War Games: The Issue of Realism – Should Video Games Mirror History?

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By: David Geeson
Courtesy of The Gamer Studio

War is hell! Ask a veteran and they’d agree. These days, though, you don’t have to ask a veteran, you can simply watch the latest TV series. Better yet, just turn on your console and jump head first into a battleground yourself.

For such a gruesome and evil thing, war gets paid a lot of attention, and the optimist in me wants to believe that this over-saturation of a genre has more to do with some hidden meaning than with simple financial gain. But if there’s more than just money at play here, what could possibly be the reason for wanting to repeatedly portray the lowest moments in human history?

Well, I can only think of one. One which takes a little explanation.

TV series like The Pacific and Band of Brothers make for brilliant television; they pull huge numbers on a consistent basis. Yet the subject material is hardly what would be considered “entertainment.” Are we truly entertained by war? It seems there would have to be a little more going on to fetch the numbers they do.

Let’s say it’s not the war that we want to watch, but the human stories. The lives of the brave and bold who fought for their country’s freedom were told, and somewhat embellished on the screen for all to see. More importantly, for us all to remember. So that we don’t forget what war is like, so that we don’t forget what war does to a person.

Despite the occasional well timed joke, programs like The Pacific are somber affairs racked with emotion and tragedy. If the message of a war recreation is to remind us of the somber and hallowed nature of it, then why don’t video games take the same tone?

I should preface this by saying that in no way do I think video games take light of the severity of the material they’re working with. It’s just that they shoot for a different message than a TV series.

First and foremost, video games are entertainment, but unlike a TV series the entertainment also has to come from the user experience, which includes the fighting and death. When you play Modern Warfare, you’re playing a story, but it’s never a story that’s going to move you the same way Saving Private Ryan did. There’s always a story and something resembling a human aspect to get you emotionally invested, but it’s never done with the same heavy Hollywood tone. Video games are stuck with a burden of having to make the strongest of subjects into something almost nonchalant.

Despite the monumental task that game designers are faced with, there has yet to be a war game that’s considered to be in bad taste – arguments about use of ‘The Taliban aside. So clearly it’s something that’s being done, but how? Mainly through liberal use of smoke and mirrors.

The Pacific uses well timed humor to break tension, and video games are no different. By using a well timed joke, visual gag or just something straight-up unusual, the game can make you forget that what you’re doing is actually quite so serious. Modern Warfare or Battlefield may use this technique a little more often than you’d see in Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan, but the technique is the same.

My personal favorite example of this comes from towards the end of Battlefield: Bad Company 2. After witnessing an explosion which devastates everything and everyone in the immediate area, your squad is demoralized – they just don’t have it in them to carry on.

This quickly changes after an inspirational speech reminding them what they’re fighting for, a list which definitely includes the “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.” What else are you going to fight for, right? It’s light-hearted and completely distracts from the fact literally hundreds of people were just evaporated in an instant, but they focus on the cheerleader aspect… and it works.

Secondly, there’s an aspect of realism that’s missing from games. When producers and directors make a series or a film covering the subject of war, it’s almost always done with utmost respect for actual events – they shoot for realism. This grips an audience, it makes them feel in a way you can’t ignore.

But video games don’t, the plots are often slightly outlandish, the dialogue more blasé, and for the most part the characters die less. Video games follow elite troops who go into heroic situations and against all odds survive, often taking down the evil enemy leader. They aim to tell a story that we want to hear, that makes us feel good. And there is the difference. The crowning feature of a realistic war game that makes it function as a game, and not a grim reminder of the mortality of war, is it’s distance from reality.

So where does this leave us? What really is the difference between Hollywood’s depiction of war and the video games industries depiction. The answer lies in the intent. We make TV programs about war as a reminder of the horror and the atrocities that were committed in the name of freedom. But we make video games to make ourselves feel the hero, to make ourselves feel okay about a subject that, at it’s heart, is endlessly tragic.

A truly realistic war game wouldn’t sell, because who’d want to be reminded so effectively of what war really is? Call of Duty, Modern Warfare, Battlefield, these games are undeniably well made. They allow us to be close to a subject that the human race is morbidly fascinated with, yet keep a level of detachment and distance from reality that keeps us safe.

I have the utmost respect for the teams that write and make these games, they have to deal with an issue that’s usually unheard of in the games industry. The only other time the real world has really had to be considered was the recent tragedy in Japan. Game releases that featured earthquakes and the such were set back out of a sign of respect for the human life lost.

Normally though, a game like Motorstorm Apocalypse wouldn’t have to consider it’s real world implications.

War is hell, that’s an undeniable fact. A TV program about war is a mirror we hold up to help us remember, and a video game about war is our tool to cope with this morbid truth. If we can play it and enjoy it, then we can overlook the subject material of what we’re really playing.

Should war-themed video games be more realistic?

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