WAR AND ITS REPRESENTATION IN VIDEO GAMES
Street fighting and gang warfare; historic, modern or space warfare: it has to be admitted that video games can appear to be obsessed with fighting.
But the statistical reality would beg to differ: the number of players enjoying their game-playing pastime in a completely peaceful form on Facebook or mobile phone games is in fact much greater than the number of war gamers. But it is true that video games have long been closely and diversely associated with the theme of war.
Even without considering games going as far back as chess and its Asian predecessors, it is worth reminding ourselves that the emergence of war games was not dependent on the computing era, but rather they have existed for some time: Kriegspiel (literally “war game” in German) is a board game from the beginning of the 19th century that was used as a simulation and educational tool for the Prussian and Germany armies. Modern war games—the strategy games in the form of high-precision battle simulations we are now used to—are direct descendants of this earlier game.
While one of the very first video games ("Spacewar!", 1961) stages a shoot-em-up battle between two space ships, it was in the form of strategy games that war as such really began to be introduced into video games. Computing capability was making the wargame a more practicable genre: with complex calculations no longer needing to be made by the player, with space and time savings and, above all, the ability to play on one’s own.
Gradually, as computers and games consoles advanced technologically, video games were able to produce increasingly complex imagery and they were eager to follow in the footsteps of their older cousin, cinema. As they became ever more graphically capable, video games endeavoured to re-create war as experienced by troops on the ground, and not simply as they were observed from the armchair of the army general. Thus, the First Person Shooter (FPS) was born, in which the player, armed to the teeth, is plunged into the thick of the battle.
It is interesting to note that such games partly owe the huge success they now enjoy to the great director Steven Spielberg. In 1997, having seen his son playing the video game “Golden Eye 007”—hence a First Person Shooter—while Spielberg himself was in the middle of post production on the film “Saving Private Ryan”, he had the idea to adapt his film to the video game genre. This game would be “Medal of Honor”, released for the PlayStation console in 1999, and it would go on to be a huge success. At least until some of its creators decided to pack up and move to a rival publisher to create “Call of Duty”, a landmark series of modern war games, with each episode running to tens of millions of copies.
"Call of Duty", "Medal of Honor", "Battlefield"… When these games portray a scene of events from the Second World War, the cinematographic influence is so glaring that one has to ask if they are really attempting to evoke warfare or simply mimic a war film. But the way in which war is exposed or dealt with by the two media is quite different.
Whereas a war film is often an opportunity to question the status of heroes, portray moral dilemmas or ask what humanity is left of a person when their entire universe turns inhumane, video games appear shy, over-simplistic or even primitive in their narrative.
Could it be that video games, in their representation of war, are slaves to interactivity, to the detriment of their narrative? And is the player, hypnotised by the action, impervious to emotions? The issue is not that straightforward, since video games have their own narrative structures, which vary from genre to genre and are not amenable to the same devices used in film narrative.
The player, unlike the cinema-goer, is active: they are themselves an author of the narrative. Games are also a clash of intellects or instincts; to some extent, they are their own war. And what of the ultra-realistic simulators used for training troops: are they weapons or games?
It becomes evident that in the particular narrative of video games, boundaries are blurred, both between narrator and viewer and between subject and object. Hence the question we are asking here: how do video game creators tackle these issues in their portrayal of warfare?