Call of Duty: Star Video Game Director Takes Unusual Think Tank Job

The Atlantic Council’s newest fellow has been a key strategist for several wars — all fought on gaming consoles and computer screens. Until recently, Dave Anthony was a director and writer for Call of Duty, one of the biggest video game franchises ever. Known for its realistic graphics and plots inspired by real-world events, the ...

Call of Duty franchise; Dave Anthony
Call of Duty franchise; Dave Anthony

The Atlantic Council’s newest fellow has been a key strategist for several wars — all fought on gaming consoles and computer screens.

Until recently, Dave Anthony was a director and writer for Call of Duty, one of the biggest video game franchises ever. Known for its realistic graphics and plots inspired by real-world events, the series has sold well over 100 million copies and generated billions of dollars in revenue. Anthony managed a development team and budget on the scale of a Hollywood blockbuster.

That’s not the typical resume of an Atlantic Council fellow. The centrist think tank, which was founded in the 1960s with a focus on NATO and now works on a broad range of international issues, in many ways represents Washington’s classic foreign policy establishment. Past and present affiliates include Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice, Chuck Hagel and other Obama cabinet members.

Anthony, on the other hand, is a total newcomer to the capital. “I can’t tell you how surprised I was when I was contacted by the Atlantic Council in the first place,” says Anthony, a U.K. native based in Los Angeles. “I thought someone from a creative industry would be the last person that these people would think of working with.” When he spoke at an Atlantic Council panel on the future of warfare in May, it was the first time he’d set foot in Washington.

Though he’s never served in the military, Anthony is not a novice when it comes to understanding the way wars are fought, and where warfare might be heading. While developing Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Anthony consulted with soldiers and military experts ranging from a member of the elite SEAL Team 6 to Oliver North, the Iran Contra architect turned Fox News military analyst, to Peter W. Singer, a leading expert on 21st century warfare now at the New America Foundation.

The resulting game, which was released in 2012 and made $1 billion in sales in its first 15 days, is set partly during the Cold War and partly in 2025. (Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega is suing the game’s publisher for using his name and likeness without permission.) For 2025, Anthony imagined a “new Cold War” between the United States and China characterized by cyberwarfare, the widespread use of drones, and conflict over rare earth materials, which are essential for modern defense technologies and other electronics.

The Atlantic Council hopes Anthony can draw on his experience waging fictional war to bring a new, creative approach to predicting global threats. Having made “enough to retire at age 40 and never have to work again” or “the equivalent to an A-list Hollywood director” — in other words, millions per year — Anthony now can afford to pursue what he calls a “passion project.” His unpaid, part-time work at the Council will aim to convince policymakers to do a better job preparing against the dangers that new technologies and forms of attack pose to national security.

“Dave excels in imagining future security scenarios that are different from today’s challenges,” said Atlantic Council Vice President Barry Pavel in an emailed statement. “The council will harness Dave’s proven world-class talents for imagining new types of threats to strengthen our work on emerging defense challenges, disruptive technologies, and security and defense strategy.”

Anthony’s ideas about the future of warfare sound like science fiction: insect-sized killer drones with facial recognition and what he describes as a coming explosion in artificial intelligence enabled by quantum computing. But this technology is only a few years away, he says — the problem is that the United States’ military and national security apparatus hasn’t caught up. Even current threats like the Islamic State’s use of social media to spread terror have the U.S. government struggling to respond quickly enough.

“We’ve got hundreds of thousands if not millions of infantry sitting around waiting to go and attack somewhere. And not only is it becoming less necessary because of technology, but it’s also — as you can see whenever you click on the news — extremely unpopular to put boots on the ground anywhere, for very legitimate reasons,” Anthony says.

Technological advances in the military are already reducing the political costs of war, allowing, for example, President Barack Obama to carry out an aggressive campaign of drone strikes even as he claims to be scaling down the U.S. war on terror. But the new threats the United States and its allies face will require some creativity to be solved, Anthony says. “When you look at the threat from groups like ISIS, the next threat to America is not that we’re going to get invaded by hundreds of thousands of troops on the mainland. It’s that you might have a hundred ISIS troops in your country who simultaneously attack soft targets.”

Many people in Washington are aware of these issues and know how to fix them, says Anthony. But the government is so busy with damage control that it doesn’t spend enough time and resources on proactive measures that could later prevent the loss of huge sums of money — and lots of lives. Anthony sees it as the job of “creatives” like him to dramatize security threats in a way that gets people’s attention.

“I don’t want to hear the answer of, ‘Well, you know, there’re so many different things that you can’t even predict where it’s going to be. I think it can be generalized, and you can put measures in place which are not in place right now to deal with that kind of thing,” he says. Some predictions from creative types have been quite successful, he adds, noting that Turbulence, the 1997 movie, and The Lone Gunmen, a television show that aired in the spring of 2001, featured realistic plane hijackings that presaged 9/11.

Anthony left Call of Duty and his 16-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week work schedule last December. He’s now developing a science fiction movie and a television show, and will continue to live in LA. But he sees his Atlantic Council position as a way of giving back to his adoptive country, where he became a naturalized citizen just last Thursday.

“I love the culture of freedom over here — basically the American dream,” he says. “I actually came from a very, very poor family in England, and grew up in relative poverty, and I have now created the best video game of all time and a vast amount of money — it’s incredible, and I am very, very grateful and humbled by that.”

Anthony clearly has done much better with the American dream than most, and one could question the wisdom of giving a prominent public platform to a director of a game some have seen as promoting an us-vs.-them mentality and celebrating violence by white American males against non-white foreigners, leftists, and other Others of the world. That Call of Duty is incredibly popular within the U.S. military may be a sign of both the game’s realism and the concerns that Anthony’s hiring raises about blurring distinctions between actual and imagined war.

According to Anthony, a large part of what convinced former Cold Warrior Oliver North to consult for the game was that soldiers he’d visited at bases in Afghanistan and Iraq “play the game sort of religiously.” North told Anthony that the soldiers used the game to improve their team coordination on the battlefield, and that he believed it saved lives. “And they also play the game once they come back from a mission to sort of blow off steam, and relax, and try and get their heads out of it,” Anthony says. The father of a soldier who died in combat put a copy of the game on his son’s grave.

U.S. troops aren’t the only fans of the game. In June, the BBC reported that an Islamic State fighter boasted the entertainment value of fighting for IS is “better than that game Call of Duty.” Jay Caspian Kang recently wrote in the New Yorker that the extremist group’s recruitment videos give clear nods to the game.

Anthony vehemently rejects the comparison. “We do everything we can not to be gratuitous in that game,” he says. “If there is any violence in the game — and any war is violent — there is always a purpose to it.”

Violence with a purpose is what he plans to conjure up during his visit to Washington next week. For his inaugural appearance as an Atlantic Council fellow, Anthony has created a presentation that juxtaposes footage from the 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai with images of Las Vegas to suggest how easy it would be for terrorists to “buy assault rifles, walk into a casino, and slaughter everybody.” He hopes this will “speak to people in Washington in a different way than they’re used to being spoken to — in a very emotional and gripping way.”

He predicts that when faced with the need to prepare for these threats, Washington’s response will be, “‘Well, we can’t afford it.’ And my answer’s going to be, ‘Well, you can’t afford not to.'”

Image credit: Activision

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. Twitter: @jkdrennan

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