On June 6th 1944, the allied invasion of Normandy was launched. Operation Neptune, or D-day was one of the most ruthless amphibious offensives in maritime history, resulting in a decisive victory for the allies and at the same time inflicting a critical blow to the Nazis consolidation of occupied territories abroad. It was also responsible for the deaths of over 425000 allied and German troops, including wounded and those that simply went missing. It’s difficult to conceive or even visualise such a devastating loss of life, in fact one of the most accurate portrayals you’re likely to see is the opening of Steven Spielberg’s 1998 war epic “Saving Private Ryan”, which recreated the sorrowful brutality of that morning with detailed authenticity. If you’re like me however then you may have been introduced to this historic conflict in “Medal Of Honour: Frontline”. Though lacking the theatrical refinement of the cinematic equivalent, “Frontline” did an admirable job of presenting a vicarious depiction of this notorious invasion. WWII was never a subject I personally regarded with much interest. I respected the significance and admired the sacrifices consummated by all involved, but never felt a great deal of effusion for an event – that to my adolescent mind occurred such a long time ago. So being provided with an endearing stimulation, that of a game yields a much more persuasive connection to such a vile, yet crucial atrocity. You can’t accurately depict the inherent terror facing soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy with any legitimacy, nor the profound sense of personal isolation they must have experienced in knowing they were unlikely to leave those shores alive. Especially when your character has been resurrected thanks to an auto-save. Of course applying such logistical inhibitions would severely compromise the immersion of the game. But should war games portray such enduring cultural events at all? Are war games disrespectful? Do they really compromise the integrity and severity of the conflicts they portray?
Education is an invaluable asset and I believe you learn more by doing than by saying. It’s all repetition. I’m not saying reading or studying isn’t an important resource, but that shouldn’t undermine the benefits of such a robust medium that I feel adds context to a sustained war we could never comprehend without visual or auditory stimulants. A textbook is indispensable for distributing statistical knowledge and the intricacies that characterises the war, but doesn’t competently evoke the ambience or feel. Gaming is a new educational format that teaches kids about significant historical events, providing interaction rather than talking at them. The prosperity of games and it’s inevitable decadence means that there are certain inalienable liberties taken and events such as D-day are embellished. They are also inhibited by the interventions of a games procedural restraints, which can never accurately reflect the events with any cathartic recognition without reminding you it’s just a game. They are more a simulated interpretation of events that has to be won to progress. Hence the ability to heal, collect ammunition and to re-spawn. Some may argue that games such as Call of Duty, which has been heavily focused on modern conflicts emphasises the decorative veneer of violence. Objectifying or exploiting a period in history or interpretations of them, and glamorising them for the purposes of generating money. And that’s true, to a point.
There’s a potential to capture the authenticity so accurately to promote immersion and to earnestly portray the intolerable conditions suffered by soldiers that you’re never really sure if it should. You can’t depict the psychological trauma sustained by a solider in Afghanistan, or the profound isolation sustained from the killing. That would be crass and inappropriate. In games like Cod killing comes with reward, as you generate points for kills, which appears grossly insensitive. The problem that fluctuates in lambasting Cod as dismissive or even callous towards the death of soldiers is that it’s really just a fictitious representation of modern warfare. An exaggerated calibration of current events. Neither specific enough to be a legitimate incident nor vague enough to be entirely fabricated. Inspiration for levels and tone is evidently liberated from real life incidences, but aren’t definitive enough to be truly insensitive. If a specific terrorist incident that you’re forced to participate in was based on an actual event then things may become easier to criticise, but if it isn’t you can’t necessarily conclude that a game is utilising distressing events for the purposes of commerce rather than craft?
There’s more of an effort to elevate the intensity of conflict, not the subtle nuances of trench life. Not people left huddled in the cold dank trenches, squalled in mud and faeces. Staving off starvation by eating the vermin that feast on the necrotic remnants of fallen comrades that are decomposing just metres from you. Wondering if they will ever see their loved ones again. That’s not fun. A more earnest account sure, but perhaps facilitating too much realism that would verge on disrespectful. A game – as hard as it tries to recreate the pure savagery of the trenches, can never fully convey the experience with the same intensity. These are the limitations of relating legitimate accounts to a generation that have lived through moderate civility of peace, or at least the inactive perception of it. We can’t relate to these grotesque events in any comprehensive way because we haven’t endured extended periods of conflict ourselves. You can watch news coverage where reporters, attired in military garbs and protective clothing are relaying the turmoil of some middle eastern population you’ve never heard of, detailing the famine that has beset some ravaged community from a safe distance and feel empathy for the afflicted, but not enough extensive consideration that it effects our lives. The only ones that can are those people directly affected, who have lost love ones during war. Survivors who can still recant the heinous acts perpetrated by individuals that probably didn’t want to be there either, and do so with succinct clarity. You can’t truly fathom or value the extent of the situation without being there, and trying to depict it too realistically would be futile and largely redundant.
Movies based on war aren’t generally criticised for glamorising it’s narrative, unless inaccurate or unnecessarily elaborated. In fact many have been lauded for their portrayals, reminding audiences of humanities perpetual fallibility and our inherent lust for sovereignty. Though games lack the substance afforded by cinema’s illustrious polish or the authenticity of documented accounts published in textbooks, they can furbish the environments complexities and tone with detailed, analytical preservation. Recreate historically accurate armaments or events. They may not be an all encompassing history lesson, and they seldom contain anything more than mere snippets of information concerning that specific conflict in a loading screen, but that can at least spark some affinity for history and perhaps encourage some humility by reminding us just how lucky we have been.