I read once that every generation has a historical memory that spans back to the lives of their grandparents. Once that time runs out, it’s easier to forget and it’s easier for us to repeat history’s mistakes. It’s a chilling notion, and when I watch war movies or play games like COD WW2 or Battlefield 1, it is something that is constantly on my mind. When I was studying for my masters (the sea fiction of James Fenimore Cooper - nope, I don’t know what I was thinking either), a fellow PhD student was doing her thesis on the prevalence of war movies and how they have taken on an increased cultural responsibility in being the touchstone in which future generations remember war in general. She was beginning to look at games as an emerging medium for offering the same kind of thing - a chance to live out history through a more accessible means.
Generally, I think games do have a massive opportunity to tackle history in new and interesting ways. However, I play something like last year’s Battlefield 1 or the latest COD and I’m kind of horrified by how generic they both are. As Rob says, COD WW2 is just another retread through the wartime events as depicted by Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. At no point do you feel the makers of the game put in the research to depict the battles for mainland Europe in a new or original way. They literally went back and dusted off their DVD selection. It’s literally the same old schtick with more impressive visuals.
I think I had a bigger problem playing Battlefield 1, despite it probably being the best Battlefield game since Bad Company 2, for me, it just felt fundamentally wrong to play a game based on WW1. Battlefield 1 clearly took some liberties with all the weapons you were using, of course to make the game more ‘enjoyable’ to play, but that unrealistic approach kind of slides in the face of what that war was, pushing it into the realms of fiction. World War 1 was 100 years ago, the surviving veterans of that war are mostly gone but here we are with this kickass game where you can totally pwn tanks with the anti-tank rifle.
The earlier CODs felt as if they at least had a degree of respect for the historical events they were depicting. At times they could be punishingly difficult, a sudden flurry of bullets in your direction could kill you in seconds. Every death would come with a prophetic quote from a philosopher or leader as a way to refer to the larger context of war but also the meaningless attempt to explain every fatality that occurred for an inch of ground. As you go through it you think, how did real people actually make it out of this in one piece? Ever since Black Ops, I feel COD has lost it’s edge as depicting war as a cautionary tale and dived head first into Michael Bayisms and a kind of unhealthy American jingoism. I do feel last year’s Infinite Warfare campaign did make more meaningful steps towards those original concepts, dealing with a soldier’s sacrifice towards the greater good. It was a far more sober way you would initially expect for a game set in space. I was even sad when I heard the robot’s posthumous voice message.
I’m British and as with most British people, both world wars are pretty much drilled into us from a young age. WW2 is such a huge part of our national consciousness. The underdog nation standing defiant as Hitler’s war machine advanced through mainland Europe. Admittedly it has become a little problematic as well. That wartime spirit prevails today, not always in our favour – Hello Brexit. The majority of people want to be an independent island nation when it was us against the world. We want to leave the EU, an international coalition that was designed to stop these major wars from breaking out in the first place! As the world gets smaller every day, the old guard are still preoccupied with building walls… Which seems like a very bad idea. But that’s a whole other essay of my own angry garbled opinions that would require about a week’s worth of editing.
But yeah, every generation having a historical memory as long as their Grandparent’s life spans. I lost both of my grandparents this year (on my dad’s side), they both lived well into their 80s, too young to get involved with the direct fighting of WW2 but young enough to remember what it was like to be on wartime rations. My grand dad grew up around Omagh in N. Ireland and helped refuel sea planes (Catalina Flying Boats) that stopped over in the RAF base in Ireland. This was the plane that was responsible for spotting the Bismarck which set in motion the successful strike to sink it.
On my mother’s side of the family, my Grandmother lost her father suddenly just before the outbreak of WW2, she remembered vividly hiding under the stairs of our house as the Germans bombed the Belfast ship yards. Above all, I remember her explaining to me how her and her sister were so scared at that time, their father dead and the bombs falling at night, hiding in their flimsy cupboard under the stairs. As kids, we were forced to engage with our elders and talk to them about the war. In the end I think it was the most effective way of reliving history.
It’s not impossible for games to tap into this. More and more, I’m convinced we will get these kind of games eventually. We just probably can’t expect it from Activision or COD, an annualised franchise which literally turns the opening of loot boxes into a spectator sport.