Virtual World War – The Great War in Computer Games

Rise of Flight: © 2008-2014 777 Studios
Rise of Flight: © 2008-2014 777 Studios

Counting all the numerous media productions about the First World War, computer games should not be forgotten. There is, however, only a small number of games, compared to scenarios such as the Second World War. This is not the least because of the limited perception of that Great War, which is reduced to a pop-cultural version of trench warfare at the Western Front: covering in their shelters, the soldiers are bombarded by artillery for hours, only to be commanded to go over the top and finally mowed down in no man’s land by enemy machine gun fire - game over.

Bearing this simplification in mind, it is not surprising that mainly two genres deal with this war: flight simulations and strategy games. For the former, audio-visual realism is central, defined by the current state of technology, ranging from "Red Baron" (1980) to "Flying Corps" (1996) and to the contemporary "Rise of Flight" (2009). Mostly, the air war in these games corresponds to its widespread perception as a heroic, chivalrous duel between "aces", while reconnaissance, ground support and increasingly bombing missions determined the rather unglamorous reality. In strategy games such as "History Line 1914-1918" (1992), units are fielded against each other, quite similar to the classic game of chess. Killing and dying become very abstract, and only a few exceptions such as "To End All Wars" (2014) provide scenarios outside the ubiquitous Western Front. But in fact, the First World War was a true global war, with fighting in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, the Alps, the Middle East, various regions of Africa, on the high seas and in other areas including Qingdao in China.

The Snowfield: © 2011 Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Media Development Authority of Singapore. All rights reserved.For simulation and strategy games, there is hardly the need of a story, contrary to other genres, where the narrative is surprisingly often based on a counterfactual tale or enriched with fantasy elements: In "Iron Storm" (2002), set in an alternative 1964, the First World War is still raging after 50 years, while in "Codename: Eagle" (1999), it never took place. In "NecroVisioN" (2009) and "Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land" (2012), one has to fight against zombies and other dark creatures, while the student game demo "1916 - The Unknown War" (2011) provides a dense atmosphere, only to come up with robotic dinosaurs, almost as if the horrors of war were not enough.

But has killing to be the central element in a game about the First World War? In the game experiment "The Snow Field" (2011), the player must survive in the cold and may choose to help other traumatized soldiers finding their way to the saving fireplace. "Johnny Got His Gun Quest" (2012) should not be equated with commercial titles; this game can rather be seen as a form of artistic expression, transferring the grim content of the famous novel with almost minimalist audiovisuals.

Valiant Hearts: © 2014 Ubisoft EntertainmentCompared to other games about the First World War, the puzzle-adventure "Valiant Hearts" (2014) is following its own approach, both with regards to contents and visuals: it presents itself not as a war game within a hyper-realistic 3D environment, but as an interactive graphic novel about war. Accordingly, the game is based on a touching story with believable characters from different countries that are alternately controlled by the player. This change in perspectives, the appearance, and not the least information about everyday objects, to be collected by the player, convey an expanded view about the experience of war in those years. The developers’ intensive collaboration with historians pays out in full: almost casually, one can learn a lot about this global conflict, beyond the usual smattering and fixed myths.

New generations take their knowledge about history hardly from books, but from movies and computer games that include quite different degrees of reality. But like any other media, video games can be entertaining while addressing complex issues, far beyond simple friend-or-foe schemes. This requires an appropriate sense of responsibility on behalf of the game designers. The sole focus on the authentic depiction of military technology and landscapes is surely not enough. Rather, both the stories and characters have to be convincing, while the historical background must be taken seriously instead of serving as an exotic and thus arbitrary decoration only. The possibilities of adequate implementation have not been fully exploited yet in this emerging media of computer games.

Author: Martin Bayer
Journalist and Curator

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