Heavily Engaged: On Wargaming, Guilt And Remembrance

Every Sunday, we reach deep into Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s 141-year history to pull out one of the best moments from the archive. This week, Tim Stone’s piece on grognard guilt, originally published in 2011.

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.

or

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.

53 Comments

  1. moocow says:

    Making entertainment out of history and warfare is always going to be fraught with issues, but I think games have an inherent advantage having player agency often prompts the very introspection talked about here, even if that’s not the motive or intent of the developers. In the best games that introspection is of a different kind than brought about by a book or a film, maybe a sense a culpability or empathy that passive consumption doesn’t invoke.

    And no matter how much games are just about giving you a jolly old time, that’s substantially more defensible than say Sainsbury’s cynically exploiting one remotely feel-good moment in an unmitigated tragedy (and a moment that really only serves to illustrate how senseless the waste of life was) to sell more Christmas tat.

    • deejayem says:

      That’s a very interesting point about player agency. But I’m not sure I agree with it. Or at least, I agree games have the potential to communicate the impact of an experience more fully than other media, but I’m not sure many of them fulfil that potential or prompt introspection. Mainstream gaming is very teleological, it’s all about goals, scores, unlocks, etc. It turns warfare from something to be survived into something to be overcome, and in that kind of atmosphere it’s hard to evoke genuine empathy.

  2. Goodtwist says:

    First, if there is somebody to “blame” would it be the provider of the wargame or its consumer?
    Second, playing wargames is no obligation (or playing warshooters).

    1. If we were to suppose that playing wargames was somehow bad who would bear the blame, the provider or the player. Let’s take the analogy with drugs, in as the consumption of drugs is widely considered bad. Do you blame the drug dealer or the consumer?

    2. Instead of playing wargames you could play something not “bad”, i.e. war related. I guess driving sims or puzzle games could qualify. Also gardening roses, meeting folks or doing sports.

    I’m not offering answers, I’m simply making even more questions since I don’t hold the answers. But I believe by varying the questions you can approach the “right” answer.

  3. stoner says:

    First, you are not alone in your feelings. I’ve thought those thoughts as well. Even playing FPS games, that has crossed my mind. I was recently playing Silent Hunter 4, when I successfully torpedoed a merchant ship to send it and its crew to a watery grave (cliche, I know). After the initial delight in my victory, I was reminded of a similar scene in Das Boot. Initially, there is cheering among the crew. Upon surfacing, U-boat’s crew is faced with the horror of merchant seamen clutching pieces of flotsam to survive. And, they are appalled. The Kapitan reminds reminds the crew that there is nothing to cheer about men dying.

    Couple days ago, I watched a documentary on the Battle of the Somme and the stupidity of the generals who kept sending men “over the top” to certain death in wave after futile wave. Last night, I watched a documentary about Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. Sounds so clinical, doesn’t it? “Defeat at Waterloo”. Until you consider that over 40,000 men died in the space of nine hours. Death was not some abstract, delivered from an aircraft at 30,000 feet. It was bayonet-to-bayonet. You looked into the eyes of the man you were killing. Or, maybe, the man who was killing you.

    And, yet, I will play these games and others. In some ways, I am reminded of the horror these men and women went through.

  4. Fitzmogwai says:

    It’s definitely something I have thought a lot about. I suppose it’s best summed up by the time I tried explaining it all to my girlfriend, in answer to her question “why do you play such horrible games that are all about death and killing?”

    Well, I’ve never killed anyone, and I have no intention of ever doing so, of course. I treat the whole idea of “there is no greater glory than to die for one’s country” with the contempt it so deserves, and while I love playing combat flight sims or RTS or deep strategy games, the idea of actually dropping a bomb on, shelling or firing at another human being fills me with horror.

    And when I do think about what happened to the actual people who were in the situations depicted in many of the games I play, I feel pity for them, the soldiers and civilians, basically dehumanised and sent to die by politicians who simply wanted a larger slice of pie, or to cling on to the the power that was slipping away from them.

    But as I concluded to my girlfriend, I don’t kill people in the games I play.

  5. GernauMorat says:

    I don’t know the answer, but I think informing yourself about the realities of war is a must (for everyone, not just us grognards). Read Bao Nimh, read a Bright Shining Lie, read All Quiet, read the The Things they Carried etc, and remember that wargames are just that: games.

  6. Monggerel says:

    No, I reckon games are in the right for trivializing the suffering of the numberless dead.

    There’s something bitingly clever about their brand of banality and the mind-numbing platitudes they occasionally spout covering with a veil the tragedies of the world.
    Few other forms of media dare be so refreshingly fucking stupid on purpose.

  7. Lobster9 says:

    This may be a little unrelated, but it feels like a similar conundrum in my mind.

    Just over a decade ago I became heavily involved in a small modding community for Operation Flashpoint. It was one of many pockets of the overall Flashpoint community focused on creating historical units, environments, and missions for the base game. I was 17 at the time, and the only thing really going through my mind was making sure everything looked and sounded ‘cool’ and authentic to grainy black and white photos.

    I became quite friendly with an enthusiastic individual who was creating missions using the add-on packs we were creating. For a long time we tossed ideas back and fourth, and made great progress on the side of realistic authenticity and such, but one day things took a strange turn. The guy began running off his grand plan for a mission campaign that went to some pretty dark territory.

    Over a couple of days of hearing the guys increasingly disturbing views on history, it began to become really uncomfortable talking with him, and in the end I had to separate myself from his contact. The whole experience put a cloud over the hobby I was so invested in, and I began to realize that while the sandbox we were working in was built with the best intentions, you really had no control over who was consuming it, and for what purpose. In the end I moved on to other things, but I still think about the experience.

    Some time later, I had a chance to visit a memorial, and museum devoted to the particular things we were creating back then. I was able to describe with some detail how much of the equipment in the museum worked. I knew many of the basic facts about the objects, but knew almost nothing about the people who used them, which the memorial itself really brought home.

    I came away feeling a tangible guilt about the whole thing, and have since made it a point to take a greater interest in the human side of war, rather than just the mechanical diagrams of the tools used within it. I still think that these hobbies are built primarily on healthy curiosity, and the vast majority of people I met are thoroughly decent human beings, but it is always worth reminding yourself about the reality now and then, just to keep it all in perspective.

  8. coffeetable says:

    This is a great article, and I’d love to see more of them from RPS. I think “realism” in particular is an important topic to face down. How did increasingly accurate depictions of mass murder come to be a *selling point* for an entertainment product? Contrast this with cinema, where the gore is either suppressed completely or stylized/excessive. Realism is something very few films aim towards.

  9. MrFinnishDude says:

    This is why Valiant Hearts is my favourite game.

    • melnificent says:

      I came here to post this too.

      If Valiant Hearts didn’t have the cartoon style, but was instead an FPS with the same story and scenes it would be too depressing and upsetting to play. From the opening chapter to the final scenes is lessons in history and the punishing toll it took on people and the countless lives lost. The audio, stories, information, everything was spot on… including breaking up the harsh lessons of real life with puzzle sections.

      I played it with my eldest daughter (she is history mad) It was still hard going at points and we stopped more than once to talk about what was happening in the game, what happened in real life and we cried at the final act.

      “Even though their bodies have long since returned to dust, their sacrifice still lives on. We must strive to cherish their memory and never forget . . .”

      • MrFinnishDude says:

        Many tears were shed indeed. If one wouldn’t shed tears for the ending i’m sure they wouldn’t probably be even human.

  10. Zwebbie says:

    I had problems with this as well a couple of years ago. It felt disingenuous to treat video games as a place where I could be free from the morality that I use on a day-to-day basis. Just because it presented a ‘fake’ world didn’t mean that I was fake during the time playing it, and I figured that if I wanted to be a good person, I should be so 24/7, and not build in an hour a day of not having to be good.

    So I set myself a challenge: my new year’s resolution for 2013 was not to play any violent video games for a year. To be completely honest, I was, by that time, already wearied of games to such a point where one no longer finds solace in the standard blockbuster games, and the last violent games I played were Crusader Kings II and Pathologic. Still, it was sometimes hard not to be able to pick up games that I’d occasionally revisit.

    What surprised me most was how quickly I got sensitised to video game violence. I quickly got offended at the adds that popped up every time I opened Steam, as well as the rare televised ones. They’re so candid at assuming you enjoy murdering human look-a-likes in many ways possible. All the excuses I used to make for violent games, that they were actually about strategic thinking and wits under pressure, none of that was reflected in advertising, only the parts that by reason ought to horrify most. These days, any time I wait for a train, I can’t avoid standing underneath a giant Assassin’s Creed ad telling me how “beautiful” this stabbing simulator is. Anyway, even after my year long experiment was over, I never picked up another violent video game. I never felt the desire to.

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      Risingson says:

      Fantastic. I am planning to do the same though it is taking more time for me. It is just a though, one already mentioned many times in these pages: I don’t want to be, in a game, a person that I don’t like.

      • arisian says:

        While this is a completely valid way to feel, I don’t think it’s an obligation for being a good person. Just because an actor plays a villain in a play, doesn’t mean that the actor is actually a bad person in real life (granted, role-playing games are a more natural fit for the actor metaphor than strategy games, but I still think it fits).

    • aylien says:

      @ Zwebbie,

      I’m fascinated by your experiment, and how you went about it. How did you handle abstraction? Would you consider chess to be inherently violent, or does it have a suitable level of abstraction?

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        Risingson says:

        The limits are not that diffuse in this case I think. Though you stomp on walking mushrooms, Super Mario games do not feel very violent, for example. It is just avoiding the more “realistic” side of violence.

      • Zwebbie says:

        @aylien: Thanks for the interest! I didn’t extend my experiment to board games, so chess would have been fine; I even played some of the Lord of the Rings board game with my brother, and it’s far more violently themed than chess will ever be. Thing is, once you start disallowing yourself to partake in social activity with friends and family, that’s not going to help you live a better life. As much as it’s a shame that many board games, too, have violence as their theme, I think they still often bring out the best in people. You might argue some multiplayer video games do so as well, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone to give up their regular TF2 evening with friends, but the slurs that get thrown at you do give an indication that video games are less about losing gracefully and laughing at the mistakes you made than board games are.

        The line is sometimes difficult to draw, though. I played Waking Mars during this period, and bred a bunch of alien critters only to feed them to a predator that turned them into useful fertiliser — hardly the pinnacle of moral conduct, but not on the level of killing people either. In the end I finished it because I thought Waking Mars glorified beauty and life, not violence, but that can be just a thin layer of rationalisation.

        The most important and also hardest thing (in my opinion) is not to be a condescending jerk. A 3D animator friend of mine finally worked on a commercial game after ten years of aspiring to, and I told him that although I thought the art and animations looked very nice, I wouldn’t be playing his game, since I disagreed with its theme. In retrospect, that was the worst possible way to act. Being a real life jerk is infinitely worse than being a make-believe murderer.

    • Michael Anson says:

      I have to admit, I am curious. Did you extend your ban on violent materials beyond games? For example, do you not watch violent films, or not read books that feature violence? The reason I ask is that many compelling or educational stories involve violence to some extent, either in a historical context or as a source of conflict (such as the historical novels of Leon Urist), and by excising them, you may be doing yourself a disservice by ignoring the stories and messages they contain.

      Violence is by no means something we should strive for, but to completely excise it is perhaps the wrong course to take..

      • Zwebbie says:

        @Michael Anson: No, I didn’t extend it beyond video games; I feel that a lot of media can say very useful things about violence and its place in our and other societies. The interactivity is a big problem with games, because there is no disagreeing with it. I can watch a terribly violent movie and disagree with all its glorification of violence. I can’t play through a violent game and disagree with its violence, I’ll always have to think it at least worth committing such acts to continue. Games like FarCry 3 and SpecOps (which I’ve obviously not played, but read about) ludically invite you to violence and narratively disagree with it, so I don’t think that’s a wonder of pacifist thinking. After a movie or book, you can state “I wouldn’t have done it this way”, whereas finishing a game obviously you did do it this way. Mind, I won’t claim that I’m not a total hypocrite for this, because I actually appreciated some of Sergio Leone’s films that I’ve only now seen for the first time. And I’m a total fanboy of Ludovico Ariosto’s poem Orlando Furioso, which is all about knights stabbing each other. But on the other hand, I re-watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy a while ago and noticed I liked some scenes I previously didn’t care for, while being a bit bored with all the fight scenes.

        For me, at least, at wasn’t about avoiding any notion of violence and living in a safe bubble; I’ve spent the last year and a half writing an MA thesis on the punishment of revolts in the Middle Ages, so I’ve come into contact with plenty of blood-letting in nasty ways. It’s more about not relishing the opportunity to play an assassin or a tyrant. With other media it’s moreover quite easy to get into contact with works that talk about other themes. If you load up the Steam store, it’s basically all violence and a football manager.

        • Michael Anson says:

          So isn’t your issue not actually about the presence of violence, but rather the way violence is presented? Certain games that include violence can be subverted and played in a (more difficult) pacifistic manner, while others either show violence in a non-glorified manner, or merely have it present as an aside. A good historical wargame will convey a deeper knowledge of what was involved in a particular conflict, a good roleplaying game will offer a number of nonviolent options or show violent options as not being the best path forward, and any game worth playing would be more about telling a story than violent action.

          Then again, I don’t play a lot of modern, violent games (Crusader Kings and the like, mostly, where the focus is elsewhere, or RPGs with other options).

          • Zwebbie says:

            Thank you for replying even after this has been relegated to the second page! Your post got me thinking. I agree that many games these days also have a pacifist option and consider it to be a mark of greater skill. But I don’t think that necessarily makes them anti-violence. If I recall correctly, this is the excuse that one of the Disho(u)nored developers posited in an interview on this website: since you have a non-violent alternative, it’s all okay. That doesn’t, however, change the fact that several developers spent months on end trying to make killing people as much fun as possible. It’s true that many games fail miserably in making the violent options fun, but it’s never for lack of trying. In any case, even if violence is the lesser option, it’s still an option that wins you the game; whereas any proper pacifist piece will argue that violence has no winners.

          • Michael Anson says:

            I actually keep checking the article hoping that you’ll reply back. RPS could probably take a page from Kotaku there and have some form of notification system for replies. That said, I love a good conversation about ethics and philosophy.

            As far as those games go, the developers are rather obliged to make the mechanics smooth and well designed, as they wouldn’t be doing their jobs otherwise. That does not mean that you need to participate in those mechanics; you can live in a country with an active military while disliking the necessity of that military. More importantly, however, are games that ensure the actions of combat are well designed, yet play up the parts of combat that are unpleasant, namely what combat does to those who engage in it. And not just in the shape of physical injury, but also in the form of mental injury.

            As an example, I played through Far Cry 3. I played it to the end, even taking time to do a number of the challenges. I will likely never play it again, nor play Far Cry 4, because the developers were good at their job. Every character in that game was deeply unpleasant. Every action was disturbing. The craftsmanship as an indictment of this style of gameplay was impeccable. I do not regret the experience, and do not want to have it again.

            By excising violence entirely, you stand a great chance to miss those games that have important things to say, or messages to convey. Rather than removing violence completely, I recommend that you carefully review each game, understand what it attempts to achieve with violence as a background or main focus, and make purchase decisions accordingly. It’s more work, and may lead to some experiences that are unpleasant, but it also may be the better path. (Emphasis on “may,” I don’t claim to be an expert.) Exposure to ideas you disagree with is important, I feel, and you can strive to understand something without agreeing with it.

          • Zwebbie says:

            Before anything, I want to mention that I really quite admire the way your attitude of being both open and critical at the same time. By and large, I think I don’t disagree with your philosophy theoretically as much as I do practically, in that I personally haven’t played any game that did actually convey such a message effectively.

            You’ll have to feel free to correct me on the topic of FarCry 3, because I haven’t played it; if I’m misrepresenting it, it’s only for lack of knowledge. But as far as I have been able to gather, its thematic arc involves the player degenerating from a naive youngster into a bloodthirsty force of nature, with the game drawing attention to the idea that if you were to do the same things for fun in real life as you’re doing for fun in the game, you’d be an unworkable psychopath. It involves seducing you into being a nasty person, only to then ask you to take critical distance and ‘realise what you’ve become’ (so to speak). This is going to sound incredibly smug, but what I have been trying to do is apply that critical distance before playing. As a result, I don’t think games like FarCry 3 or SpecOps would really work on me; they seem to assume you’re already going in with a mindset of having fun without thinking much of the implications of violence. But since this is just hypothesis and information cobbled together, I would actually be very interested in hearing more of the way FarCry 3 affected you. If everything disturbed you, why did you finish it? What is the difference between you rejecting playing its sequel for having played this, and me rejecting it beforehand for its violence?

            I’d like nothing more than be proven wrong, but blaming the player for what he or she is doing is a trick you can only pull off so many times before it stops working; and perhaps it only says something about video game violence, not real world violence, whereas books aren’t just about book violence.

          • Michael Anson says:

            When I was younger, as part of my education, I read through Leon Uris’ Mila 18, which takes place in occupied Warsaw. The book was violent, ugly, and historically accurate, depicting the actions taken by both sides and the toll it took on the people of Warsaw. I read it, practically non-stop, from cover to cover, not because it was enjoyable, so much as it was important to do so.

            I played through Far Cry 3 for the same reason.

            I did so after it went on sale, knowing what content it contained.

            It is not necessary to go into a game blind to understand its message, any more than you need to be spoiler free to appreciate a movie. In many cases, knowing what to look for better allows you to appreciate what the creators are driving for (such as reading Watchmen before watching the movie, or 2001: a Space Odyssey). By knowing generally what was happening, I was able to observe it from outside, watch as the character changed, and appreciate the artistry in the portrayal. Likewise, I was able to observe the way the game pulls at your character (and, presumably, the player) by the appeal to hormones. I could note the subtleties in character interaction between NPCs that clued you in to certain events before they happened.

            I purchased and played the game because of how well it was crafted, and because I appreciated the message. That said, I don’t feel that the message needs to be said a second time, nor do I feel that I would like to endure another experience like that.

          • Zwebbie says:

            That’s interesting, and it sounds very much like the experiences I had with Pathologic and The Void, both of which are oppressive, dreadful, and never any ‘fun’; nobody ever plays them a second time, but that only time tends to stick with them. While I did appreciate, as you did with Far Cry 3, the way they were crafted and portrayed things, I still felt in the end that they were ‘games about games’; as is BioShock, and, for so far as I had understood, its sequel, SpecOps and Far Cry 3. Now I don’t mean to belittle your experience of the latter, and I think it’s great that you got something from it in the same way that you did from a piece of literature. I think we can all agree there isn’t the slightest justification of a ‘grognard guilt’ in a case where playing the game actually makes you more understanding and a better person. What I am curious about, is what exactly that message is that the game has in your opinion, and how it relates to the world outside the magic circle of games. Would you say that it would be worthwhile for my mother, who has no knowledge of games, to play Far Cry 3 (or any other violent game with a message) in order to learn something? I hope I don’t sound condescending here.

  11. SuddenSight says:

    I think this question is tied up in another pattern that has been bothering me lately: understanding a situation versus treating a situation with respect.

    For example, recently I have been spending a lot of time reading through the entries on Reddit’s AskScience and TheyDidTheMath subreddits. Some of the questions posted there are quite disturbing, such as How hard would you have to kick a ball in order to kill someone. That answer probably isn’t useful, but when is it appropriate to think about killing people? How much interest is acceptable?

    I tend to get very annoyed when such discussions are shut down unilaterally. It is easy to say that a discussion is too painful or too dangerous, and so we must avoid all mention of it. For examples, I would point to things like the Spanish Civil War – a self-imposed silence that is starting to end. I can understand why those involved don’t want to discuss it, but now we don’t have much time left to understand what happened. And the self-imposed silence had political effects: it quelled political dissidents and covered up atrocities. Refusing to discuss something is not the same as having no opinion.

    I think part of the problem is in how we view narratives and art as a society. To some extent we expect books, movies, and games to be “painless” to everyone – “it’s just a game.” But there are always stakes when real people are involved. If the topic material is something important or painful, then someone will end up hurt.

    But I don’t think silence is the correct response. There will always be painful expressions in games. Consider the often troubling representations of mental illness, or the (often debated) issue of gender. The issues surrounding the depiction of war are similar, though the emotions tend to be much stronger.

    Furthermore, understanding how people killed each other and why they killed each other is not the same as agreeing that people should be killed. Most of the grognards I have met tend to be the most vocal anti-war critics out there. While we have a duty to treat veterans with respect, we also have a duty to remember what war is and how terrible it is.

    My favorite speech on this subject is the first 20 minutes of Dan Carlin’s discussion of the Mongol Empire. To paraphrase his point, any discussion of conflict must always acknowledge the human cost.

    To summarize: I don’t believe silence is the correct answer. Silence can have real political effects, just like story telling can. These are important stories, and people will be upset about them. As content creators and consumers we must listen to and respond to what the real people who experienced these tragedies have to say. But there is a difference between respecting the past and forgetting the past.

  12. SlimShanks says:

    Well. If this isn’t a topic near and dear to my heart I don’t know what is. I would like to begin by saying that I have immense respect and appreciation for soldiers, especially the ones that fought for something good, (pretty much all of them from their perspective). I get very emotional on Remembrance day. My family has a long and proud military history, so I say all this with a great amount of gravity.
    Here we are, making judgements about war and about soldiers, and many here don’t even understand something as simple as dying for your country. If you can’t imagine sacrificing yourself to protect everything that matters to you, honestly, get out of this conversation. You are in over your head.
    So, the first obvious point to bring up here is why are we troubled by “trivializing” the lives of soldiers, but we are ok with trivializing the lives of everyone else? A bad peace can be even worse than war. The second obvious point to bring up is that some of us like to learn about history, and it’s hard to learn from something that isn’t realistic. Thirdly, I don’t understand depictions of gore, or lack thereof, making a death in a game more or less troubling. You commanded them, they died, end of story. If you feel nothing at that you should be questioning yourself, not the game. Not to say that I don’t get what everyone is saying about treating the subject matter appropriately, but that particular facet seems unimportant.
    I like what moocow said about player agency driving most of the introspection. I think that’s how it should be. I don’t really need horror pushed in my face, I know combat is ****ed up. And it actually drives me away from games like Red Orchestra 2 because it stresses me out. In the end, we have to accept that games and documentaries are very different things, and putting them together requires a great deal of skill to avoid spoiling the game/simulation aspect. I would not play a game that featured every wounded soldier howling in pain until the end of the round/battle. It would transcend into a much more serious, but much less fun experience.
    The last point to make here is the most important. Is this all exploitative of actual soldiers? Well… yes. How can one portray a real scenario for the purpose of entertainment and not be exploiting it? What actually matters here is that the subject matter is treated with respect. Having reminders here and there in game of how serious things actually were can be humbling without ruining your appetite and fun. I know this sounds like a very finicky and fine line, but I think that’s the way to do it. Not having games about important events, and educational ones at that, is the worst possible thing we could do. If it wasn’t for wargames, I wouldn’t have even a fraction of my current knowledge of warfare, and with that respect and admonition for the soldiers represented therein, and their real life counterparts.
    And the argument about the legitimacy of violence in games shall wait for another day…
    TL;DR Keep making wargames, avoid full-on documentary authenticity because it ruins games(usually), but also don’t whitewash over what really happened.

    • drinniol says:

      ‘Here we are, making judgements about war and about soldiers, and many here don’t even understand something as simple as dying for your country. If you can’t imagine sacrificing yourself to protect everything that matters to you, honestly, get out of this conversation. You are in over your head.”

      Wow, way to be condescending on behalf of all the soldiers, eh? Nobody joins up with the intent of dying for their country. If they do, they’re a fucking idiot.

      • Misha says:

        “Wow, way to be condescending on behalf of all the soldiers, eh? Nobody joins up with the intent of dying for their country. If they do, they’re a fucking idiot.”

        No, we don’t. But we join up knowing that we might, and we still join up.

        Because some things are just worth dying for, if necessary.

        And those who did die deserve to be remembered. Playing war games is one way of doing that.

        • studenteternal says:

          Lets not over-romanticize veterans here. Most of the actual, scholarly work I have seen on the matter suggests that few of the rank and file join out of love of their country and noble desires to place themselves between home and danger. Most join for simple or even selfish reasons: to get out of the small town they grew up in, to go to collage that they would not other wise be able to afford, because all their friends/family did and they don’t want to be thought of as less ‘manly’ (regardless of actual gender) etc. Enlistment comes with a new set of clothes of a popular recruiter promise at the beggining of the 20th century.

          Additionally lets not forget that the service men (sorry ladies speaking historically here) of our ‘great conflicts’ The world wars, Vietnam, U.S. Civil war (sorry brits, not an expert on your civil war) etc.. were by and large conscripted into the conflict and did not ‘choose’ to join at all.

          This is not to say that military men and women are inherently vile, or not capable of great acts, and there is no shortage of examples of soldiers going to extraordinary lengths, but lets not pretend there is anything inherently more noble to a service man then a civilian. (especially because as I alluded to above, the very best have usually been both, people who did not serve during peacetime)

          Disclaimers: this is mostly regarding the US military, I have not looked at much research regarding the enlistment in other countries. I did not choose to serve myself, but I am a air-force brat who’s father did a 17 year career, so while I may not have personal experience, I have at least seen military life up close.

  13. Longdan says:

    This is a very interesting and thoughtful article. When I think about it, however, I realise that I am just “playing”.
    Just playing like when we ran around the play park and some were good guys and some were bad guys and Bang! Bang! You are dead! Little caveboys did this, I do it on my dual core pron machine. When we ran around playing were we supporting genocidal political regimes or liberating countries so we could complain about their shocking ingratitude for generations after? Nope. Jump run hide shoot yell…all in safety. Playing. When I am in a space exploration game and my Kerbals get blown to smithereens do I cry out at the agony of the Space Shuttle
    accidents and turn it off? Nope I am playing and everybody is back to life at the flip of a switch except they are only toons anyway. I served my military time and sometimes think “that would hurt” or “that would be uncomfortable” or “that was a nasty bit of luck” but I don’t rejoice in my heart that another filthy servant of Satan or the Pathet Lao has been dispatched to hell. In my mind they are all still there tomorrow just like Petey and Billy were when I was a little fossil. When we were playing this as kids sometimes my dad or one of my uncles whose life experience we were literally playing out would come over and offer tactical advice and smile at our incompetence and bulletproofery. If enough beer had gone down they might join in. One of my Uncles was a Lt. Col. of an infantry battalion and that was real excitement! He commented laconically that the North Koreans would have had our nuts and we all laughed. I am never far from my memories of what life is like but I was never horrified when my daughter electrocuted her entire family of sims on purpose.

  14. MartinWisse says:

    So I’ve been playing Unity of Command this past week, having great fun invading the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa, but of course in reality closely behind my panzers there would’ve been the sonderkommandos setting out to murder communists, Jews and other “undesirables”. You can really only play and enjoy such WWII wargames if you can omit the context in which they took place and one of the problems I have with wargaming in general, is that we do too much time talking about the combat qualities of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler and too little time about their warcrimes. There’s an unsavoury tinge to some of the interest in the nazi warmachine.

    Perhaps wargame publisher could do their bit by focusing less on the heroic defence of Berlin and more on the heroic offense against the fascists’ capital….

    • Hanban says:

      That reminds me of when I played Unity of Command. I have played WW2 games for as long as they’ve been around, but only recently found out that much of my father’s side of the family were wiped out due to not being able to flee from Germany. So when I played Unity of Command as the germans, my wife got very upset with me thinking it was weird of me to play as the side responsible for my family’s flight. Having been playing these types of games for so long, I’ve in my gaming come to compleely detach any context from what I’m doing. It’s just two armies going at it.

    • Volcanu says:

      I had much the same reaction whilst playing Drive on Moscow recently. I had enormous fun, and derived great satisfaction, in successfully enveloping (and then liquidating) multiple Russian divisions culminating in my Panzer spearheads capturing Moscow before the onset of winter.

      But much like yourself I then paused and couldnt help but consider what that would have meant in reality, and it became a little uncomfortable. From a pure ‘gaming’ perspective, playing as the Axis can often be very appealing -as especially in post 1942 scenarios you often have the odds stacked against you to some degree. But it doesn’t always sit well with me. And silly as it might be, I find I cant play anything where I’m fighting the British. I think the idea of destroying British formations, when both my grandfathers fought in WW2 is just too uncomfortable. Sometimes I think what my granny would say if she was watching me play as the Germans. She was Dutch and never really forgave the Germans for what they did in the Second World War (I know she saw some very unpleasant things), and I think she would probably be appalled to see me ordering Panzer divisions around.

      Anyway, not a coherent point – just some musings of my own….

  15. melnificent says:

    It’s not just games that seem to trivialise war.

    Sainsbury’s is using the first world war as an advert for their store. Who thought millions of deaths would make for a good advert? Or that the sacrifices all those soldiers made could be appropriated for a supermarket.

  16. mariandavid says:

    In my case what makes the guilt even worse (and of course quickly hidden behind the joys of gaming) is that even when they try war-games never really put us, as gamers, in the position real generals felt. I was reminded by the comment above of the stupidity at the Somme of sending endless lines into battle. And yet the Somme is considered a victory measured in what you have to do to kick an equally talented and equally strong enemy out of his trenches. There are so few games (and even fewer novels) that depict what you have to do to win when the enemy is just as good as you are – instead there are always little dodges that let you take the objective easily and without conscience.

  17. WiggumEsquilax says:

    Rather than going to war, we use video games as an outlet for our urges of conquest. Morally ambiguous though it is, I for one am grateful to live when I do. Beats the alternative.

  18. manny says:

    Also simulation of killing and strategy increases the costs of real war. Like the movie and series “Generation Kill”, the ease our generation feels in taking life makes real conflict more deadly and decisive. All the more reason to avoid it, as the mistakes and miscalculations made in war have magnified real costs. That is why war has decreased overtime as weapons, training and strategy have become deadlier.

  19. MrBillwulf says:

    Is there something morally dubious about finding relaxation and pleasure in simulations of situations in which relaxation and pleasure were impossible?”

    No, because simulating those situations is an act of contemplation and play; the pleasure we take lies in the contemplation and play, not in the horror of those situations. In the Poetics, Aristotle pointed out that we take pleasure in the depiction of unsavory things because we take pleasure in learning things from such depictions. The murder mystery is a good example. We don’t want to experience a murder in real life, but unraveling a mystery is a pleasant form of play. War games exercise our strategic and tactical faculties, a pleasurable experience for many of us.

    • deejayem says:

      Nice point about Aristotle, but it’s worth remembering he also had very restrictive ideas about what was and was not appropriate subject matter for art and theatre. If we only wanted to exercise our strategic minds, we could play chess or Go – something that abstracts our play completely from real-world violence. To use your example, a lot of games focus in much more depth on the murder than the mystery.

      I’m not sure this is inherently problematic, but I do think it’s worth standing back sometimes and considering just what it is we’re fantasising about.

  20. psepho says:

    What a very interesting article. A related point in my mind in recent months has been the extent to which the First World War can be seen as driven by, essentially, ‘gamer’ attitudes. You look at Germany’s anxiety about borders, the simplifications of the Von Schlieffen plan and their willingness to kick off a multi-opponent war so abruptly, and it all makes much more sense to modern eyes when you acknowledge that this is a group of people who basically invented modern gaming in the form of kriegspiel. If you spend enough time sitting around a map with a collection of miniatures it does things to your sense of perspective and risk. Critically, any war game is by its nature a bounded set of possibilities, the risk of a total unknown factor is non-existent. By contrast, as is seen throughout WW1, real life is basically one giant unknown factor. Maybe the guilt for war gaming, and gaming in general, is that it sells hubris and an illusion of competence in relation to war which we all buy into and perpetuate?

    • manny says:

      Germany in WWI was determined to become a superpower at the expense of his neightbours, everything including their game simulation served that higher purpose.

  21. Chiron says:

    What gets me about games is how… sanitised they are, everything feels clean and sterile. Shoot someone and the body just falls, little to no blood. In games like Operation Flashpoint (or ArmA if we’re using new names) or RTS games there are no huddled civilians crying in the corner, no friendly fire, no mud and blood spraying up everywhere while smoke billows. It all feels very clean and artificial. If there is an emotional trigger its usually thrown in as part of the plot like the nuke in Call of Duty (which I actually found somewhat harrowing, I played the game utterly unspoiled) or a ham fisted attempt at emotional leverage (press F to Mourn)

    Ironically it was Soldier of Fortune, a jingo blasting old school shoot em up that saw a slightly more realistic approach to filling people with hot lead, and you know what… I felt somewhat wrong when I got pissed off and ritually blew a particularly troubled enemy away, bit by bit, asking myself what the fuck I was doing.

  22. deejayem says:

    Superb article – very happy to see it resurrected! I think when it originally came out I commented that the key, for me at least, was respect. War is a massive and terrible thing, and if you’re going to use it in entertainment (in whatever medium), you need to ensure your depiction of it is massive and terrible enough to justify it.

    One question not asked often enough, I think, is why are these things important to remember. It’s not just to honour the dead, although that is important, but also to remind ourselves just how awful they* were, and how vital it is not to let anything like that happen again. When our great leaders talk about “surgical strikes” and “collateral damage” and all that bullshit, it’s because their understanding of warfare is based on some idea of glorious sacrifice rather than tragedy.

    *Er – “they” referring to wars, not the dead, obviously.

  23. PlanetTimmy says:

    15 years ago I was in the middle of writing a PC WWI arcade flight combat game: link to web.archive.org
    It was inspired by the PC classic ‘Sopwith’, but as you would expect basically involved flitting about in biplanes, shooting down other biplanes and bombing ground targets.

    Since then, I have many times wondered about whether my creation trivialised the effects of War, and specifically those who died and suffered during WWI.

    One day I was at the RAF museum in Cosford looking at the wreck of a Halifax II that had been retrieved from the bottom of a fjord in Norway where it had crashlanded trying to bomb Nazi ships which were stuck in the ice in the fjord.

    I ended up chatting to a couple of elderly gentlemen who turned out to both be WWII aviators – one of them had been in another Halifax that had crashed in roughly the same place the night after the one in the museum. The other was a pilot in a Lancaster; they had both been captured by the Nazis and had met in a prison camp. I had a fascinating chat with them, but I made a point of specifically asking them what they thought of games being made out of a war they fought in. (Sure, they were WWII rather than WWI, but I figured it was close enough)

    As it turned out they were pretty positive – they both played flight simulators, normally civilian ones, but sometimes WWII ones as well. The main thing they were concerned about was that those who were fighting in the game were portrayed respectfully.

    Anyway, the experience didn’t completely soothe my conscience, but I thought it was pretty interesting to hear about it from some people who had actually fought in ones of the wars we play in.

  24. BarryK says:

    I’d suggest trying Valkyria Chronicles. It’s an exceptional game that’s not just set in a war, but about war.

    As for “Is it unseemly to use real suffering – real sacrifice – as the basis for breezy entertainment?” – It’s been OK for thousands of years, everything from traditional folk songs, national anthems, poetry, stories, books, movies, TV shows, games and now videogames have used it as a “basis for breezy entertainment”. Games, as usual, aren’t some sort of exception.

    There’s a very obvious and very clear distinction between “breezy entertainment” and deliberately disrespectful tosh, thankfully 99% of people can make the distinction without getting offended on someone else behalf.

  25. JarLoz says:

    As I read this article, a stray quote came into my mind: “War is a brutal, deadly game, but a game, the best there is. And men love games.” It bugged me for a while, so I googled and came upon this gem: Why Men Love War by William Broyles Jr.

    • Hanban says:

      Weird, unrelated question here: Did you at one point play WoW on Argent Dawn a few years back?