Kobe Bryant is in the news again for his off the court activities again. This time the controversy surrounds his participation in a commercial for the wildly popular video game, "Call of Duty: Blackops." The game allows players to simulate combat operations as if they are participating on the front lines of some historical conflicts. In the commercial, Kobe Bryant can be seen shooting an uzi and holding a BFG with the words "Mamba" on it.
Skip Bayless, on ESPN's First and 10, roundly criticized Bryant's participation in the ad noting that "He (Bryant) was smiling while holding an assault rifle in combat while we have troops overseas at this moment doing the same thing for real in combat. It's completely out of bounds for Kobe Bryant, who I thought had completely rehabilitated his image after Eagle Colorado., but even the great Kobe Bryant is not that, so to speak bulletproof."
Interestingly enough, Bayless did not criticize his employer, ESPN for heavily promoting the game and commercial in the days leading up to the release of Blackops.
But Bayless wasn't the only one critical of Bryant's participation. Sam Machkovech, a freelance writer, wrote in the Atlantic that Bryant's participation was a "disappoitment" and that the game "comes closer to selling real death than any video game possibly could." ESPN.com's Tim Keown penned a story earlier this week in which he recounts the disgust of funeral home worker and non-violence activist, Todd Walker, when he finds out Kobe is in the trailer. "What's wrong with (Bryant)," Walker asks.
The criticism has intuitive appeal. After all, gun violence is a major problem in urban and inner city communities all across America. There are stories after stories of young men and women's lives being cut short needlessly because of the use of violent weapons that Bryant is seen holding in his hands in the commercial. The Supreme Court, just this week, decided its first case of the term by holding that adding on an additional five year minimum prison term, as required by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, for having a gun during a crime is permissible. Clearly, gun violence is impacting our communities and our policy makers are scrambling to deter the use of guns on the streets.
And kids look up to Kobe. Kids on playgrounds and rec centers all across America dribble, shoot and even try to walk like Kobe Bryant. Kids want to have Kobe swag and they want to win like Kobe. So it is understandable the concern over the influence that Kobe Bryant has on our youth.
But the outrage over the commercial is misplaced. The commercial is not about grabbing the nearest assault rifle and murdering your neighbor. The commercial's message is that law-abiding, productive and hard-working citizens in this country play Call of Duty. These citizens might be doctors, lawyers, firemen or even celebrities like Kobe Bryant. The commercial is not so much putting real guns in the hands of real people as it is putting real faces behind the anonymous gamertags which populate Blackops. The implicit message is "buy the game because your friends have it."
Yet the underlying debate is one that has surfaced before. Video game violence became a center of attention in 1999 when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris opened fire in high school in Littleton, Colorado killing scores of students. After the massacre it was found that both Harris and Klebold played violent games like "Doom" which is a first person shooter. Some activists claimed that these games should be banned because they served as a catalyst for violent behavior.
Interestingly enough, there's not much actual evidence that playing video games increases violence. For example, there has been a proliferation in the popularity of violent video games over the last 15 years, yet the rate of violent crime in America has decreased exponentially during the same period. This at least suggests that people playing violent video games are not likely to actually commit violent crimes in real life. People know that it is just a game.
Another concern is that the commercial undermines the reality that soldiers face every day by glorifying the violence that claims the lives of real heroes. But the reality is that Kobe has always paid tribute to our men and women in uniform and the Call of Duty series is famous for also telling the story of the tremendous sacrifice that comes with engaging in combat.
But even if the commercial glorified war violence, the question is, what makes Kobe's participation in this commercial any different from a movie star pretending to be a soldier in a movie? We hardly get outraged looking at violent movie trailers as they send thirty second bursts of gun play and death on our tv screens. And we immediately understand that the Blackops commercial is not real.
We are all expected to know the difference between what's real and what's fictional. If members of the public cannot distinguish between a video game and reality, then we have much bigger problems than Kobe's participation in this commercial.