Do violent video games make violent people? Often asked during the initial explosion of the video game medium into the world, it was a question with which most of us were plagued as kids by ever concerned parents, as we strove to better understand something so new and with frightening potential. Though by now most do not ascribe to the theory that violent video games somehow increase gang-related crime, there is still a sense of unease surrounding the violence of some games. While some can be explained away as being part of the horror or sci-fi genres, for example, the same cannot really be said for games such as Battlefield 1. For a game rooted in the historical past which, lest we forget, is only a few generations behind us, it can be difficult to morally justify taking an event in which so many died and suffered, the pain and political consequences of which are still being felt today, and turning it into entertainment. As a fan of video games and of the medium in general, yet also as both a history buff and a member of a family with a long history of military service, I feel I am in a somewhat unique position to offer a balanced argument on the topic of whether historical shooters such as Battlefield 1 are in any way immoral or disrespectful.
Historical shooters have been around for a while now, and many of the questions I am asking may feel like they have been asked and answered countless times. Yet on completely the same level, I was slightly surprised when it was announced by DICE that the successor to the high-tech Battlefield 4 was to be set during the First World War. Surely the trend for shooters was past this now? I thought we’d moved on, demanding more and more high-tech combat – the Call of Duty franchise, most of which I had deliberately ignored, had been setting games only in either the present day or not-too-distant future since 2009, and the Battlefield series itself had been doing the same since 2005. I was so curious that I checked out the trailers, and what I saw left my mouth hanging open, but my stomach writhing.
Let me provide some context: over the summer I visited one of the most realistic historical exhibitions I have ever experienced, the First World War exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London. Everything I saw there, the gas masks, the coats drenched with mud and blood, the bombs, bullets, bayonets and video recordings of singing brothers-in-arms who were dead a day later; it all filled me with such horror and revulsion at the suffering and agony endured during that time that by the end of it I didn’t know whether I wanted to cry or vomit or both. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life, playing on my body feeling for all intents and purposes that I was there, yet my brain screaming at me for the sake of self-preservation that I wasn’t. During one particular moment, visitors walked through a fake trench, with fake churned-up French soil, fake rats, the lot, all to a hideous soundtrack of machine gun fire and artillery shells exploding over your head; you turned the corner and there, looming over you, was a British Mark IV tank, crashing over the gap of the trench. This is exactly what happens during the reveal trailer for Battlefield 1, the realism for which was so utterly astounding that it gave me such intense flashbacks to what I experienced in that exhibition that I was put into what felt like a mild form of PTSD.
I feel that this is really the crux of what I am trying to get at – though I have never been bothered by a historical-based shooter before, this instance of my watching the trailer for Battlefield 1 gave me pause for just a brief moment. Naturally the games industry strives for better graphics, more intuitive gameplay, more realism, and this has always seemed logical to me. I’ve always lapped it up. Even with futuristic shooters like Call of Duty or Halo, I’ve not so much as blinked when racking up headshots. But just watching this made me pause – what am I meant to do, roleplay as one of my great-uncles who was torn to ribbons on the fields of the Somme? It’s different from games like Modern Warfare II, which are set at roughly the same time my dad was in deployment in the middle east – he came back fine, and he’d mostly tell me about all of the geographical and military inaccuracies in the game, before deciding that he’d like to play it anyway. We can’t do that with a game set in World War One: it’s no longer part of someone’s life that we’re adapting into a game, it’s their memory, and as such we risk disrespecting their bravery and sacrifice, all for the sake of our own entertainment and profit. Though recent sci-fi shooters have been running on relatively sophisticated systems, Battlefield 1 is the first to have such graphical realism applied to a historical context: no longer are we shooting at low-definition Nazis or even at high-definition futuristic cyborg commandos. This is a game which feels most like we are shooting something human, and it’s a stark visual reminder that this is something through which our ancestors actually suffered. The game is so realistic, in fact, that documentary YouTube channels such as The Great War have seen massive increases in likes and subscriptions, most notably from large numbers of young adults.
To this extent, I am actually glad that EA DICE have bucked the trend of recent techie commando-style games, and have chosen to fix themselves in the real world of the historical past. Battlefield 4, the last game in the series, was criticised for its weak story campaign; Battlefield 1 remedies this to dual effect. Firstly, critical acclaim has been much higher – it’s a much more well-rounded game – and secondly, they’ve taken the opportunity to tell several emotionally impactful and thought-provoking stories, which present the accuracy of the horrors of an entire generation in many locations, rather than glorifying some aspects yet ignoring the Eastern Front, for example.
The one criticism that I, as a historian, would have with Battlefield 1 is that none of the six story missions are taken from the perspective of a soldier of the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary, The Ottoman Empire, Hungary, etc.). It’s a typically privileged ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’ view which hopefully will be remedied in expansions, because to not include at least one story of the suffering and bravery of German soldiers, for example, despite what they were fighting for, is an injustice. It simplistically villainises men who were just as human as Allied soldiers, turning them into antagonists that were all evil and in the wrong. The Germans are a playable faction in multiplayer, but again, there’s a niggling sense that you are a Stormtrooper of the evil Empire, sadistically cutting down valiant rebels. The introductory story mission, Storm of Steel, is the only one to create a relatable German soldier, and even in this instance he is “the enemy.”
The graphical excellence is what really takes these stories and turns them into poignant and realistic representations of the war. The utter exhaustion and desperation is displayed through minor details: in the dark circles under the eyes of every soldier’s face; the rallying cries mid-game to emotionally “dig deep!” as your comrades fall to the flying bullets as you sprint on in terror; the crumbling buildings and black filth that gives way to looming clouds of chlorine gas. In an attempt to visualise what the soldiers lived through, DICE Senior Producer Aleksander Grøndal’s favouring of coloured visual references during research and design seems to have really paid off. It’s breathtakingly, yet sickeningly accurate.
Battlefield 1 is a game which, if I were a lead designer, I would be desperate to make. Not because it would make a great game, which of course it does. I would want to do it to inspire a younger generation to learn about the First World War. If I could develop a game which indirectly resulted in renewed interest in the subject and even refreshed its study, giving rise to reinvigorated programmes on the History Channel, interactive media in Museum exhibitions, and YouTube channels like The Great War, I would feel that I had contributed something worthwhile to our cultural inheritance, ensuring that at least for a little while longer, the sacrifices of the past were not forgotten. This generation will grow up never being able to speak to a WWI veteran. Games like Battlefield 1 have an opportunity to ensure that study of the First World War is not solely condemned to dusty textbooks and uninterested teachers. New media like video games will carry on the memories of our ancestors, and continue to teach how and why it was that for our tomorrow, they gave their today.