Video games are one of today's most popular storytelling mediums, but how are the realities of war represented in the virtual world? From first-person shooters to real-time strategy campaigns, modern games often depict thoroughly researched historical events. But how do they handle the tension between the thrill and tragedy of warfare in a game and its repercussions in the real world?

A fascination with war

Still from the British film "The Battle of the Somme".
© IWM (Q 79501)

 

War has always made for compelling stories. War’s violence begets wrenching human drama, whether for soldiers on the front lines or civilians at home, and our appetite for war stories has been fed by generations of war storytelling, often adopting the newest technology.

Photographs captured the horror of the Crimean War. The First World War flickered on cinema screens. The Second World War was reported by radio.

And the many conflicts of the Cold War appeared nightly on our television screens. By the late 1970s, as video games started to reach audiences, game developers knew that a large market existed for games about war.

Board Games

Night Raiders board game
© IWM (EPH 4080) Night Raiders board game

 

We’d played at war before of course. Board games like chess abstracted the medieval state, with its armies, clerics and kings, into a game of strategy.

Gameplay offers us ways to think about war, and while games may share a set of rules, their presentation can give them widely different meanings.

In From The Ranks to Field Marshal, players race to advance their military careers. In Night Raiders, players pilot bombers on a mission to attack German factories in the early Second World War.

Both Raiders and From the Ranks are snakes-and-ladders games, but their artwork and setting shows how game mechanics can take on different meanings in different contexts.

Video games are now among our most popular forms of entertainment. In 2020, Britons spent more than £7 billion on gaming. War can seem uniquely suited to exploration through gaming; the challenges of combat or command can both be powerfully evoked in gameplay, while war also offers a natural setting both for competition and cooperation among players. As visitors to War Games will see, video games offer a diverse range of experiences.

First Person Shooters

Still from 'Wolfenstein 3D'
Still from 'Wolfenstein 3D' Licensed courtesy of ZeniMax Media Inc. Developed by id Software LLC. ©1992 id Software LLC, a ZeniMax Media company. All Rights Reserved.

 

Among war video games the first to spring to mind might be first-person shooters (FPS); games that show you the game world through the protagonist’s eyes, and which base their gameplay on immersive gunfights.

In War Games, visitors will meet designers and game developers including John Romero, formerly of id Software, whose game Wolfenstein 3D set a pattern for the entire genre.

We’ll also meet game devs behind massive franchises including Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and Arma 3.

Virtual worlds

Still from Sniper Elite 5 showing silhouette of solider from the Second World War on a zipline.
© Rebellion

 

Video games build virtual worlds in which everything the player sees and experiences is created by a game’s developers.

For games aiming at a realistic depiction of the real world, enormous efforts are made to accurately reproduce weapons, equipment and environments. For instance, hours of work goes in photographing and recording historical firearms before they are painstakingly recreated in the game world.

In War Games, visitors will see how real details from history have informed games like Sniper Elite 5, the recently released stealth shooter from developers Rebellion. 

Beyond shooters

Still from 'This War of Mine'.
Still from 'This War of Mine'. Provided by 11 bit studios.

 

But War Games isn’t only about shooters. Increasingly, games are approaching war and conflict in innovative and empathetic ways.

In This War of Mine, by Polish developers 11 bit studios, players control a group of civilian survivors in a city under siege.

The game’s setting was inspired by the horror of the siege of Sarajevo. Game developer Przemek Marszał told IWM curators that the development team were searching for a meaningful story to tell, and the idea of a game about the struggles of civilians at war was like ‘a hit in the heart’.

Emotional stories

Still from 'Bury Me, My Love'
Still from 'Bury Me, My Love' © The Pixel Hunt/Figs/Arte

Video games are also capable of evoking powerful emotions. Moved by newspaper coverage of Syrian refugees making dangerous journeys in the hope of finding safety in Europe, French developer Florent Maurin designed ‘Bury Me, My Love’. The player, taking the role of a Syrian man named Majd, exchanges messages with his wife Nour as she attempts to flee Syria.

Reflecting the difficulty and hazards of the journey, the game’s story can end in numerous different ways; Nour might reach safety in a European state or find herself trapped in a desolate refugee camp on the Syrian border. She might even perish, a victim of the violence and danger faced by refugees. Played on a smartphone, the game mimics the instant messaging apps commonly used by refugees to keep in touch with loved ones, and leverages the intimacy that we ourselves feel, when we message our family and friends.

Training for war

Still from ‘Virtual Battlespace 4’
Still from ‘Virtual Battlespace 4’ © Bohemia Interactive Simulations.

Video games are entertainment. But they aren’t just entertainment. Their engaging and interactive nature has long put them on the radar of military organisations looking for efficient ways to train troops for battle. When Atari’s smash hit tank combat game Battlezone hit arcades in 1980, it attracted the attention of the US military, who commissioned prototype versions of the game for training US Army tank gunners.

The prototypes never reached full production, but they pointed to the future widespread use of so-called synthetic environment training, in which computer simulations allow troops to practise tactics or procedures, without the cost or safety precautions required for live-fire training. As visitors to War Games will see, software like Bohemia Interactive Simulations’ Virtual Battlespace 4, used by numerous national militaries has come along way since the vector graphics of Battlezone.

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