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What War Games can learn from Art and Literature.


This Remembrance Day I wanted to think about the way we remember war (specifically WW1 and onwards), especially in gaming. And something that I've realised is how differently games approach war when compared to Art and Literature, and how much they can learn.

Because games tend to, in my opinion, overvalue certain things, while devaluing or outright ignoring others, a mistake Art and Literature make far less often. So, to start, let's talk about what is probably the most overvalued approach to war in gaming:

Realism is not the only thing that matters.

'Plum Grove' by Peter Howson (1994), from his experience in the Bosnian War. It's rare that we see such visceral and disturbing imagery in video games, devoid of the spectacle we all enjoy as players or the over-importance of realism. (Image source: tate.org.uk)

Most war games tend to fall neatly into 1 of 2 categories: either hyper-realistic shooters, or granular strategy and management games, although there are exceptions. As they fit neatly into these 2 genres, war games tend to prioritise certain things that fit that generic template.

One thing that inspired this blog was the Not My Battlefield hashtag, in which fans of the franchise criticised the trailer for Battlefield 5 mostly on the grounds of historical realism. And, in fairness, the Battlefield games themselves have prioritised realism, so criticism on those grounds is fair game, even if in this case the backlash wasn't particularly measured or sensible in my opinion.

For what it's worth, I'm genuinely impressed by Battlefield 5's ability to create a sense of chaos and destruction. I've never been in a war, but I imagine that Battlefield 5 is at least what war looks like. Like most post-Medal of Honor WW2 FPS games, the influence of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan - which, through the use of hand-held cameras, revolutionised not only depictions of war but the cinematography of all action cinema - is felt to this day.

Though my issue with realism in war games is very much the same issue Matthew Castle seems to have with the new Battlefield 5: they want to be realistic and about the 'true horrors of war', until the reality of war is mechanically inconvenient, or worse, unfun, at which point it gets dropped like a loot box on the Normandy beaches.

But one thing that games can learn from the world of Art is that realism is not paramount. Sometimes, embracing the abstract can better elucidate the true experience of war than stark, cold realism.

Paul Nash's vision of the battlefield in 'We Are Making a New World' (1918) eschews realism for a warped, sardonic take (Image source: gerryco23.wordpress.com)

The irony being that it tends to be those who never experienced war who seem attached to realism, while those who lived it - both alive today and from the past - tend to lean far more into the abstract as a better way to truly explain what it's like to fight in a war. And I think it's true that there are some things that can't simply be learned from realism and that need more emotive, subjective and surreal approaches to really speak to us. Novels like Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, or Joseph Heller's Catch-22 use absurdity, surrealism and comedy to put the strangeness of war into the spotlight, and there's a lot that games could learn from their example. Or, games could look at the abstract to show war as destructive and threatening. Something as recent as the poem A Taste of Afghanistan by Rob Densmore breaks the nation down into it base elements on a physical  and sensory level to match how the war has also broken people down into baser beings, more threatening and pitiful than before. And isn't that something games can also do? Engage the senses to show how the strangeness of war transforms and dehumanises us?

Because realism is, at its core, an aesthetic style designed to convey meaning, much in the same way abstracting reality is. And it's no coincidence that Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism and Cubism all took off after major wars.

Beyond Good and Evil.

And perhaps the most important reality that war games fail to illustrate is that wars are rarely simple conflicts of good vs bad. I believe one reason video games have been so enamoured with WW2 is that the conflict so easily fits the good/bad narrative: the Nazis are the bad guys, everyone against them are the good guys. But in most wars the delineation between good and evil is rarely that simple as even 'the good guys' commit heinous acts. One reality that is troublingly absent from most war games is the abuses and war crimes committed by our soldiers. For example, it is a shame that Metal Gear Solid 5, an alternate history game with nano-machines, telekinetic children, mooing robots and magic parasites is better at depicting the kind of abuses that occurred at black sites like Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo Bay than games set in those exact conflicts.

In 'MGSV', Eli's feelings of distrust towards adults and kinship with his fellow child soldiers leads to disaster. His story seems inspired by both William Golding's Lord of the Flies, and Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation - the latter a great portrayal of child soldiers in Africa.

And this is very much a necessity of the modern war shooter. Enemies have to be disposable, threatening, and inhuman to justify killing scores of them on sight, at least in a narrative context. You can't humanise the villains when they exist to be bullet fodder.

The only real exception to this is Spec Ops: The Line. While white phosphorus bombs are not used by the US military today, innocents dying in drone strikes conducted by US forces in the Middle East is not a rarity and is something that should be confronted.

'Spec Ops: The Line' sees the player murder innocent civilians by mistake. Few games have been so daring in confronting the player's heroic fantasy. (Image Source: the-artifice.com)

A Shift in Perspective

If there's one other thing that can be learned from the white phosphorus scene in Spec Ops, it's that war is not simply something that affects soldiers. War affects us all.

Picasso's Guernica, which displays the bombing of the town by the Nazis. The reason? The Nazis needed practice. (Image Source: pablopicasso.org)

One disturbing historical myth among the uninformed is that war is something that simply affects men. Obviously, this isn't the case: during times of war, and especially for those occupied or living during the world wars, war envelopes every aspect of life. War takes place in people's towns, cities, even homes, and the civilians caught in the crossfire or displaced have a unique perspective that deserves to be told.

The excellent 'This War of Mine' turns the civilian experience of war into a survival strategy game, but stands out as a rare example among gaming. As close to what Wiklfred Owen called 'The pity of war, the pity war distilled' as I've ever seen.

While I think the Not My Battlefield backlash was, well, silly, I have seen the argument that by inserting women into war in roles in which they didn't occupy, DICE are devaluing the roles women actually did contribute during the war. And they're kind of right: isn't just throwing women onto the battlefield, a role they were rarely allowed to take up, a tacit admission that the real roles of women are simply not worth exploring in gameplay? And it's not that women's roles can't translate to gaming. Women were involved in spying, intelligence and code breaking during WW2, all things which could easily translate into unique and fun mechanics that could play a role in even the biggest franchises, while roles like nursing, political activism, manufacturing and refugeeism could all make for interesting ideas for lower budget titles.

Uche Okeke's 'Refugee Family' (1966) shows the misery of the Biafran War, a war that my parents personally experienced as refugees. (Image Source: smarthistory.org)

'Call of Duty's Liberation mission, one of the rare examples of a female-led mission, is among the best levels of the game, and entire franchise, due in no small part to the fresh gameplay approach.

Not only that, but one of the most sobering historical truths is the prevalence of sexual violence during war. In almost every conflict, be it modern or ancient, women and children caught in the crossfire have been subjected to systematic rape by occupying soldiers. Even gaming's favourite conflict, WW2, had numerous examples of systematic sexual violence campaigns. For an entire industry to ignore this truth is very troubling, especially when considering that, for many, gaming is their first exposure to these historical conflicts. Omitting this really does both women, and players who are led to believe they're getting a 'realistic' depiction of war by the polished aesthetics, a huge disservice. Not only that, but many great stories centred around the effects and fallout of such violence against civilians, such as The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, a book that resonated greatly with me personally.

I mean, that's pretty much my point. The industry, for the most part, considers one kind of perspective to be the only real valid perspective. That perspective is usually of the soldier who is male, often white, and even then almost always the soldiers on the right side of history, with any potential misdeeds swept under the rug so as not to challenge the cultural myth of soldiers or the fantasy of the player. And, in turn, they neglect to tell stories that would be genuinely entertaining and thought-provoking to explore.

And, even among soldiers, games tend to neglect the psychological effects of war. Veterans are more likely to be homeless, addicted to drugs, suffer from mental illness and even commit suicide, yet the long term effects of war, even on those who survive without physical wounds, are rarely, if ever, acknowledged in gaming, despite being ever present in art and literature - especially the works produced by actual soldiers who lived conflicts first-hand. Rebecca West's 1918 novel The Return of the Soldier depicts the mental illness soldiers suffer better than most video games, and that novel is 100 years old, written at a time when our understanding was far more limited than it now is. And while I think it would be a giant leap to blame the way we treat veterans on their portrayal in video games, I can't help but notice that it's the very same jingoism, which dehumanises soldiers by putting them on a pedestal, ignoring the simple fact that veterans need to be treated as vulnerable and not stoic or invincible heroes, is part of the reason why veterans tend to not get the care they need and deserve. It's also telling that, for many of the soldiers who fought in war, they were unafraid to depict themselves in unflattering ways. 'Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,/Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge' is how Wilfred Owen's Dulce Et Decorum Est begins. Soldiers themselves have strived to disassemble the cultural myths around war, so for pop culture to reinforce them ignores the lived experiences of many.

Robert C. Knight's 'Wounded' (1966) depicting a soldier wounded in the Vietnam War. (Image Source: wearethemighty.com)


Now, given what I've said about the industry and what I see as its failures when depicting war, I have to admit that not all of these ideas can simply be inserted into the next Call of Duty without fundamentally altering (and in all likelihood ruining) what that series is. And while I might find it distasteful on a personal level to have real-world conflicts reduced to virtual playgrounds, I won't criticise those who make or play these games for simply existing because it's their right and I would be lying if I didn't say I've enjoyed (and still do) playing war games that are little more than killing simulators.

'Whaam!' By Roy Lichtenstein (1963) uses pop art to depict the action of war, so there's no reason pop culture has to stick to any particular tone or form. (Image source: explorethearchive.com)

It's not that I want the major franchises to jettison everything that made them successful in favour of games that are realistic or sombre to a fault. But I do think that exploring these different perspectives can be done mechanically, if not by the Call of Duty's of the industry, then at least by mid-level or indie games. Because it's already been done in other genres.

While I've already mentioned standout war games like Spec Ops, The upcoming 11-11, and This War of Mine, the Metal Gear series, which, among other things, includes child soldiers who can't be killed, adding both empathy to Venom Snake, and a unique gameplay challenge. But it's strange to think that fantasy games like Dark Souls and Darkest Dungeon have managed to create mechanics that make loss feel permanent and important, while games built around the very real losses people suffered in historical conflicts seem to have either no interest in (or no idea of how to go about) exploring this side of conflict through their gameplay, sticking closer to the kill/die/respawn loop of multiplayer FPS. And Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice was a fantastic and realistic exploration of psychosis, which shows an example of developers treating their subject matter with respect, and making something special as a result.

The upcoming '11-11: Memories Retold' looks to learn lessons from the art world to hopefully create a novel and deep experience.

I have to ask whether creating games being the huge endeavour that it is makes games both more risk-averse, and less the vision of a sole auteur. Yes, painting, sculpture and literature have been great at exploring other aspects of war but as low-tech as they are they can be done by anyone, soldiers included, whereas the specific skills, knowledge and personnel required makes that kind of expression less likely among gaming. But it can be done, as cinema is much the same and yet has managed to do it.

And it wouldn't resonate with everyone. I know this, because I used to be that person. As a teenager, when I first saw Jarhead, I felt cheated into watching a movie where pretty much nothing happens. It was only when I got older that I realised that was the point, and that the action-heavy war I wanted was not the reality of what soldier's experienced but very much the Call of Duty-like depiction that was only ever realistic on a superficial level. Now, I know how much that movie mattered to me, because it finally got be questioning all the myths I'd swallowed until then. Gaming could be doing that, creating more genuine and thought-provoking games around this subject - the existence of fans who wouldn't value of understand such experiences shouldn't be enough to prevent them from becoming more common. Ultimately, the industry needs to be more creative and more courageous if its going to really treat history with the weight that other art forms have.

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About Saladorone of us since 6:33 PM on 08.18.2016

I swear I will one day shut up about Bioware.