Digital Trenches: War in computer games as illustrated on World War I

by Mr Creosote (2014-08-30)

[Mr Creosote] Over the last month, we dove into games about the First World War. Some were well made, some less entertaining. Wait a minute, entertaining? Can you hear the alarm bells ringing? War as entertainment? We would like to examine this touchy subject in a little more detail, first in general and then come back to the specific occasion.

[Herr M.] War, without a doubt, is one of the most precarious subjects covered by computer games. Thoughtlessly misused on a regular basis as a pure background construct to tie into action scenes of only moderate originality, it seldomly receives the respect it deserves. This is particularly striking with the largest conflicts, i.e. the world wars, which seemingly have a special 'appeal' to game developers and players.

Blind War Propaganda?

[Mr Creosote] The strangest thing about this is that while in other entertainment media, there is a wide consensus to treat the phenomenon of war at least with a basic critical stance, computer games still celebrate it unconditionally until this very day! Propaganda about 'good' and 'evil', glorification of war etc.

[Herr M.] Games which really try to treat it in a critical way or to shed some light on all aspects of the fighting and its background can probably be counted on one hand. The rare moments in common war games which show defencelessness or powerlessness are usually used for black and white propaganda and they seldomly refer directly to the player himself.

[Mr Creosote] The most typical role attributed to the player is the 'big war hero'. It can be a successful general pushing around his abstract tank icons or a commando soldier shooting down a host of enemies single-handedly. If you really think about it, both variants are rather disturbing: The former masks human suffering and death completely behind the tactical challenge, the latter is simply beyond any humanity. It is as if the attempt is to top each other!

[Herr M.] Though it is likely that it is exactly this masking which makes this genre so popular in the computer world. You don't have to consider possible consequences, because it's just a few numbers which are shuffled around and deleted. Even if the shot down enemy dies a horribly slow death, in the end it is still just a game in which you do what is expected of you. Which then, in turn, rewards you with points and promotions.

May Virtual War be Fun?

[Mr Creosote] So one would have to ask: Is this the final stage of human cynicism? Or are we still sufficiently able to differentiate between game and reality? I don't mean that in the way of the endless (useless and highly annoying) discussion in mainstream media whether 'evil computer games make people violent'. I find the question how people still manage to nevertheless enjoy something this horrible much more interesting .

[Herr M.] Even if traces of the former are certainly there, I presume that it is just all too human to take such horrors to an abstract level and rather focus on the actual task. This more or less portion of romanticism certainly meets a need to justify one's actions.

[Mr Creosote] Maybe it's just this: there have always been war games! Before the age of computers, they've just been played on physical boards or miniature landscapes. Just that in past times, war had not been branded quite a clearly as something bad as it is today. In spite of the change of mind of society as a whole, these games have remained.

[Herr M.] Maybe it is exactly this branding by our society which made war move to computers, where it is still popular? Where else could you still delve into such taboo subjects undisturbed?

Do We Have to Grow Up?

[Mr Creosote] But then we would have to come back to what I already hinted at earlier: Why are other entertainment branches going with the times, i.e. they treat war in a critical way at least on a basic level, and still reach a considerable target audience, while this is not even tried out in computer games?

[Herr M.] One reason may be that computer games are still a comparatively young medium and therefore still struggling to be taken seriously by the populace, which would be a prerequisite for critical games. The other thing would certainly be the persistent dominance of young male players, especially in the area of action games. Those usually prefer games which defy the rules of society.

[Mr Creosote] Alright, I can agree with the first one: it is probably a sign of a medium which has not grown up yet. Playing a game like Wings feels very much like watching a war film from 100 years ago. Which, however, is a chicken and egg issue: as long as nothing serious is produced, it will continue not to be taken seriously. It's a vicious circle, isn't it?

[Herr M.] Sure, although a serious game which attempts to treat the subject of war in a critical way and does away with the lazy and established conventions would be quite a risk for the developers. How large would the target audience of such a game be?

[Mr Creosote] This begs the same question which we have already touched upon concerning another game which didn't even have anything to do with war: is there a demographic audience which isn't so much looking for direct entertainment, but rather an overall experience? To put it in simple terms: does it have to be fun? So far, the developers apparently don't see such an audience, although it seems to exist for other media – which may be a case of the stronger immersion when playing a game.

Do We Really Want a Realistic and Immersive War Game Experience?

[Herr M.] The latter is quite an interesting point, because the inclusion of the player, the interactivity of the story implies a stronger willingness to immerse oneself. I believe that this opportunity to let off a bit of steam and triumph over the enemies is much easier than helplessly standing by as everything goes down the drain.

[Mr Creosote] Although it might even be particularly intense in this format – compared to quietly sitting on the couch in front of the TV with a bag of potato chips.

Earlier, you mentioned a possible second reason, though: the age and gender distribution of typical computer gamers. Taking this as an indicator to stilise war games as an expression of a sort of rebellion, I find pretty laughable. I hardly believe that most players will waste even just a moment considering these aspects – the assumption of the quick, easy success, whose nature is not at all reflected upon, sounds much more reasonable.

[Herr M.] Experiencing easy successes is certainly important, but why is it set against such backgrounds if these and the moral implications aren't an important component of the overall appeal? Why put so much effort into showing the enemies perish in such a controversial level of detail if not to provoke? It may not be the main reason to play such games, that will certainly be the 'athletic' challenge, but I think it should not be disregarded completely.

Did Times Change (for the Worse)?

[Mr Creosote] OK, but this excrescence of the horror and its positive reception within the target audience, especially in the action genre, is really a much more recent development, isn't it? It only really happens since the mid-1990s that violence is shown much more explicitly on purpose, because the audience considers this 'cool'. At the time of my socialisation with computers, I can't really think of an overabundance of this trend.

[Herr M.] That's right, it is a phenomenon which has only begun to take over with the arrival of better graphics. Still, even the very first generation of war games often made it clear that you were about to end lives, which made many of them obvious candidates for censorship.

[Mr Creosote] This is not really comparable, is it? 'Back then', games like Silent Service were put on the German index, because it was set in a historical war, although you never see a drop of blood. Which, as we said, doesn't make it less cynical, of course.

[Herr M.] The fact alone that this game was put on the index just because it deals with war shows how much of a controversial issue this is already without any elaboration. Emotions tend to boil up quickly. What more can you ask of the scenario of a computer game?

The First World War – Clean and Chivalrous?

[Mr Creosote] Being so stirring is often related to personal identification. Therefore, historical wars are particularly 'rewarding' material. 100 years ago, the so-called First World War began – and of course, it has also been turned into software.

[Herr M.] It is noteworthy that a lot of the belittlement and abstraction which we talked about can be seen there as well. Considering what crimes were committed on the battlefields of this conflict and which horrors the industrialisation of war brought along, most of those games appear rather 'clean' or 'harmless'.

[Mr Creosote] There are hardly any action games, and those few are basically all about planes – the war in the skies is subject to a lot of legends of being 'clean' and 'honest' anyway. The same then applies to flight simulations.

[Herr M.] Yes, the 'knights of the sky' are quite an easy target to build relatively innocent scenarios around them, where the technological progress is put into the focus instead of the simple soldiers' role. Also, their harmlessness is obvious from a historical perspective. If you compare those flying soapboxes with modern drones, the former just don't appear very threatening anymore.

[Mr Creosote] You just see a plane going down, seemingly after a 'fair duel'. Simulations of modern planes indeed have it much harder there, because of the icy, efficient technology which they use to kill.

Then, there are strategy and tactics games which are subject to the discussed abstraction and which, for some reason' all seem to leave out the endless trench war and poison gas.

[Herr M.] Do you think this is related to the lacking sense of achievement? After all, the trenches are the picture of a deadlocked situation in spite of all extreme measures, and if something happens, only at all too high costs. This doesn't seem like a rewarding scenario for a virtual general who might want to see some progress at some point.

[Mr Creosote] This is probably the most likely explanation. It would be, even disregarding the ethical issues, only a game for hardcore strategists, if minimal movement only occurs at a snail's pace.

There is one exception to the latter, by the way: Warlords II Deluxe includes a 'Europe 1910' scenario (so, in practical terms, this is the First World War) which has a poison gas unit. For me, this begs the same question: Is this shameless honesty or the shameful extenuation of the other games better?

[Herr M.] Presumably, this is a question of taste, depending on one's willingness to deal with the realities behind the game or the preference to stick with the clichés surrounding it. Although it is certainly not that simple to paint a really accurate picture of a war which happened 100 years ago and which is subject to so many myths and half-truths.

[Mr Creosote] At least it is a war which has been documented quite extensively by modern means. So I would even claim that there are fewer half-truths, or at least they can be debunked more easily.

Educational Games or Substitute Material?

[Herr M.] Maybe fewer, but still more than enough. Also, how many players will take the effort to research inaccuracies? Though you have to admit there are some games which really put a lot of effort into a certain authenticity. In Red Baron, for example, one can really learn a thing or two beyond the usual romanticism about aerial warfare at the time of the First World War.

[Mr Creosote] You could also add History Line 1914-1918 to that list. Between the battles, there is extensive background information about the progress of the war, but also about other things going on in the world at the time. Although HL also illustrates another interesting aspect: the First World War, compared to the second, is much less ideologicalised and therefore a welcome substitute if the Nazi material is too hot a topic.

[Herr M.] Which is interesting insofar as much potential goes to waste. Almost all of the games are set on the western front. That doesn't just make ignoring the trenches all the more irritating, but it also adds a destitution of scenarios to that of the genres. The restriction to western Europe doesn't make this look like a World War.

[Mr Creosote] OK, but the 'World' term honestly mostly refers to the world-wide participant list anyway, doesn't it? In the African colonies, the war was quickly over and other than that, there was just the Arabic region where something was actively happening outside Europe. The eastern front (Russia and the Balkans) would indeed be an interesting scenario candidate, though, because this could include both aspects of war and political ones: war in times of political destabilisation. The fact that all games are basically set in the west, I believe, is probably less of a conscious choice, but simply based on the location of the software companies whose games reach worldwide audiences.

[Herr M.] That's right, the dominance of English-speaking software developers certainly contributes to that. And yes, even if it wasn't really a global conflict, there were still enough other seats of war which could make for quite interesting scenarios. I'm still waiting for a portrayal of the last days of the house of Habsburg and the downfall of a world power, which is forgotten all too easily.

Real World War or Historical Footnote?

[Mr Creosote] One reason may also be that what is a virtue in Germany (fingers off the Nazis) falls into the other extreme in the USA: the Second World War is simply more 'spectacular', the distribution of 'good' and 'evil' is clearer and therefore, this later scenario seems to be much more popular on the other side of the Atlantic, so that not a lot of resources are left for the first war.

[Herr M.] This may be true, but another part is certainly also their much stronger involvement in the Second World War. It doesn't explain, though, why European developers also touch this conflict so seldomly. Counting all the games set in the First World War, their number is minuscule. Not just compared to the Second World War.

[Mr Creosote] Which doesn't make it a huge surprise that themes, genres and ways of presentation are not spread all that broadly.

We touched upon parallels to other media repeatedly. This is something which computer games have in common with movies and novels: the Second World War beats everything else by pure numbers. So you could almost say that as far as this particular war is concerned, computer games don't need to catch up anymore.

Will Times Change (for the Better)?

[Mr Creosote] After all those issues we've discussed, I have one final question? Do you think the status quo will change? Do you see signs of computer games growing up as far as treating war as a subject is concerned?

[Herr M.] I would answer this with a tentative 'yes'. Just recently, I played a game which treated the subject a little more seriously, even if not perfectly. Valiant Hearts, set in the First World War, deals exactly with those subjects which we talked about earlier and which are usually left out. I.e. the trench war in all its nastiness, but also regular people behind the front lines. There are a couple of scenes which really make you think and some which touch you, without going down the cheap route. And there is a large publisher behind it, so there may be a market for such games slowly developing now.

[Mr Creosote] Is that because the target audience has diversified? In the 1980s, and I believe also still in the 90s, it was clear that computer gamers were male kids or adolescents. This generation has now grown up and other groups have joined in from the side.

[Herr M.] I believe this will have to be seen later on. Certainly, computer games have found a much broader distribution and acceptance, but at the same time, they have become much less experimental compared to the pioneering days, because certain standards which are now hard to do away with have been established. War games in particular are, as you can see, very much subject to this and will always have to fight against this prejudice. The question is also how many people are really considering that war games could look differently.

[Mr Creosote] Alright, but as we identified earlier, it would already be a huge step forward if the prevalence of glorification of war would be broken at least in some exceptional cases – even if it would stay for the bulk of the games.

[Herr M.] This will certainly come sooner or later. First signs are already noticeable and with a growing, broader audience, the call for a different treatment of war in computer games will be heard.

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