[SPOILER ALERT: In this blog I’m talking about the controversy regarding some leaked footage of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. This is extremely powerful footage and was meant to be a surprise to players. If you haven’t read about it and want to preserve the impact of this section of the game, do not read this blog.]

Like many of you, I saw the leaked video of Modern Warfare 2 this past Tuesday. The grainy cell-phone video footage, which quickly spread across the Internet, shows a troop of armed gunmen mowing down civilians in an airport. In the game, the player has infiltrated a Russian terrorist group and takes part in the massacre, though it’s not required for the player to actually shoot anyone; the events will transpire regardless of the player’s action.

Watching the footage, I was shocked. While we’ve all done our share of shooting in games, this feels different. It’s hard not to be a little sickened by what’s happening onscreen.

My first reaction was to join the chorus of online voices saying that – finally – games have gone to far. However, first reactions are often more emotional than rational. More importantly, both the gameplay clip and the reports on the controversy lack a crucial piece of the puzzle: context.

I haven’t played Modern Warfare 2, and neither have the vast majority of the people that have been weighing in on it online. We have no idea how this footage is used in the game and how it is presented in the larger scheme of the plot. Adam Biessener, who was lucky enough to play the game for our review, assures me that it is handled intelligently and in a way that does not feel exploitive. I’ve known Adam for a long time, and while I’ll definitely make my own judgments on the game when I play it, I tend to trust his opinion. My only regret is that, having seen the already seen the leaked video, much of the level’s impact will no doubt be diminished.

Still, I think this controversy does raise some interesting questions. Should some topics be off-limits to games? And, even more importantly, does the interactive nature of games mean that games should have different limits than other forms of entertainment like books or movies?

In general, I’m a believer in free speech, so I do not believe there should be limits on any form of expression, game or otherwise. While games are a new medium, I feel that the Constitution applies equally to all the arts, even if some still view our industry as “kid’s stuff.” In recent years, games have begun to offer up some very real, and sometimes disturbing moral choices. Take BioShock, for instance. The first moment when you decide to either take a child’s life or harvest them for your own benefit was something I don’t think any of us will soon forget. It makes you question what kind of person you are, or want to be. That’s a powerful thing, and something that no other form of art can present in the same fashion.

However, the Modern Warfare footage feels different from even the gut-wrenching choices in BioShock. For one, it’s not set in an art-deco fantasy world. This is not a post-apocalyptic wasteland of Fallout 3. It’s in a modern airport; just like the ones we use everyday. It’s dealing with the very real threat of terrorists acts, something that we all remember far too vividly from the days following 9/11. While GTA has always taken place in simulated cities, there’s a cartoonish and comedic quality about that series that buffers the impact of the violence. Here, it’s a visceral assault on your senses.

So, I guess the big question is: “Am I okay with Infinity Ward’s decision to present this in game form?” Frankly, I’m not sure yet. I hope I come away feeling that this was created with the intent of making us take a hard look at the decisions that are made by military forces everyday. Does the larger good outweigh the lives of individuals? That’s a question that has been asked since the dawn of time. While it’s silly to expect a video game to answer it, perhaps it can present us a new look at what these decisions actually mean. If, at the end of my time with the game, I come away feeling as though this was done as a cheap shock tactic, I will be sincerely disappointed with Infinity Ward. While games should be able to address any topic, it’s important that topics like terrorism – which have resulted in the deaths of so many people over the years – are handled with respect and intelligence.

Whatever the end result, I think it’s clear that games are demanding a seat at the big kid’s table, alongside film, television, and literature. The best of today’s developers, whether it’s a huge studio like Infinity Ward or an individual auteur like Braid’s Jonathan Blow, are taking the first steps towards making this art form truly mature. Taking on ideas of morality and the use of violence in a more nuanced, real way is perhaps the most important thing that games can do as they move forward. Through the years, gamers have been awash in blazing gunplay, maybe now is the time to step back and start to consider what it all means.