War is a concept that has all but defined the existence of human civilization for the better part of history. Since the end of World War II to the present, there have only been 26 days of total peace. William James Durant once said, “War is one of the constants of history and has not diminished with civilization or democracy. In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war.” This has not gone unnoticed by the videogame community as games about war and conflict are some of the most popular around. However, developers have seemingly exhausted the ability to use wars that have been thus far disconnected from the majority of the videogame community. One of the solutions is to move onto more recent conflicts and developers have begun to do just that. This does present a problem as many of these wars have been experienced by those who now take an active role in the medium.
I am a military brat and as such I have had the chance to walk among heroes once or twice. To these men and women war is not something that they watch on television, it is something in which they have firsthand knowledge and experience (though my father in all his love for the Air Force likes to say he got to go to war on the couch, with air conditioning). I don’t speak for anyone in the military, nor would I even try to pretend that I know anything about what they have experienced during their years of service. However, I have taken the time to ask some of those I know who have served on active duty both in times of war and peace, about war games. Interestingly enough, opinions on the matter have varied more than I thought, ranging from harsh responses to near apathy. What I’ve learned is that the split lies more along the divide between generations than anything else.
Many of the younger military professionals I’ve spoken too regarding this subject have little hate for the idea of a videogame depicting war and conflict. In fact, most of them seemed to be avid fans of games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. Granted, none of those I had spoken to had ever been in what would be considered a forward area or were responsible for acting in a combat role. The older men that I spoke to fought in the Vietnam War and they both have little to no experience with videogames. One of them expressed a great disdain for the idea that a kid would enjoy reenacting a conflict that he experienced himself.
It would have been interesting to get a perspective from veterans of World War II. The massive scale, and lasting consequences of the conflict have been unequaled by any war since. Unfortunately, it has been many years since the war and veterans from that era that I have known are no longer with us. I have also been unable to find an official position put out by Veteran Affairs or some other Veterans organization on games that replicate the war.
(Veteran Affairs has yet to respond to my email. If anyone can point me in any sort of direction concerning the both official and unofficial opinions of World War II veterans on the topic of World War II games I would really appreciate it. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
To portray conflict in a way that not only accurately depicts the acts of war, but does so in a manner that takes into account the sacrifices of soldiers within some sort of moral framing is a complicated matter. Now add to this the idea that such depictions are essentially created as entertainment and to make money. It is certainly mind numbing when looked at from a social perspective. However, when done correctly it can show those who have never charged a machine gun nest or climbed out of a trench to run into enemy fire, what soldiers have had to endure.
Most, if not all of you have seen the opening of Saving Private Ryan. Survivors of that day have said it is the only film that has come close to portraying the experience and even then it was not able to capture the horror of the landing and the advance. Despite the brutality of the film it is considered to be a testament to those who fought their way through Europe. My point here is that none of the games that allow you to fight in the Normandy invasion could be considered an honor to the men who hit the beaches that day. I assume (and this is a dangerous thing to do on the internet) that no developer has ever designed their games in such a way as to try and create an atmosphere that undertakes the task of showing a player what the experience of war is really like.
Now try and apply this dynamic to a more recent conflict such as the Vietnam War or the current conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Considering that the latter wars are still in progress, the ability for a game developer to accurately gauge the morality of such a conflict is limited at best. To make a game that takes these factors into account while trying to create something that is both entertaining and capable of mass appeal among the gaming community is near impossible.
This also brings up the whole “are games art discussion” once again. Does film make the portrayal of war a more viable outlet considering it reaches a far wider audience and has a more established reputation as an acceptable art form than games? Could a game that places a person in the role of a soldier participating in the D-Day invasion ever compare to a depiction such as Band of Brothers? To be honest I am by no means qualified, nor do I have the eye required to declare what is and is not art, so I shall do my best not to enter that particular argument, but it’s just food for thought. If anyone is interested in this discussion, Omar Yusuf, over at Bitmob, has written a great article on the topic called, Catching Up to Saving Private Ryan. It’s definitely worth a read.
Public opinion and response on the matter will likely be just that, public. The military, as with any other service run by the government, is a bureaucracy. I’ve spent enough time around the armed forces to figure that much out. So it should come as no surprise, that as with most bureaucracies, the military doesn’t get excited about much. In only the most extreme situations could I ever see any branch of the service outwardly denouncing the portrayal of war in videogames. It is not an issue they would likely consider a good use of their time, attention, or budget. Instead, it would seem that active military, at least those in charge of public relations and the like, have taken an interest in the role of interactive games as it relates to military training and recruiting.
It is tough to speculate accurately about the response of the community at large. If I was successful in the trade I would be a far wealthier man, but occasionally shit hits the fan. It has from time to time in popular media as well. The few of you old enough to remember the whole “Cop Killer” fiasco should understand well what I’m talking about and know what the result that public outcry can have on a product of media.
I honestly don’t expect the ethical implications of making a game that catalogs current conflict the world over to be taken so seriously that many groups would threaten any kind of large scale protest. This sort of response is usually taken up by the few, and only receives national attention when a politician decides to wage a decency war or a troubled man does something desperate. There was little community outrage over Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, and that game arguable hit close to home as well, despite not being a major console release. Rather than being concerned about games, people tend to get upset about the wars themselves for obvious reasons. (Please keep in mind I am talking about the United States. I could not in good conscience try to explain how a the public of any other nation would react to such an issue. I have not the knowledge nor the bravado.)
It is going to be interesting to see how both the public and members of the armed forces react to such games. Whether it becomes a public relations disaster trained squarely on those who create the games or even if no one ends up caring that much about it at all.
As I wrote this article I found far more avenues to follow than I thought I would. Much of what I originally wrote and began to write had to be removed due to the sheer length. I really would like to continue with many of these ideas, but I would also like to hear from others concerning the issue. While I understand that it is considered a heated debate and many have strong feelings about it, I also believe that it is one of the few topics in the video game community worth discussing. So please let us know what you think.