Where are all the War Games?

I’ve been playing Battlefield 1943 a lot lately. It’s the first shooter I’ve played in a long time. I am usually a single player game kind of guy and usually shun multiplayer modes, unless the person is sitting right next to me. But I tried out the demo and I was hooked in the free half hour it gave me and immediately bought the unlocked game. Playing it lead me to a realization.

The game is great, I have to say it is the most intricate and detailed game of checkers I’ve ever played.

What I mean by that, if you read the title of the post, is that it is not a war game in feel or purpose, but really is a complex game of checkers where three interchangeable classes, literally if you find a fallen backpack, fight over five strategic points on a map. Dying is only a momentary annoyance, but it would be worse if it were anything else in a multiplayer game. I like the game don’t get me wrong, but that is all it is, a game.

Battlefield 1943

Regardless of a few fleeting moments it ends up being a games of checkers and wack-a-mole. In fact I think I can extend that to any game purporting to be about war. As noted over at Experience Points, and HitSelfDestruct there is an absence in civilians that would engender certain consideration on a real battlefield. Beyond that I find that a majority of games with a war backdrop put you in the position of an Ubermench, a super soldier that would put Captain America to shame. You take over entire enemy bases, kill entire divisions and disrupt the manufacture of war machines that could turn the tide of battles.

For power fantasies like those that try to emulate 80s action films that’s fine and expected, but most of these games have their influence in real life conflicts (eg. World War II games) or base their fictional conflict on the machinations of real conflicts (eg. Killzone 2 being World War II in Space).

Medal of Honor: Frontline, a classic in the World War II shooter sub genre, hold to a realistic depiction of the war with the first few levels with the storming of the Normandy beaches and assault on the bunkers, but once that is over the game sends you on a number of solo missions to disrupt major military instillation behind enemy lines.

Medal of Honor Frontline

I wonder if it is possible to have a reasonable war game that puts you in the shoes of a real soldier. With the constraints that the player has to be able to succeed and for something to be happening on screen at all times that the player can have an effect on, it seems unlikely.

In narrative games, the player has to win. Any losses are experienced through cutscenes after the player has achieved victory in the game itself. The reason there is no game where you play a Nazi is less to do with the moral ambiguity of the premise and more to do with the fact that they LOST THE WAR. A player doesn’t play to lose, so they cannot play the losing side of a conflict unless you are going to allow them to play with the facts of history like some RTSs do or have that loss portrayed in an end of game cutscene to show despite all their efforts they still lost.

Platoon

Also, the concept that the player has to have an effect on the game world is not an unreasonable one; it is the basis of the entire medium. In a firefight, for example, it is very reasonable to have the player shooting enemies, have an effect on the outcome of the firefight. But in a war game that tries to be about the conflict itself, it seems to translate that the individual player, a normal soldier, having an effect on the outcome of the war. I can understand how that might work in a strategy game where you are taking the role of a Commander or General, but it is far fetched to think that an individual private’s efforts will determine the outcome of the sociopolitical sphere of the western world.

Then there is the fact that in a medium about interaction. War, at first glance, seems like a great place to set the game, until you realize what war actually is. War is long bouts of boredom interrupted by a few moments of sheer terror.  Are you going to have long bouts of boredom in a video game? No. The game has to cherry pick the moments of action a soldier would feel and we understand that as the nature of the medium. Therefore it is about how those moments are portrayed. Unfortunately, with regularity, war video games are an extension of the power fantasy video games. They put military actions up on a pedestal and glorify war. The glory to be had isn’t even in the vein of the Homeric epic where it is in death and being immortalized that glory is gained, but in the vein of Hollywood bad asses where it is earned from victory and being able to laugh in the distance at their fallen foes.

To put it simplistically, war video games are more The Green Berets, than All Quiet on the Western Front or Platoon or Apocalypse Now. Hell I’d even take the Saving Private Ryan version of a war video game. I would like to see something that recognizes or acknowledges the horrors and realizations of war rather than glorifying it.

I put it to designers like this: a soldier has few tools and uses them as trained when deployed, it is up to intelligent men to deploy the soldier intelligently. Or to put it in terms of video games, the player has few tools and will use them and it is up to the designers to set the situation and tone of the game. The message can be delivered and like everything else in video games it is going to be from the presentation.

So, yes I will continue to play my game of virtual World War II checkers, but I don’t want to be one of the few people left that realize war is hell before going into battle. There is more anti-war media in every other medium for a reason. War is not pleasant, war is not fun and I worry that if video games don’t find a way to deal with it beyond mechanical interface that we will be left behind.

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