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Can video games depict war responsibly?

On the eve of the 75th VE Day, we explore how developers engage players in military conflict

Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Victory in Europe, the day we celebrate the end of World War 2.

It's a conflict that continues to be explored through video games, but as the medium matures, its depiction of war -- any war -- and the way it allows players to engage with it come under further scrutiny.

The likes of Medal of Honor, Battlefield, and Call of Duty have long since established that video games can recreate the Hollywood version of military conflict, with an emphasis on spectacle and action, but do these and other titles treat war as respectfully as they should?

"What is 'respectful' is subjective," says Joe Brammer, CEO of Battalion 1944 developer Bulkhead Interactive. "I'd argue most World War 2 games that are released aren't doing it to be respectful, they're generally marketed in the same way: 'honour, glory, heroes.'

"It's kind of a nod [of respect], but none of these games are trying to be respectful or proactively trying to be an 'anti-war' game like The Hurt Locker, an anti-war movie that still delivered the same action experience as a war movie... Since the '40s, we've all had it embedded into us in the UK and United States that this was a glorious moment. We're trained to think that."

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Philip Molodkovets, Wargaming

Philip Molodkovets, executive producer of Wargaming's World of Warships, suggests the respect agame pays to real-world conflicts lies in where the focus is. While his title is about "epic battles," he says there's just as much emphasis on the engineering and technological achievements behind the development of the ships themselves. Wargaming already explores this further with its Naval Legends documentaries on YouTube, and plans to honour VE Day tomorrow with a virtual parade.

"These battles are virtual," he adds. "We don't focus on human casualties and thus we avoid glorifying the violence and war. There were many grim moments in naval history, of course, but we made a conscious decision not to exploit these for gameplay purposes.

"We like to see World of Warships as a virtual museum. The vast majority of the ships we feature no longer exist; as they have either been scrapped or lost at sea. By getting immersed in the game players are learning about technical specifications, differences, but also technological breakthroughs, famous naval commanders and the historical context in general.

"We pay our respects by getting it right: the ships, the way they look, the guns and armor they carried, the latest technological advances and so on."

There is debate among developers whether authenticity equates to respect. Aardman's George Rowe, producer on World War I narrative game 11-11: Memories Retold, argues that it can because it shows the amount of research you've done into the subject. But he adds that this also depends on how this work is presented.

"For a game about the Second World War, it would be more important to mention the Holocaust, than having all the tanks correct"

Jörg Friedrich, Paint Bucket Games

"If you are going into fetish-like detail about military buttons and great coats, then also show how cold the soldiers got, how hungry they are," he says. "Don't pick and choose just the bits you 'need.'"

Meanwhile Jörg Friedrich, game designer at Through The Darkest Of Times developer Paint Bucket Games, argues that "fixation on form is a mistake."

"It implies a realism and completeness that is not there and does not really matter that much," he says. "For a game about the Second World War, it would be more important to mention the Holocaust, than having all the tanks correct."

Friedrich also argues that it's almost impossible to balance gameplay in a way that's truly respectful of war as a subject, simply by the nature that players are empowered through the games they play.

"Whenever you create an engaging gameplay loop, it means giving up on real wars and following some Hollywood fantasy," he says. "No one wants to play a game that covers how it really is to be a soldier in a war situation -- it would be terribly boring, nothing would happen most of the time, if ever. Possibly you are sent somewhere without knowing exactly why and where, and when you arrive, chances are you die. Or you get injured or crippled. I think most people want to play warrior power fantasies - not war.

"Replicating war in a game usually makes it look cool because you are not actually there. Since you know that that video game explosion cannot really hurt you, all you see is a cool looking explosion. Every medium has this problem, not only games. To fix it, you need to change perspective. This War Of Mine does a good job in putting you into the shoes of people suffering from war, rather than the ones causing it."

Video games typically focus on the heroism and battle, but combat is just one of the many aspects of war

Video games typically focus on the heroism and battle, but combat is just one of the many aspects of war

Paint Bucket's own game, Through The Darkest of Times, also attempts this by telling true stories of civilian resistance fighters during World War 2. Friedrich says it's the civilian perspective that needs to be explored more in games.

"Hitler's war of annihilation in the East was not simply the conquest of another country, it was the systematic expulsion and murder of millions of civilians," he says. "We know this, yet in games we pretend that war was a competition between soldiers and equal opponents."

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George Rowe, Aardman

Rowe agrees, adding: "You need to represent all the aspects of the war, the horrific along with the heroic. If you are happy to show someone running around shooting people in the head, then you should also be happy to show the effect that has on a young man, the families who grieve over their missing relatives, the hunger, the privation, all of it.

"We wanted our mechanics to be about the tough human decisions people need to make, and we needed the decision options to be consistent with who our characters were - non-combatant soldiers thrown into a terrible situation. We couldn't try and make the player empathise with someone butchering countless enemy soldiers, and our barometer was always 'Would you feel comfortable showing this to a family member who had been in the war?'"

Rowe adds that it's important to remember these conflicts weren't that long ago, and everyone has in some way been affected by them. It's also vital to realise that wars are viewed from multiple perspectives by the nations embroiled in them, and therefore can't be defined by oversimplified labels of 'good' and 'bad'.

"Storytelling is important, stories are powerful, so make sure your story presents all the grey areas on both side of any conflict," he says, adding: "History is subjective and cultural, different countries remember the War in different ways, so we made sure we had consultants [with expertise in] both sides of the Great War; we didn't want just an Allies-centric view of the war."

The onus is not just on developers and publishers to reconsider how they present war, but also on the consumers to broaden how they want to engage with it. Bulkhead's Brammer observes that there is still resistance in some corners of the gaming audience, pointing to EA's Battlefield V as a prime example.

"If you're happy to show someone shooting people, you should also be happy to show the effect that has on a young man, the families who grieve, the hunger, the privation, all of it"

George Rowe, Aardman

"They tried to show a different side of WW2, in Norway, with female soldiers, some with [prosthetic] arms showing some kind of resilience to a disability. It's great to see a major developer taking such steps in improving diversity and representation in games. But it doesn't change that their consumers just wanted to play Saving Private Ryan. That was the experience their players wanted."

Herein lies a major factor when depicting war in a video game: the medium is still first and foremost an avenue of entertainment, and that inherently affects both how its content will be perceived and the expectations upon those providing it.

"Games aren't documentaries," observes Sarah Jones, head of psychological wellbeing at veterans charity Help For Heroes. "If we're engaging with something for an entertainment purpose, [developers are] going to emphasise the bit that has more adrenaline associated with it, more thrills and excitement. Those moments and extreme situations are less frequent than the moments preparing for it or the aftermath -- but that wouldn't be captivating for a game. It's about recognising that's the entertainment part and those moments will be emphasised.

"There is potentially a risk that those things will be trivialised, but that's like anything in life. It's not about what it is in and of itself, it's about how you see it and how you use that perspective to learn from it. As human beings, we're attracted to and interested in engaging with high adrenaline situations, but what are the positives and the learnings we can get from that?"

Paul Colling, an British ex-Army veteran working with the charity, is proof of those positives. Having left the service due to a minor brain injury, he was encouraged to try guitar exercises to help his co-ordination but he found video games -- already a hobby of his -- worked just as well. They keep his brain active, and playing regularly with friends enables him to participate in games "as a unit, like you would in the military."

In 11-11: Memories Retold, Aardman explored World War 1 from two non-combatants from both sides of the conflict

In 11-11: Memories Retold, Aardman explored World War 1 from two non-combatants from both sides of the conflict

How well video games depict war and life as a soldier vary from game to game for Colling. Interestingly, his particular favourite is Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, since he can "treat it like a full military operation."

"What should take 30 minutes probably takes me 24 hours, just taking out checkpoints, because I'm putting full military tactics into it," he says. "I'll reccy it from the hills on one side, then crawl all the way round the other side just to look at where everything is. A lot of thought process and execution goes into it, and that's all keeping my mind focussed on how I'm going to best achieve something, making a plan and executing it perfectly. It keeps the mind active, it keeps you from wandering into dark places and places of isolation.

He continues: "[Realism] depends on the focus of the game. The Division, for instance, doesn't have much conflict that matches with [my experience] but then the way you work as a team and how everyone's got a set role -- that rings true, to a degree. You need to work well as a team, everyone is needed, you've all got a vital role and if one person isn't doing what they need to, the mission ends pretty quickly.

jorg

Jörg Friedrich, Paint Bucket Games

"But when you look at things like Call of Duty: Warzone -- more Warzone, than the Plunder mode -- you've got to be careful. In The Division, if you've got the right build, you can take bullets all day and that's obviously not realistic, but with Call of Duty, one or two shots and you're gone. You really do have to think about your strategy and the way you're going to play. You could very realistically in a real conflict lay down covering fire to get the enemy's focus while you send someone else around the side to wipe them out. That's a very real-life military tactic."

Call of Duty is the poster child for war in video games. Consistently among the best-selling games each year, the series has earned a reputation for delivering action-packed titles that throw players into the heart of a warzone. Yet, it has not been without its controversies -- just last year, for example, the rebooted Modern Warfare drew criticism for, among other things, including white phosphorus as a killstreak reward.

Whether or not a chemical weapon should be treated as an in-game power-up is another debate for developers. Brammer recognises that Infinity Ward were "trying to be perceived as realistic and use modern day weaponry," almost as a modern equivalent of how "kids have played soldiers with finger guns, wooden, guns, and toy guns for hundreds of years" -- although adds that he "was surprised that it was included as a killstreak item."

"Since the '40s, we've all had it embedded into us in the UK and United States that this was a glorious moment. We're trained to think that"

Joe Brammer, Bulkhead Interactive

For Colling, killstreak rewards or other mechanics -- such as Metal Gear's unrealistic but amusing use of a cardboard box -- are "the fantasy element," reiterating the distinction between video games and reality. With this distinction in mind, the way war is handled in games will always be open to developers' interpretation.

"I don't think games are in danger of triggering things or radicalising people in real-life," he says. "People who know and understand games, they know it's a game. If someone has got a trauma or a pre-existing issue... Everyone's triggers are different. It's not the game that's causing that, it's the traumatic experience. That trauma is there whether or not the game is there, and something else might trigger it. If people feel triggered or upset by gaming, they can avoid them or those types of games."

Help For Heroes' Jones concludes that engaging with war through games is something she believes should be handled responsibly, by both the industry and its consumers. And going forward, she hopes to see more exploration into how games can be used to not just entertain, but educate people on the realities of conflict.

"Responsible gaming is all about balance between how we're able to compartmentalise reality and fantasy," she says. "For gamers, that's the all-important piece, to be able to see that this is a kind of fantasy, a depiction that someone can engage in for escapism.

"These depictions can be helpful for learning in a complete way. As human beings we don't just learn in a two-dimensional way. We learn in a physical kinesthetic way, that's the additional piece that gaming adds. If we add more sensory dimensions then our learning becomes more embedded. That gives a better appreciation of the real-life scenario.

"This can help from an educational point of view for individuals who haven't experienced that first-hand. It has the potential for an educational perspective of what that might be like -- especially with the sophistication of games now on a sensory level. You're getting a real subjective view of what that might be like, which helps people to appreciate what that's really like for our veterans, what experiences they've lived through and also what they may be reliving in terms of anxiety, PTSD, mental and physical health difficulties."

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Latest comments (5)

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 2 months ago
War will destroy everything you are invested in.
A game cannot compete with reality in terms of what you can lose.
Getting players invested in things is a strategy for long term retention.
The choice is obvious, but the lesson comes at a price for the developer and even then has a comparatively low impact.

As far back as Cannonfodder on the Amiga, you were looking at the graves of your former units with all the rank-ups you current squad did not have. X-Com is the slightest glimpse into the idea of human cost during war. First person shooters are too much tied to the concept of being 'the one that got through'. Instead of respawning the player until they win, you would need a second person shooter of some sort and a branching narrative structure to drive home that point.
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Antoine Baker Artist/Designer/QA Tester 2 months ago
@Klaus Preisinger:
I agree with this. However, it's also about the territory that game gets released in. If memory serves correct, Germany is one of the countries that wants to leave that part of the past buried and some other nations don't want Nazi's depicted in media. Even things like the Confederate flag here in the states is a big no-no in media. So in a way you would have to tarnish the truth a bit due to other's sensibilities. Yes we could depict shooting, but I feel the latter about story would be a lot harder to hit. I believe to also drive the point home about human loss more effectively would be to axe multi-player PvP altogether as it would distract from the overall message.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 2 months ago
German sensibilities tend to be less about the topic and instead all about the context and the purpose they are presented in.

Video games featuring violence as part of their core gameplay loop, aiming to use violence as a means to achieve entertainment, were frowned upon pretty heavily throughout the 80ies and 90ies. The same could be said about anything that was not a game, such as movies, TV shows, comics, etc.. Even a board game such as Axis and Allies was very hard to come by.

To this day, the focus is on presenting the subject matter war in such a way that it is optimized for entertainment, appeal and marketability. Could you make a Call of Duty game starting at a cotton farm, showing the abuse, stage a daring escape to have the character join the Northern Army and die on the battlefield? For the same reason some things will never happen in WW2 based entertainment products. No matter how much Heart of Iron may try to simulate, there are places they will never go, such as having a subsystem of the simulation cover the ethnic cleansing aspect of the war and tie it into the resource management aspect of the game.

Once people turn to games to learn about war and not just because they want to be happily entertained, we may see big budget games covering the topic of war. Until then, they will cover the topic of how fun it is to run and gun and we will only have small indie games made on the cheap trying to cover war.
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Show all comments (5)
Leela Hendrix EsportsWomen.com A month ago
Jones gets it.
Good piece.
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Drew Crecente Executive Director and Founder, Jennifer Ann's GroupA month ago
"Games aren't documentaries," observes Sarah Jones, head of psychological wellbeing at veterans charity Help For Heroes. "If we're engaging with something for an entertainment purpose, [developers are] going to emphasise the bit that has more adrenaline associated with it, more thrills and excitement. [...] It's about recognising that's the entertainment part and those moments will be emphasised."
[emphasis added]

Obviously a video game can be compelling without being entertaining and there are some game players who prefer those games. It would be odd if people similarly restricted films to be strictly entertaining; why do these erroneous beliefs about video games persist?

Regardless, This War of Mine is a great example of how a "war" video game can be compelling and successful while remaining "respectful" of the subject matter and those affected.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Drew Crecente on 20th May 2020 7:41pm

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