Heavily Engaged: Grognard Guilt

No battle reportage this week. Rather than confuse you with another tale of how Easy Company went east then north a bit then left a bit while Baker Company went west then south then right a bit, I thought I’d try to get to the bottom of a feeling that has gnawed at the edges of my wargaming pleasure for the best part of 30 years. That feeling could be described as unease, or perhaps, disquiet. At a stretch you might even call it guilt.

What on earth does a jaunty kitten-cuddling pragmatist like myself have to feel guilty about? Well, I guess you could start with:

Most of my favourite videogames simulate unspeakably ghastly events.


I get pleasure from re-enacting battles that were, for the vast majority of those involved,  acutely miserable and disturbing affairs.

I find it hard to believe I’m the only wargamer that has ever slipped a bookmark into a moving combat memoir or watched the credits roll on a harrowing war documentary, and pondered whether an hour or two of Combat Mission or Close Combat is really an appropriate response to what they’ve just read or viewed.

From Forgotten Voices Of The Great War (Max Arthur)

And it’s not just books and TV documentaries that can trigger uncomfortable introspection. I remember one occasion from a couple of years ago, particularly vividly. I was sitting at my PC engrossed in some WW2 diversion or another, when an unexpectedly loud and deep gun report echoed across the battlefield. It was few seconds before I realised that the sound hadn’t actually emanated from my speakers. It had come from outside. Shotgun? Car crash? Terrorist bomb? My brain scurried through all the possibilities until it slammed full-tilt into the explanation. It was the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

Down at my local war memorial a cannon had been fired to mark the beginning of the Two Minute Silence. Embarrassed, I pressed pause.

If I thought there was an easy conscience-salving answer to the question: “Is it unseemly to use real suffering – real sacrifice – as the basis for breezy entertainment?” I wouldn’t be writing this piece. Then again, if I felt that the genre was irredeemably sullied, I wouldn’t be contemplating a contented afternoon with Combat Mission: Battle For Normandy. Like all thoughtful, practising grogs, I’ve mused on the question and found enough moral wriggle-room to justify continued pursuance of the pastime that I love.

If I ever found myself having to defend the morality of wargaming, I’d probably drag out the genetic argument at some point. I’d claim I was just doing what men have been doing for thousands of years: sitting in my cave/hut analysing old battles – old hunts. I’m hard-wired to wargame. Hard-wired to find tactical situations endlessly fascinating.

I’d probably also try to gloss over the wargame industry’s frequent failure to acknowledge the dreadful emotional and physical consequences of war, by pointing-out that most grogs are well read, inquisitive people that gain such insights elsewhere. I’d hope my interlocutor didn’t press too assiduously the point that ignoring war’s least wholesome sights and sounds (while often obsessively modelling such tactical irrelevancies as flowers and birdsong) leads to representations of war that are grotesque in their lack of grotesqueness.

From Tank by Ken Tout (highly recommended)

We wargamers might be able to accept that our ludological heaven was some poor bastard’s living hell, but when it comes to setting, we often draw complicated lines in the sand.  For some, modern conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq are too fresh or ideologically charged. For others, WWI is too merciless, Vietnam too resonant. To claim, as I’ve seen done, that wargames exist in some sort of amoral bubble by dint of their tactical or strategic focus, is to ignore the evidence of myriad forum threads.

I confess my own qualms have rather selfish personal slants and rather illogical temporal ones.  Knowing that my great-grandfather fell at Passchendaele means I couldn’t throw myself into a wargame version of that battle with much enthusiasm. Not knowing whether my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-etc-grandfather fought at the Battle of Hastings means I can choreograph that scrap with a spring in my step and a song in my heart. I know others that are drawn to a particular theatre or battle precisely because a relative served there. As I said, the lines in the sand are complicated.

Will I ever play a wargame that doesn’t make me feel like I’m picnicking on a war grave? I sincerely hope so, but looking around at the recent crop of groggy entertainments it’s hard to imagine what that title will look like or who will fashion it. To have genuine power it would need to do a lot more than proffer the fig-leaf load screen aphorisms or cutscene Band of Brothers homages that pass for counterweights in other militarised genres. It would need to make me care more about men than materiel. Feel utterly wretched about casualties. Occasionally it would force me to put my reputation as a CO on the line and question my orders. At times it would probably need to be No Fun Whatsoever.

And there’s the rub. All the Battlefronts and Matrix Games out there are trying to ensure I have a bally-good time, and I’m sitting here troubled by their success. Madness? I’d be genuinely fascinated to hear what you think.

Do you reckon the makers of wargames have any responsibility to the warriors they depict beyond ensuring uniforms, muzzle velocities and armour thicknesses are correct? Is there something morally dubious about finding relaxation and pleasure in simulations of situations in which relaxation and pleasure were impossible? Did the poor buggers whose names are engraved on our war memorials die so that we could re-enact the battles in which they perished over and over again?

Maybe I’ll give it some thought as I play CM:BfN this afternoon.

Then again, maybe not.


  1. McDan says:

    Well written mr stone, a nice piece there.

  2. Bilbo says:

    Great piece. Personally, I don’t think wargamers have anything to feel guilty about – at least good war sims make an effort to capture something of the reality of the situation, and therefore have some educational value.

    You can’t say that about MW2 etc etc

  3. Inigo says:

    And if I might for a moment trumpet! How much better is this amiable
    miniature than the Real Thing! Here is a homeopathic remedy for the
    imaginative strategist. Here is the premeditation, the thrill, the
    strain of accumulating victory or disaster–and no smashed nor
    sanguinary bodies, no shattered fine buildings nor devastated country
    sides, no petty cruelties, none of that awful universal boredom and
    embitterment, that tiresome delay or stoppage or embarrassment of every
    gracious, bold, sweet, and charming thing, that we who are old enough to
    remember a real modern war know to be the reality of belligerence. This
    world is for ample living; we want security and freedom; all of us in
    every country, except a few dull-witted, energetic bores, want to see
    the manhood of the world at something better than apeing the little lead
    toys our children buy in boxes. We want fine things made for
    mankind–splendid cities, open ways, more knowledge and power, and more
    and more and more–and so I offer my game, for a particular as well as a
    general end; and let us put this prancing monarch and that silly
    scare-monger, and these excitable “patriots,” and those adventurers, and
    all the practitioners of Welt Politik, into one vast Temple of War, with
    cork carpets everywhere, and plenty of little trees and little houses to
    knock down, and cities and fortresses, and unlimited soldiers–tons,
    cellars-full–and let them lead their own lives there away from us.

    My game is just as good as their game, and saner by reason of its size.
    Here is War, done down to rational proportions, and yet out of the way
    of mankind, even as our fathers turned human sacrifices into the eating
    of little images and symbolic mouthfuls. For my own part, I am _prepared_.
    I have nearly five hundred men, more than a score of guns, and I twirl
    my moustache and hurl defiance eastward from my home in Essex across the
    narrow seas. Not only eastward. I would conclude this little discourse
    with one other disconcerting and exasperating sentence for the admirers
    and practitioners of Big War. I have never yet met in little battle any
    military gentleman, any captain, major, colonel, general, or eminent
    commander, who did not presently get into difficulties and confusions
    among even the elementary rules of the Battle. You have only to play at
    Little Wars three or four times to realise just what a blundering thing
    Great War must be.

    Great War is at present, I am convinced, not only the most expensive
    game in the universe, but it is a game out of all proportion. Not only
    are the masses of men and material and suffering and inconvenience too
    monstrously big for reason, but–the available heads we have for it, are
    too small. That, I think, is the most pacific realisation conceivable,
    and Little War brings you to it as nothing else but Great War can do.

    –H.G. Wells, Little Wars

    • Grape says:

      Wells said it best, by the gods.

    • Mr. Icarus says:

      And this is why I love RPS readers.

      Wells got it on the head – the simulation provides a means to challenge oneself and work in ways that may be lacking in other pursuits, without the cost and horror of the Real Thing. What is chess, but a stripped down strategic simulation? Men fighting men.

      A key distinction I would make between Wells/many of us and others is that his premise only applies if the person in question has at least some understanding of the realities and price of Great War. If, as I’m sure we have all seen, a person who revels in the glorious action of a Call of Medal (or similar) lacks such developed empathy, then they may mistake the simulation for an accurate depiction of war. And this person has the same ability to vote and pressure their politician in the real world that you or I do.

      Here in America, I have seen those who believe that war is “killing ragheads,” that the opposition is not more than animals, that our own troops are nigh invincible. They have no real understanding of loss and war, but I do not believe that they would even if the game had presented itself differently. If it had, I think they would have found other entertainments. A person who will not sit through a History Channel special on destroyed families, or even a News special on uprooted and displaced Afghanis, is not going to play a game that forces them into discomfort and introspection. But the rest of us will empathize whether the developer asks us to or not. So, I think the weight of war in these cases rests not on the games, which are not more than simulations, but with us – the fathers, mothers, and friends – who know best and suffer most the horrors of a Real War.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      as I’m sure we have all seen, a person who revels in the glorious action of a Call of Medal (or similar) lacks such developed empathy

      This reads a lot like you accused people who play a certain type of video game of being sociopaths who are unable to understand that war is a bad thing.

    • Stellar Duck says:

      @Alexander Norris:

      I read it more like it’s meant to say that those games offer little perspective into the actual costs of wars. You don’t see the battlefield afterwards. You don’t see peoples ruined homes. When that’s the case, a person playing the game, who doesn’t care about such things sure as hell wont be provoked into reflecting on it.

      You also handily left out the ‘if’ that precedes it. :D

      The whole thing read like this: If, as I’m sure we have all seen, a person who revels in the glorious action of a Call of Medal (or similar) lacks such developed empathy, then they may mistake the simulation for an accurate depiction of war.

      Leaving out the ‘if’ and cutting the rest really makes a difference.

      When I play a Total War game, and especially when I play Napoleon or Empire, I often, after a battle wonder, when looking at the ruined lives strewn across the field, what the point was. Was the expansion of my countries power really important enough to be worth all those lives that ended on that day?

      At the same time I’m prone to revel in the cannons and the rifle fire, the smoke and screams. But it’s often followed by that more sober reflection. The Call of Medal games do not really evoke any such feelings.

    • Mr. Icarus says:

      Stellar Duck got right what I was trying to say. The “if” in that statement is important (as is the whole second half of the sentence, which I’m sure was only accidentally left out of your quote), and in retrospect I’m sure I should have found a way to phrase it more clearly. I know plenty of people that love playing those games and are NOT sociopaths in any way, shape, or form (myself included, but if I go postal then we’ll all know otherwise :D ). The distinction being that – unlike some other games that readers have mentioned here – the Call of Medals do not force the same kind of emotional weight upon their users.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      I wasn’t seriously being offended, but:

      You also handily left out the ‘if’ that precedes it. :D

      The whole thing read like this: If, as I’m sure we have all seen, a person who revels in the glorious action of a Call of Medal (or similar) lacks such developed empathy, then they may mistake the simulation for an accurate depiction of war.

      Leaving out the ‘if’ and cutting the rest really makes a difference.

      Well, no, it doesn’t.

      Why is enjoying Call of Duty a prerequisite for not having that kind of empathy? Why can’t you be someone who hates Medal of Honour and thinks war is great? In fact, it seems like it would be a lot more likely for an RTS player to think war is awesome than for someone who spends their time playing games where your first-person-perspective nose is rubbed in it.

      99.9% of people possess the ability to distinguish between fantasy (a fun game of beating other people at a contest of skill that happens to have a coat of this-is-a-war paint) and reality (thousands of people dying because someone who has never lacked for anything in their life wants a bigger pile of money).

      Basically, that part of your argument is silly. :P

    • gorgol says:

      Alexander you are mistaken because you have misread his statement. Read it like “If a person lacks such developed empathy then they may mistake the simulation for an accurate depiction of war” and you will probably understand his point.

    • orranis19 says:

      Perhaps I am wrong, but I’m fairly sure that Well’s piece quoted above is intended satirically.

      Part of the nature of war is it’s terror, the horror of actually intending and striving to kill other people. Yes, yes, take all the war-mongers and lock them up, but to remove the horror from war is to forget what it really is and how horrible it truly is. Play war games if you choose, but remember that they are nothing but a pale hint of a shadow and do not show the sufferings and deaths of men, women and children.

      Robinson Jeffers put it well in his poem “Contemplation of the Sword.”

      Reason will not decide at last; the sword will decide.
      The sword: an obsolete instrument of bronze or steel,
      formerly used to kill men, but here
      In the sense of a symbol. The sword: that is: the storms
      and counter-storms of general destruction; killing
      of men,
      Destruction of all goods and materials; massacre, more or
      less intentional, of children and women;
      Destruction poured down from wings, the air made accomplice,
      the innocent air
      Perverted into assasin and poisoner.

      The sword: that is: treachery and cowardice, incredible
      baseness, incredible courage, loyalties, insanities.
      The sword: weeping and despair, mass-enslavement,
      mass-tourture, frustration of all hopes
      That starred man’s forhead. Tyranny for freedom, horror for
      happiness, famine for bread, carrion for children.
      Reason will not decide at last, the sword will decide.

      Dear God, who are the whole splendor of things and the sacred
      stars, but also the cruelty and greed, the treacheries
      And vileness, insanities and filth and anguish: now that this
      thing comes near us again I am finding it hard
      To praise you with a whole heart.
      I know what pain is, but pain can shine. I know what death is,
      I have sometimes
      Longed for it. But cruelty and slavery and degredation,
      pestilence, filth, the pitifulness
      Of men like hurt little birds and animals . . . if you were
      Waves beating rock, the wind and the iron-cored earth,
      With what a heart I could praise your beauty.
      You will not repent, nor cancel life, nor free man from anguish
      For many ages to come. You are the one that tortures himself to
      discover himself: I am
      One that watches you and discovers you, and praises you in little
      parables, idyl or tragedy, beautiful
      Intolerable God.
      The sword: that is:
      I have two sons whom I love. They are twins, they were born
      in nineteen sixteen, which seemed to us a dark year
      Of a great war, and they are now of the age
      That war prefers. The first-born is like his mother, he is so
      That persons I hardly know have stopped me on the street to
      speak of the grave beauty of the boy’s face.
      The second-born has strength for his beauty; when he strips
      for swimming the hero shoulders and wrestler loins
      Make him seem clothed. The sword: that is: loathsome disfigurements,
      blindness, mutilation, locked lips of boys
      Too proud to scream.
      Reason will not decide at last: the sword will decide.

    • Stellar Duck says:

      I might well be mistaken, what with English not being my first language, but I really think you are reading Mr. Icarus wrong.

      The added ‘if’ really is very important in that clause. It’s conditional and reflects on the rest. And while the whole thing is a bit convoluted, I think gorgol did a good job in straightening it out.

    • Fumarole says:

      You’re reading it right Stellar Duck.

  4. Gap Gen says:

    I think it’s better to remember how horrific these events were through games rather than forget they happened at all. It’s not as if you’re playing NAZI TESTICLE ATTACK or something; wargames tend to treat their subject matter with the gravitas they deserve.

  5. johnpeat says:

    I don’t feel guilty because I’m playing a game. I’d like game makers to concentrate on making games as good as they possibly can, whatever setting that ultimately results in them offering…

    I don’t want authenticity and accuracy over enjoyability/playability – ever – in any game.

    On a side-note – I was standing at the local war memorial recently when one of the inscriptions caught my eye – it said

    “They died for freedom”

    I resent that.

    They died because those in power decided we should go to war – whether that was for a good cause is arguable ad-infinitum but “They died for freedom” is a PR statement, it paints-over a complex issue glibly and I dislike it intensely.

    • mandrill says:

      Hear hear.

      To state that they who were not free, died so that we could be is one of the greatest lies we are told. To die for any cause is not glorious, it is tragic and a waste of the most valuable of our posessions; our lives. It is more glorious to live a long and productive life in the name of your chosen cause than to die for it.

      To be told that those who died did so for any other reason than the short-sightedness and lust for power of those who gave the order is a vile calumny and a denigration of the sacrifices made. I do not belittle that sacrifice but decry the decisions of those who deemed it necessary.

      If they died for freedom then why are we not free?

    • zipdrive says:

      @Mandrill: Saying people dying while fighting for a cause is tragic just shows you do not know what “tragic” means. It can be sad, morose, heart-rending, but it’s not tragic.

      @johnpeat: That’s a vast overstatement – a lot of people, in a lot of countries, died fighting to gain freedom or defend it, whether their own or others’. Do not forget that.

    • Pathetic Phallacy says:

      Those who assisted France during World War 2 LITERALLY died for freedom.

      Now, you’re welcome to argue that, perhaps you may wax over what freedom is and who defines free, but it is a bloody and gruesome fact.

      There are times when war is necessary. We may sit here in our safe little homes, in our safe little neighborhoods and debate what evil is and if Hitler can be defined as such. But a war waged against a genocidal, power-hungry despot is a justified war.

      But, pardon me, continue waxing philosophically about the futility of war in a video game forum.

    • plugmonkey says:

      @ mandrill

      You are not free? How exactly are you currently being enslaved and oppressed?

      @ johnpeat

      From talking to people from my grandparents’ generation, they certainly felt they were fighting for the freedom of themselves and their families. Who you are to disagree with them? Let alone resent it?

    • johnpeat says:

      Couple of things…

      1 – I didn’t say WHICH war memorial it was written-on – you all just chose one…

      2 – I didn’t say they didn’t think they were fighting for freedom, I just dislike the intent of the statement in general.

      Most war memorials contain valid and moving epitaphs – I just think “They died for freedom” is glib and paints-over the whole issue in a distasteful way.

      I think it does them a dis-service more than any game based on the war they died in ever could…

    • Grape says:

      So far, Johnpeat and Mandrill sounds like the two smartest people in the comments.

      But, pardon me, continue waxing philosophically about the futility of war in a video game forum.

      …But that’s EXACTLY what Tim Stone did in the first place. That’s what the entire fucking article is about. *Facepalm*.

    • Jesse L says:

      And yet something has to be written there. So what are you going to write?

    • plugmonkey says:

      @ johnpeat.
      I sympathise with your point. Anything war related that speaks of ‘glory’ gets my goat, but that’s exactly because that’s never the impression I got from the people who were actually there. Their accounts were rarely glorious. It’s something for people back home to use to gloss over the horror of the reality, and I think that’s the sort of thing you are driving at.

      But as far as ‘freedom’ goes, if “They died for our freedom” is how the people risking their lives felt about it, doesn’t that make a better epitaph than something potentially more factually accurate that causes less resentment amongst today’s over-privileged liberals? (of which I count myself as one)

      They DID die for your freedom. Whether mandrill thinks they delivered it, or you think they were lied to, doesn’t alter why they did what they did when they did it. I don’t think you should resent them over-simplifying the situation they were in. If my grandfather wanted to believe he and his friends were heroes fighting for your and my freedom, I don’t think you have the right to tell them they can’t write that on their monuments in memory of their dead just because you believe you know differently.

      Don’t they take precedence on this one?

    • johnpeat says:

      @Jesse L As I said, there are many great things written on war memorials – it’s what made “They died for freedom” stand out as the crass nonsense it is, really…

      @plugmonkey Freedom is a meaningless idea (unless you’re a serf or slave) – the winner of any war always claims they’re the way of ‘freedom’ and as they write the history books, we’ll never know different…

      II don’t want to get into a ‘true nature of war and wars’ discussion – I’m not suggesting we’re not free, I just dislike the oversimplification/glorification of a cause.

      “They died for something they believed in” is the best thing you can possibly say – stop trying to over-butter it…

    • plugmonkey says:

      And I think if you’d told my granddad that his belief that him and his friends fought for your freedom was crass nonsense, he would have thought that was rather crass of you. Which is why I don’t think you should get to be the arbiter instead of him and his peers.

      The fact that the “something that they believed in” was your freedom warrants recording, even if you don’t believe in it yourself.

      Also, I rather wonder what the people living under the myriad oppressive regimes of past and present would make of your assertion that they were all “free”, on the grounds they are neither serfs nor slaves. It’s easy for freedom to be a meaningless idea when you’re one of the most free people to have ever lived at any point in human history.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      From talking to people from my grandparents’ generation, they certainly felt they were fighting for the freedom of themselves and their families. Who you are to disagree with them? Let alone resent it?

      This is funny, because your average Nazi certainly felt like he was fighting for the freedom and security of the German people.

      So yes, who are you to disagree with the misguided sentiment of misguided people, let alone resent it?

    • Scatterbrainpaul says:

      Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims.

    • plugmonkey says:

      @ Alexander Norris

      I think you might be slightly missing my point. That’s not funny. It’s really not very funny at all. It’s dismally depressing, in fact.

      We are so high-minded and superior, sitting here behind our computer screens, that we won’t commit the terrible evil of making a firm judgment on something as complicated, multi-faceted and tinged with shades of grey as the morality of a war. We can’t say “We were right and they were wrong”, because we’re all faaaaaaar too advanced, intellectual and liberal to see war as anything other than a tragic, pointless waste on all sides; the ultimate folly of man. There is no “good”, no “evil”, no “freedom” in war, we all cry, only horror and destruction and victims and death!

      And we all nod sagely. How wise we all are!

      We will, however, quite happily judge, disagree with, and even resent the people who did make a judgment, when they had to make a judgment, on the complicated, multi-faceted and grey-tinged morality of a war because they got it wrong! They thought they were fighting for their freedom, our freedom, when from here, behind our computer screens, we can judge that they were doing no such thing! And so when we see that written on the memorials to their dead, we are well within our rights to resent them for it! Quite right! I resent that! How dare they?

      We won’t pass judgment on war, but we will pass judgment on the people who did, and then you tease me to pass judgment on the people they fought against?

      Actually, you’re right. That is kind of funny.

      The only difficult moral decision we have today is judging the difficult moral decision of our forefathers, and so we judge away in exactly the same black and white manner as we resent them for doing! We haven’t advanced an inch!

      God, that’s depressing.

    • johnpeat says:

      @plugmonkey – I’ve not even remotely asserted that your grandad did or did not think he was fighting for freedom because that’s not what we’re talking about.

      My problem is with whoever chose to put something as glib as “They died for freedom” on a memorial.

      For me it’s part of the intentional manipulation of history to ensure that wars are seen as ‘glorious’ – a priviledge only the winning side gets…

      End of the day, young men have died in old men’s wars for a long time and will continue to do so – freedom is seldom a major factor…

    • Wisq says:

      I think you’re overestimating the complexity of labelling as “for freedom” a defensive war, fought by the democratically elected government of a free nation, against an invading force. I can’t really think of a single situation where that would not be trivially labelled as “fighting for freedom”.

      Even if Germany had been internally oppressing and killing the Jews and not annexing other nations, and were invaded only to stop their behaviour, I would still classify their soldiers as “fighting for freedom”. I would disagree with them, and support the war action — but so long as their government remains democratically supported by the majority of the population, I would not deny that they are fighting to defend their freedom to so misguidedly elect such a horrid government.

      Disagreeing with the policies of a defender, or resenting the sorts of freedoms they hold dear, or noting that the government is the entity that decides whether to go to war, does not lessen the reality that these people do indeed fight to defend their freedom, whether they can use it wisely or not.

    • plugmonkey says:

      @ johnpeat

      It’s not what you’re talking about because you don’t listen. It’s exactly what I’m talking about, because it’s entirely relevant. You’re whole point revolves around the fact that we shouldn’t manipulate history after the fact, in which case the feelings of the soldiers during the fact becomes extremely pertinent, otherwise who is doing the manipulating? That would be you.

      If the person who put the message on the memorial is the same as the person who fought, if the message that seems glib to you is actually how the people who fought felt, then who are you to resent it? You haven’t been harmed or affronted in any way. It was their war, their loss, their epitaph.

      I see how you’re trying to to stand up for the rights of all the poor souls who’ve died at the hands of war, but if you do that by trampling on their own firmly held beliefs, you’re not really gaining them much in my opinion. You don’t stand up for someone by mortally offending them.

      They believe they died for freedom, you believe they didn’t. Someone has to give on this issue, and you keep asserting it should be them rather you. In the event of a tie in opinion over why some people died, we should go with the people who actually did the dying. That’s all I’m saying.

  6. fer says:

    In a glass cabinet at the HAC’s depot in London there’s a child’s playset for re-enacting battles of the 1800s. It’s just coloured wooden blocks, and I remember my friend (who was in an HAC patrol at the time) observing how cold an abstraction that seemed. However, flip this around for a moment: what effect does playing modern computer-based wargames have on a person’s expectations of what ‘going to war’ might entail (and, consequently, support for it)? Whilst I’m not arguing that playing ArmA 2 will make you a pacifist, I have to suspect that certain types of wargame mean that today’s youth may have a better idea of what awaits on the battlefield than their trusting counterparts of 1914 did. … then again, perhaps Medal of Shooty Black Counter Duty Ops XX might serve to mislead :/

    • Lack_26 says:

      Those who play games such as ArmA II probably have a much greater understanding of what happens in modern-warfare (well, it’s a lot better at portraying the Russian attitude to warfare; drive a column of BMPs around till you find someone to fight, get drunk, shoot at them till they run away) than their predecessors had of war in their era.

      (Not necessarily a correct view though, for example, about 95% of your time spend under-fire is spent sitting in a ditch, there aren’t any ditches in ArmA for some reason and mine/IED clearing operations are a bit thin on the ground.)

      Not quite as true for the Call of Medals: Subtitle of war playing hoards that seem to think war is about ‘killing ragheads’.

  7. airtekh says:

    Excellent as always, Mr. Stone.

  8. pepper says:

    War is a messy thing, Its not something people want to endure in a game. How we need to honour the dead is something people have to find out for themselves, and not force it upon us as entertainment.

    Anyone remember the jackal tapes in Farcry 2? I think he puts it(war) quite nicely:

    • Gap Gen says:

      Far Cry 2 was really bleak. Everything you did was to help destabilise and destroy a nation.

    • Ross Angus says:

      I’m still trying to complete Far Cry 2 – I find it a very depressing game, and I think it’s intentional. Playing it has led me to watch both Blood Diamond and Lord of War. But what’s strange is that the arc of both these narratives tend to discourage me from returning to the game. Stone implies that he is inspired to game, after a strong narrative on the subject. I often find the opposite.

      Edit: I wrote this before I read Gap Gen’s reply. I agree with their sentiments.

    • pepper says:

      It indeed is very dark, it kinda tells you that you are a asshole in a country filled with assholes with only little sparks of good around. Oh, and everybody dies.

    • jonfitt says:

      You might want to try “Hotel Rwanda” too.

    • Vartesz says:

      What I really loved FarCry 2 for were the mechanics, which slowly turned you into an aggressive, murdering loony (encouraging you to execute people, as they attavk you when you don’t; the aggressive cars leading to you opening fire on any car you see on the horizon).
      This coupled with the strong ending demonstrated really well how people are turned into mass-murderers during war. I experienced it as very educational, as it made me think a lot about war and it’s consequences, something no other wargame managed to do so far.

      If you are interested in that subject, I’d recommend the book “Heart of Darkness” – Farcry 2 cites it near the end.

  9. diebroken says:

    War. War never changes…

  10. Jumwa says:

    I’ve had the same moral conflict many a time. I’ve been a huge war game fan since I was a pre-teen, I remember obsessing about P.T.O. II on my SNES most of all.

    It wasn’t just a fascination with the gaming aspect though, as I was obsessed with history before hand. Military history especially, and had for years intended to start my real life career off by joining the navy to get funding for school and eventually become a military historian. I ended up taking a different route (becoming a historian of another, much less interesting ilk) but the enjoyment of war games still persist, albeit a bit more subdued.

    Here’s where I’ll confess some hypocrisy. Despite taking my joys in the genre, I would be nothing but pleased to know a future awaited us where war games, or any depiction of brutal violence and atrocity, were considered too abhorrent by society. Not a legal abolition, but a social taboo so strong that few would violate it. I can only see it as a good thing for us to reach a point where we so abhor violence we barely even tolerate depictions of it for anything but education.

    But then I’m also an unrepentant meat-eater who thinks it’d probably be better if vegetarianism became the norm at some point.

    I’m a work in progress.

  11. mike2R says:

    I recently discovered the War Nerd:
    link to exiledonline.com

    And to be honest I think there is quite a lot to be said for his attitude. He says that he is an overweight guy with no military experience who just gets off on war, and accepts that this says a lot about the faults in his character.

    What it lacks in outward shows of respect, it makes up for by not being a load of bullshit.

    That said, I’ve been playing a lot of the new Combat Mission and it is probably the game that makes me connect most with my troops I’ve ever played. I’ve felt honestly guilty after making a mistake and watching a squad get mown down in seconds by an unanticipated machine gun. Not sure if that counts as respectful, but it is something.

  12. brog says:

    Yeah, this is something I grapple with as a game developer; I mostly stick to fairly abstract games partially for this reason. If I were to set a game in a real war setting, I couldn’t feel right about telling a player to fight and kill. But if I make up a fantasy setting where the enemies are ultra-nazi-demon-zombies that it’s clearly acceptable (even mandatory) to destroy, I’m shamefully sidestepping the issue, and still implicitly supporting the idea that sometimes war may be justified.
    i could make ideological games which allow both violent and peaceful approaches, and in which the peaceful solution is always the right choice (even when it gets you killed), but that’s a huge design constraint and excludes a lot of great games.

    I believe that these violent games can do good. The article mentions the genetic argument; yeah, we are instinctively aggressive. Games are a safe channel for that aggression. Nobody gets hurt. But there’s a really fine line to walk between that and reinforcing pro-war propaganda..

  13. Redcoat-Mic says:

    I’ve nothing to feel guilty about, I’m a History graduate so I’m “well read” as you put it and I’m aware of the situation, but playing the game isn’t replaying events, those people on screen are just pixels.

    However I remember one time, I was playing Close Combat: Invasion Normandy and my friend who had grown up all his life playing violent games, laughing as he gibbed them and slaughtered.
    But he came in on me playing CC5 and looked for just a few seconds as an assault on a hill went terribly wrong, as men were mown down and explosions went off and all the horrific screaming and he was visibly upset by it. He always referred to it after as that horrible game, I asked why he didn’t like it and he just said it was just too depressing.


  14. Keep says:

    Excellent stuff.

    Obligatory Cannon Fodder mention. That game presented the inhumanity of war damn powerfully: a light touch that weighed a tonne.

    • Donkeydeathtasticelastic says:

      There was always something depressing about the myriad little white crosses that peppered Boot Hill.

    • jonfitt says:

      and the queue of little men ready to go next.

  15. Uglycat says:

    I thought from the picture that Cannon Fodder was about to released :(

  16. Sagan says:

    I’m gonna disagree with your genetic argument. We are genetically wired to do a whole bunch of stuff that we shouldn’t do. We like girls that are way too young, we like to get in fights, and we like to hate people that are different from us.

    You shouldn’t use genes as a defence because genes are pretty messed up.

    • mandrill says:

      Genetics isn’t necessarily a defence of certain behaviours, it is merely a reason for them. The ability to use our reason to look at these behaviours and either suppress them or otherwise rise above them is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, it is the very essence of hat makes us human.

      That we can know the reason behind our apparent enjoyment of wargaming is what allows us to look at it and feel guilty about it, and is the first step towards overcoming it.

      The fact of the matter is that conflict has always been a large part of our history and as such has played a role in shaping our psyches. The ability to know that it not desirable and avoid it where possible is one of our virtues but the ability to respond to violence directed at us in order to survive it is still necessary. This does not excuse us, but highlights how far we have still to go to overcome our basest animal behaviours.

    • Pathetic Phallacy says:


  17. Someblokius says:

    This one really made me think, thanks.

    I have to admit wondering sometimes if my interludes in the France, Western Desert etc would have amused my grandfather much, since by all accounts he didn’t enjoy it very much. The grand-uncle in Passchendaele gets a bit more guilt, since he actually died. And yet I revel in Waterloo simulations knowing I had a relative there. And much less thought for all the other grandads involved if I’m honest.

    On the other hand maybe wargaming in all its forms brings us a little closer to understanding what they went through. And ultimately where do we stop feeling guilt? Chess? War movies? You’re right – no easy answers.

    • Zenicetus says:

      I do wonder how the current generation of soldiers (at least here in the USA) manage to enjoy videogames in modern settings, after a tour of duty. My Dad served in the Pacific on a carrier in WW2, coming under Kamikaze attack in the last part of the war. He didn’t like to talk about it much. Maybe it’s the difference between a volunteer in time of war, vs. professional soldier who takes it on as a more permanent career move? I dunno. Or just a generational difference.

      The fact that my Dad was on a WW2 carrier doesn’t really affect my enjoyment or immersion in air combat sims set in that period. I enjoy flying either the Japanese or American side in those games. I guess I just treat it as more of a simulation interest. I like flying the hardware.

  18. Alexander Norris says:

    Do you reckon the makers of wargames have any responsibility to the warriors they depict

    Responsibility to the people who died for pretty much universally pointless reasons? No.

    That said, they have the same responsibility that every other game-maker has – the duty to try to push the envelope as much as possible. Since a just-realistic-enough-to-highlight-how-shit-war-was strategy game would be something innovative, I’d argue there’s a responsibility to make that for the sake of having games that are better at communicating emotion to the player.

    • zipdrive says:

      Since when do game designers have the duty to “try to push the envelope as much as possible”

    • Alexander Norris says:

      More or less since we decided to stop thinking of video games as just a mass-consumption entertainment industry.

      e; vvv the kind of politics that require war as an instrument are universally pointless, Monty. You do not need to wage a war to co-operate with other human beings. Wars are used to project national power onto other, weaker nations. They’re like bullying and mugging, except hundreds of thousands die from them.


      “Responsibility to the people who died for pretty much universally pointless reasons?”

      That’s quite a ridiculous view to hold. War is politics by other means, and only a nihilist would consider politics “pretty much universally pointless”.

    • bastronaut says:

      @ MMMMMONTYKILL Nihilism may be the only objective belief system, if you are a scientific materialist who believes that the universe is devoid of thought and reason. But since it’s not possible to be truly objective and still live a normal human life, I admit it’s academic.

      To call war “pointless” is disingenuous. Obviously war has a point: to achieve or maintain control. Since most wars have a winner, that war’s purpose was achieved for them. The winner may have been the instigators or not, but I can’t call to mind any examples of starting a war with no expectation of winning it (I’m no historian — there are probably a few). I suppose sometimes there is honour in losing.

      And I’m speaking as one who disapproves of war in general, and who doesn’t play war games. There are much more interesting problems to solve in the world than how to win battles, like how to prevent wars, and how to increase the general prosperity. But there’s no doubt that there are people in the world who do like to fight wars for their own delusional reasons, like a need for honour or simplistic views of heroism.

      The world is full of idiots who can’t think of anything better to do that thump someone else, for fun or profit. Many people, unlike our esteemed author, have little or no conscience or ability to reflect on the complexities of life and morality. If anyone (Alexander Norris, or whomever) can address the problem of these idiots in a way other than war, you’ll win my full support.

    • CapnClusteroo says:

      @ Alexander Norris:
      “Responsibility to the people who died for pretty much universally pointless reasons? No.”

      I’m willing to accept that every single person who has ever died in a violent conflict died for a pointless reason (a turn of phrase which, I’m guessing, means that there was a solution that did not require violent conflict). But I am curious, why exactly does that absolve people of any responsibility to their memory? (A related question is whether you mean to specifically limit those responsibilities as they apply to videogames? and presumably other artforms) Is there any kind of responsibility to the victims of, say, a serial murderer? They certainly died pointlessly; the only real difference is that they weren’t duped into believing that they died for a reason.

      As I interpret you: There is definitely no responsibility to the dead, if those that died believed they died for a reason, when in fact the reason they believed in was not a pointed reason, or no reason at all. (For a certain value of “responsibility.” The question of whether a person dying for no reason preserves those responsibilities is unresolved, since I just asked it.)

      Is there any reason for dying that might preserve those responsibilities, and is it possible that a person in war might have died for one of those reasons?

  19. Kamikaze-X says:

    Of most of the War Manshoots and RTS’s out there, only one series actually changed my whole approach to playing war games.

    I’m replaying them now- The Brothers In Arms series (although they seem very dated now) they do convey a lot of the hardships of war especially on personal relationships between comrades. They also provide real, intense periods of action, although condensed into a map grid for a tactical FPS. Alongside historical battle reports and facts and figures, it really does make you think about the effect war has on those in it.

    now, that doesn’t sound particularly inviting, and it may put some people off, but it isn’t a particularly grisly or hard series to master. but when you do, you feel as though you are thinking like those heroes did. I think it is a very good thing that a game experience makes you more aware of things which i’ve previously mentioned, and it furthered my interest in the wars, not in a morbid or ‘statistical’ sense, but also developed my interest in the human experiences of the war.

  20. Meat Circus says:

    If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever Quicksaved.

  21. PacifismFailed says:

    In a week where every other gaming blog on the internet is trumpeting the lastest Shooty Bang Bang RPS publishes this….

  22. Cooper says:

    A tactical, strategic, overhead / overview wargame cannot, will not be able to create the emotional, empathetic connection you wish for.

    The simple reason is that these games put you in the position of a general or equivalent. Whose job is NOT to have those connections, to see individuals as parts of wholes and as resources to be exploited and creatively used for military gain.

    This doesn’t make it wrong to enjoy those games. It can be fun to play as general. The fact that you worry about this makes it all the more better.

    It is a very good thing to stand back from these games and realise WHY they are part of a problematic relation between people. That you, personally, would or could never actually be in that position, knowing that those icons on the screen or figures on a map represented other, thinking feeling, people.

    The problem of enjoying these games knowing those icons of people who were once in that position is another quandry entirely, and not a very big one.

    I would much rather live in a world where important but difficult parts of our history form a central part of our cultural output. The alternative is either supression or censorship – either no output, or only certain kinds of output (which asks questions of; who says what types, and why – normally it’s because one group of people in power want it to be remembered in a manner which suits them)

    Cultural output, of any kind, based on these events form deeply important roles in the cultural, historical and psychological working-through of these events. This will always be problematic, but should happen.

    Problems arise when the turn-around is so fast (as with the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), but that seems to me just a symptom of an incredibly developed cultutral production machine and communication technologies. The problem starts when there’s no distinction between ‘reality’ and the simulation or representation of it. But no time for an essay on postmodernity here.

    • -Spooky- says:

      *mhm* I can´t confirmed that.
      MoW:AS – Shooting with a german PAK into a house full of allied troops and try to hit them hard, till the house is totally broken, it´s very emotional. ;)

  23. Joe Duck says:

    Very nice piece and an accurate description of my own inner thoughts on this.
    It is a contradiction, true. And it basically comes to how strong is the divide between gaming and fantasy on one side and real life on the other.
    If we do not realise what we are doing by ordering a russian infantry division to stand in the way of the SS in the middle of the steppe so we can delay them and gain one more turn, we are actually failing in our quest for accuracy and realism. As soon as you become immersed, you just HAVE to feel bad.
    On the other hand, the problems and challenges faced by generals in the past are interesting in themselves, and gaming them hurts no one, absolutely no one. Except maybe ourselves.
    Again, it is a contradiction. I love these games, but I have felt guilty about many of the decisions taken in them many times.
    I really want to mention a very, very fun game that many of us have enjoyed. I personally think it is a great game, but find it overpoweringly depressing. Defcon: Everybody dies is a very good game that should be no fun at all.
    The one thing I have learned is that I do want to be a general in real life. Ever.

    • Torgen says:

      I think that one reason I don’t as well as many in strategic wargames is that I find it very difficult to order that lone unit to sacrifice itself with zero chance of survival, unless the entire campaign/battle hinges on it. I try to minimize my casualties whenever possible when playing historical wargames, in a manner that I never do in fantasy/scifi games. (hurrah for artillery!)

      I suppose I’ve become somewhat of a George McClellan in my historical wargaming.

  24. gorgol says:

    I don’t think we should feel guilty for playing such games, because no one was harmed in the making of them, but I do think its disturbing there are so many games that glorify war. War is a horrible thing and it should not be glorified as much as it is by the video game industry, because that instills an innacurate picture into the minds of those that play such games. Thus the massive success of CoD is disturbing to me.

    For the record I don’t enjoy or play wargames much for the above reasons.

    I did love Cannon Fodder tho :P

    EDIT: Perhaps the reason I can enjoy Cannon Fodder is that it does not pretend to be a realistic portrayal of war, and is thus not being so irresponsible as CoD is.

    • zipdrive says:

      War is often glorified in books and films as well, but unlike in those media I’m hard pressed thinking of games which look askance at war.

    • gorgol says:

      Very true. However I’m hard pressed to recall a book that glorifies war that doesn’t at least attempt some soul searching. I can recall plenty of films about war that don’t attempt any soul searching though.

    • zipdrive says:

      Starship Troopers (the book) pretty much glorifies going to war, if not the actual way it plays out.

    • gorgol says:

      True but that does not invalidate my point expressed in my reply to your reply. My point was not that I couldn’t think of any books that glorified war, (I can think of lots of them) but that I couldn’t think of any books that glorified war that didn’t do at least some soul searching. As you you point out Starship Troopers isn’t entirely devoid of soul searching.

      After reading the book I was not left with the thought of how cool war is, but rather of how tragic, difficult and unpleasent it is. He paints it as a necessary evil, and he thinks of the soldiers almost as super heroes, but within the context of his viewpoints he does not write irresponsably.

      I actually disagree with him. I think war is an unnecessary evil, and I don’t think its heroic, quite the opposite, I think its villanous. But I agree that its tragic, difficult, and unpleasent. And it seems we all agree that games rarely, if ever, communicate the latter points.

  25. StickyNavels says:

    The enjoyment I get out of war games has been on a steady decline the past few years, having reached a point where I feel uncomfortable even just watching someone play a game like MW2.

    If it’s a modern or historical setting striving for some modicum of realism it’s especially sickening. More so considering there are developers who make a conscious point to present the man-shooting as a morally ambiguous aspect of their game – disturbing because in these cases it’s not a methodology derived from a wish to educate, spark a thought, but rather used as a shallow marketing tool and/or to increase the entertainment value.

    I think it’s been mentioned already, but the genetic argument is a poor one. Aggressiveness might be in our nature, and it stems from primal necessity, but so is empathy and cooperation. I’d argue that environment is the more important factor.

  26. zipdrive says:

    Tim, that is a very interesting point to consider and I, of course, don’t have The Answer. As mentioned before me, though, the mere usage of tactical/strategic point of view makes the war experience have less impact- not only in games, but also in real life. Think of all those generals and clerks in bunkers and remote HQs and how their view of a war – any war- differs than that of a soldier on the front.

    Actually, I’d like to see this question answered, or at least considered, by non-strategic war gamers- war has been a major contributor to the FPS genre and I’d ask the designers of those games how they feel about this.

  27. zipdrive says:

    Here’s another spin on this question: How different are actual historical battles, in this regard, than made-up ones?

    Is fighting a battle day that never was on the western front in WW1 different from fighting at Verdun? How about fighting in a made up American-Russian war? or an Imagined war between Aztecs and French? Or the bloody clashes of Elves and Orcs?

    I’m not being sarcastic, I’m just trying to see where one would draw the line.

  28. frenz0rz says:

    Marvelous article, it’s given me something to ponder as I send wave after wave of rookies to die at the hand of the alien menance in X-Com this afternoon.

    After all, what impact does the historical battle setting actually have on such games? That is, could you take the relaxing tactical bout of Combat Mission or the brutal semi-realism of Brothers in Arms, and replace the historical setting with one of science fiction – or indeed, any other setting that has no direct relevance toward people who actually suffered died?

    It reminds me of the original German version of Half-Life, where the commandos’ textures were entirely replaced by that of robots. Was the game just as fun? Almost certainly. But I probably would have cared less about the story – arguably the best thing about the Half-Life series – because it took away that all important element of human conflict.

    It’s still a difficult question to ask – how does one address the morality of finding relaxation in such things? But the fact is, we all do. Thats not going to change. And I’m sure the fact that we’re all sitting around thinking about such a deep moral question is evidence that the majority of gamers who play violent games still hold a deep respect for the suffering and sacrifice of those who fell in such conflicts. And thats that most important thing, isnt it?

    • Jesse L says:

      I don’t know about ‘the majority’. And I do know people who strongly dislike violent games.

  29. psyk says:

    Seems like people wanted hitler to be allowed to march unchallenged, is strange.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      Seems like you think Nazism was some kind of God-bestowed inevitability and not something that was entirely a consequence of World War 1, is strange.

    • Jesse L says:

      Strawman, off-topic, kill it with fire (and feel no guilt).

    • gorgol says:

      Ghandi was indeed a strange man. He regarded non-violence as the ultimate golden rule and he was adamant that the Nazi’s should be resisted only through non-violent means and not through war.

      Tolkien was also a strange man. His main message in LOTR was that if you use the tools of the oppressor to fight the oppressor then in the event of your victory you have become the oppressor.

      Food for thought at the very least.

      EDIT: And Tolkien was correct. The tools America used to win WWII and and secure hegemony afterwards define their country and foreign policy today. And since Tolkien was correct then perhaps Ghandi was also correct. We shall never know until we try to fight oppression without using violent means.


    It is well that we have connection difficulties playing Scourge of War, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.

  31. hamster says:

    Seems like far too many words for something quite intuitively obvious. The fact that these video games exist in this horrid politically correct (social) climate is proof that they don’t offend any sensibilities even though they are directly portraying the event in question. And this is quite obviously because games are cognitively nothing like the real thing. Furthermore, in the context of war games, they don’t portray real individuals. I mean it might potentially be offensive if a war game depicted the death of a real soldier (with real name and appearance) in a historically accurate way.

    • Mirqy says:

      Quite intuitively obvious to you perhaps. The many words suggest that to a lot of people this is something worth considering in more depth. And the fact that these video games exist in this horrid capitalist climate is proof of nothing more than the developers and publishers think that they will be profitable commercial products. We’re designed to play games to practise for real life – that’s why we think they’re fun – so the issues that wargames are either too realistic or not realistic enough are both eminently worthy of discussion.

    • hamster says:

      What exactly is the argument here? That depictions of war in war games using a real setting may or may not be, or should or should not be, offensive to people? So this is a moral thing? If it’s a moral thing then quite obviously it’s not an issue because there isn’t even any controversy. Do you hear people complaining about Call of Duty or Battlefield or whatever war game being irreverent to the people who died where the game was set?

  32. MiniMatt says:

    Fantastic article. I can honestly say I never even thought of it like that. And I find that in itself now a little worrying. Either I’m well adjusted and see pixels for what they are or I’m some kind of sociapath with zero empathy.

    I guess the human (probably particularly male human) nature argument is fine for me. I played cowboys and indians as a kid – hardly a conflict resplendent in harmony and good natured sportsmanship – surely that is just as calous as sending Private Pixel and Sergeant Sprite to their doom.

    Having very right on parents I wasn’t allowed any toy guns as a kid. So I did what any other 8 year old would do and made my own out of Lego. Then shot my brother with them whilst making kapow noises and saying “I got you – you’re dead”. Dead. Christ, in my tiny little play world mind, I shot and killed my own brother. Several times a day.

    And as an adult (according to the paperwork at any rate) I have never once harboured any desire to even fire an actual real gun, let alone own one, point it at someone, and kill them. The very notion bypasses abhorence by virtue of it being completely alien.

    Perhaps we play simulated games of real conflict – whether those be depicted by computer or entirely in our own imagination (as in the cowboys and indians games) – as much as some kind of release valve – our channelling of primal instincts into play is what allows us to transcend those very impulses and prevent them being realised in real life. Forget the argument that violent video games cause real life violence – there could be an equally compelling argument that violent video games actually prevent real life violence. Because I’m pretty sure that every single rent-a-quote frothing at the mouth to the Daily Mail in support of the former argument shot and killed their own brother as a kid. With a Lego gun. In their imagination.

    As a final attempt to derive some benefit from the activity I would note that vast chunks of my history knowledge come from computer games. Civilisation and Total War have probably taught me (or at least introduced me and prompted me to delve further) more about real conflict than I learnt in school.

  33. bonjovi says:

    I think first two COD games did WWII justice. I’ve always seen myself dying a lot, but always imagined that each time I re spawned I was a different bloke, trying to run the same length of the field under fire. Kinda made me think how many of them died just trying to get to the next wall.

  34. TheApologist says:

    I have stopped playing games that depict real wars altogether. Not because of a well thought through position that I can justify particularly logically. It’s just because I *do* feel guilty. I feel guilty because the association of entertainment with the pain and trauma of real, ordinary people in war I have increasingly found unacceptable. My relatives have fought in a war. And war is probably the most obvious and greatest abuse of a population by its own, or another, State. I just don’t want to engage with it in my entertainment.

    And I think I’m probably a hypocrite, because in other games I kill people in fictional conflicts all the time, and that’s fun times. And perhaps I’m just hiding from a topic I find saddening. I’m not saying I’m right, but it just doesn’t sit well with me.

    I should also echo the commenter that praised RPS for publishing this article in a week where games PR/journalism will trumpet to the roof tops war as an entertaining spectacle.

    • TheApologist says:

      Also, the mechanics of health packs and quick saves and so on of gaming just made even games which tried – like CoD and CoDII – seem trivialising to me.

  35. _Jackalope_ says:

    I appreciated the effort they put into the Brother in Arms games (well at least the first, haven’t played any others). Problem was, they did such a good job I never completed the first one, it was too emotionally draining.

  36. Torgen says:

    Mr. Stone,
    A very introspective and timely article, it being June 6. I’m listening to the original radio reports of D-Day being broadcast over the internet as I read this, knowing that once again, I will choke up this evening as I hear President Roosevelt lead the nation in prayer, as I know far better than my grandparents did at the time the horrors that had and were occurring as he spoke.

    Until you hear their individual stories yourself, you don’t really understand on a personal level how, in a very real sense, they *were* “fighting to save the world.” Of course, that statement will likely bring responses from those who think they’re superior to others, with their all-knowing hipster attitude, but they haven’t heard the stories of these people in their own voices, and condemn them for not knowing the future.

    As a professional historical researcher, I’ve had my “knowledge” of how horrible these wars were made real, by reading the letters left behind. We all “know” how horrible conditions were, etc. but do we understand what we “know” before reading, for example, the letter from the Confederate soldier, sick in hospital, who is writing his sister to tell her where he quickly buried their brother in an unmarked grave outside a cemetery in a lull between firefights, and now they’ve been pushed out of the area permanently and he’s been refused to try and sneak across lines to retrieve it? (A letter I’ve held in my hands.)

    This is an area where some of the more realistic movies have helped: “Saving Private Ryan”, someone mentioned “Hotel Rwanda.” Even back to “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I think that perhaps this generation (some of us, anyhow) has more of an understanding of what war really means than any other who has not gone to war personally.

    • Arglebargle says:

      When reading Studs Terkels’ ‘The Good War’ (a great compilation of interviews with WWII vets, everything from Wehrner Von Brauns interpreter to black stevedores; a really good work, if any of you haven’t read it), certain patterns emerged. The guys who thought the war was glorious, were generally REMFs, supply, support, non frontline soldiers. The guys who had to wield a bayonet up close, or walk through fields strewn with intestines, they did not see it as so glorious.

      There was also a dichotomy between the soldiers who fought in Europe, and those who fought in the Pacific. I don’t know if it was the inherent cultural differences, or whether fighting in the jungle is just that different.

  37. bastronaut says:

    I can’t tell if the author feels guilty for actually playing war simulation games. In fact, I think he feels guilt (or maybe just ambivalence) about not feeling guilty. He’s stuck on the question of whether he should feel guilty or not. But guilt is not a moral imperative. It’s an emotional response with sociobiological origins.

    Guilt is an emotion which was evolved to help human beings get along in societies, which are more successful when individuals behave more predictably. Guilt helps ensure that you follow the rules. It’s a kind of trade-off, since you get to keep your socially questionable desires/urges/drives, and yet you won’t give in to those drives unless society provides some kind of contextual sanction, such as war.

    What you may be experiencing, in fact, is doubt about whether society has sanctioned the actions of simulated war gaming. Well, as far as I know, they have, since its legal and popular and not even fringe any more. There is disagreement, mostly amongst people who believe that wanting to play at war means that you would rather be fighting real wars, that you enjoy killing and cruelty, because killing and cruelty are a part of war, and, most critically, that partaking in simulated behaviours is a preparation for the actual behaviours. The guilt is meant to discourage the behaviours, so it’s no surprise it’s causing a small impediment to your ability to engage in the simulation.

    Guilt is a response to your awareness of the conflict between your different desires. What’s somewhat funny is that you’ve already successfully avoided giving in to your desires outright by sublimating them, but you’re still feeling guilty about the desires themselves. Perhaps you’re not sure if you’ve successfully sublimated them. Perhaps you’re not sure of their true nature. Are you in fact a heartless person who would willingly send others to die in service to an ideal, honest or contrived? Are you a cold-blooded killer who delights in combat for the surge of pleasure in defeating your enemy utterly and without remorse?

    Maybe. I think there has been a lot of ink spilt on the fact that most people have the ability to become killers, to sacrifice others, and to make unpleasant choices in appropriate circumstances. But not everyone.

    I think you have to be pragmatic when it comes to what you choose to do. It’s not as easy to be pragmatic about how you feel, since it doesn’t stem directly from choice. Some people feel guilty for having a good life, or even just for being alive, and that’s not only irrational, it’s unreasonable. In fact, it’s neurotic. Feeling guilty about playing war games is, I think, just a little bit neurotic. But war games are not something we’re adapted to. I don’t think human beings are properly adapted to any of the virtual events we experience nearly every day, which means there will always be some neurotic aspect, or at least confusion and doubt, regarding our feelings in response to those events, at least in the minds of intelligent, reflective people.

    So, in terms of playing war games, don’t get lost in the metaphors. It may look like you’re fighting a war, but you know you aren’t really. You’re just entering commands into a computer and watching a synthetic representation of combat units moving around on a screen.

    If you want to feel guilty, think about whether you spend way too much time thinking about and playing games. If not, don’t worry about it.

    The existence of video games probably doesn’t have much of an effect on real wars or whether or how they’re fought. They might be useful in preparing people mentally for some of the abstract or physical situations in which they might find themselves in a real war, but probably not for the emotional effects. Even the best novels and films only scratch the surface, I believe (never been in combat, or even a proper fight).

    War sucks, or at least many of its consequences do, but sometimes in some places it will be deemed the only remaining option, and that will be determined by the society and its leaders. And it really has nothing to do with video games one way or the other.

  38. The Innocent says:

    My grandpa was a bomber squadron commander in the Pacific in WW2, and he had some pretty horrifying stories that he never told until he was quite old and was worried he would die before he could express everything he had seen and done. He believed that he had been fighting a necessary and defensive war, but that it was still inherently evil for everyone involved.

    When I was a kid, he caught me playing a WW2 flight combat sim with some cousins and he sat and watched for two hours or so, totally mesmerized. Afterwards, he just talked about how poor our bombing formations were and how we were destroying bridges incorrectly. Then he patted us on the head and never said anything more about it. I’ve always wondered what went through his head about his grandchildren play-acting the same role that he had only grudgingly filled and then discarded as soon as the job was complete.

    So yes, I’ve thought at length about wargames and whether my response to them is appropriate. Thank you, Mr. Stone, for the thoughtful article.

  39. Inglourious Badger says:

    Tim, a brilliant article, you covered something I have often thought about before with an eloquence I’ve so far failed to find.

    My penny worth of thoughts are: Why set a game in a real war? What does Men of War gain that Starcraft lacks? I think it’s just the instant recognition. You can drop into a MoW:AS skirmish and know exactly whats going, who’s fighting who and why, without having to create any further content. It’s a cheap trick, really, but one that works painfully well. It’s like being handed a free Harry Potter license, or a Star Wars license to slap on your game. Instant recognistion, instant interest.

    In terms of feeling guilty I think it really depends on, crass as it sounds, what war is being depicted. WW2 was so sanitised, descensitised and so Hollywood-ified (a word?) before games even existed that playing a game set on the beaches of Normandy feels as guilt-free as playing a Star Wars game. Games definitely consolidate cinemas sanitised version of events but I don’t think games can be to blame for continuing it.

    Wierdly, though, I do find my self jarred and wincing with guilt-ridden discomfort even when a game switches to, say, Stalingrad, a theatre of war so far removed form the Saving Private Ryan’s and The Great Escapes of this world that it doesn’t feel like it could possibly be part of the same war. It very much still remains a ‘real’ conflict in my mind, so when the original Call of Duty decides to reduce it to a 20 minute action-fest, I do feel that pang of guilt again.

    The wierdest thing I find some developers doing is the seeming need to mantain some level of authenticity whilst ignoring the glaring realities of the conflict. For instance the ‘house defence’ section in Call of Duty’s Stalingrad is based on a true event in which a handful of Soviet infantry defended themselves against waves of German attacks for MONTHS (I can’t remember what it was called, if it comes back to me I’ll add a Wiki link). In Call fo Duty of course you get to breeze in, defend the final push, and then 5 minutes later you’re off on your next escapade. Is it worth it? Isn’t it better to just leave history alone if that’s how you’re going to rewrite it?

    The concern is that now games are probably the most prolific modern medium we’ve taken that mantle from cinema in some aspects, so we have a duty of care to maintain the right level of respect and authenticity to our war games that are becoming increasingly comfortable with depicting very recent conflicts. I don’t know if the Taliban’s and Al-Qaeda’s of this world just share a common evil aspect with Nazi’s or not but this ongoing conflict seems to be fair-game where previous conflicts have never been approached until years or decades after.

    Where my arguments all fall down is when looking at Arma’s conflicts. They’re so obviously based on Serbia, and then Afghanistan, yet they avoid any sense of guilt, for me anyway, and I think because of the effort gone to to create authenticity. It’s so painfully real when every Arma 2 mission has secondary mission objectives of ‘find evidence of genocide’. It doesn’t add a fun sidequest, it doesn’t give you an excuse to shoot more bad guys, it just sits there reminding you of the terrible atrocities that occured and the painfully blunt objectives faced by many modern soldiers. “Fight the baddies, and also, if you find any evidence, please let us know just so we can be sure we are fighting and dying for the right reasons.”

    Anyway, as i said, great article Tim. Good work.

  40. WhatGravitas says:

    To save your world, you asked this man to die,
    Would he, could he see you now, ask why?

    W.H. Auden

    [finish lining up another merciless digitised artillery barrage and pause to scratch my sweaty arse]
    hmm… probably


      History to the defeated may say alas
      but cannot help nor pardon

  41. oatish says:

    Great read and interesting comments

    quickly becoming my favourite feature, this is

  42. Kittim says:

    Well, an interesting article that was well thought out. Also a fascinating set of responses.
    Here’s my opinion, hopefully it won’t bore you.

    When it came out, I brought Silent Hunter 3. It had a subtle effect on me, starting with wanting to find out more about the people on both sides who went to sea in submersibles. This led on to visits to Wirral, Liverpool to see U-534, before it was vandalised by cutting it into sections.
    Also visited the Royal Naval Submarine Museum in Gosport, went on a great tour with an ex-submariner. I remember him saying how smelly they got.
    Expanding my interest to aircraft, I’ve visited Duxford several times, its home of the American Air Museum and the “Counting the Cost” memorial sculpture; 52 glass panels, each 6 foot six high, by 4 feet wide, each depicting scale engravings of every US aircraft based in England that was lost. There are 7031 engravings.

    So, I think it’s good such games exist. Playing Silent Service 3 made me a little uneasy; after all, I was sinking British and American shipping. But out of that was born a curiosity to find out what life aboard these things, reading about how they became pray of long range aircraft later in the war led me on to wanting to see these aircraft. While I would not go so far as to say it was life changing, it’s certainly had an impact, for the better.



  43. syncswim says:

    A videogame developer’s first overriding obligations is to entertain me. Moral judgments and pontifications, hackneyed or otherwise, are well and good should the developers feel so inclined, but frankly I could not care less, except if said judgments actively obstruct the entertainment value of videogame.

    If anything the furtive, handwringing need felt by many developers to shoehorn moralisms into wargames is indicative of a failure in Western culture to properly educate youth in the nature of war and what conflict has entailed since the beginning of history. Endure my straw man: Do I as an educated citizen of an industrialized liberal democracy need the loading screens of War in the East to feature captions stating “Germany systematically sent European jews into sealed ghettos and extermination camps where they were killed with an aerosol toxin called Zyklon B?” No, because I already know the nature of the Holocaust through my formal education and my own personal reading and self-education as a marginally intelligent individual. I am not offended when wargames abstract historical battles into pixelated spatters of gore and cartoon screams–videogames are by nature abstraction and, as mentioned previously, their only obligation is to entertain me–I am, however, offended when a wargame attempts to impose a certain schema of moral feeling onto my perception of a conflict.

    My grandparents were directly affected by the Second World War. Their country was invaded by the Imperial Japanese Army, my grandmother’s father’s estate shelled by IJN ships. They were forced into hiding in the mountains for the duration of the war, the stress of the predicament and the hostile jungle environment contributing to the miscarriage of a child who would have been my aunt. I recognize all of this as terrible, but it does not stop me from playing the Japanese in Men of War Assault Squad. Why? It’s a game and it’s fun.

    A lot more “cognitive dissonance” would be good for our perceptions of warfare in general. I actively seek out German campaigns in many WW2 wargames and make sure to play them first. Why? Simple, I have a great love for their equipment, uniforms, approach to strategy and tactics . Does that mean I condone the Holocaust, or am sympathetic towards national socialism in general? No, because I can abstract my intellectual reaction to history out to where I can appreciate and respect certain elements of a state actor’s character while finding others distasteful–that goes for both Axis and Allies. A great film example of this approach is The Thin Red Line, where soldiers on both sides of the conflict are shown to act both honorably or horrifically at different moments, but are, for the most part, human beings just doing their jobs in the most terrible conditions imaginable.

    I’ve always admired that most all historical wargames will present to you the opportunity to play all sides of a conflict with no shoehorned moralizing, though I am aware many would call this one of wargaming’s “greatest failings.” They are entitled to their opinion as am I.

    “Read a book” would have been the appropriate snide conclusion to this overly long reply, but instead I’ll offer some shoehorned moralizing of my own: Arguments that all media about warfare should be obligated to include a preordained, collectively accepted moral judgment about the content depicted evoke the same logic championed by the foes of the Allied forces of the Second World War.

  44. Plasmamate says:

    If people playing wargames (or any other video games) involving a conflict feel bad, what about the feelings of the designers who make these games ?
    As a game designer student, I think a lot about the message my future games will convey to a young generation of gamers : I think I will think twice about taking part in the production of a game about World War 2.

    Recently, I watched the HBO documentary : Wartorn: 1861-2010.
    Created by James J. Gandolfini, it depicts the mental effects (post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD) the war has on soldiers when they come back from war.
    Even if 15 to 30 % of the soldiers suffers from PTSD, all soldiers of all wars suffers from some kind of trauma because the act of killing and seeing your comrade killed is not something you easily forget (and something you don’t learn to deal with : you learn to be a soldier but you don’t learn to be a civilian again.)

    I became quite interested in the PTSD diagnosis and treatment and I learned doctors often use (video) games to help the victim understand the situation they were facing by recreating the situation(exposure therapy).
    What I know is that if I ever own a video game company that creates a FPS, I would give the engine of the game to researchers and doctors so they can use it to help veterans suffering from PTSDs.
    (If I don’t do it, I hope someone creating the next Call of Medal is reading this post.)

  45. Will Tomas says:

    I wrote an article recently about Noel Chavasse, and the importance of remembering people who went through immense difficulty and tragedy in war. Yet I still don’t have a problem with playing wargames. I think that echoes of difficulty are in many games experiences, as dangerous situations, including war – as horrifying as the consequences are – lead to some of the most dramatic human experiences. As long as a game captures the drama without becoming disrespectful games provide a facinating insight into the thought processes that accompany such situations.

  46. sdtipps says:

    The odd thing about this is that I think most who play games and have fought in war do not see a connection at all. This is what our unit did in Iraq in our downtime: it was cathartic. In fact, most bases had a building with a bunch of PCs and XBOXes hooked up so you could go blow off steam.

    The only game I have ever played that came close to getting the right feel was Operation Flashpoint/.Arma/Arma2. I have already noticed a number of you have mentioned the difference. Arma2 is probably the best of these in my opinion, but the raw novelty when I entered combat for the first time in Operation Flashpoint was not equalled until I heard that same sound; the only sound that let me know I was being shot at in-game, in real life. It did in a way, prepare me.

    Arma2 has another thing going for it. It put a face on special operations in a way that communicated something about the men I had served with and some of whom now are listed in a book I keep listing the names of those I know who were killed in the “War on Terror”. Even though there are huge character innacuracies (Marine Force recon go through the same training as the U.S. Army Green Berets), and you would never see a special ops guy complain like “Robo” does (Sykes was pretty accurate), it does accurately show the sort of war they are fighting. There are no certainties. You are supposed to become part of the local people. The international impact of your actions has to be constantly in your mind. I had one moment where I realized I was looking at a situation analogous to one in which a friend of mine was killed. The game gave me a chance to actually deal with it in a way that I hadn’t before.

    I never succeeded in my bid to win the Green Beret. My knees were shot from running up and down mountains. My eyes were too far gone. I did not have the social skills at the time to deal with the political side of the missions I would have been assigned. But Arma2 definitely captured the feel of being shot at: the moral ambiguity, the fear (even if it was only because I was worried I would loose my progress), the desire to make a difference and “free the opressed”. The amount of personal connection to the subject matter might make a huge difference. The fact that I was trained to think about this as a professional rather than a teenage drama queen might make a difference. But the fact is, war is very far away for most of us, but it is an integral part of what we are as a species, and games evolved largely as preparation for it. It only makes sense that games can evolve to help us deal with the loss.

  47. sdtipps says:

    BTW, thanks Tim for writing this. And thanks to you Brits who followed us into our dumb war. We couldn’t do it without you, and I would never have been able to find tea otherwise. It is a combat essential.

  48. RegisteredUser says:

    If everyone had just sat down and played against one another in virtual computer games, we wouldn’t need wartime walls and soldier graveyards.

    That kinda helps my conscience along splendidly.

  49. Fumarole says:

    To this day my Special Lady Friend cannot watch documentaries on the war in the Pacific with me as that is where her recently deceased grandfather served. I spent many hours in rapt fascination listening to stories of his various adventures. Though he showed me his Purple Heart, he never talked about combat other than to briefly tell me how he came to be wounded. I never asked about it.

    While I never told him I play games that seek to recreate a pale shadow of the hell he no doubt experienced, he was glad to speak with someone who had some knowledge and more importantly a passionate interest in learning more about what those times were like for him.

    He was a Good Man and is missed.

  50. deejayem says:

    Excellent column! Bit late to weigh in on this, but my twopennorth would be that, if you’re going to use material like this – stories of real-world suffering and brutality – then you have a responsibility to make sure your representation is accurate and meaningful rather than simply exploitative. This means that the setting needs to be a vital part of the work, not just incidental colour, and that the treatment of it attempts to communicate some measure of the suffering and grimness, and not paint the whole thing as heroic high-jinx (or worse, glorified gung-ho violence).

    These stories and these people deserve our respect.