Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Whose game is it anyway?

I thought computer games might be a good place to begin.

Recently there was a discussion on the email forum of the International Society for First World War Studies (ISFWWS) about the relative absence of First World War related computer games. The Second World War has always been fertile ground for computer game designers because deep down most people want to shoot Nazi soldiers in the face.

During the teaching for my course (Time and Place: 1916: The Somme) I gave my students a link to this computer game on the BBC website:

It's clearly aimed at school children and, as such, shouldn't be viewed as 'deep history' but at the same time I (and after I brought it to their attention) the ISFWWS found it rather troubling.

The game presents a fairly cliched view of the war (hardly unusual, I blame A J P Taylor) but there are several subversive aspects to it that carry it beyond the traditional 'mud, blood and death' view of war in the trenches.

First of all the actual tactics you are able to employ don't properly match their real world equivalents. The notion of a 'creeping barrage' is well documented in historical terms but the order and implementation of the various aspects within the game often results in you losing the battle and all your men being killed. Even when it comes to employing sound defensive tactics (artillery, machine guns, infantry) the game seems to take a contrary view of such decisions and informs you that you have chosen unwisely. After encountering this response numerous times my eventual reaction was; 'No I bloody have not!'

Most concerning though is that the game cannot actually be 'won'. There are only 4 levels and the 4th (a reproduction apparently designed to mirror the Passchendaele offensive of 1917) is impossible to complete. After trying once the game informs you that to continue attacking in these circumstances would be tantamount to murder and that you should be thoroughly ashamed of yourself (or words to that effect).

How do we reconcile the idea that trench warfare could not be mastered and that, to attempt to, robs you of your humanity? Particularly considering the fact that the war in the trenches was, eventually, won by the Entente powers?

Whose history are we supposed to be teaching our children?


  1. Welcome to the world of blogging!

    I think WWI (popularly known I guess as the first massive mechanised war in 'modern' terms) is often used as a vehicle for anti-war messages... so it's taken out of context and used as a symbol for 'war is bad'. Hence why you can't win the game: the designers are even perhaps subconsciously instilling the game with the broad message that 'war is bad' and war is unwinnable because the existence of war is the ultimate failure of humanity and will always lead to more wars, there can be no end.

    While technically wars are won on military terms, I must admit in my wishy washy liberal side I can't help but have a bit of sympathy (or at least see why they happen) with representations of war which are deployed with an anti-war stance. What would be revealing is to combine the deep historical research with a study of representations, myths and symbols of history and how they have formed and why at a particular time subsequently...

  2. Oh I think you're absolutely right.

    When comparing World War One and World War Two, 1914-1918 always comes off far worse because of the seemingly mixed results, high bodycounts that are difficult to rationalise (it often comes down to a 'men vs ground gained' argument which is misleading) and, obviously, there's a blinding absence of Nazis. WW2 has a clear and recognisable 'evil enemy' which adds a level of justification to th war (even though it wasn't really what was motivating the war).

    I share a wishy-washy liberal side with you as well. I once wrote an essay (2nd year undergrad) which argued that if the myth of the First World War could prevent future wars then perhaps it was worth it.

    Now though the war myth irritates me much more. I think that might be a result of spending so much time reading these guys' diaries. Many of them believed in the cause and what they were fighting for. I find the revisionism 90 odd years on that essentially implies that they were all wrong and stupid very difficult to swallow.