‘Call of Duty’ is heading back to World War II, but we need psychologically multidimensional combat video games.
With modern computing technology, video games can come close to photorealism. For many genres, this is an advantage. In sports, adventure and action games, more realistic graphics are enticing and increasingly immersive. Shooters, the most lucrative genre — particularly first-person shooters — have also benefited from the uptick of graphical power. While more lively graphics immerse gamers in the scene, for some they raise questions about the ethical nature of shooters when simulating historic wars. As games become more aesthetically realistic, shouldn’t the horrors of war be depicted accurately thematically, along with offering additional, more diverse layers?
Call of Duty: WW2 will take the series back to World War II for the first time in a decade and the eighth time in the series. Games centered on World War II launched the series that has become the most popular first-person shooter franchise. For many reasons, World War II has been the most visited war in combat video games, followed by Vietnam, World War I and, more recently, the wars in the Middle East. All the while, though, the vast majority of these simulations follow a predictable formula — centered on America and its allies valiantly eliminating threats across the globe.
Confronting evil regimes is morally sound, obviously, but there’s a lack of nuance in the average blockbuster shooter, a deficit that turns you, the soldier, into a killing machine without pause to consider the weight of your actions. I’m not suggesting players should walk a simulated mile in the shoes of the soldiers fighting for the opposite side, but pointing out how uncomplicated these games are in dealing with one of the most controversial and ethically murky situations in all of human history — the call of duty, war.
It could be argued that video games shouldn’t even visit historic wars. Literature and film have carried the tradition of fictionalizing catastrophic wars for profit, enjoyment and, hopefully, reflection. But video games are a different beast entirely. They are interactive. They let you load the gun and pull the trigger. This level of closeness and engagement cannot be understated. You’re not simply ingesting the fiction; you’re actively participating in it, driving it forward with each round of ammunition.
Putting players in the role of the valiant soldier, who’s tasked with mowing down countless enemy fighters who may as well be nameless, simulated war games are a double-edged sword.
On one hand, video game developers want to offer consumers an exciting experience. To deliver that, they put players in the thick of the action and ramp up the high-octane killing as the game progresses.
But on the other hand, the game loop reveals a central, underlying problem with depicting historic wars. You play alongside computer AI, but your character alone ends up disposing of a countless, improbable number of lives. And if you fail and are greeted with the Game Over screen, well, you can just rewind time, restore your life and take out the same enemies and more during the next go-round. There is no fear of failing. There are no consequences to your mistakes. And most notably, the true horrors of war become an afterthought in a medium that could potentially delve into the honest chaos of war.
How could that be accomplished while still delivering a game that entertains? These games, which are an art form, could inform as well as entertain and the result could be a more rewarding, thoughtful experience. Isn’t that the goal of art?
For starters, developers could up the actual stakes of the game. Make brothers and sisters in arms more important to the player’s success. If the player must take on the role of an infantryman, ensure that they also have to deal with the ramifications of making a mistake. If you don’t cover your fellow soldiers, for example, then your self-serving actions result in the deaths of those you swore to protect. And by death, I mean a permanent death in the game, as a lasting reminder of your actions.
In some respects, the 2014 first-person shooter Wolfenstein: The New Order successfully upped the stakes by making the death of a supporting character a moral choice for our protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz. Early on, the player makes a decision to save one of two characters, and the choice ripples throughout the rest of the game. By doing this, The New Order satisfies the requirement of making the player feel as if their actions have meaningful consequences. Though the game takes place in a revisionist history in which the Nazis won World War II, the developers at MachineGames implemented situations steeped in history to deliver a sterling narrative that makes players feel the gravity of war. Yes, you still play as a rugged gunslinger who eviscerates all enemies in his path, but through methodical storytelling, his inherent invincibility feels at least somewhat breakable.
Since we’re talking about video games, if you, the lead character, die on the battlefield, of course you should still be able to keep playing the game. But what if there were a limit to how much damage our character could take and how many times we could re-up after reaching that threshold before we had to start from the very beginning? Perhaps we’d be more conscientious.
Beyond simply adjusting the terms of playing as the gunslinging hero, war shooters could greatly benefit from delineating, at least partially, from their core identities. While inserting noncombat portions into the guns-blazing action could turn away some longtime fans, doing just that could make for a more well-rounded depiction of war.
Along with playing as a soldier, let the player take control of the medic, to experience the devastation of war firsthand. Let players look through the eyes of those wounded soldiers as they struggle for breath. Let them hear them lament that they’ll never see their families again. While in that moment, flash back to their deployment, when they kissed their wives or girlfriends good-bye and held their children for the last time.
The 2016 World War I first-person shooter Battlefield 1 does an admirable job of showing a wide range of perspectives throughout its campaign. In the game’s six interlinked stories, players switch from nationality to nationality, experiencing how each allied country played a role in the first World War.
In the prologue, players assume the role of several members of the U.S. 369th Infantry Regiment, commonly known as the Harlem Hellfighters, as they slog through France. The second portion of the game concerns a British tank driver, while the third is set in both France and the UK through the eyes of a Royal Flying Corps fighter pilot. Players also get to step into the shoes of a soldier from the Italian Arditi regiment on a desperate search for his brother across the Italian Alps. A unique perspective is shown in the penultimate chapter as players take on the role of an ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) runner, whose job it is to deliver important messages in the thick of battle. Lastly, you see battle through the perspective of a Bedouin warrior in Mesopotamia (Iraq).
Battlefield 1 covers a lot of ground when it comes to showing a more global perspective in war, but there’s still more that can be done to showcase the complexity of war. If we turn the tables and show the very same devastation from the perspective of the “bad guys,” we’ll enter uncharted, morally complex, but vital territory. After a player-controlled infantryman fatally wounds an opposing soldier, take us to his perspective. Show us the humanity and fear rippling in him, and then transport us to his family, his wife and children. Regardless of which side a soldier fights on, there are always innocent children at home, kids who will grow up without a mother or a father or both.
Let players take on the role of a commanding officer who inadvertently sends his troops into an ambush to help us better understand the on-the-spot decisions that result in life or death in wartime situations.
By pausing the action and visiting the moments of war too often overlooked in these games, maybe we’d gain a better understanding of the emotional toll of war on those forced to participate in it.
It may be too much to expect game companies to explore the immense psychological trauma of war, but I don’t think it’s out of reach to create multidimensional depictions of historic wars. Instead of glamorizing war, show it as it truly is — the complications and all.
The 2012 third-person shooter Spec Ops: The Line is perhaps the best example in terms of chronicling the psychological effects of war. Occurring during the war in Afghanistan, the game concerns the 33rd unit of the United States Army who volunteered for relief efforts after a debilitating series of sandstorms sweep through Dubai. Colonel John Konrad, inflicted with PTSD, is thought to have made critical errors that ended in the death and destruction of both his team and many civilians. Players follow a three-man Delta team, comprised of captain Martin Walker, First Lieutenant Alphanso Adams and Staff Sergeant John Lugo, in search of truths behind the events that led to failures of the 33rd unit.
The whole game takes place as a flashback meant to toy with players’ expectations. Everything is not as it seems as Walker suffers from dissociative disorder. The game has four possible endings, each of which can be linked to emotional trauma caused by the stress of war. In terms of wartime narratives, Spec Ops: The Line has the most psychological depth. Although it does not replicate exact historical events, it does a solid job of dealing with PTSD and the psychological impairments that can arise during the high-stress events of war.
Video games look more realistic than ever before. We’ve come to expect that in games like Call of Duty: WWII. Let’s start expecting more than just visual realism. Games like Wolfenstein: The New Order, Spec Ops: The Line and Battlefield 1 have shown that games have the capacity for depicting some of the realistic trauma of war, but I hope studios expand on this element with future endeavors. If war games are inevitable, they should also be effective in translating the totality of the wartime experience.
What do you think? Should developers work toward more psychological realism in combat video games?