Learning history is a bit of a tricky process. Most of us form our opinions based on what we’re taught in school and what we pick up from the media we consume. For me, and many others of this generation, that media includes a good number of videogames. This makes talking about World War II games kind of difficult. War has always been a popular topic for videogames to explore, perhaps for no greater reason than the old “us vs. them” binary being a well-ingrained part of our collective psyche. And World War II, with its impossibly dramatic stakes and seemingly clear cut heroes (the Allies) and villains (the Axis), lends itself well to games with exciting mission objectives and enemies the player doesn’t have to feel weird about killing en masse, unless they get to thinking too hard about it.
The only issue—and it’s actually a really big one—is that WWII isn’t an imagined event. It’s a part of our history with political ramifications that are still felt very strongly throughout the modern world. Given this, it seems pretty important that WWII games use the setting in a responsible manner, that they at least make an honest attempt not to overly simplify the complexities of a catastrophic event into easily digestible action narratives. Largely, videogames have failed in this respect. In the pursuit of crafting fun gaming experiences, many developers have neglected to pay more than basic lip-service to the complicated facts of history. And the lessons we have been taught—whether through omitted or distorted facts—are sometimes concerning.
Videogames teach us is that WWII—an all-encompassing conflict that touched the lives of most everyone in the world—was fought exclusively by soldiers. From Medal of Honor to Call of Duty (before it was a game about war in the Not Middle East), players are used to fighting only uniformed aggressors on battlefields. But so many events from the war involved ordinary people and their homes and livelihoods, including ones replicated in the two series mentioned above, such as the Battles of Okinawa and Stalingrad. The glorification of the organized military also ignores the efforts of partisan forces. The Dutch and French resistance movements were instrumental in weakening the Nazi grip on Europe and helped prepare and support the Allied invasion. Further east, the Polish Home Army, constantly seeking to undermine German occupation throughout many years of subjugation, nearly reclaimed Warsaw with little outside support. The Polish Jews led a major uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto that sought to save the community from transportation to concentration camps. These are only a few examples. Too many WWII videogames teach us that it was only soldiers who fought, ignoring the loss of civilian life and efforts of those who helped win the war despite suffering under Axis occupation.
It’s fashionable to criticize Call of Duty for its frequently jingoistic and bloodthirsty campaign storylines, but what isn’t mentioned quite so often is the attempts Infinity Ward et al made in their early games to subvert the popular notion that America won the Second World War almost by itself. The first entry to the series was notable for splitting its single-player mode across three different perspectives: American, British and Soviet. Players saw the considerable impact that forces outside of the United States military had on defeating the Axis. Call of Duty is an exception, though. Games from the Brothers in Arms, Medal of Honor and Sniper Elite series are more concerned with re-telling familiar stories of battles waged by U.S. forces. The Hollywoodification of World War II often overlooks non-Americans who fought and were injured or killed while aiding the Allied victory. Don’t get me wrong: Taking issue with the U.S.-centric portrayal of WWII isn’t any kind of nationalist thing. It’s just a desire to recognize the contributions of nations that are too often ignored in the popular telling of WWII history.
It’s controversial to suggest that not every individual Nazi was wholeheartedly evil. (Even writing that sentence makes me feel incredibly uneasy.) But, as important as it is to portray the profoundly abhorrent crimes of the Axis forces, dehumanizing entire populations as faceless action-game shooting targets is extraordinarily dangerous. War videogames are loath to humanize their gun fodder, probably in an attempt to depoliticize a topic that is political by its very nature. Why should a developer risk a thorough exploration of human darkness when they could be labeled as Nazi sympathizers? Call of Duty: World at War’s Japanese soldiers must never be shown to falter in the line of duty; the Wehrmacht annihilated in a Brothers in Arms campaign cannot die in a manner that warrants basic human empathy. Instead, WWII games draw a line in the sand that separates the monstrosity of the Axis from the spotless heroism of the Allies. War, even when fought for the best of reasons, is never that simple.
On balance, fighting to overthrow fascist imperialists is a truly noble cause. Just the same, refusing to consider the moral costs involved in achieving Allied victory makes war—always messy and tragic—appear like a more virtuous enterprise than it can ever be. WWII games gloss over the atrocities committed by British, American, Canadian and Soviet militaries. No game shows the Allied firebombing of civilian centers, its torture and execution of enemy prisoners of war, or the stomach-churning accounts of rape committed by some of its soldiers. There have been no attempts to create a World War II game willing to explore the horror that colored every aspect of a conflict too often depicted as good versus evil.
It’s for reasons like these that I find the enjoyment I get from some WWII games extremely troubling. I like playing these games because they let me interact with fascinating historical moments that I would never want to experience firsthand. But I’m also often disturbed by how the complexities of the War are either glossed over or willfully distorted. The legacy of the Second World War maintains tremendous political and cultural relevance, as evidenced most recently by the tensions between historical adversaries in the former U.S.S.R. and East Asia continuing to erupt in new violence. WWII, to this day, informs attitudes toward real people, real politics and real nationalist perceptions. Videogames are now a large part of our popular culture and, like it or not, the way they explain history has an enormous impact on the people who play them. If World War II is to be used as a setting for a game, that game’s developer needs to be aware of that, and should consider treating the actual events with the gravity they deserve. Otherwise, we’ll all continue to learn some pretty dangerous lessons.
Reid McCarter lives and works in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including The Escapist, Kill Screen and Pixels or Death. He also runs digitallovechild.com and tweets stuff @reidmccarter.