial video game level featured in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009). In the level, the player controls Joseph Allen, an undercover CIA agent who participates in a mass shooting at a Moscow airport to gain the trust of a Russian terrorist group. At the end of the level, Allen is killed by the group's leader Vladimir Makarov, who reveals that his goal was for Russian officials to find Allen's body, and believe that the attack was instigated by the United States. The player is not required to kill any civilians, and is allowed to skip the level altogether without any penalties.
Game designer Mohammad Alavi was heavily involved in level's development. Alavi sought to explain why Russia would invade the United States, and have the player make an emotional connection with Makarov. Much of the level's development was spent designing the massacre portion, as Alavi did not want it to feel too contrived or traumatic. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's developer Infinity Ward and publisher Activision were both supportive of the level's inclusion, though several game testers expressed disapproval, with one game tester refusing to play the level at all.
Prior to the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, gameplay footage from "No Russian" was leaked on the Internet. This early footage divided opinions among video game journalists, although most decided to wait until they could play the level to judge its quality. After the game's release, "No Russian" sparked significant controversy for allowing players to partake in a terrorist attack. Journalists described the level's plot as illogical, and derided the ability to skip the level. Due to the graphic content featured in "No Russian", Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was subject to censorship in international versions of the game, including the entire removal of the level from Russian versions. Journalists have since discussed the importance of "No Russian" to the video game industry.
Gameplay and plot
"No Russian" is the fourth level in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's single-player campaign. The level begins with the player leaving an elevator with four gunmen, who proceed to open fire on a large group of civilians at a security checkpoint. The player then accompanies the gunmen as they walk through the airport killing any remaining civilians. The level is very graphic, as screams that can be heard throughout, and the injured crawl away leaving blood trails. However, the player is never forced to partake in the massacre, and may instead let their comrades kill the civilians. When the player exits the airport, they will then get into a firefight with armed soldiers, some of whom have riot shields. Once the player has dealt with the armed soldiers, they are able to complete the level. Before the campaign begins, a warning message notifies the player of the option to skip the level should they find its content "disturbing or offensive"; if the player chooses to bypass the level, their achievements and progress in the game are not penalized.
The plot of "No Russian" follows Joseph Allen, an undercover CIA agent who is tasked with infiltrating and gaining the trust of a Russian terrorist group. To achieve this, he must participate in a massacre at Zakhaev International Airport in Moscow. The group's leader, Vladimir Makarov, instructs the gunmen not to speak Russian, to ensure that the United States is blamed for the attack. As they prepare to leave the airport, Makarov kills Allen, revealing that he knew of Allen's true identity. His goal was for Russian officials to discover that one of the assailants was an American, and for Russia to declare war on the United States.
According to game designer Mohammad Alavi, "No Russian" was conceived by Steve Fukuda, the lead game designer for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2; however, Alavi was much more involved in the level's development. Alavi noted that he never intended for "No Russian" to attract controversy or be seen as a political statement, but instead developed it as a way to progress the game's narrative. He wanted the level to fulfill three tasks: explain why Russia would invade the United States, have the player make an emotional connection with Makarov, and do it in a "memorable and engaging way". Alavi did not interview victims of real life terrorist attacks, but instead drew inspiration from news articles and films.
Much of the level's development was spent designing the massacre portion. In the first iteration of "No Russian", the massacre ended once the player killed the group of civilians outside the elevator, which then transitioned into a firefight. Alavi felt that having an emotional scene abruptly shift into a firefight was "gimmicky", and altered the level to have the massacre continue much longer. He also did not want it too feel too traumatic for the player, and removed scenes of children and families hugging each other. Infinity Ward and Activision, the game's respective developer and publisher, were both supportive of the inclusion of "No Russian". Game testers experienced a variety of reactions to the level. One tester, who at the time was enlisted in the United States Armed Forces, refused to play the level at all, but was willing to play the rest of the game. This led to the implementation of the skip feature, as Alavi did not want the player to be punished for not doing what they felt was morally wrong.
Prior to the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, footage taken from the "No Russian" level was leaked on the Internet; Activision quickly clarified that the footage was real, and explained the level's context within the game. This early footage divided opinions among video game journalists. The Daily Telegraph's Tom Hoggins felt that while he could not properly judge the level without having played it, he still questioned whether Infinity Ward had approached the level from the wrong direction by letting the player use grenades to "treat these civilians as human bowling pins". Writing for The Guardian, Keith Stuart criticized the skip feature, describing it as a "cop-out" for a level that the developer intended players to experience. Jim Sterling of Destructoid however was fully supportive of the level, as he thought that it was a statement that video games could discuss controversial topics, which he felt that many developers would often shy away from. He concluded by saying that if "No Russian" was able to make players question if the payoff was worth human sacrifice, then video games could finally be considered an art form.
Upon its release, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 received critical acclaim. Despite the game's praise, journalists heavily criticized the content of "No Russian". Marc Cieslak of BBC News was saddened by the level, as he felt it disproved his theory that the video game industry had "grown up". Rock, Paper, Shotgun's Kieron Gillen chastised the level for failing to live up to expectations. He found the plot to be illogical, criticized the skip feature for rendering an artistic statement as "laughably pathetic", and ultimately summarized the level as "dumb shock". Writing for PC World, Matt Peckham questioned why the gunmen would not care if the player did not shoot, and felt that not informing the player of what was about to happen until the last possible moment was "creating a kind of plausible emotional deniability by removing all the dramatic impetus that ought to surround it". Several prominent British religious leaders condemned "No Russian": Alexander Goldberg of the London Jewish Forum was worried that children would play the level; Fazan Mohammed of the British Muslim Forum described the level as an intimate experience of enacting terrorism; and Stephen Lowe, the retired Bishop of Hulme, felt that the level was "sickening".
Due to the graphic content featured in "No Russian", international versions of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 were subject to censorship. The level was completely removed from Russian versions of the game, a decision that Activision made independently since Russia does not have a formal rating system for games. In Japanese and German versions of the game, the level was edited so that the player would fail the mission if they killed any civilians. The Japanese version was criticized by some players for changing Makarov's opening line, "Remember, no Russian", to "Kill them; they are Russians". In Australia, the game was rated MA15+, which was contested by politician Michael Atkinson who felt that "No Russian" allowed players to be "virtual terrorists". He sought to appeal the rating and have Australian Classification Board ban the game in the country; however, the board never received correspondence from Atkinson.
In 2012, Laura Parker of GameSpot discussed how "No Russian" was a watershed moment for the video game industry. She felt that the level raised the question of whether or not it was acceptable to discuss human suffering in video games, and if their status as entertainment products prevented them from doing so. She also commented that if more developers were willing to take risks and include controversial material, then video games would finally receive cultural recognition. Another game that attempted this was Spec Ops: The Line (2012). During one scene, the player comes across a squadmate who had been lynched by a mob, and the player has the option to either kill the civilians or scare them away with warning shots. Walt Williams, the lead writer for Spec Ops: The Line, remarked that the development team wanted to make the scene feel organic, and explicitly sought to avoid the "clumsiness" of "No Russian".
In his book Playing War: Military Video Games After 9/11, Matthew Payne analyzed three controversial levels from the Call of Duty series, including "No Russian". He opined that Allen's death emphasized the militainment theme of the soldier who sacrifices themselves for the greater good. Payne also commented that while "No Russian" could be seen as a realistic depiction of war when compared to contemporary representations, it could only be viewed in the context of the story, and thus removes any potential of having the player reexamine the "precepts of post-modern war". Following the November 2015 Paris attacks, Robert Rath of Zam.com replayed "No Russian" and examined how the level mirrored real life terrorist attacks. Rath felt that while the plot was absurd, the attack featured in the level was realistic, and that it could teach players that terrorist attacks often occur at soft targets.
In the wake of the 2011 Domodedovo International Airport bombing, Russian television network RT broadcast a report that juxtaposed security camera footage of the attack with gameplay footage of "No Russian". RT went on to state that the level was reminiscent of the bombing, and that terrorists could be using video games as training tools. In 2013, a student from Albany, Oregon, was detained by police for plotting to attack his high school with explosives and firearms. Notebooks found by police detailed how the student planned to use napalm grenades and have the theme song from "No Russian" play in the background.
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