Ollie North answers ‘Call of Duty’

Critics open fire on Iran-Contra figure over role in video game

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F. Scott Fitzgerald famously claimed there are no second acts in American life.

He never met Lt. Col. Oliver North.

Or played “Call of Duty: Black Ops II,” the video game Col. North is now promoting as celebrity pitchman cum high-tech warfare expert in a series of short, documentary-style commercials.

Col. North first took the public stage under a cloud as the polarizing symbol of the Iran-Contra affair, the scandal that rocked the Reagan administration in the late ‘80s. To detractors, he was the criminal embodiment of a national security apparatus gone rogue, supplying a hostile regime with weapons in order to fund an illegal war. To the supporters he began attracting with his feisty, riveting, nationally televised testimony in the Iran-Contra hearings, he was a stand-up, can-do Marine extending a lifeline to U.S.-backed freedom fighters dishonorably abandoned in the field by a fickle Democratic Congress.

In 1989, the curtain rang down on Col. North’s first act, as he was indicted on 16 felony counts stemming from his role in the scandal and convicted on three.

But Col. North wasn’t content with the tragic hero role that had been assigned to him. So he rewrote the script. His felony convictions were overturned in 1990, and he went on to rebuild his image, emerging as a visible presence on the American political landscape. He ran — and almost won — a U.S. Senate race in Virginia as the Republican candidate, hosted a syndicated radio show, guest-starred on series TV (military procedural “JAG” and hit sitcom “Wings”), wrote best-selling books, and became a popular fixture on Fox News as a commentator and host.

But nothing says “rehabilitated” quite like signing on as a product pitchman, a mission Col. North is now performing for the latest installment in the popular “Call of Duty” video game series.

In a documentary-style series of short videos promoting the new game, Col. North, who also served as an adviser, appears prominently as a high-tech weapons expert addressing the specter of a future war in which enemy hackers control U.S. weapons systems. “Black Ops II” features game play set not only in a future ruled by smart weapons, but also back in the 1970s and 1980s, where the player participates in the sort of clandestine assignments that originally made Col. North famous.

Military advisers are commonplace in the video game industry. Developers that crank out military-themed shooters are often quick to tout the advice received from men that have shot the guns and made the tough calls for real. But until recently, none of these consultants have been as high profile as Col. North.

Inevitably, some gamers have strenuously objected to Col. North’s high-profile presence in “Black Ops II.” A headline on gaming website Kotaku reads “Black Ops II Chooses Someone Who Failed the Call of Duty.” Another at TheGamerAccess.com proclaimed, “Call of Duty: Black Ops II Ruining Gaming’s Rep with Oliver North.” Gaming message boards have featured disgruntled posters calling Col. North every name in the book — plus a few more that weren’t suitable for printing in the book.

Emphasizing Col. North’s consultative role, Mark Lamia, the head of “Black Ops II” development studio Treyarch, told Kotaku, “When we create the fictions that we create, we do a bunch of research and try to talk to subject matter experts on it.”

Further pressed, he said, “We’re not trying to make a political statement with our game. We’re trying to make a piece of art and entertainment.”

Don’t expect the controversy that perpetually trails Col. North to hurt sales. The “Call of Duty” franchise is popular enough that every release is a certifiable event among gamers, hardly the sort of impulse buy apt to be swayed by politics. Moreover, a large percentage of the gamers who will rush out to buy the new release on Nov. 13 weren’t even alive when Iran-Contra dominated the news.

“While ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops 2’ will no doubt be a hugely popular game, Oliver North’s involvement isn’t much of a selling point to the average gamer,” said Tal Belvins, vice president of games content for IGN Entertainment. “Expert consultation on military-focused video games has been commonplace for years, so this is nothing new or unique to ‘Black Ops 2.’ “

Michael Pachter, a gaming analyst at Wedbush Securities, even sees Col. North’s military expertise as an asset.

“The chance of them losing sales is very low,” said Mr. Pachter. “The chance of helping sales is probably modestly high because [the game] is more accurate. If the game’s more authentic, then people like playing it more.”

Time will tell what impact Col. North’s involvement will have on the game’s game play, sales, and cultural reception, but here’s a hint: Amazon announced that first-day pre-order sales for “Black Ops II” were three times higher than that its predecessor, “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” and 30 percent higher than that of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3,” the most pre-ordered game ever.

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