World War II Games Become Vital History Lesson as Generation of Heroes Dies Out

Charles Scot-Brown, 94, is watching Call of Duty: WWII’s soldiers storm Omaha Beach. “It’s basically authentic,” he says. “Whoever designed that knew something about what they were doing.” And he’d know: at just 20 years old, he left his native Canada to take charge of a platoon of soldiers in the 51st Highland Division of the British Army, leading them onto Sword Beach on D-Day. He then fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and I show him the game’s depiction of that, too. “I would say it should sell,” he says.

And how right he is. Despite releasing late in 2017, COD: WWII was the best-selling game of the year in most markets, and made $1 billion in sales in its first seven weeks. It’s hardly an anomaly – World War I game Battlefield 1 sold an estimated 15 million units during the quarter after it launched.

But as war games continue to rack up huge numbers, the number of World War II veterans dwindles. In the US alone, nearly 400 die every day. With direct family ties to the war all but severed, experts believe that video games will play an ever-increasing part in shaping our knowledge of what happened in both World Wars, in the same way that war films have in the past.

So how should developers face up to that reality? Should they change the way they make games about war? And do they have a responsibility to talk about war in a certain way? I spoke to World War 2 veterans, historians, academics and developers – including Call of Duty: WWII developer Sledgehammer games – to find out.

I meet Mac Joyner, another veteran, at the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre in Toronto, where he lives. He flew Lancaster bombers in an eight-man crew, somehow surviving 30 bombing runs. His squadron consisted of 30 aircraft and by the end of the war, taking into account reinforcements, 45 had been lost. He spends a lot of time visiting schools to pass on stories about the war, and he’s concerned that as veterans die out, the public will know less and less about what happened. “I’m worried it will be less accurate, and glorifying it to the degree that [people] see war as being personally remote.”

Scot-Brown echoes that concern. “Some of the kids didn’t even know what D-Day was,” he says, talking about his own visits to schools. “It’s all very well to be a lovely country…and do all the good things, but you’ve got to teach your own bloody history, because if you don’t know the history of your own country, how can you have any pride in it? They haven’t a clue. Even the European kids.”

And it’s not just kids: Matthew Seelinger, chief historian at the Army Historical Foundation, tells me that drumming up interest in the World Wars is becoming increasingly difficult. “We’re at a point where we’re going to take whatever [help] we can get,” he says. “We had [WWII veterans] on our board of directors, people we came to know well, but we’ve pretty much gone to all of their funerals now.”

Perhaps video games can provide some of that help, and academics believe that they are playing a bigger role than ever in shaping what the public think about what the wars were like. Dr. Debra Ramsay, lecturer in film at the University of Exeter, wrote books about how modern media affects the perception of war, and says she can see in her students that games are “as significant potentially as what they do or don’t learn in school, or the films they see”. Mitch Yockelson, a military historian and a professor at Norwich University in Vermont, believes that to a lot of young adults the World Wars seem like “ancient history”, and that video games could act as a “hook” to get them interested.

Dr. Ramsay argues that games are more powerful than any other form of media for telling stories about the war. “Games bring those wars into the present. What you get is a first-hand experience of a simulated environment of war. It’s very much about responding to those environments, and getting a faint glimpse about what it must’ve been like to face an overwhelming artillery barrage, or try and fight in Gallipoli in Battlefield 1. I’m not saying it’s the same by any means … but there’s definitely a recognition that games do something that other forms of media don’t.”

It’s a power that Dr. Martyn Bignold, clinical psychologist at UK veterans’ charity Combat Stress, also recognizes. “Broadly, it is becoming one of the ways our collective consciousness is shaped about those events, in the way that in the past it’d mostly been through films. But psychologically, it’s much more powerful, that sense of agency and being involved,” he explains.

He’s interested in the way that video game technology – particularly virtual reality – is being used in exposure therapy to treat veterans with PTSD. He tells me that if games were able to do more to show the “real challenges of being in combat, the mental impact of war, that would be a good thing”.

So how should developers harness that power in their games? The veterans I speak to are clear: they want war to be portrayed as it happened. “It’s good for [people] to see what war is like,” Scot-Brown says. “War is not pleasant. It’s dirty and stinky, and you’re showing it [in those games].” That means games should shoot for realism and, when possible, historical accuracy.

As we watch the footage of different war games play out, he provides a running commentary of things that wouldn’t have happened in real life. “We would’ve thrown a grenade on either side”, he says as Allied forces storm a bunker, followed by, “He wouldn’t be behind him. He should be in the front because he’s got the fast firing weapon that will knock a guy out.”

But he understands that, as with filmmakers, developers are out to make money, and therefore need artistic license. “When the infantry or any group of people are fighting a battle, every man is 10 yards apart from the other. If they [made games] the way the battle was fought, you’d have two guys on the screen. They have to be able to sell it. So you have to jam them in together, and they have to take certain leniencies with it.”

Joyner is impressed with the realism of both Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: WW2. “I visualized cartoon men hopping along. It’s very realistic.” However, he has long been concerned that war films make the violence of war feel remote, and he feels the same way about games. “I’m worried that the young person who’s operating [the game] is so detached from it. They don’t have that fear…they get all the excitement and none of the consequences.”

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SOURCE: Rolling Stone, Samuel Horti