The Real War Will Never Get in the Games

Note: I wrote this one year ago on my old blog. I didn’t know it was Armistice Day until after I published it. Not many people read it, but it still seems like a fitting subject for the day. So here is what I wrote when Call of Duty: World at War was released.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps far earlier than I was willing to admit to myself, the World War II shooter genre started become reprehensible.

I had my moment of clarity yesterday morning when I watched the video of the first five minutes of Call of Duty: World at War, with it’s slick opening cinematic (leaning heavily on the style of the “War Corporatism” antiwar video) and grotesquely cliched in-game cutscene. About the only thing that I can say in its favor is that it at least takes note of the fact that the US embargo against Japan was, from the Japanese point of view, casus belli. Beyond that, I think we may have reached the genre’s nadir.

The game appears to open with a scene from every crappy action movie you’ve ever seen. The villain is torturing and interrogating one of the good guys, in this case a captured US Marine, and the good guy shows his defiance by spitting in his face. This is the thing to do when otherwise powerless, apparently. The villain reacts calmly, takes a drag on his cigarette, then extinguishes it in the Marine’s eyeball. The villain orders another Japanese soldier to execute him using, naturally enough, a sword.

Then Kiefer Sutherland shows up, carrying a Ka-Bar knife and all the baggage of being Jack Bauer in one of the most over-wrought shows in television history. Whoever directed his voice acting decided that Jack Bauer is exactly what this game needed, and there seems to be no trace of the fine character actor fromA Few Good Men and Dark City. All that’s missing from this 24 moment is the Ford Expedition that Jack and the Marines presumably drove to this island.

Now that the player is free, the Marines launch into a standard Call of Duty action sequence, promising to “make ‘em pay for what they’ve done”. The Marines also say “fuck” and variations of the same, coyly demonstrating that the game is hip to what it’s like “in the shit”.

I don’t mean to unfairly single this game out. It’s probably a very good war-themed shooter with glittering production values and sobering bromides about warfare that pop up every time the player is killed, just to show that the game is sensitive to the fact that war is not a game. The Call of Duty series has always been very good at slipping little antiwar messages into its militaristic fortune cookies. The fourth time you die crossing a field, Douglas MacArthur will remind you that it’s fatal to enter a war without the will to win it. The fifth time you die, Barbara Kingsolver is on hand to talk about the inhumanity of man.

This has been bothering me lately, and I’m hard pressed to completely explain why. There were always things about the series that never sat quite right. The quotes are one example, but there was also the annoying way the games were so barefacedly ripping-off Band of Brothers, Enemy at the Gates, and a slew of other World War II films. The games were never about the war, but were instead about movies that were about the war.

Except that the games always had such a stench of horseshit coming off them, far outstripping Hollywood in terms of jingoistic revisionism. The movies at least acknowledged some of the human cost of the war. Not just in terms of the awful damage it inflicted on so many human bodies but also the minds and hearts of those caught up in the maelstrom.

The Call of Duty series, always so careful to keep its ESRB rating, redacted any of the physical cost of war. More insidiously, they whitewashed the monumental cruelty, stupidity, and misery of the war. The troops rather cheerfully went through each mission with their grizzled sergeant character, playfully bitching about their orders, and then celebrated after their victories. War, as the early Call of Duty series liked to portray it, was kind of like a big football practice. And it was all for a good cause.

Where were the fuckups? Erased from gaming’s recounting of the war are all the stupid and pointless wastes of lives that made such a contribution to the war’s final, staggering death toll. Hurtgen Forest, where several divisions of US infantrymen were devoured in a long, bloody, and ultimately meaningless battle for a piece of land with no military value. The wholesale slaughter that occurred along the Siegfried Line after Market Garden failed, and the Allied offensive lurched back to life only to find that the Germans had used their brief reprieve to fortify the border. Anzio? The daylight bombing campaign? Dieppe?

Naturally, games aren’t unique in this regard. Starting with the 50th anniversaries of the war, World War II became a big business and our culture began a very dangerous love affair with one of the greatest catastrophes to ever befall mankind. In retrospect, what a strange spectacle it was to see a nation ostensibly honoring its “Greatest Generation” with a series of increasingly lackluster movies, TV specials, sentimental bestsellers, and finally videogames. And how thoroughly that primed us for the misguided adventurism and empty promises that marked the past several years. The Bush administration may have misled the country into a war, but would the country have been so easily manipulated if it had not spent the previous decade reliving a time when we slew dragons?

What I am sick of is the disingenuousness we see in our military shooters. Hell’s Highway was marketed, on the one hand, as the most historically accurate and respectful World War II FPS ever made. The series had the pedigree to support that claim. On the other hand, the game included a feature that was basically a “fatality” cam, letting gamers revel in the carnage they inflicted. So what we had was a bit of two-faced marketing, where one developer video would talk soberly and respectfully about how serious this game was, and the next was all about “sweet kill” and “check out the gibs”.

I don’t think gamers are burned out on World War II games, but I know that I’m burned out on this particular kind of World War II game. I’m tired of playing games that present a vision of historical reality that I know to be false.

Go read Paul Fussell’s books to understand what I’m talking about. Actually, you only need to read the final chapter of Wartime, “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books”. There is a guy who saw the war firsthand, nearly died over in Germany, and who fifty years later was still filled with a palpable sense of rage over the pity of the entire damned thing. He writes about the stupidity of Allied command, the shoddy equipment that most definitely cost lives on the battlefield, the lies that were told to the “home front”, and most of all the Disney-fication of the war.

Read some Kurt Vonnegut, particularly an essay from Armageddon in Retrospect called, “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets”, in which he talks about Dresden. After annihilating the city, the Allies send bombers over a few days later to drop leaflets explaining why there was a sound tactical reason why the city had to die. Vonnegut explains:

The leaflet should have said: “We hit every blessed church, hospital, school, museum, theatre, your university, the zoo, and every apartment building in town, but we honestly weren’t trying hard to do it. C’est la guerre. So sorry. Besides, saturation bombing is all the rage these days, you know.”

There was tactical significance: stop the railroads. An excellent manoeuvre, no doubt, but the technique was horrible. The planes started kicking high explosives and incendiaries through their bomb-bays at the city limits, and for all the pattern their hits presented, they must have been briefed by a Ouija board.

Tabulate the loss against the gain. Over 100,000 noncombatants and a magnificent city destroyed by bombs dropped wide of the stated objectives: the railroads were knocked out for roughly two days. The Germans counted it the greatest loss of life suffered in any single raid. The death of Dresden was a bitter tragedy, needlessly and wilfully executed. The killing of children – “Jerry” children or “Jap” children, or whatever enemies the future may hold for us – can never be justified.

The facile reply to great groans such as mine is the most hateful of all clichés, “fortunes of war”, and another: “They asked for it. All they understand is force.”

Who asked for it? The only thing who understands is force? Believe me, it is not easy to rationalise the stamping out of vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored when gathering up babies in bushel baskets or helping a man dig where he thinks his wife may be buried.

It’s useless to ask that war not be exploited for entertainment purposes and I’ll cop to enjoying good wargames, movies, and books. I don’t mean to be sanctimonious. But I simply cannot handle any more sentimentalizing when it comes to war, especially World War II. It was a nightmare and one from which the world has not fully recovered, and it is crass to see games wilfully over-simplifying and idealizing an event that killed scores of millions of people.

    • EVRaptor
    • November 11th, 2009 12:15am

    I recently came across your blog after reading some of your excellent articles on The Escapist, and have immensely enjoyed your insights on the gaming industry. This entry is no exception. Your unease with the often whitewashed, simplistic, and jingoistic portrayals of war in video games mirrors my own in a way. Ironically, the turning point for me was at the height of my interest in World War II shooters. Prior to college I rarely played shooters, especially war related ones. My roommate, however, introduced me to Metal of Honor and Call of Duty I. We spent many a night up fragging each other on multiplayer maps or watching each other play single player missions. I would be lying if I said we didn’t have a blast playing those games with our friends.

    When Battlefield Vietnam was announced later that year, however, my immediate reaction was anger. I thought, “how could a company even think of making a game over such a terrible conflict? Do they not realize the terrible suffering endured by the soldiers and civilians? The waste of life? The horrendous psychological toll inflicted on veterans of both sides? The social upheaval and culture wars that haunt us to this day?” At that moment the hypocrisy hit home. Was that not also World War II? The Holocaust? The firebombings? The Rape of Nanking? The Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The unspeakable battles of Eastern Europe? The slaughter of U.S. soldiers on Omaha Beach? Suddenly, waiting for my soldier to respawn while trying to headshot the most Nazis on the server seemed shameful to me. As if I was playacting the experiences of real soldiers who watched their friends get blown to pieces. Who died screaming in agony never again to see their loved ones, raise a family, and grow old.

    I still play some military shooters, but I’ve shifted to a more science fiction bent. Maybe it’s also hypocritical, but for me blasting aliens or futuristic soldiers who do not exist in real life seems more palatable than slaughtering potentially real ones. I also still play military strategy games like the Empire: Total War series and Civilization. I have never forgotten, however, the unease and disgust at myself I felt that day. There may be necessary wars, and very rarely just wars, but there are never good wars. As a gamer you’ve got to remember that there is a line between what is real and what is fantasy. I don’t agree with those naysayers who say video games are the sole cause of youth violence or hate. I do wonder, however, if video games help, like movies and other media, to perpetuate the falsities, stereotypes, and myths that perpetuate in our culture. (Such as the ones that whitewash and desensitize WWII.) It scares me to think that for some children games like Call of Duty may be a child’s only exposure to the subject.

    • Oh, I don’t think there can be any doubt that videogames have become major perpetrators of mythologizing. They are, after all, just accurate enough to seem believable, and they mirror what people have seen in movies a hundred times before. It wouldn’t be so bad if I thought there was something in these games that could stimulate players’ curiosity, but there really isn’t. Go here, shoot a bunch of guys, follow your compass to the next place where you’ll kill more people.

      I was lucky in that my life as a historical wargamer and strategy gamer began around the same time I started playing shooters. That was the kind of gaming that taught me a lot, and made me curious to know more. Obviously, I did, which is why I have so many problems with the “Grand Crusade” narrative of WW2.

      I still enjoy military shooters from time to time, although COD is pretty played out for me. I think there’s a lot of places the genre could go that would be less insulting and cynically exploitative. I had hoped the Brothers in Arms series would do that, but it kind of lost its way with Hell’s Highway. Like you, I find strategy games much more agreeable. I also like to grab the bleakest books of military history I can lay my hands on. I find I need a steady diet of grim, revisionist historians to counteract the jingoists’ version of history, and the games that are based on it.

  1. Fantastic and provocative, Rob.

    I’ve found myself burned on realistic war shooters for similar reasons. They take place in such sterile environments: no inconvenient civilians, all perfectly planned and deployed, clean deaths, clever AI behavior to admire. The game is built into a million reasons for the whole escapade to be played out and remembered fondly.

    War remembered fondly. I am seriously disturbed at that notion. I don’t think even the perpetrators of wars, for whatever best of reasons they can muster, would celebrate war as completely and personally as video games can.

    • I sometimes wonder about that last. The Armed Services work very hard to make sure that they are portrayed flatteringly in the movies, and what was America’s Army if not a “war is cool” sales pitch? Plus, I know a lot of combat veterans who are totally capable of decoupling their experiences from games trying to emulate them. A good friend of mine did tour in Iraq and came back from war with a very, very skeptical view of the US military but he loved Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. For him, it was so far from his experience that it was just as much a fantasy as it was for me, but I think he underestimated how much games like that start contributing to kids’ attitudes about war.

      Not that most people really want that much more truth than is found in a videogame. Revisionist historians who focus on the tragedies of war rarely get the same kind of acclaim as the ones telling more heroic narratives. I think that might be partly a society’s survival tactic: on some level, we have to keep conning ourselves into believing that war is an ennobling endeavor. Because we keep fighting ‘em.

    • Andrew S
    • November 26th, 2009 11:06pm

    I understand your disappointment and cynicism regarding the portrayal of war in video games, but your argument against World at War’s opening seems a little shallow. I agree with a lot of what you are saying, and for the most part your feelings about how the horrors of war are glorified by the media is a huge problem. I don’t even like the Call of Duty games that much at all. But in all honesty, this is a video game, what level of nuance and sophistication were you expecting? I don’t watch Snakes on a Plane expecting a critique of post 9/11 air transit, and I certainly don’t look to Call of Duty to educate me in the ferocity of mechanized warfare. Sometimes these things really are just…games.

    Another issue I have is your take on the opening of the World at War in particular. There are so many examples of racial hatred in World War II and I don’t think this game in particular is being disingenuous by portraying either the Japanese or the United States as such. Most games, even the original Call of Duty games, choose to exclude blood, gore and civilians…you know, the stuff that complicates the experience of warfare. Of all the unrealistic parts of this game, of which there are many, a scene where a Japanese officer tortures a US soldier is not the one I would pick.

    • I picked the torture sequence because it is striking how early in the game it occurs. Before the game is ten minutes old, it has rehashed one of the hoariest action / war movie cliches. It’s indicative of the game’s general lack of imagination and wit. You could say that the Pacific theater was ugly and brutal, or that stuff like this actually happened on more than one occasion, but it doesn’t change the fact that the developer chose to make this hackneyed event the game’s opening sequence. I could focus on other parts of the game, but it’s telling when you see something like this before you’ve even started playing.

      Choice is really the key concept here, and it’s why the, “It’s just a game,” argument never really works. There are lots of ways you can make a rocking, thrilling action game without descending into pandering and cliche. You can even make a smart, interesting action single player campaign. But Treyarch didn’t really do that here, and they could have. So why should I give them a pass for choosing to make something entirely derived from war movies and other shooters?

      And we both know that Snakes on a Plane doesn’t really bear on the situation. It is a B-movie that is entirely aware of its own camp, but Call of Duty always takes itself very seriously, and has a ton of resources lavished on each iteration. These games could be interesting, at least as interesting as Brothers in Arms. Hell, World at War’s campaign could at least be as interesting as its own zombie mode. But it’s none of these things, and that’s a problem for me.

    • Andrew S
    • November 30th, 2009 2:36am

    I see your point now completely. I was arguing with something that was only tangentially related to the crux of your argument. I agree with you that Treyarch’s latest installment is contrived and a hack job, but I guess I was coming from the perspective of remembering my Call of Duty 3 experience, and didn’t expect them to give me anything deep or thought provoking. When I see the Treyarch logo, I am expecting camp and Bauer-esque machismo. I should have stressed this and not the historical issues, which were just a reiteration of your own. I know full well that I am buying a xenophobic costume drama and I expect nothing more.

    If I could revise my first post, I would say that I really don’t expect a video game to ever break war cliches given the fact that we have a press corps and film industry that constantly reaffirm them as well. Games may offer us a more interactive experience, but it never seems more sophisticated in dealing with a concept like warfare. The danger in a game in particular is how alluring these particular misrepresentations can be. We both may be tired of them, but most people are not, and that is a huge problem. Those thrilling games and authors that don’ follow conventions are always exceptions rather than the rule and I doubt the disingenuousness will never stop.

    Also I think I side stepped the issue you were trying to raise when I first replied, and did so in a pretty snarky manner. For that, I sincerely apologize. You really do post some awesome content, and I keep reading this post in particular and thinking of Chris Hedges books. Regardless of my own opinion, this type of discussion is one that needs to happen.

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