Call of Duty: Black Ops III — The ethical question

A promotional bioethics and sociopolitical questionnaire between scientific reality and the fictional world.

Unrestricted progress — Published on 23rd April 2015, Ember introduces a timeline of past and future events interpreting the desire to transcend human limits through the use of extreme biotechnologies, describing a full-scale crisis amid social discrimination, pollution, riots and military conflicts. The reported information defines the background and key features of CoD: Black Ops III’s futuristic world, presenting the 1993–2065 (the game’s starting year) period. [See here Humenhoid’s complete analysis of Ember]

This document analyses in brief What Would You Do?, an interactive questionnaire dedicated to the foundational themes of the dystopian world of Call of Duty: Black Ops III (Treyarch Studios, 2015), evaluating the communicative structure and other primary information elements.
The research considers the product and its materials by studying the creative choices, the informative properties, the modalities of visual representation and promotion.

1. Introduction

In the next 50 years, technological advancements will lead us into a world where only those who risk going too far, will find out how far we can actually go”.[1]

1.1. Defining the dystopia
2065: Call of Duty: Black Ops III[2] is set in a futuristic world where extreme biotechnologies, climate cataclysms, social revolts and armed conflicts have completely altered the world scenario.
The war industry is now equipped with highly performing armaments, medical and robotic systems, capable of radically redefining roles, actions and combat modes. In a scenario of strong international tension, special military units have emerged. These armed forces are composed of soldiers who have been enhanced by cybernetic systems, biomedical interventions and genetic improvements, and are deployed to carry out the so-called Black Operations — i.e. illicit secret military operations.

1.2. Background of the decline
1993: the uncontrolled and primordial willingness to go beyond human physiological limits through the use of new electronic tools, physical augmentations and biotechnologies — constantly evolving between sports competitions and digital devices, industrial automation and therapeutic solutions — will bring humanity to an unprecedented social, economic and cultural crisis that will finally compromise the world order by 2065.

Mankind’s biggest mistake will be its inability to control the technology it has created”[3]

Conceived by simulating an elaborate documentary, Ember (2: 51/3: 01)[4] introduces the fictional science context represented in CoD: Black Ops III, anticipating its founding principles that were then disclosed through the release of further promotional materials and finally directly expressed through the videogame experience.[5]

Briefly summarizing, the short film presents a fictional chronology of events that took place between 1993 and 2065 and demonstrates, through a clever combination of archival material and original sequences, how the desire to transcend human physiological limits has led to a profound global crisis (geopolitical, social, ethical, climatic) that is irrevocably changing the destiny of all mankind.

1.3. Vision and information

Briefly considering the processes of entertainment and transmedia information[6] adopted for the promotion of Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Ember appears to be a particularly important project for several reasons:

  • It constitutes an prologue that is independent to the videogame story, witnessing the increasing stylistic and promotional affinities between film production and recreational and advertising initiatives, especially in relation to its potential narrative complementarity.
  • It demonstrates the cultural and scientific changes that occurred between 1993 and 2065, highlighting the foundational themes of the fictional world (drug abuse in sports competitions, technological progress, cultural crisis, extreme biotechnologies, climate change, financial speculation, social unrest, international terrorism, government secrecy, military cybernetic experiments) and developing a related creative universe with multiple chronological, geographical, relational and narrative levels.
  • It integrates real material (interviews, conferences, historical events)[7] and fictional shots elaborating a documentary film project, with the result of realizing a probable sci-fi dystopia that amplifies the gravity of current issues and topics.
  • It represents a transmedia extension of the video game by expanding its narrative universe (the videogame story is just a story in a world of potential serial stories), encouraging the user to explore its collateral domains (including the imaginary companies Coalescence Corporation and Courtoptic) and the official social platforms with the curiosity to search, compare and unify more information.
  • It promotes the video game product and its fictional world with the aim of stimulating the user’s desire to playfully interact with this intellectual property, also increasing its commercial expectations.
  • It stimulates the interest and curiosity among a diversified public including affiliated users, curious viewers, scholars, sector operators and rival companies.
  • Given the many sensitive themes dealt with in Ember (bioethics, religion, eco-sustainability, social justice), this collateral interactive questionnaire offers an immersive declination to the viewer-user by establishing a relationship of personal engagement and collaborative entertainment (the simulation of a sociological and political investigation in a science-fiction world with a transhumanist theme), and presenting specific graphic works resulting from the user’s personal choices.

As in many other sectoral products conceived in immersive form[8], the release of promotional material is carefully planned and calibrated in order to reveal a limited number of informative elements by providing undefined narrative spaces (that can be investigated through collateral products) and serial clues, with the strategic aim of attracting a diversified public and promoting the product through the several available media channels, stimulating research and sharing initiatives, commercial expectations and web visibility.

After selecting the several number of promotional interventions dedicated to Call of Duty: Black Ops III (distributed between Snapchat, Soundcloud, Twitter, Tumblr and other domains), this document briefly reviews and analyses the interactive questionnaire What Would You Do?, that was made available during April 2015 on the official website of Call of Duty as a collateral advertising campaign.

2. Analysis

2.1. Political fiction of the future
The interactive questionnaire What Would You Do? proposes a fictional political survey on the science-fiction topics introduced in Ember:
13 questions with limited response time (10 seconds available) evaluate the user-participant’s ideological profile (anti-modification/neutral/pro-modification) with regards to the relationship established between ethics and technological progress, and results in the production of personalized diagrams that can be shared on the web.

The proposed questions indirectly recall the bioethical themes dealt with in Ember, expanding the vision of a future society strongly oriented to extreme and pervasive human enhancements in the civil and military sphere, and suggesting the existence of several problems including economic crisis, social discrimination and conflicts that have emerged among the population, business companies, institutions and national states.
These questions (generally presenting the first condition of renunciation and the second condition of benefit) tend to stimulate the user to respond positively, discriminating in the final stage the profiles that are against human augmentation and rewarding the ones that are in favor of it, in line with the requirements that identify the protagonist of Call of Duty: Black Ops III (an enhanced military operator with cybernetic and biorobotic augmentations).

2.2. Structure
The questionnaire is structured as follows:

  • 13 questions in total (11 effective, 1 question is diversified into 3 variables in case of an initial negative response).
  • 13 evocative images (ex: child, crowd of people, city, operating theater, human eye, soldiers) in transparency as a background.
  • 1 numeric counter (10 seconds available for each question).
  • 1 final page with 3 summary sections.
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2.3. Questions
Once the questionnaire starts, the user is given 10 seconds to affirmatively or negatively answer each question. In case of abstention, the next question appears automatically as time elapses.

  1. Would you risk permanent paralysis to run faster?
  2. Would you never see your family again to save one person?
    2.a. Would you never see your family again to save 100 person?
    2.b. Would you never see your family again to save 1.000 people?
    2.c. Would you never see your family again to save 10.000 people
  3. Would you cut your lungs if it meant you could breathe underwater?
  4. Would you sacrifice one life to protect your country?
  5. Would you let the government tamper with your DNA if it made you more powerful?
  6. Would you undergo extreme surgery to be better at your job?
  7. Would you break your moral code to save a life?
  8. Would you surgically swap out your eyes to see five time farther?
  9. Would you erase your most precious memories to become smarter?
  10. Would you sacrifice everything that makes you “you” to become more physically abled?
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2.4. Themes
The questions cover 2 main themes:

  • Physical/intellectual augmentation (7 questions)
    To alter and to improve your body condition for a physical, mental, perceptive and performance enhancement.
  • Moral value (6 questions)
    To influence someone to change his or her behavior by making choices and extreme actions in the private and collective spheres.
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2.5. Final screenshot
The final page contains three sections, with the possibility of publicly declaring your orientation and sharing the results on the web.

  • Ideological opinion related to human enhancements
    The user is defined as opposite, neutral to or in favor of interventions of biotechnological alteration and positioned on an axis together with the results of other users (represented with icons of fake profiles).
  • Summary of questions and answers
    The user can review all the answers given during the questionnaire and compare them with the average percentage of the participating audience.
  • Axial positioning of personal values
    The user is evaluated with respect to his/her moral values and limits (loved ones, power, physical self, salvation of humanity) and compared with the rest of the public.
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Ideological positioning related to the enhancements (moderately or complicated, neutral, moderately or extremely favorable + relative judgment + sharing key).
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Summary questions-answers (1–13) + Axial positioning of personal values ​​(loved ones, power, physical self, salvation humanity).

After completing the questionnaire, the ideological orientation of a user is defined through three judging criteria:

  1. Moderate/extreme opposite opinion:
    You’re an obstacle for evolution. The future doesn’t count on you. You’d betray anyone in order to save yourself. You hide behind questions about what’s right or wrong and morality. People like you hold humanity back from becoming something.
  2. Neutral opinion
    You’re fooling yourself. You’re not sure where you stand. And that’s a dangerous game. Because when it comes to choices, nobody can be neutral. Indecision eliminates progress. Commit.
  3. Moderate/extreme favourable opinion:
    You’d stop at nothing: everything you do, you do to become better. No matter what the cost. You’re not in it for glory or for the greater good. The ones like you are the ones who push humanity further.

3. Conclusions

Conceived through an articulated multi-channel architecture, manipulating the limits between the real and fictional worlds, the transmedia promotion of Call of Duty: Black Ops III succeeded in delineating a narrative scenario with an immersive structure by creating a temporally, spatially and thematically diversified environment, with several opportunities for interaction and follow-up aimed at expanding the story and intellectual property.

By evaluating the sectoral condition, the dystopian science fiction dimension with a strong transhumanist component demonstrates once again, at the market level, a stylistic alignment between multiple commercial products and, from a media perspective, usually considers the promotional phase as a process of exploration (collateral textual, visual, interactive contents), of in-depth analysis (themes and narrative scenario) and of informative value (eventually raising awareness on some sensitive topics of current interest).

Conceived as a promotional intervention which is interdependent to Ember, Story, Seize Glory and to many other informative materials, the questionnaire What Would You Do? allowed:

  • To present the background and cultural conditions of the fictional world of Call of Duty: Black Ops III, recalling Ember’s information with antecedent and collateral elements.
  • Within the immersive context, to influence the user to take individual and collective responsibility to influence both today’s world (2015) and the future world (2065), provoking uncontrollable and disastrous effects recalled in Ember’s initial prophetic phrase.
  • To make an intuitive, short-lived entertainment initiative that is accessible and can be shared on the web, with marketing intent.
  • To encourage web traffic on the official Call of Duty website, where the user can explore other promotional materials.
  • To attract a diversified audience, either already affiliated or occasional, recalling themes, scenarios and commercial affinities that are useful in order to increase the stylistic and commercial complementarity of Call of Duty also in relation to rival videogame products (in particular, the similar dystopian series with transhumanist component Deus Ex, by Square Enix).

The creation of fictional private companies (Coalescence Corporation, Courtoptic, Tacitus) and of related fictional backstories represents an attempt to expand the usual narrative limits favoring a high level of immersion through clues, hidden domains, collateral narratives and materials.
During the promotional campaign, these are systematically fragmented into diversified media channels in order to stimulate the user to search and connect information and to reconstruct his/her own “narrative truth”, waiting for the all-encompassing version linearized within the gaming experience.

Finally, it is important to highlight how the plausible contamination between scientific reality and futuristic interpretation[9] still conceives the current “bio-techno-ethical” debate[10] almost exclusively in a dystopian declination, promoting visions of future worlds overwhelmed by crisis, where the promising biotechnological revolution redefines our physiological, intellectual and cultural limits, but also initiates a simultaneous and controversial process of artificial evolution that is destined to cause unprecedented catastrophes and human conflicts.

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Sarif Industries One of the promotional videos of Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011) simulates an advertisement by Sarif Industries, a likely bionic company specialized in prosthetic implants and body enhancements. The user is then invited to visit the company website where he/she can learn about the services and facilities offered and watch live a cyber attack of a group of anti-power activists called “Purity First”, committed to denouncing the unlawful actions of Sarif.


The hyperlinks are abbreviated by Google Url Shortener.

[1] Official text shown on Youtube. See [https:/]

[2] Call of Duty: Black Ops III was the most popular entertainment product of 2015, first among the categories of movies, music and books, recording a sales value of over 550 million dollars in the first 3 days of commercial availability. See [https:/]

[3] Topic sentence in Ember. By establishing a semantic relationship between the initial sentence, the official description of Youtube and the title, the word “Ember” [brace] defines the metaphorical beginning of a phenomenon (eg. the embers of a future bioethical conflict) with a prophetic and irremediable warning function. Suggesting a personal interpretation, “ember” can also allude to the verb “to rem(ember)” [remember], alluding to the need to remember the anticipated risks of a future world crisis. The verb can also explain the conceptS of memory and consciousness, that are key elements to understand the illusory story of Call of Duty: Black Ops III.

[4] The variable duration of the video is calculated excluding the final advertising information, and is different from the preliminary version.
As a curiosity, Ember shares a shot with a promotional documentary by CoD: Black Ops II (Treyarch, 2012).
See [][https:/][https:/]

[5] The following revelation promo (April 26th) is entirely dedicated to videogames sessions with urban scenarios, fire sessions and close combat. Another promo (Story, September 30th) presents the plot and the main story. Finally, the videogame product begins with an introductory sequence describing the world and the technosocial context. [https:/][https:/][https:/]

[6] From Snapchat (20 enigmatic videos) to Soundcloud (audio track with Morse code encrypted message), from the official Call of Duty website (individual fictional politics questionnaire) to Tumblr (confidential medical documents protected by keyword) to Twitter (false profiles of subjects and institutions), the promotion of CoD: Black Ops III was developed by distributing information material through diversified media channels. See [][][][][][]

[7] Among the real materials identified:

  • At the White House, 26th June, 2000, Francis Collins e J. Craig Venter announce the successful sequencing of 97% of the human genome.
    Vedi []
  • Summer of 2014: at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (Maryland), Les Baugh was the first human being to control a double prosthetic system exclusively with his mind.
    Vedi [https:/]
  • March 28th, 2014: Hugh Herr, manager of the Biomechatronics section at MIT in Boston, talks about his personal disability experience and the professional choice to continue developing bionic technologies with the aim of eliminating disability. See [https:/]
  • A deaf girl is shown while sensing sounds for the first time thanks to a cochlear implant. See [https:/]
  • Clashes between demonstrators and police could testify the events that took place in London during the Notting Hill Carnival (2008).

[8] Limiting itself to a fundamental example, Prometheus’ sophisticated and award-winning promotional campaign (R. Scott, 2012) makes explicit the innumerable application potentials within a transmedia intellectual property. See [https:/][https:/]

[9] The inter-sectorial collaboration between Open Bionics (biomedical society), Deus Ex (Eidos Montréal videogame brand), and Razer (information technology company) is exemplary. See[]

[10] See the preliminary bioethical framework proposed during HumanXDesign, a conference produced in collaboration with Square Enix, the producer of Deus Ex. [][]

Study method and sources
This document is the result of a compilation process created with scientific and accessibility requirements. Special care has therefore been devoted to coherently structuring the texts and analysis sections, to selecting functional visual devices, and to providing verified information by correctly citing sources of documentation, with the final objective of sharing useful material for the purposes of study, criticism and information. The hyperlinks’ accessibility was verified on 15th February 2016, when originally published. A final and complete revision was made on 24th July 2018.

Legal notice
The iconographic material, the trademarks (registered or unregistered) and all the information reported as being in any case protected belong to the respective owners. The internal use of protected material responds exclusively to a scientific and cultural intent.

The author releases the document through the license:

  • Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.
    This allows third parties to share the published material indicating the origin, respecting the same type of original license and prohibiting the use for commercial purposes.

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    A comprehensive case study on information management and narrative design in the Alien (R. Scott, 1979) and Prometheus (R. Scott, 2012) interconnected franchises.

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I’m a creative research unit specialized in immersive entertainment and transmedia storytelling with focus on cinema, tv series, and videogames |