Playing War

A look at how we portray war in video games and what we can do better

This article contains spoilers for the games discussed

In March of 1990, The Things They Carried entered bookstores and, not long after, the American consciousness. It was a book borne out of its author’s frustration, a frustration with the homefront’s perception of the war and it’s misconceptions about the experience of the men who fought it. Though littered with poignant paragraphs and quotable phrases, as I read the book again recently, one stood out:

“A true war story is never moral.” — Tim O’Brien

This simple quote presents a challenge to the “moral America” military narrative popular at the time of the book’s publication and still persistent in much of our media today. It is a quote that acknowledges the ambiguity of war and posits that truth can only be achieved with the acknowledgement of the complexity and nuance inherent in warfare.

O’Brien’s frustration is neither new nor misplaced, there has always been a disconnect, a sort of moral sanitization applied by the homefront to what happens “over there”. This tendency not only affects how we conceptualize and talk about war, but also how we depict it in media. Which brings me to games.

Much like O’Brien’s book, my analysis is focused on the individual experience of war as opposed to the macro-level, “commander” view. I’m curious as to how games represent war as well as ways in which that representation can be improved. I’ve picked a few games to analyze that I think represent either major milestones in the genre or interesting case studies in mechanics/systems in the hope of illustrating where this genre has come from and what are some mechanics it can adopt going forward. Now, onto the games…

Wolfenstein 3D

Two years after the release of O’Brien’s book we got, what would help shape the first-person shooter for decades to come, Wolfenstein 3D.

I start my examination with Wolfenstein 3D because:

  1. It was one of the first games to use a first-person perspective.
  2. The fictionalized events it depicts occur during a real conflict and draw heavily from that conflict.
  3. It serves as one of the foundational titles in the first-person shooter genre.

Wolfenstein 3D has you assume the role of an American spy, fighting to escape Castle Wolfenstein while being assaulted by waves of Nazi soldiers. This game is not “realistic” by the standard of today’s modern military shooters but, Mecha-Hitler aside, this game does fit the general formula (or perhaps, more accurately, defined it). As you play you are assaulted by wave upon wave of stock enemy in one of video games’ favorite settings, World War II.

I don’t find shooting waves of nameless, faceless Nazis a problem — they are one of the the great stains on humanity’s hands, one which we may never be able to wash out. It is because of this classification and because of the historical distance from the period the game depicts that I have no fear a player will put down the controller and think that present day Germans are Nazis. Even though they may have just spent the last hour blasting their way through Germany and, what was at one time, it’s military, the context in which that action is couched prevents such associations.

This is why, I would argue, that the Second World War is such a popular setting for both games and other media: it is easy. It provides sufficient historical distance, and an enemy that embodies one of the purest expressions of human evil, and so it is easy to create a justification for violent action. Wolfenstein 3D helped to solidify this model of game that we still see today, one filled with unambiguous morality and binary mechanics but, in its case, couched in a context that aligns with those systems.

Call of Duty

Of course, it is hard to talk about war in video games without talking about the Call of Duty franchise. It’s games, much like Wolfenstein 3D, have defined what it means to be a first-person shooter.

In its first few iterations, Call of Duty stuck to the tried and true setting of the Second World War, playing, at least thematically, along the lines of Wolfenstein 3D.

Then the series leapt forward to the modern in what was most likely an attempt to shake up its formula as well as claim a certain cultural relevance to America’s wars at the time: Iraq and Afghanistan. And though they shook up the formula they failed to do so in a way that reflected the new subject material with which they were dealing.

In the fifth iteration of the series, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, we are initially placed in a nameless, shapeless Middle Eastern country. As the game begins we are treated to a cut scene of a handful of civilians being beaten and killed. After this point they are never seen again, even as we fight through cities, neighborhoods, and homes. Theses civilians are not people so much as they are abstract justifications for the use of violence throughout the rest of the game. The only people we truly interact with throughout the game have guns, and they’re pointed at us.

This is a familiar formula, but now it has become troubling. We are placed in a region, little understood by the game’s audience, in which the United States and its allies are still engaged, and are incentivized, no, forced to kill everything that moves. There is no ambiguity in this fiction, everyone here is hostile and we will win through the unquestioned application of force. This differs from previous titles in the series, or even Wolfenstein 3D, because they depicted conflicts with resolutions and who’s historical accounts of the use of force is more or less solidified — Modern Warfare benefits from no such qualities. It presents a stark black-and-white moral framework in a context where that does not and has never existed, in a location that has been serially associated with the sort of “everyone there hates America” narrative that the game’s waves of stock enemies suggest. Though Modern Warfare takes after the model of Wolfenstein 3D, the mechanics and systems lose relevancy when transplanted to a different context, even so far as to become harmful and misleading.

Medal of Honor

Now, it could be argued that the lack of moral ambiguity in war-centric video games is not an issue, something that has no real effect on people. I would disagree, and as a case study I would present the 2010 reboot of Medal of Honor. Throughout most of the game it seems to fill the mold of your typical post-9/11 military shooter: Middle Eastern setting, hills crawling with baddies, a small group of American soldiers trying to turn the situation around with bullets and grenades. Yet, for all of that, there is one intriguing choice that sets it apart: you can play as the Taliban.

At its release, this feature sent shockwaves both through the gaming and non-gaming communities, condemnation raining down from all sides. I would posit that the ferocity of this reaction stemmed not from the ability to play as the Taliban itself, but from the way that feature challenged the black-and-white moral narrative that we have become so comfortable with, both in games and in our real life conceptions of conflict in the Middle East. It suggests that there may be another side to the story, that the people you’ve been told to shoot are not just bots, but represent people with hopes, desires, and emotions; it humanizes the enemy.

I am not saying that what the Taliban does and seeks to achieve is “right” in any sense, but their inclusion in the game allows us to see their actions to be motivated by something more than the fact that they’re just “evil”. By being given the choice to associate ourselves with an enemy fighter and then seeing the violent reaction to that choice and displays of concern as to how that choice may affect players, I think it becomes quite clear that video games have a real effect and the mechanics and systems we implement must be chosen with care.

Spec Ops: The Line

At first blush Spec Ops: The Line seems to fall neatly into the semi-problematic formula of modern military shooters I’ve discussed thus far. You progress through nondescript desert landscapes, shooting everything in sight and rewarded for doing with almost farsical depictions of bloodshed. But soon the game begins to break from script, your character becomes increasingly deranged, the loading screens become increasingly self aware of the violence you are enacting without question, and, in a chilling set piece, you unwittingly cause the deaths of dozens of civilians.

[The video is quite graphic, please watch at your own discretion]

Like Modern Warfare, civilians (or at least abstract concepts of them) are used at the onset to justify your unquestioning application of force, but, unlike Modern Warfare, that unquestioning use of force is shown to be what it truly is: dangerous, irresponsible, and unrealistic. You are subjected to a sudden and horrific moment of introspection, a moment to take stock of the action you just willfully committed and question why you did so in the first place. Spec Ops: The Line takes an almost subversive approach to its gameplay, funneling the player down a path they know all too well only to pull out the rug from under them when it forces the player to truly consider the consquences of thier unquestioning use of violence.

This War of Mine

As I transition away from games that focus on the soldier’s perspective I think there is an observation worth making: In many games, when we play as a soldier we are given one tool through which to interact with the world, a gun. This leads to a world constructed around that tool and the binary choice, shoot or don’t shoot, that it presents. But, of course, this is a false choice, one that neglects nuance in favor of lazy simplicity. We can do better than this, and one prime example is This War of Mine.

This third-person survival game, based heavily off the civilian experience during the Siege of Sarajevo, demonstrates the way war can turn the simplest of choices into meaningful decisions. To keep your tattered band of survivors alive you must take risks; choose whom to help and whom to leave behind; steal from the needy and fight the powerful. These are choices, not calculations; there is no right answer when faced with a plea to help find a missing mother or tasked with doling out too little food between too many mouths. Playing as a civilian, we are freed from the formula established by previous war games, freed from the tyranny of the gun, and given what more closely approximates an “authentic” experience of war.

This is not to say violence is absent from This War of Mine, it is an unavoidable reality of war, but violence transitions from an action required for success in the game (and thus incentivized as such) to an action for which you take full responsibility; it becomes less about “what does the game want me to do?” and more about “what do I want to do?”.

Violence is still an option, but often not mechanically incentivized

Unlike the incentive systems in the other games discussed, the rules applied to action in This War of Mine are murky at best, they force the onus of decision onto the player and, in doing so, the game sheds the clearly defined directives of its predecessors in favor of nuance and moral ambiguity.

1979 Revolution: Black Friday

Similarly to This War of Mine, the game 1979 Revolution: Black Friday elects to tell the story of war through the eyes of the ordinary man swept up in the events of the times. It opts for a vantage point that illustrates there is more to the great drama of war than physical conflict. Throughout, the themes of allegiance and loyalty, whether to family or country, arise to challenge the player to choose the path they believe is right, but there is rarely a “right” choice to choose.

In addition, the game makes good use of branching dialogue and decision trees to obscure the in-game rules that govern the outcome of the player’s actions, allowing them to focus on the actual situations they are presented with. 1979 Revolution: Black Friday is yet another that demonstrates the diversity of war narratives that we can tell and ways to do so that make a real attempt to capture war’s true nature.

So what is the state of war’s depiction in modern video games and what does that tell us about how the industry can improve going forward?

Throughout this article I have referenced the ambiguity, or lack thereof, that games present us when we are faced with an in-game moral choice. I think it is clear that game mechanics and systems that present binary, black-and-white, choices do a disservice to the experience of war they attempt to depict because, as O’Brien says, the story of war is never that simple. War is messy and such a reductive narrative often does it injustice and, in some cases, even promotes harmful stereotypes.

This, of course, does not have to be the case. In the last few games I analyzed it is apparent that there are successful techniques that can be employed to obfuscate incentive systems and drive player decision making away from pure mechanical efficiency and towards a deeper interrogation of one’s actions. Whether it is obscuring the link of cause and effect, making the disastrous effects of certain actions painfully obvious, or merely providing no truly “good” options designers have a wide range of techniques with which to better capture the essence of conflict and the experience of those who fight it.

This is not to say that there cannot be any easily understandable “good” and “bad” choices, those stark moral choices exist and should be included in the experiences we create. The larger narrative, however, should not fail to present war’s grayer side in favor of quick and easy reductive moral narratives painted with broad strokes. Video games have come a long way and over the years have tackled increasingly larger and more serious issues, I think a more authentic treatment of war is a necessary step on this journey.

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