Communication Currents

The Consequences of Playing War

October 1, 2007
Digital Communication & Gaming

In today's video gaming market, there is an abundance of war games. Gamers are presented with a variety of wars to replay in their living rooms, including World War II (Call of Duty), the Vietnam War (Battlefield Vietnam), and Desert Storm (Conflict: Desert Storm). While some games are overtly fictional, Electronic Arts' Medal of Honor series utilizes documentary style overtones including newsreel footage, interviews with veterans, and letters from home, giving it a more educational feel. Arguably, the game surpasses mere entertainment; it's a history lesson. But what are the communicative consequences of reliving the bombing of Pearl Harbor? What does it mean to memorialize war through interactive media, such as video games? War games, such as Medal of Honor invite gamers to learn about history while playing. But what does it mean to digitally reenact history? And how will future games and gamers remember current warfare?

Medal of Honor and other historically based war video games present gamers with much more than playful environments and leisure. Through historical narratives, war video games commemorate past events and instill within gamers a critical blindness about the reality of war. War games attempt to recapture the past through storytelling and use historical narratives as plot devices. For example, in Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, the story is told in two ways: historically and personally. First, the historical narrative, presented primarily through newsreel footage and interviews with veterans orients gamers to the era in which the war happened. The scenes use dramatic narration and the familiar black-and-white grainy footage, often found on the History Channel. Details of the war effort at home, including rationing, women in the workplace, and war bond rallies are relayed through the player-character's sister. However, the tale is incomplete. Significant omissions exist, such as Japanese internment camps, the effect of rationing on the poor, and the use of atomic weapons. In short, the story glorifies the war effort both at home and abroad. It moves players to be proud and patriotic, not stopping to think about the complexity of World War II. The game presents pride, without problems.

The second personal story is of Joseph Griffin, the fictional player-character marine who players embody through the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the jungles of Guadalcanal, and the streets of Singapore. Griffin's story is one of personal loss; gamers quickly learn that his brother Donnie is missing in action. As Griffin continues his quest, he is motivated by his personal and national loss, consistently reminded of the trauma of his MIA bother and Pearl Harbor. As gamers become the central character, the sentiment of loss follows. Griffin is taught by commanding officers to obey orders, sacrifice self and family, and kill ruthlessly.

Through the use of both narratives, gamers are encouraged to personally memorialize the events and veterans of World War II. But how do the stories work together to form a participatory and interactive memory of the War? The game operates as a tribute to the war and to those who fought it, a memorial much like those found in Washington, DC. Even at the end of the game as the credits are rolling, the developers dedicate it to the “veterans of World War II” and their “relentless courage and sacrifice.” In this way, Medal of Honor becomes an interactive museum. Newsreel footage provides the historical basis of the war and veterans act as docents, offering tales of camaraderie and tactical weapons prowess. History then becomes a backdrop for the gamers' present-day action, motivating belief about international politics and conflict. However, in this version of history, there is no objection to the war, no consequence or remorse for combat kills, and only one path to victory. In the modern politics of war, citizens should desire a more democratic approach to war, one with options and alternatives. After all, in Joseph Griffin's world, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, there was only one option: kill.

While films, such as Saving Private Ryan or Pearl Harbor, may provide gruesome visual frames for public audiences, as a medium, they are largely passive. Conversely, video games are interactive, allowing audiences to enact war. In this sense, the memorial becomes both participatory and private, as in played out in the home. However, through their digital participation in war, gamers may lose sight of the reality of its gruesome detail. Video games, as all representations, fall short of the real, and Medal of Honor is no exception. Technology and creativity may move closer to capturing the nuance of war, with vibrating controls, surround sound, and blurred shell-shock vision, but the front lines of war gaming will never fully grasp the violence of modern warfare. It is in this sense that war games may not be violent enough to give gamers an understanding of war.

The consequences of this style of digital commemoration are three-fold. First, gamers, realizing the educational nature of the game, may believe that the stories they are told are full accounts of the war. But as any historian will attest, the remembrance of war is complicated. The details included in this game's version of World War II may be cast in ideological molds. In other words, retelling history and memorializing is always a political act. How war games are constructed may affect how gamers actually remember the war.

Second, given that game developers have attempted to simulate war environments and that war video games are currently used by the US Military as a recruitment tool, gamers may believe that the simulation of the war is similar to the reality of war. This dangerous assumption disconnects gamers from the lives of actual soldiers, removing the very real sense of peril and trauma associated with the frontlines of warfare. Finally, as current conflicts continue and future wars may occur, upcoming games may assist in the remembrance of and reasons for war. How will the video game about the Iraqi War and insurgency be played (perhaps entitled Medal of Honor: Counterinsurgency)? Given that Medal of Honor washes over significant struggles of the World War II era, significant questions remain about how game developers choose to narrate history. How will the narrative of 9/11 be told in relation to the Iraqi war? Will game developers include the torture of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib prison or the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction?

Video games have led to increasingly vibrant debates about adolescents' experiences in virtual life, digital addictions, and excessive violence. While these issues remain salient, we should also be mindful of those games that appear to educate gamers about issues of national pride and heritage. While patriotism can be a productive force for Americans, it is also useful to remember those instances in our history where poor choices were made so as to not repeat such horrific acts. As video game developers become increasingly adept at creating visually persuasive and stunning environments, we should keep in mind that video games, no matter how realistic, are still a far cry from the reality of war.

About the author (s)

Aaron Hess

Indiana University-University Purdue University

Assistant Professor