Opinion: It's an insult that Call of Duty depicts NZ war hero Charles Upham as Australian

OPINION: Whether you love it or loathe it, New Zealand's military history should be treated with respect. 

Our small country shed ridiculous amounts of blood and tears during wars in the last two centuries, and that history should not be packaged and sold by companies worth billions.

That brings me to the gaming industry, which makes more money than the film and music industries combined. Among the most popular game franchises ever is Call of Duty.

The war-based first-person shooter series has sold over 400 million copies worldwide, with a new billion-dollar blockbuster release dropped each year for its rabid fanbase.

This year's edition, due to be released in November, is entitled Vanguard and set during World War Two.

There are four main characters in the game's single-player campaign and they're all inspired by real heroes from the war: 

  • 'Wade Jackson' based on American pilot Vernon Micheel, who bombed two Japanese aircraft carriers on the same day
  • 'Arthur Kingsley' based on Sidney Cornell, a black British paratrooper who battled racism to land in France on D Day
  • 'Polina Petrova' based on Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a female sniper from Russia who killed over 300 Germans
  • 'Lucas Riggs' based on New Zealander Charles Upham, the only combat soldier in history to be awarded two Victoria Crosses, the British Empire's highest award for valour.

But there's one very obvious flaw in this game set to sell millions: The character based on Charles Upham is depicted as Australian.

Charles Upham and Lucas Riggs.
Charles Upham and Lucas Riggs. Photo credit: Getty Images / Activision

Why would the game's creators do this? The American, Brit and Russian characters are depicted as an American, Brit and Russian, respectively. Why change the Kiwi to an Aussie? 

You might be thinking, who cares, it's only a game - but Charles Upham's significance cannot be overstated. No other combat soldier has ever been awarded two Victoria Crosses in all of history. 

That incredible achievement belongs to our country alone, Aotearoa New Zealand.

It's like turning Sir Edmund Hillary into an Australian, or Lorde, or Jonah Lomu. It's an insult. At best, it's ignorance; at worst, it's a giant middle finger to us all.

So again, I ask the question: Why change New Zealand's greatest war hero into an Australian?

Newshub put that question to the game's US developer, Sledgehammer Games.

"In Vanguard, we're telling our own fictional story that is rooted in history, but not creatively bound to it," said Campaign Creative Director David Swenson.

"As with all the main characters in the campaign, we drew a lot of inspiration from real life soldiers. With Lucas Riggs, we drew a lot of that inspiration from Charles Upham, whose exploits embodied the spirit of all the Commonwealth forces serving in North Africa."

It remains to be seen how much inspiration Sledgehammer has actually taken from Upham's life and military career. Perhaps if too much was taken, they worried lawyers representing Upham's estate might come calling?

I'm very curious how much of the game character is based on the actual Kiwi legend.

Lucas Riggs in Call of Duty Vanguard.
Lucas Riggs. Photo credit: Activision

Will Lucas Riggs earn two Victoria Crosses for multiple acts of bravery, for attacking German machine gun posts alone, for destroying trucks full of German soldiers with grenades, and rescuing wounded comrades under fire? Will Riggs be wounded six times, be captured by the Germans only to escape briefly multiple times before being sent to Colditz, the Nazis' most notorious prison camp?

By depicting a character that draws "a lot of inspiration" from Upham as Australian, Sledgehammer is essentially rewriting New Zealand's military history, presenting a skewed version of it to millions of gamers. Many of them may soon believe the highest-decorated soldier in the British Empire was an Australian, not a New Zealander.

They may also believe the Australians did the bulk of the fighting against the Germans and Italians in North Africa, remaining ignorant of New Zealand's efforts.

Perhaps the change has been made in the hopes of making more money. There's a whole lot more gamers in Australia than there is in New Zealand - maybe they'd rather play as an Aussie, not some Kiwi from across the ditch.

Sledgehammer and publisher Activision will make millions from Vanguard with its twisted version of Upham's legacy. Of course, they'll continue to say Riggs is only "inspired by" Upham, but it can be argued they will be profiting from his WWII heroics.

In real life, Upham avoided the limelight at every turn. He was embarrassed by his Victoria Crosses and thought the men he served with should have earned them, not him.

He turned down a knighthood. He turned down £10,000 (about NZ$1 million when converted to today's money) raised for him as a gift by the public after the war.

He founded a sheep run in North Canterbury and lived out his days as a farmer and father, shunning the public eye. 

If you want to know more about the British Commonwealth's most famous soldier, this episode of This Is Your Life, filmed ten years before Upham's death, is a great place to start.

Perhaps Sledgehammer Games watched it as well - and somehow thought an Aussie accent was far more palatable than a Kiwi one?

We'll find out more about Lucas Riggs when Call of Duty: Vanguard is released on November 5.

Tony Wright is a Newshub producer and war historian.