The Representation of War in Videogames

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Many games use war as a backdrop but few treat the subject with much sensitivity. It’s understandable really. War provides the perfect setting for action-oriented shooters or strategy games because it offers a straightforward conflict and goal that you can build a game around: kill the enemy. Besides, nobody wants to dwell on the realities of war when they’re having fun shooting people in the head, right?

WWII-based shooters were ubiquitous for a time before making way for those that were built around more modern conflicts, often set in the Middle East, and these quasi-historical action games have always left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Call of Duty: World at War, released in 2008, was a great game. It was fast, it was exciting, it was visceral; it was everything a first-person shooter should be. It was also brutally violent. As gaming hardware has developed, becoming more powerful, graphical fidelity has increased and so too has the ability of developers to depict the horrors of war on the battlefield.

Generally speaking, I’m not troubled by violent videogames. I grew up with them and, besides, I can hardly complain about the level of violence in games here and then go back to stabbing guards in the face in Assassin’s Creed, can I? Nevertheless, there’s something about shooters based so closely on real conflicts that leaves me cold.

While they do depict the brutality of war, they tend to do so for the purpose of cheap thrills. Usually, war is used as a plot device to push the action along, little more than window dressing, and most games that feature it focus on the influence the player character exerts on the war rather than on the impact of the war on the game’s characters.

Accurately depicting the way that war devastates communities and tears apart families is difficult in any medium, but some games are attempting to do just that. Ubisoft Montpellier’s puzzle adventure game Valiant Hearts is a good example.

The game tells the story of World War I through the eyes of four people and one dog. It’s about a group of ordinary people struggling through extraordinarily bleak circumstances and how one family is torn asunder by events completely out of their control. It has a truly stunning aesthetic and, while it stays light on the gore, the hand-drawn 2D artwork does a better job than most of depicting the horrors of industrialised warfare.

This War of Mine, from 11 Bit Studios, comes out on Friday and looks set to tackle the realities of war from a different angle. The game focuses on civilians caught in the crossfire of a large-scale conflict and trying to survive as best they can. It’s another example of a game in which you play not as a gun-toting super-soldier but as a group of ordinary people fighting for survival in dire conditions.

This War of Mine looks bleak...really bleak

This War of Mine looks bleak…really bleak

It’s about the desperate choices that ordinary people have to make when forced into situations like this to survive. Will you try to protect everyone in the shelter or will you sacrifice some of them to conserve supplies? Will you steal from other survivors to endure the hardships or will your conscience get the better of you?

I hope that I haven’t been too disparaging towards high-octane shooters like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played countless historical shooters and will continue to do so but it’s great to see videogames representing war in more nuanced and interesting ways and, as the medium continues to mature, hopefully this is just the beginning.

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7 thoughts on “The Representation of War in Videogames

  1. Not gonna lie … Valiant Hearts was pretty special. Just the fact that the game itself worked itself through the whole war and even though it was stylized quite a bit it did carry the gravitas and feelings of absolute destruction that you saw in time over the war. Some of my favorite moments from that game were when you realized that both sides didn’t really want to fight each other … rather it was the leaders, statesmen, and more importantly the generals who were thirsty for war.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah. It’s not a perfect game by any means (the villain’s a bit of a caricature and some of the puzzles are a bit dull for example) but it did have a powerful narrative and atmosphere.

      I really liked the collectibles that told you stories about the history of the war and the people who lived through it too.

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    • One of my favourite games of the last few years. I was going to mention it in the article but I had to finish it up and get on with other responsibilities.

      The violence of the game has a fundamental impact on the psychological welfare of the three main characters. It’s a really fascinating game in terms of the narrative and the imagery it presents. There’s a lot there; critic Brendan Keogh wrote a whole book about it! (It’s well worth reading if you’re into that sort of thing).

      So, yeah, long story short: Spec Ops: The Line is a decent shooter with an exceptional narrative and a complex view on violence and war in videogames. I highly recommend giving it a go; especially if you have the spare time and you see it going cheap!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was watching someone play Valiant Hearts while waiting to board a plane to Edinburgh. It was in a different language, so I didn’t ask the guy what the game was…also didn’t want to disturb him. Now that I know the name I’m going to check it out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would definitely recommend it. As a game, it’s far from perfect (a lot of the puzzles are a bit clunky. for example, and the main villain is a bit too cartoony) but it has a cracking story and art style. Plus, if you are interested in WWI at all, you will probably learn a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

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