Conflicted: The Uneasy Relationship Between War And Gaming

Joel Harvey

War is hell.

It’s hard to believe, but nobody “has a good time” when they’re in the middle of a war. Well, unless they have severe and deep-seated psychological issues.

For most of us normal people though, real-life military conflicts are horrific and brutal. But the things that make wars so nasty (the death and destruction), are sold as appealing features of many war-based video games. And that’s… troubling.

In recent years, the genre of the first-person-shooter has become dominated by the concept of war. Call of Duty, Battlefield and Counter-Strike are just some of the major FPS franchises that heavily rely on real-life conflicts as a source of inspiration. And over the years, they’ve been made to look – and feel – like you’ve been dropped right in the middle of a war-zone.

But there’s a strangeness to this. Because unlike other games – where you’re playing in largely fictional landscapes – in these war games, you’re playing with genuine history. The gaming worlds that you inhabit and you happily shoot your way through, they actually existed. And not only that, they were the cause of real pain and anguish for millions of human beings.

Can there be a justification for using these horror stories as settings for multiplayer shoot-em-ups? Or should we just detach the gaming from the source material? It certainly wasn’t too hard to detach from the first video game depictions of war…

Early Years of War Games

War games have been around since the earliest incarnations of gaming. Way back in 1974, we had Tank. This was Atari’s battle game where you played as a tank (shockingly), and you set out to blow your opponent’s tank to smithereens.

In essence, this was the purest distillation of war as a concept. But Tank was little more than playing with toy blocks. You couldn’t attach any kind of emotional resonance to Tank. Unless you had strong feelings for blocky sprites, that is.

But as graphics evolved from the blockiness of Tank, the themes and subjects of video games evolved too. Simplistic stories weren’t enough for gaming anymore, there was a requirement for them to be more emotional and complex; to be more like movies. Step forward, Steven Spielberg.

The most significant development in the use of wars in gaming came in 1999, at the hands of Spielberg. The famed director, buoyed by the success of his own war films, was keen to use his DreamWorks gaming studio to bring conflicts to life on the PlayStation. The game that he had in mind, was Medal of Honor. And without it, the CoD series wouldn’t have existed.

The first Medal of Honor game was set in World War II, putting you in the thick of European conflict. It was a fun, breezy, let’s-kill-some-Nazis kind of shooter. Perhaps Spielberg had grander ideas for it; maybe he wanted it to be Saving Private Ryan: The Game. But ultimately, it didn’t have enough cheesy Hollywood pathos for that. Instead, Medal of Honor opted for gaming silliness, rather than dealing with the real trauma of war.

Looking back on it today, you can say that Medal of Honor was the Tank of FPS war games. You couldn’t really take it seriously, nor could you criticize its shallowness. But the same can’t be said of the current crop of games in the genre.

Not-so Modern Warfare

The Call of Duty series would take the mantle of Medal of Honor and run with it to become a phenomenally successful franchise. And like Medal of Honor, the early days of CoD were also set in the world of WWII.

But as the series progressed, it moved onto fictional war zones (albeit with threads of reality and current events running through them). And CoD wasn’t the only FPS series to do this. EA’s Battlefield games would also position themselves away from real war settings with each new release.

But things changed for Battlefield in 2016, as EA Dice took the series in a new direction: World War One.

Very few games had dared to approach the Great War before, perhaps with good reason. Despite the horrors of WWII, it can easily be romanticized and turned into video game fodder; good guys fighting the Nazis and Hitler.

But WWI was less clear-cut. There was no great evil at the heart of this conflict, as it was fought for largely pointless reasons. And the murky futility of it all – coupled with battles that were nothing less than suicide missions for millions of soldiers – allowed less of an easy route in for video games. Or at least, video games that centered around shooting people for fun.

EA and Dice would attempt to insert nuance and respectfulness for its subject matter in Battlefield 1. But even still, by them turning one of the worst chapters in human history into a setting for a multiplayer death match, you can’t hide a slither of insensitivity on their part.

And it’s a bit weird to talk about a four-year nightmare of violence and death, as if it’s just a cool opportunity for new gameplay features.

Changing the Battleplan

But there is room for more nuanced approaches to war games. Recently, we’ve had heart-wrenching titles like Valiant Hearts and This War of Mine; each presenting the very human side to war in their own particular ways.

These games aren’t about using death and destruction as a game mechanic; they use the interactivity of video games to tell stories about how war can rip apart people’s lives.

That said, FPS games shouldn’t suddenly transform into parables of war though. There’s no question that when they’re done right, these games are ridiculously fun to play and they entertain millions of gamers world-wide.

And by shifting so many units each year, studios are under no pressure to change things and open up a thoughtful debate about war in their latest triple-A shooter. But they could do more and perhaps consider more tactile approaches to storytelling at the heart of these games.

Real war is not about killing for the fun of it – it’s complex, brutally violent and desperately sad. And maybe video games set in real-world conflicts should try to reflect these aspects more. If developers can do this, without losing the essence of what makes their games so popular in the first place, we could have an intriguing new era of war-based gaming ahead of us.