War is among the more popular and enduring topics for video games; depending on the metrics used, possibly even the most popular and enduring. As an increasingly popular medium, they have a tremendous opportunity to shape how people perceive war, and as they often use historical conflicts as settings, how people perceive the events surrounding historical wars. However, when discussed in other media, video games are often presented as using war merely as a justification for the player to act out violent power fantasies, rather than as a chance to engage with the events playing out before them. One is given the impression that, at best, the horrors of war are ignored, and at worst, they are presented as a chance to increase the player’s score.
Like many such broad generalizations, however, this is not entirely accurate. Even in the earliest days of games development, developers were aware of the possibility of their medium to instill horror at the events taking place on screen. Perhaps the most famous example of this involves the game Missile Command; during its creation, one of its programmers was struck with nightmares of cities being turned to ash in a nuclear war, brought on by the game’s plot. This awareness of video games’ ability to speak meaningfully about their topics has continued. The 2014 game This War of Mine focused on the trials and tribulations of civilians trying to survive the Yugoslav Wars, and presented them with somber sobriety. Even so-called AAA games, often supposed to be the bastion of mindless violence have not left the horrors of war unexplored. The first game of the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare franchise contains two lengthy segments in which, although the player retains control of their avatar, their fate is largely out of their hands. In the first, the player’s avatar is an president ousted by military coup and on his way to execution, and in the second, the avatar is a US Marine, slowly bleeding out as fallout drifts down over his body, in the aftermath of a nuclear bombing. None of this matches with common expectations of such games.
However, at least some portion of these games’ fame and memorability can be traced to the fact that they are exceptions to real, though exaggerated, trends. I would like my paper to explore how trend-following and trend-breaking games have competed for player interest (and money) over time, and what impacts on player views of warfare may have resulted.
One Reply to “Print Project Proposal: The Horrors of War in Video Games”
Exploring representations of war in video games is a great potential topic for a print project. I think a lot of the resources we are going to read later in the semester about approaches to studying and working with games are going to be helpful in thinking through your approach. So if you do want to run with this project idea, I would suggest jumping ahead and working through some of those texts.
I think you’re overall thesis that there is more complexity in how a range of games are presenting the horrors of war is interesting. It also strikes me that some of your examples, where the control is taken away from you as the player and taken over by the course of coming events, is also interesting. That is, there may be something in this that could draw out a good bit of the issues involved in player agency and power. We often think of games as making a player feel powerful and invincible but these kinds of cases suggest contexts where that is inverted to communicate different messages and themes.
I think one thing worth thinking about in all of this is the role that different structures play in enabling different kinds of storytelling. In that context, you might check out Alexander Galloway’s book Gaming: Essays On Algorithmic Culture. He has a few great pieces on the differences that come from the top down view of the world in strategy games vs the first person view of a shooter. He also has some great bits in there on where the origins of those frames come from in older board games and in film.