50 Years after his Election, Jack Strikes Back
The smash hit video game Call of Duty: Black Ops was released 50 years to the day after the election of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, but anyone worried the newsmaking launch of the game would distract from this historically significant date shouldn’t be. Not only does President Kennedy appear in the game, offering you words of inspiration and advice, but you can unlock a special mission that lets you play as him. What’s even more interesting is that Black Ops seems to imply that John Kennedy was not murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald, he was murdered by the game’s protagonist. He was murdered by you. The game also depicts an alternate timeline where Kennedy is killed by Zombies alongside Bob McNamara, Dick Nixon, and Fidel Castro. No one has commented on what the kids playing this game are supposed to think about history.
This isn’t JFK’s video game debut, but it’s by far his most robust appearance in the world of interactive entertainment. The 1994 game Re-Elect JFK allowed players to take on the role of JFK in an alternate timeline where the President was only wounded in the motorcade. The player, as Kennedy, must find who tried to murder him, guide the ship of state, and of course win re-election. Entertainment weekly said of the game, “Not quite history and not quite a game, Reelect JFK can’t escape the faint, unsettling whiff of exploitation.” But this game was tame compared to the what would follow.
If Lee Harvey Oswald were a young person today, he’d probably be too busy playing Call of Duty to assassinate anyone, let alone the President. Black Ops is the latest in the phenomenally popular series of games which viscerally recreate historical battles in gut-wrenching high definition detail. Earlier incarnations simulated the European and Pacific theatres of World War Two, while more recent entries have depicted the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Black Ops is the first game in the series to take place in the murky shadows of the Cold War, an era shaped by the mysterious murders of Lee Oswald and Jack Kennedy. The first level puts the player exactly where Lee desperately wanted to be, in Cuba, at the heart of the revolution.
There has always been a great deal of discord among researchers regarding Lee Oswald’s true political leanings. Prime facie evidence—journals, letters, conversations, and recordings—indicate that he was a fervent Marxist and a strong supporter of Comrade Castro. More unorthodox researchers insist Oswald’s outwardly leftist opinions were part of an elaborate cover story designed to to scapegoat Oswald. Controversial New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (the only law enforcement agent to ever bring the Kennedy case to a court of law) insisted that Oswald’s communist activities on both sides of the Iron Curtain were the result of “sheep dipping” by handlers. The purpose? To turn the young man into the perfect patsy for a black ops squad to pin an assassination on. Garrison went to his grave determined to find the “true” assassins of President Kennedy.
Whether you think Oswald was a communist or a black ops patsy, the beauty of Cally of Duty‘s online content is that it allows the players to play on both sides of that battle. One round you can play as a communist revolutionary, the next you can play as a US Black Operator. Whatever side Oswald was really on, he probably would have appreciated this feature. The 24-year-old socially stunted, politically disaffected and violence prone former Marine was exactly the sort of young man you’d expect to run into on Xbox Live, the online matchmaking service that allows players across the world to kill each other in Black Ops’ numerous multi-player maps. Pistols and sniper rifles are in abundance, with locales ranging from Russia to Cuba. Sounds right up the alley of history’s favorite rifle toting, pistol packing Marxist defector, Lee Oswald. But the story of Black Ops implies that the real culprit in the Kennedy assassination is YOU, the player. You’re that bastard Jim Garrison never found. There even were early rumors that the game’s final mission objective would be to assassinate the President. Thankfully, the designers had a little more class to be that bold. They might have learned their lesson from almost forgotten “game” titled JFK Reloaded.
On November 22nd, 2004, 10 years after the release of Re-Elect JFK, JFK Reloaded was released, commemorating the 41st anniversary of the President’s murder by letting players actually commit the crime. The game is nauseatingly realistic, allowing the player to re-enact the tragic assassination of our President in ways even more disturbing that what actually happened. The outburst from the media and the Kennedy family was loud and justified, but this didn’t stop thousands of players from taking a “shot” at the game. Sitting from the “snipers nest” on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, the player can kill every single person in the motorcade or simply sit and watch the parade go by without firing a shot. The object is to get 1000 points by killing Kennedy in exactly the way the government says he was. This scoring system was meant to prove once and for all that Oswald could make the shot. Six years later, no one has ever scored 1000 points.
The designers of Call of Duty: Black Ops were smart to avoid directly allowing the player to kill Kennedy, but the implication in the game’s is clear: your character either helped whack the President, or could have done something to stop it, but didn’t. The player is asked to think for a moment, but then that moment passes, and the next generation of Americans is told that zombies killed Kennedy. That is of course only partially true, it was simply the zombies that let him be killed. In that case, maybe Call of Duty: Black Ops is right.
-JFK007 (Assassination Agnostic)