I wrote the below article last year and posted on the astute and venerable games website (formally Teletext site) Gamecentral. I post this again today as I still feel that it’s still relevant given the release of Call of Duty: WWII. The article questions whether first person shooters are a suitable way to portray any real world war, and whilst there are direct references to Battlefield 1 you can apply them almost uniformly to COD:WWII.
I was one of those folks who had an allergic reaction to the idea of Battlefield 1 when the First World War premise was leaked. I’ve considered why I had such a strong negative reaction to it, and in part I thinks it’s due to way I was taught about the war in school. Additionally, hearing about the experiences of the late Harry Patch, known as ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’, connected all of what I’d learnt in school about the actual human cost.
Finally, the powerful and excellent novel Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks really hammered home the obscenity of the war to me. Even as I reflected on it all there was a something else that disturbed me about the idea of Battlefield 1; it’s a first person shooter.
You’ll have to stay with me here, and I should point out that as a gamer, I love first person shooters. I’ve spent hundreds of hours on dozens of FPS games over the years. The FPS I’ve enjoyed the most tend to be somewhat removed from reality and dislocated from real life and history in some marked way. I never liked Call Of Duty 3 back in the day (a Second World War game) and I always felt a vague distaste whilst playing it, though I couldn’t articulate why at the time.
I never gelled with Call Of Duty: World At War either, even though I completed the game. This past summer I had an odd moment of déjà vu as I stood before the Reichstag building in Berlin and wondered why I felt I had been there before. The answer of course was that the Reichstag was the final crucial conflict in the final European battle of the Second World War, as well as World At War. The Reichstag remains, on the outside at least, noticeably bullet chipped as a result of that conflict, so I found it a little disquieting to equate the disposable carnage I wrought in World At War with the reality looming before me.
Despite my misgivings about Battlefield 1 I’ve come to recognise that if the subject of historical warfare is suitable for books, music, and movies then there should also be room for representations of real war in games. What I would argue though is that if you are going to base games on a real world conflict you have to take responsibility for depicting the subject matter in a thoughtful and valuable way, and not reduce it to mindless Bayhem. This is a challenging task with a single-player FPS and nigh on impossible to do with an online FPS.
For example, the well-respected Valiant Hearts was a great game with a very different tack on the kind of storytelling, perspective, and gameplay you might expect in a ‘war’ game. The Total War games, as another example, are extremely violent and yet are also enthralling, educational, and abstract. I think fundamentally it’s that abstraction coupled with their educational and artistic qualities that makes Total War and Valiant Hearts much easier for me to engage with.
In Battlefield 1 there is comparatively little abstraction from the real violence of the First World War. When I played the beta I clicked the right stick on my PlayStation pad and my character charged with a convincingly feral war cry before plunging a bayonet into the enemy, and then proceeded to nail him to the ground with it. This is a visceral depiction and more than that, this actually happened in the First World War. This is how real people died, and in the Battlefield 1 multiplayer you get points for this. It’s rewarded and therefore rewarding.
If games are ever to be considered as art, and if art is understood to shed light on the human experience, in what way does the facsimile of a bayonet charge educate or shed light on the war and those fighting in it? Well, you could argue that this visceral depiction of close quarters violence conveys something of the horror, fear and adrenaline felt by soldiers in the First World War. However, the reality of the FPS experience is that rather than horror, the player only really feels the satisfaction of the kill, the heady ego boost inherent to having inflicted a humiliating end to another player.
Again, you could argue that even this is valuable experience, as a taste of the dark heart of humanity and bloodlust – or some such nonsense. The truth is that in a FPS we don’t think or reflect upon it when it happens, we’re not given time. Instead we just laugh, or find a satisfied smile on our faces as we are tickled by it. In Halo, Titanfall, Doom, or even Wolfenstein: The New Order, this is all well and good, they are ridiculous and don’t pretend to depict real conflict.
The violence itself is often Tom and Jerry-esque albeit with a few more gallons of blood and guts! I don’t have blanket issue with violence in video games, in fact contrary to those who claim gaming incites violence I feel that violent games often act like a pressure release valve and provide a cathartic outlet for people, and may actually have a more positive social benefit in this regard than many accusers would credit.
What I do challenge however is the suitability of the contemporary FPS genre as an appropriate means of depicting something like the First Word War. Although at first glance the FPS genre would seem to be the most natural fit for a historic war game like this, I think it’s precisely the FPS viscerally exciting nature which precludes it from being the best genre to depict real warfare with the gravity it deserves.
FPS have long been about the satisfaction of destroying and dominating the opponent. That’s the joy of a good FPS, particularly online, and it’s great to get the adrenaline pumping in the games I’ve already mentioned, and to laugh and whoop at demolishing the ‘bad guys’. But, when I consider having that same emotion and stimulation from a FPS created to exploit the context of a global conflict in which millions of people died, I find it more than a little tasteless.
Battlefield 1 will no doubt be an enormous financial success, and there’s always the chance it will foster a greater understanding of the First World War and its impact on the world. I’ve watched the recent 12-minute Storm of Steel single-player gameplay and I was somewhat relieved to see how far off the mark some my initial fears were with the depiction.
However, despite DICE’s admirable and clear attempts to bring a kind of bleak solemnity to the game, I’m certain that these attempts at gravity and impact will be swiftly ground to dust under the weight of repetition and swept aside in the drive ‘for the win’ that FPS inevitably bring out in us all.