Should We Make Videogames About Real Wars?

My articles tend to be focused more on politics and philosophy, and though I have written theatre reviews (not on Medium) and music reviews (on myself and my friend’s podcast That Film You Like), I thought today I’d diversify a bit. I absolutely love video games; when I’m not writing or working, I’m probably playing a game. And yet, I have never written a game review…until today. However, this article is half game review, half ethical debate. I’ve been playing a lot of World War Two games recently, specifically Battlefield V (thanks to Sony, it was a free PS Plus game this month — and I absolutely recommend you download it). Why am I reviewing a game that came out 3 years ago? Because it has made me think a lot about gaming as a medium, as well as historical fiction as a genre.

Let’s begin…at the beginning. When you boot up Battlefield V, you will instantly begin an introduction in the form of the war story ‘My Country Calling’. Though the four other war stories after this are nothing really to write home about (they are heavily focused on stealth, which doesn’t really work for the bombastic, action-packed, cinematic style Battlefield is going for), this introduction blew me away. My Country Calling sees you play 5 minute snippets of various famous battles that occurred during World War Two, with this dramatic narration/monologue from a soldier about what being a good soldier means, how war changes people, and how violence destroys and creates. You jump from being a British soldier in the dark, snowy mountains of Norway, to a German tank operator in North Africa, to a fighter pilot above Provence, all while the phenomenal score, composed by Johan Soderqvist and Patrik Andren (who return to the series having composed the Original Soundtracks for Battlefield 1, the predecessor to Battlefield V) blares in your ears, sweeping orchestral noises and beautiful, dramatic music pair perfectly with the amazing photo-realistic graphics, as you fight off enemy soldiers.

The introduction has no heads up display (HUD), and this, combined with the first person perspective and the terrific sound and visual design, gets you instantly immersed— you do feel like a real soldier in World War Two barely surviving. This section (and to be honest, the whole of the game), is an absolute treat for the senses, and definitely one to play with a good headset and big screen if you can. My Country Calling also doesn’t feature any respawn — when you die, you stay dead and then move on to the next 5 minute section, leaving the soldier you were just playing as as one of the various fatalities of World War Two, a corpse staring up at the sky in a foreign land to be forgotten like so many. You are not expected to survive. Every time you die (in the single player campaigns) you are shown the name, birth date, and death date of the soldier you just played as — each death is an individual human tragedy.

Bertrand Russell

Battlefield V is a masterpiece of remembrance, the work is imbued with pride for the brave men and women who fought in World War Two — not just the Americans and the British, but the German and Japanese soldiers too (though the Russians, who suffered heavy losses of 27 million in World War Two, are strangely absent). The game emphasises, quite rightly, that the soldiers of the Axis powers, the ones on the frontlines, were just normal people who were conscripted. Though Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italian Fascist regime are undeniable evils of history, the soldiers themselves, just like the soldiers of the Allies, were normal people, and not necessarily the bad guys that history has immortalised them as. In war, there are no good guys and bad guys, just winners and losers (at least in terms of the conscripted soldiers of the frontline) — the real enemy is war. To quote Bertrand Russell, “War does not determine who is right — only who is left.” The attention to detail and historical accuracy is commendable — DICE have done a good job of teaching the history of the Second World War, and making it not only interesting, but entertaining.

Contrary to its main contender, Call of Duty, Battlefield is known for for being able to host highly destructible environments in matches of 64 players. Call of Duty has only recently been able to challenge this by introducing Ground War to its 2019 reboot of the bestselling Modern Warfare series. However, Modern Warfare’s Ground War is only Battlefield-esque in two respects: a) the high player count (50 players or more), and b) vehicles, such as boats, helicopters, and cars (vehicles were only added to the Call of Duty Franchise in Black Ops 4’s Battle Royale mode Blackout, whereas they had been in Battlefield since its inception). Ground War did not feature any destructible environments, and the more arcade-y nature of Call of Duty is in stark contrast to the gritty realism of Battlefield.

However, Both Battlefield and Call of Duty jumped on to the Battle Royale train popularised by Fortnite, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, and APEX Legends, with Battlefield V featuring Firestorm. Just like in Call of Duty Warzone, a deadly ring of fire encloses the largest Battlefield map ever, if you die you stay dead, you scavenge and fight till there is one man standing. In all honesty, I am not a big Battle Royale fan — I find the permadeath and the try-hard attitude of players too frustrating — and what with DICE essentially killing any support for the game mode, I couldn’t really tell you how well Firestorm does as a Battle Royale.

But let’s talk about what most people come to a Battlefield game for: the multiplayer: the massive maps, the vehicles, the destruction. All this the game delivers in spades. You get put into a squad of 3 other people (or you can play with friends), and then choose a class: assault (your typical first person shooter, run and gun type), medic (you can heal teammates, infinitely heal yourself, and revive all downed teammates, and do so faster than other classes), engineer (a heavy gunner character, with an emphasis on providing ammo for your teammates and repairing damaged vehicles and turrets), and recon(a sniper class who can also mark enemies for teammates). Basing the game around this squad and class play may sound frustrating if you’re playing with randoms like I was, but in fact, it perfectly encapsulates the spirit of comradery and brotherhood witnessed during World War Two. Even random medic players who weren’t in my squad would put themselves out on a limb to run into open spaces and quickly revive me, would provide me with health, and we’d run off into some nearby dig out to fend off the ensuing enemy forces. Having mained the medic class, I often found myself doing the same: running to revive a downed teammate whilst shells fly everywhere, saying to myself ‘get up, get up’ and getting away in a mad dash to live and fight another day.

The large game modes like Conquest (a franchise main stay) and Grand Operations are where you really feel you’re in war. It was in these modes that I found myself to get very stressed, the sounds of the shells and the bombs all around me as I ran got me fully immersed. In one match, an enemy tank shot a shell at the building I was in, which collapsed on top of me, and as I lay dying, waiting for a teammate to revive me, the enemy forces swarmed the building. I was sitting there, my ears ringing and the noises distorted, unable to help my teammates, unable to move, just hoping someone would come and save me, hearing the bloodcurdling screams of my soldier: “Help me, I’m dying here! I can’t feel anything! I need a medic, I don’t want to die! Please!” No one came for me, and I was left to just stare at the sky as I died. When you’re winning in these big modes, and your playing well with your team, and the soundtrack kicks in, it is a mind-blowing experience — Battlefield has always perfected the concept of spectacle. The only thing I can sort of compare those round ending situations to is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (a film which the survivors of Dunkirk said was louder than the actual event it was based on). Of course, the difference between a real war and a simulated one, is that once you die in Battlefield you come back — but DICE do a good job of simulating death, the anger and sadness of getting shot, the ultimatum of whether you should hold out for help or give up and die, the feeling that had you survived a bit longer you could have held a point for your team or saved a downed teammate. You die a lot and you die very easily, death is just around the corner, as it would have been for real soldiers. When I tell you I felt very shaken after playing, I am not lying: Battlefield V is an experience.

But that made me think: is this right? Should we be making videogames about real life wars? Though the game serves an educational purpose, and allows people to truly and accurately understand what a soldier would have felt during World War Two , does it not devalue the sacrifice of those great men and women who fought and died in war to then package it as a piece of entertainment? EA, the publisher of Battlefield, and the notoriously money-hungry company(filling their $60 games with scummy additional micro-transactions, paywalls, and loot boxes), are making money off simulating the experience of World War Two. I am conflicted on saying I enjoyed the game: I found it harrowing and traumatic and it left me feeling physically stressed, and though the moment to moment gameplay is satisfying, and the interweaving of a historical narrative with accurate attention to detail is pleasing to me as a historian, is it wrong for me to say I had fun? Certainly the soldiers who fought in World War Two would not say they had fun, war is not a game…but yet here I am playing a simulated version of their experience. When I see an explosion in the game, I think ‘wow neat’ and then run away so as not to die (because there are no real life consequences if I die), but a real soldier would have been absolutely terrified and then would have ran away (because they’re real life could have ended). When I kill an enemy in the game, I get rewarded and psychologically get a rush of dopamine — when a real soldier does it, although he may later receive a medal of honour, he would be left traumatised and psychologically-scarred for the rest of his life.

Of course, Battlefield isn’t the first or only game to be set in World War Two — this year’s Call of Duty is rumoured to be another Second World War game, following on not only from the series roots (Call of Duty 1–3 were all set during World War Two), but a sequel to 2017’s Call of Duty: WWII. Is it ethically acceptable to make pieces of entertainment out of simulating the violence of one of the worst wars in human history, a war with an estimated death toll of 75 million? And is it okay for me to find entertainment out of the experience? I think perhaps one of the issues I have with the game is that, although it serves a commemorative purpose, and shows the negative effects of war, it isn’t proactively anti-war. It emphasises the glory of World War Two, the heroic character of those who fought and died. My Country Calling begins with the caption: “The war would thoroughly explore man’s potential. Finest moments. Darkest hours.”

However, in creating an engaging gameplay loop, DICE have given up an aspect of a realist depiction. No one wants to play a game that covers how it really is to be a soldier because it would be boring — you wait around most of the time, then maybe you’re sent somewhere without knowing where or why, and then, chances are, when you arrive you die instantly. If you don’t die and you do kill someone, you will probably be psychologically-scarred for a lifetime. So instead, we have a warrior power fantasy, we play as these noble ‘heroes’ in their finest moments rather than in their darkest hours — we see the airbrushed version of war, rather than the reality. I suppose the game is called Battlefield, and not PTSD simulator.

The issue then is the limitation of games as a medium. Though I personally think many of them can be classified as art, games are first and foremost sources of entertainment, and so to entertain people developers will emphasise the thrills, excitement and adrenaline of something like war, rather than what precedes it, and the aftermath of it. Combat is not all war is: war is loss and grief and pain, war is hunger and starvation, war is hardly ever exciting, war is hardly never scary. Battlefield is fantastic at spectacle, but perhaps in this large, sweeping experience of warfare, the minutia of it all gets blurred — in multiplayer (the mode most people came to the game for), we don’t stop to think about the psychological impact that murdering another human being would have on a soldier: it’s not even implied, but then how could it be? Though a single player narrative (such as those provided in the war stories of Battlefield V) could provide that greater analysis, an online multiplayer experience cannot.

Desiderius Erasmus

In truth, I don’t have an answer to the question. But that’s because, just like real war, this topic is often morally grey, full of contradictions and hypocrisies (e.g. waging war to bring peace). All I know is that, whether or not we think they should be made, they are being made. And so we as consumers, and developers as the industry, need to be considering this ethical debate around the depiction of real wars in mediums of entertainment. “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 kinaesthetic 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,” says Sarah Jones, head of psychological wellbeing at the veterans charity Help For Heroes. “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.” Indeed, as I pointed out, Battlefield V is a sensory masterpiece, and as a piece of art, and a tool for education, it must be commended. To quote 15th Century Dutch Philosopher Desiderius Erasmus, “War is delightful to those who have had no experience of it.”

I am a young writer interested in providing the intellectual tools to those in the political trenches so that they may fight their battles well-informed.

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