War in a Time of Games: Realism Versus Fantasy
The modern era has benefited tremendously from video games. They have helped push forward computer-generated imagery (CGI) at a tremendous clip, developed AI, and aided in the technological revolution on a variety of different levels. One of the greatest niches of the gaming industry that has facilitated this evolution has traditionally been war games, with their engines and UX often breaking boundaries and blazing new technological trails.
However, just because war games are helping technology doesn’t mean they’re a godsend on every level. One growing question is how well these games are representing the events that they portray. Are they doing so realistically or not? And how is this affecting those that play them?
One development that has come along with an increase in the graphics capabilities of modern video games has been a tendency for modern designers to champion the authenticity of their simulations. While encouraging players to understand a fuller, more deeply complex experience of war may initially sound like a step in the right direction, the truth is, the on-screen reality hardly plays out quite the way you’d expect it to.
Instead, the overly graphic nature of many modern war games tends to directly and ruthlessly desensitize its audience, encouraging them to grow calloused and heartless towards their in-game enemies, even as they are shown more and more graphic representations of what their weapons can do to an opponent’s dying body.
Another common issue that video games necessarily create is that of flattening deep characters out for the purpose of a storyline. No one wants to understand the complexity of a villain when the whole point of the game is to shoot them in the face. When it comes to the all-important progression within a video game, motivations, backstories, and rounded-out viewpoints all disappear into the ether, replaced with a one-track-minded motivation to kill, destroy, and laugh while you do it.
Another factor that is an ongoing challenge for all war video games is how they represent the often historical settings in which they’re placed. The problem isn’t lazy research. On the contrary, many of those involved in war video game design dive into the challenge, soaking up everything they can about the history and events of the era that they’re depicting.
However, the problem arises when it comes to properly telling the story itself. Remember, we’re talking about how realistic these games are. As any true history buff will tell you, a proper view of history requires a well-rounded view of the facts and motivations of everyone involved.
If you approach a historical conflict from a one-sided viewpoint, chances are you’re going to end up with a fairly skewed view of what happened. The ancient Romans are famous for coming up with any and every excuse to attack their neighbors. However, modern historians have found that classic events like the Barbarian Invasions that took place during the later centuries of the Roman Empire were sparked by groups of people that were genuinely looking for help, not simply bent on savage destruction.
The issue arises from the very motivation of why we play the video games that we do. They aren’t designed to flesh out motivations and understand deeper subplots. They’re designed to experience a thrill … and a win. They instill in the player a desire to vanquish their foes at any cost. While this may imply a certain sense of real experiences for the participants of many conflicts, though, it hardly can be counted as a genuinely realistic representation.
The Superhero Effect
One of the unfortunate side effects of war video games is the fact that they tend to glorify the warriors in their gory glory, while the real effects of war end up left in the dust. When a playable character shows a bit of a hardened exterior shell, this inevitably ends up simply causing younger players to identify with the desire to be a “tough and grizzled veteran,” as if the jaded edge of the character is somehow a choice rather than having been developed by long-term exposure to the horrors of war.
In reality, of course, war is an extremely unpleasant situation that very few people tend to thrive in. Rather, the front lines of battle have traditionally led those who experience it firsthand to fall silent, choosing reticence over reliving the horrors that they’ve witnessed or taken part in.
The famous Greek historian Herodotus, for example, famously skipped over the Battle of Marathon itself, giving it nothing but a few short paragraphs all after providing a gargantuan lead-up along with a lengthy description of the aftermath. His motivation to under-highlight the actual fighting likely came from the fact that he, along with his initial audience, were all veterans of the bloody affair and didn’t need to parse through the details once again.
Video games fall utterly short of depicting how these horrors carry beyond the battlefield. It is an issue that even our cinema largely failed to address until more modern flicks like Thank You For Your Service or The Hurt Locker began to shed light on the crisis facing veterans that return from the battlefront.
Often these veterans face genuine struggles with re-entry into civilian life. There are obvious annoyances like finishing their college educations or finding employment. But the struggles don’t stop there. Many veterans returning from the front lines also face unexpected discrimination, the difficulty of learning to live with permanent physical limitations, coping with PTSD — the list goes on.
Cold Reality VS Escapism
The world is slowly becoming more and more aware of the horrors of war, as well as post-war concepts like PTSD and the challenges that military personnel face upon their return to civilian life. However, this awakening is hardly being aided by the representation of war within video games. On the contrary, the fantastical perspectives and common goals that are so often woven into the war video game experience tend to do nothing but stoke the desire for glory and senseless killing with hardly a nod to the horrible repercussions that this can lead to.