Happiness Is A Warm MG42

By Tim Stone on February 15th, 2009 at 3:29 pm.

war1

In June 2006 PC Gamer UK replaced its long-running Devil’s Advocaat column (provocative analysis of egg-based liqueurs) with a Devil’s Advocate column (provocative analysis of game-related subjects). It was a popular move. What follows is one of my contributions. Military shooters had been getting some stick for trivialising war. I waded in, semi-seriously, in their defence.

 

War traumatises, brutalises, and destroys. War scars, steals innocence and takes life randomly. War is an ordeal, a nightmare, a necessary and unnecessary evil.

 

If you want blindingly obvious ‘insights’ like these go watch Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, or the evening news. If, on the other hand, you’re after real revelations – genuine profundity – I recommend Call of Duty, Brothers In Arms, Day of Defeat or any other half-decent military shooter.

 

For decades now, directors, documentary makers and war correspondents have been busy filling our heads with safe, socially responsible representations of conflict. These representations are massively important in a world where governments are so ready to trade the lives of their citizens for power and profit, but they are, on the whole, worryingly incomplete. What’s missing? The most unpalatable, unfashionable truth of all:

 

War is fun.

 

Not always. Not often. Not when you’re picking pieces of your best pal’s skull out of your webbing, or listening to the girl you mistook for a foe crying for her mother through lips foamy with blood. Obviously it’s no fun then. But read memoirs, sift through unexpurgated reportage, catch veterans off-guard, and you will find the evidence. Soldiers and airmen admitting to feelings of elation, extraordinary exhilaration, glee even; warriors guiltily or shamelessly confessing that they sometimes enjoyed the experience of battle.

 

On the rare occasions when feelings like these find their way onto celluloid they are usually assigned to the safest of stereotypes. The private that takes pleasure in combat is a scary psychopath or a pitiful fellow unhinged by the fury of the fight. He’s a nutjob. We are shielded from the darker, more disquieting possibility that he may, in fact, be a bloke just like us. Games are much less squeamish, much more honest.

 

Nobody need explain to a gamer what Winston Churchill (a Boer War witness) meant by “the exhilaration of being shot at without effect” Similarly, deep-down we are probably less surprised than most when we read that level-headed Scots Guard Robert Lawrence shouted “Isn’t this fun!” during the bloody assault of Mount Tumbledown (Seconds later a sniper’s bullet destroyed 43% of his brain). The fact that Geoffrey Wellum, a strikingly sane, sensitive WW2 RAF pilot, experienced feelings of “savage delight” during a particular dogfight is not shocking to the aficionado of Battle Of Britain II or IL-2 : 1946. We understand because the recreations we revel in trigger very similar emotions.

 

However graphically sophisticated or gruesomely gory military shooters become in the future they will always struggle to communicate anything meaningful about the fear, pain, and grief that war generates so effortlessly. We shouldn’t criticize them too harshly for this. Other popular mediums are handling these aspects of the curriculum reasonably effectively already. We should be thankful instead, that games are providing insights that other war depictions can’t or won’t provide.

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100 Comments »

  1. Churchill says:

    You mistook my words sir.

  2. A-Scale says:

    War is generally regarded by those who have experienced it as one of those “horrible experiences that I wouldn’t give for the world”. All men enjoy the feeling of power that war can provide, but games give us a much safer medium to experience that pleasure. Additionally, after reading the modern realist text (JJ Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics) I’ve come to see war as a sort of beast that must be satisfied. It’s not that nations are evil entities that love to see their children chewed up by bullets, but rather that nations are in perpetual competition, and if one does not stand and defend oneself from all comers, they will be eaten alive. Provided that they follow the rules of war, all men who fight are heroes, as each risks his life to perpetuate his people.

  3. Dracko says:

    Nah, he didn’t.

  4. Bonedancer says:

    “Provided that they follow the rules of war, all men who fight are heroes, as each risks his life to perpetuate his people.”

    That’s all very well when one’s country is threatened by an external invader and one steps up to defend hearth and home, but how does that apply to, say, Iraq? Our government, and that of the US, made a decision to spend their soldiers’ lives for a short-term political gain, rather than to protect their citizens or territory.

    Now you could argue that it is our leaders’ right to do that, and I suppose you could argue that the soldiers signed up to be sacrificed – consciously or not – when they joined up. But when you’re in a foreign place killing foreign civilians – not through malice, for the most part, but by mistake or by sheer bad luck – as well as the foreign “heroes” who are trying to kill you, how does that make you a hero?

    I’m not saying I’d do any better than the people who are out there – it’s an impossible situation – but anyone joining the Armed Forces these days has effectively decided that their 16K a year paycheck is more important than the lives of the people they may accidentally kill. It’s their decision to make, but it doesn’t seem very heroic to me.

    I’m not even going to get started on the fact that your rose-tinted definitions would also make heroes out of suicide bombers and ethnic cleansers.

  5. MadTinkerer says:

    Here’s an idea: We can either

    1) All agree to abolish all war everywhere (because all war is bad) and not bother to defend ourselves against those who didn’t get the message (because that would be war). Also: let’s never ever help out another country via war, even if they’re getting slaughtered by someone else via war, because at least then we wouldn’t be involved in war.

    2) Accept that war is part of the human condition and although it can be reduced via the major powers getting along, it can’t be can’t be eradicated 100% completely. Just like crime, injustice, disease, et cetera. Therefore, war movies that are entirely whiny and preachy and don’t show the benefits of war (like the ability to continue making preachy movies without fear of reprisal) are pointless.

    3) At least agree that danger (or the illusion of danger) can be exhilarating for those experiencing it, and denying that it is so is stupid. Duh.

  6. Novack says:

    This piece of crap is your defence for shooters?

    I would be surprised if the War FPS get banned in 43 countries after reading this bullshit.

    War is fun…? Are you out of your fucking mind…?

  7. Rich_P says:

    Robert E. Lee said it best: “It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.”

    In his fantastic book Why the Allies Won, Richard Overy describes how Churchill was like an excited schoolboy during his trip across the Atlantic to Newfoundland. He requested that his ship pass through the escort convoy so he could see the other ships in formation. He spent evenings reading about naval warfare and the age of sail. In later years, Roosevelt and Churchill would spend hours in the White House Map Room, seemingly enjoying the process of planning the entire war and looking at battle maps (much to the horror of Elenore Roosevelt). When a military aide informed Churchill that three German subs were sunk, the prime minister jumped up and shouted “We’ve got him! We’ve got him!”

    And let’s not forget one of the great lines from Patton: “I love it. God help me I do love it so. I love it more than my life.”

    Of course it’s easy for presidents, prime ministers, and generals to say that. They’re not the ones doing the fighting…

  8. Katsumoto (jvgp100) says:

    Very funny Novack. I’m assuming that was ironic!

    If not, look up “Devil’s Advocate” on wikipedia or something and then go and have some tea and a lie down.

  9. CannedLizard says:

    I don’t see any contradictions in accepting that war cannot be entirely eliminated, but still making preachy war movies about how there should be LESS war. Naturally it’s impossible to eliminate entirely (sort of a global scale version of the sociological issue of deviancy, which is not actually a bad thing), but trying to have less doesn’t seem like a contemptible goal.

  10. Pantsman says:

    @MadTinkerer:
    I prefer option 4, which is a modulation of 1, that being, everyone agrees that there is never a good reason to start a war, but once started, it’s better for those who don’t start wars to defend themselves, lest the world be given up to madmen.

  11. Novack says:

    Katsumoto, that was my contribution to a “semi-seriously” comment on war and FPS’s.

    Actually I was intended to write “I would NOT be surprised…” but got too exited about writing a comment on such an important piece of writing regarding war and games.

  12. Jockie says:

    Theres always comments from people who obviously didnt read the basis of the article when one popped up on PCG/CVG website, of the “How dare you!” kind. The fun is in spotting the trolls from the truly outraged.

    Fun or not though, the fact that violence has become such a central part of our cultural intake across all forms of media – people read war books (Factual and fictional), watch war films and play war games (FPS & Strategy), suggest that outside the ‘spectacle’ of violence and war there is something that draws us to it.

    As for adrenaline of being actually involved in conflict, i have no doubt, it’s like high stakes gambling, the excitement of winning is heightened by what can be lost (in this case of war literally everything).

  13. Novack says:

    Ok, to hell with sarcasm anyway.

    My first thought when reading this post, was that trivializes a discussion that shoud not be trivialized.

    Agree, hollywood made fun of war and human dispair since its very begining, but does dont mean that the videogames should follow the same path, or at least, not without a deep thinking of what it means.

    Im not talking about cheap moral or double sided ethics, Im talking about not following the same path while hiding on the infantile argument: “But they are doing so as well…!

  14. Foca Mais says:

    It´s sadly our will to power. Most violent videogames, movies and Tv Shows have a message that the hero is always a badass who kills anything that doesn´t wear his uniform. Our manliness become measured by our strenth and fear we cause on others.
    Maybe it´s time to look at what means to be a “Man”, it´s not about using our power to destroy but to offer help to those in need.

  15. Larington says:

    Not one real world death could ever be worth a mere sense of fun which is probably why veterans and other witnesses to war, even though having experienced that sense of exhileration would wish upon anyone the injuries and psychological traumas that result from subjecting people to a war zone.

  16. scribbler says:

    It seems the essence of Tim’s argument boils down to
    ‘Games are very good at capturing one aspect of war, which other forms aren’t’

    I’d argue that the best depictions of war in film like Apocalypse Now, or Full Metal Jacket, attempt to convey both exhilaration of combat while attempting to explore other aspects too.

    To excuse games for not trying to explore a greater number of aspects of war, just because they are good at one is a bit of a cop out.

  17. windlab says:

    “A savage delight”
    I always wondered how to describe the incredible sensation I get in True Combat: Elite – gunplay and revenge.

    ..and now that it’s declining in popularity, only the truly 1337 and Linux gamers still play it.

  18. Foca Mais says:

    At Scribbler,

    Metal Gear is a fine exception. It has always explored the politic and economic exploration of war. Witch is true. It seems that weapon commerce is the biggest business on Earth, even bigger than drug traffic.

  19. Nick says:

    Do plastic (or.. earlier.. lead?) toy soldiers also trivialize war by making it a game for children?

  20. FuzzDad says:

    All successful games, regardless of genre, are successful because at the core they are fun first. Games also mirror society like other forms of collective entertainment (movies, plays, etc). In this case I think the reason some of games mentioned all share the common trait of being team-based and shared responsibility and action is the only way to achieve success. To do so in an environment where the risk is removed (death) pushes those emotions that exists in both RL and games to the forefront…a collective and shared experience that bonds. These are common emotions and I’ve experienced them in both my military career and in my best gaming experiences.

    Special props for mentioning Day of Defeat…I’ve been involved as either a developer or sponsor or “friend of DoD” since the very beginning (my son founded DOD) and it’s good to see that after eight years, the game in both pre and post-Source versions remains strong.

  21. Dreamhacker says:

    War is fun.

    Especially when you can get the supranational organization next door to clean up the mess you left.

  22. A-Scale says:

    That’s all very well when one’s country is threatened by an external invader and one steps up to defend hearth and home, but how does that apply to, say, Iraq? Our government, and that of the US, made a decision to spend their soldiers’ lives for a short-term political gain, rather than to protect their citizens or territory.

    Because, if we buy realist principles (and if you’ve read much of it you probably believe in a lot of it) the invasion of Iraq was a power play to protect American security. America, being a regional hegemon, likes to be the world’s only world hegemon, as it keeps competition down for us and lets us perpetuate our survival. Britain did the same thing until post-ww2, at which point it no longer had to thanks to U.S. provided security in Europe.

    I’d like to keep this going but I’ve got 3 mid terms in the next two days, so I gotta go study!

  23. A-Scale says:

    Last thing, I promise.

    Of course it’s easy for presidents, prime ministers, and generals to say that. They’re not the ones doing the fighting…

    G.S. Patton fought in the Mexican American war, World War One (led one of the first tank units in France and was wounded in action doing so) and was perpetually darting between the front and rear of the lines in order to keep up troop morale. Read a book on him before you put the guy down.

  24. Keule says:

    If you want a interesting perspective, check out the HBO series Generation Kill. It gives a pretty good insight into the marine recon that were involved in Iraq.

  25. Nick says:

    I think what this comment thread needs is some jingoistic chest beating with barely any relevance to the post in question.

  26. Chopperdave says:

    My main concern with war games/ movies is that they subliminally reinforce stereotypes. It is not pro active for us to relive these events when animosities were at their peak. Especially when international relations are so fragile, and the success of anything depends on our ability to work as a larger community.

    i am not screaming censorship here, i believe that all should be fair game (with regard to video games/ movies) but that the gamer has to take a more active role than just the person pulling the trigger. Its dangerous when the gamer doesn’t take active steps, to disassemble the stereotypes of cultures when playing these games.

    ie: i used to play CS all the time, i was always aware that it was just a video game. but it wasn’t till i realize that if i were to see someone of mid-eastern descent wearing reflective aviators, the image of the Phoenix Faction( or whatever ) would pop up. The fact that this image was closely tied to this fictional “terrorist/bad guy” was deeply concerning to me.

    People can play whatever they want, just don’t be a soft sponge and soak it all up. Learn to be critical and aware of the situations you playing in, and what the implications of that are…

    ps sry for bad grammar…

  27. A-Scale says:

    My main concern with war games/ movies is that they subliminally reinforce stereotypes. It is not pro active for us to relive these events when animosities were at their peak. Especially when international relations are so fragile, and the success of anything depends on our ability to work as a larger community.

    No, far better to forget the lessons of the past so that we can repeat them.

    Whoops, back to studying!

  28. escooler says:

    Generation Kill which is now running on FX captures that war is fun aspect very well and balances it.

    i had a thought the other day…why not make a game where you pay 10 pounds in…once your in you only get one singel life…dont waste it. Sound like fun? maybe not but i bet you would be dam careful about your life. More so than we are in say planetside.

  29. Chopperdave says:

    a-scale…


    im not saying forget the past.. im saying that recounting ww2 ethnic cleansing through shooting @#$%ing Nazi’s probably isn’t the best way to do it.

  30. A-Scale says:

    im not saying forget the past.. im saying that recounting ww2 ethnic cleansing through shooting @#$%ing Nazi’s probably isn’t the best way to do it.

    Again, why scrub the past? If I’m going to shoot anyone, I want it to be ethnic cleansers.

  31. Chopperdave says:

    if i want to shoot anyone, i would like to shoot nincumpoops like you!

  32. scribbler says:

    Just finished playing farcry 2 this evening, its a interesting take on the ‘war’ genre.
    Also without giving to much away one of the final choices the game ask you to make during its story arc is about as close to getting some sort of idea of loss/regret and heroism as I’ve come across in film.
    It doesn’t succeed 100% and I’m sure allot of people won’t get what i got from it but its a interesting attempt to do something interesting ubisoft made none the less.

  33. RealHorrorshow says:

    I have to agree that it’s a slap in the face to historical fact and a great many men’s honor, the way every single man who served Germany in WW2 is characterized as a Nazi mass murderer, foaming at the mouth at the very thought of bayonetting a Jewish baby. And games don’t help this.

    I can say, as a Socialist and ardent anti-racist, that there were many heroic men who served Germany in WW2 (the same with every other country in the war) who were just soldiers who did their duty to their country, with no knowledge of Dachau and Auschwitz, and fought with honor and chivalry.

    Fuck the SS though.

  34. A-Scale says:

    I can say, as a Socialist and ardent anti-racist, that there were many heroic men who served Germany in WW2 (the same with every other country in the war) who were just soldiers who did their duty to their country, with no knowledge of Dachau and Auschwitz, and fought with honor and chivalry.

    An ardent socialist? Do they still have those in Europe? Certainly the Germans felt that they were doing the right thing, but so did the Americans. The point of war is that it is two groups of people butting heads because each feels that they are on the side of right. WW2 games are simply made from an American perspective more often than not. I welcome German made WW2 games that depict the average German soldier as the hero, though I doubt the ending would be much fun (har har).

    I am a slacker.

  35. RealHorrorshow says:

    I’m an American ;)

  36. Bret says:

    Germans try to pretend WWII didn’t happen, from what I’ve read.

    Also, the fact that there were good men in the German army, men who actively opposed the Nazi extermination policies is true. Also true is the fact that, in overall goals, as a whole, the Nazi party was one of the most evil organizations in the history of mankind. One I feel totally justified in virtually shotgunning to death at every reasonable opportunity.

  37. A-Scale says:

    I’m an American ;)

    An ever rarer bird! Be careful, someone might want to put you in a zoo for observation!

  38. RealHorrorshow says:

    Actually it’s Japan who tries to pretend WWII didn’t happen. WWII dominates history class in Germany. They still carry a strong sense of national guilt.

  39. Shadrach says:

    Great article, I’m opposed to war unless as the very last resort, but not war games, call it a contradiction or whatever. If someone really wants a game to show the grittiness and horror of war I’d recommend Red Orchestra, still by far the best war fps out there. There are no gung-ho heroes in RO, just constant looming death. Still its a fun game, but maybe for a small niche of war “enthusiasts” :)

  40. DBeaver says:

    I came for the bangs, I stayed for the insight. Nice one, even though I’m a real-life soldier, I haven’t thought of it that way, yet.

  41. D says:

    I would love to read a more complete version of this article, if Mr. Stone feels to elaborate on his analysis. It is a very interesting topic, and I thank him for writing about it, as it was not something that had crossed my mind otherwise.

    That said, I disagree with the majority of it. I have not fought any wars, or even been in the army but I have been in self defense situations and even though my life was not at stake like a soldiers life is daily, I feel I must try to contribute.

    First of all, the emotions during war that Mr. Stone talks about, I think is confusing a few issues: a) (As mentioned by a previous poster.) During quiet times, a bond of camaraderie between soldiers and emotions about being part of a greater plan, b) As in Churchills case (mentioned by another poster too), the feelings you get when you’re winning a tough game of chess, but most importantly c) The adrenal stress response that hits human beings under great duress.

    I would think the stress response is enough to fully explain any feelings of elation from combat. “The purpose of ASR is to turn us from an organism focused on long term survival, into a machine built to survive the next two minutes, followed by crashing abysmally.” (I am paraphrasing because I lost the source of this wonderful quote.) I don’t know of any actual research in this area as it is not my field, but it makes sense to me that operating under ASR for longer periods of time (such as a soldier or a pilot will do), will naturally cause euphoric chemicals to be released into the brain, to keep the mental state of the human from crashing before the fight is decided. The abysmal crash happens after the war, and for the rest of life.

    I don’t think at any level, that war is fun. Sometimes it is justifiable (even the Dalai Lama has condoned war of a self-defense nature). I think we humans are simply adaptable enough to survive it, without ending in the insane asylum.

    Games however are nothing like war, there is no risk, no scars and indeed no adrenal stress response. I think playing soldiers is entertaining because it seeks to emulate situations of great risk, which are thought to be the most worthy of actions. In addition, multiplayer shooters are additionally fun because of the emotional reward from winning a game, a skirmish or a duel. Or getting that perfect MG42 setup on the Ruskies flank, mowing them down as they spawn into fresh lead. Or nailing that MG42 with an impossible bolt-action rifle shot from across the map. Hey, why wasen’t Red Orchestra namedropped!? You know, in which the war kills you?

    Ah, Bless you Shadrach :)

  42. D says:

    And another interesting namedrop: Falcon4

    Actually, I guess fighter pilots may think that war is a genuinely enjoyable affair, y’know being 25.000 feet above the splotions and bodyparts.

  43. Quirk says:

    The perception of war as fun, or glorious, long predates the FPS. The Victorian lads pushing around lead toy soldiers undoubtedly saw war as something thrilling; Kipling certainly didn’t give it much bad press. If anything, it’s had a larger share of writers for it than against it throughout a large chunk of history. Propaganda suits the needs of those who’re in charge, and those in charge have often needed soldiers. “War is fun” is an utterly banal take on the subject.

    In a century where much has been written about the devastation of war, where it some would see it as almost the ultimate of crimes, murder on a cataclysmic scale sanctioned by nations, we’ve begun to see equally trite examinations coming from the other end of the spectrum, the “War is hell” brigade. These examinations fail to acknowledge that all violence is not equal, that we do not live in a world in which every human is suspectible to the effects of being offered a stiff cup of tea and a reasoned argument. Even so, while they may be fluffy-headed about practical morality for the real world, they’re not making that most elementary of mistakes: dehumanising the enemy.

    Now, I don’t play a lot of World War II era shooters. I would hope that some of them must to some extent force on the player the realisation that the people being shot are people much like himself, with families and friends and aspirations and ideals. I don’t believe the entire genre is filled with this kind of nuanced consideration though, and your defence of it reads to me rather more like a damnation, as though the games in question have never moved on from Victorian-era propaganda and lead toy soldiers. I hope you’re being unfair.

  44. A-Scale says:

    I guess your ability to see war as fun is based on the amount of violence you see and your willingness to shoot “bad” men. I’m personally all for shooting invaders/slaughterers/oppressors, so I can very easily see how war could be fun. Nothing like a bit of camaraderie, duty and shooting some krauts to make you grow up and give you good lifelong friends. And there are less Germans! Everyone wins!

  45. lumpi says:

    Only those that survive can tell the story.

    “Dude, I almost got KILLED, lol!” is of course a feeling of thrill and excitement. Dying from a stomach wound in some lonely field while you think of the bastard politicians who started this war for nothing and nothing again… not so exciting… just purely depressing. Especially if you are an 8-year old (yea, in the real world, many victims aren’t soldiers).

    War is depressing.

  46. Rich_P says:

    The perception of war as fun, or glorious, long predates the FPS. The Victorian lads pushing around lead toy soldiers undoubtedly saw war as something thrilling

    I wonder what H.G. Wells would think of the Total War series, having created “Little Wars,” a Victorian Era wargame.

    If shooting people with projectiles was boring, the paintball industry wouldn’t exist, either. Hell, paintball enthusiasts recreate D-Day in Oklahoma each year, replete with paintball tanks. (I used to live in Missouri but never got around to going!)

    And many live action RPGs (Darkon) are about war and fighting as much as anything, right?

    People have been wargaming for years: in real life, in board games, and now in videogames.

    Anyway, I’ve always enjoyed how many PC games are natural successors to games people have played for years and years. (Little Wars —> Total War)

    PS: Was it Time Stone who wrote a feature on hardcore PC wargamers?

  47. MadTinkerer says:

    Interesting fact: Little Wars is also the ancestor of the modern miniatures wargame (like Warhammer), which means it’s also an ancestor of Chainmail, D&D, and World of Warcraft.

    The real question is: does WoW PvP trivialize war too much? (Or Half Life 2? Halo? How about Disgaea?) If you’re one of those who say “yes”, perhaps the subject matter is being taken too seriously.

    But what’s the substantial difference? It’s all fiction, whether it’s fantastic fiction, historical fiction, or modern war thriller. Should people be ashamed for enjoying murder mystery books? Should movies like Friday the 13th be banned?

  48. Adventurous Putty says:

    A-Scale has entered the thread. The thread is officially over.

    I kid, I kid.

    ____________________

    I dunno — I can’t help but think that disregarding all war video games as depicting war games childishly kind of does a disservice to the medium. Weren’t we all set aflutter by COD4 a year or so ago because it set a new standard for realism in its depiction of the human tragedy of war, as opposed to the gung-ho WWII-ness of its predecessors? Hell, it even had us Yankees muck everything up and made you die slowly of radiation poisoning at one point; surely that’s not a “videogamey” depiction of war, but it’s still in a video game.

    So, you know, maybe THAT should be our justification for war games, not “war is fun.” Just sayin’.

  49. A-Scale says:

    So, you know, maybe THAT should be our justification for war games, not “war is fun.” Just sayin’.

    It’s also fun to die, if done properly. The difference is that real war can be fun because neither you nor your buddies have to get hurt. Real death however, does necessitate your… dying.

    A-Scale has entered the thread. The thread is officially over.

    I like to think of myself as a gadfly. I am also an ass.

  50. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    @Chopperdave:

    We call that a double-standard. You’re more willing to kill people with the nerve to openly disagree with you than other killers?

    It makes a twisted kind of sense. After all, everything is only about you and your beliefs, no other human life or perspective matters.

    @A-Scale:
    Also, I found your involvement in this comment thread something of a foregone conclusion.