My Call of Duty Experience
Outside the Custom Hotel in Los Angeles, a caravan of black shuttle buses sat idling. The tinted windows hid hundreds of journalists and others lucky enough to earn access to a private preview of the Call of Duty XP, a fan event celebrating gaming’s biggest franchise. As riders shook hands, the two wristbands granting our entry slid down their wrists, an annoyance sure to occur over and over again over the next few days. The bus was full of chatter, most of it speculation over what we’ll see during the coming days.
I’m sitting alone, quiet. Cliques surround me, and my two attempts to strike up conversation with fellow attendees prior to boarding have utterly failed. A big focus of mine for this trip is simply speaking up and actually doing that networking thing I hear so much about. I went to an event earlier this year in Las Vegas that Microsoft hosted and during two hours the only words I managed to spew toward another human being was a mumbled apology when I literally bumped into Machinima Editor-In-Chief Rob Smith. I was all the more disappointed because he inspired a younger me to start writing about videogames.
Our caravan of five or six shuttles crawled out of the hotel’s parking lot and moved through the streets. The all-black buses adorned with Call of Duty logos on the doors drew the glances of people on the sidewalks as we moved north from the hotel. It was only appropriate that along the ride we passed the offices of Electronic Arts. Say what you want about them, but it takes a big pair to throw a major fan event in the backyard of your chief rival in the shooter war. Loyola Marymount University’s sleek campus looked resplendent under Los Angeles’ eternal sunshine, with steeples prominently jutting toward the sky.
The neighborhood shifted from office complexes to condo complexes and I couldn’t help but wonder where my strangers and I were headed. And then we saw it. A massive warehouse, a drab grey building adorned with a massive Modern Warfare 3 logo soon to be plastered on TV screens, buses and websites around the world. It seemed an extremely strange setting for a convention such as this. As we unloaded from the bus, we were pushed close to a fence to allow workers space to move their forklifts around. The workers stood in stark contrast to the models Activision hired to keep us busy while the attendees who arrived before us (which was everyone, since we were on the last bus) filtered in.
I passed the time taking pictures and making notes. I was quite relieved to see lots of guys – women were significantly under-represented, even worse than at other trade shows – just standing around as awkwardly as I do at these things. We finally were moved into the entrance, an almost endless series of narrow hallways, with each turn revealing yet another hallway to navigate. The rooms were rather dark, illuminated by green and orange lighting that cast strange shadows and made reading check-in sheets difficult for the staff. It was during this gauntlet that I finally struck up a real conversation, a discussion centered on 1Ups’ review of Duke Nukem Forever. I felt relieved that I’d met some people I could potentially chat and network with, but disappointingly, I lost them during the check in process.
The hallways finally revealed a destination – a large area littered with leather couches and servers offering cold beer. A nearly full-size model helicopter, used during the filming of Call of Duty: Black Ops’ cutscenes, sat as the centerpiece of the room as people milled about chatting. Despite all attempts, the lighting, the leather couches, the well-dressed servers, the room still came across as very industrial. Somehow, it seemed both appropriate and inappropriate all at once. I couldn’t sit still. I moved from seat to seat, near different groups of people, wanting to converse but finding breaking in awkward. This was another holding area which yielded, nearly two hours after our shuttles left, to the main stage.
We all sat down and we were bombarded with Call of Duty footage. My favorite part of the presentation was the opening video, which highlighted the progression of the series over the years. It brought back strong memories of my time with the early games and demonstrated well how the series has forged an identity that has been so often imitated. During a moment in the presentation, I happened to look over to my left and saw the guy that I was talking to in line, looking to his right. I cast an awkward smile at him before I realized he wasn’t looking at me.
After a fan movie, a presentation revealing details on Call of Duty Elite, and a couple of multiplayer trailers, we were sent off to play the games in yet another chamber of the warehouse. This one was filled with Xbox 360s hooked up to HDTVs, all open for play on raised platforms. I headed first to try out Spec Ops, a cooperative multiplayer mode for two players that sends progressively more challenging waves of enemies at players. With a controller in my hand and with something to talk about, I had a decent conversation with the person I was playing with. It was a start.
I wandered around the length of the warehouse, taking in a couple of other modes, namely the new Kill Confirmed mode. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy myself while playing through the other modes, but I never developed the human connection that I was trying to build. What was most frustrating of all was the constant reminder that I talk to people for a living every single day. I approach complete and total strangers, say hello and engage in conversation. I’ve canvassed and approached total strangers on the street. But at conventions, around my peers, I clam up and become a totally different person. After taking in another round of Kill Confirmed, I decided my night was over.
As I tried to find my way out of the massive complex, I happened to pass Rob Smith as he was on his way to pick up his gift bag (which contained, among other things, a voucher for a free copy of the limited edition of Modern Warfare 3). I walked past him and stopped. I turned around, and before I had thought about it, I was standing next to him in line, asking a question I already knew the answer to. “Excuse me, you’re Rob Smith, right?” It was a small conversation, but I had a chance to tell him that he had impacted me. When he was the editor of PC Gamer, he published one of my letters, and when I saw my name in print I knew I wanted to write professionally about videogames.
It has been my goal for a decade to get a professional (paid) job writing about videogames and I have to say, I’ve yet to achieve that goal. But now, as I sit here locked away in yet another hotel room typing my way through the early morning hours, I feel a new sense of capability and desire. I approached someone I admired and didn’t make an ass of myself. He turned out to be a normal human being, someone who shook hands, made eye contact, smiled and exchanged business cards just as I did. The difficulty in setting a goal is knowing the path forward, and without contacts like this, I’ll likely never find my way out of the woods. I took one step forward and I think I can see a clearing ahead.