Is the Simulated Battlefield Changing Our Perception of History?
Recently, the developers behind the Battlefield series announced their newest upcoming title, Battlefield V. It comes almost two years after its highly successful Battlefield 1 shooter which thrilled gamers with a highly stylized return to the battlegrounds of WW1. In this previous title, a host of playable multiplayer options, a gripping campaign, and a multitude of maps based on real world locations like Fao Fortress, Cape Helles, and Monte Grappa threw players into non-stop skirmishes.
But game developer, EA DICE, is in the news for an entirely different reason. With the announcement of Battlefield V, they received a lot of flack for including playable female characters. Their response? Their products have always been about fun and not historical accuracy. Which got me thinking about these games and other recent award-winning films like Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, and Gary Oldman’s turn as Britain’s wartime leader, Churchill, in Darkest Hour. A lot of these films eschewed accuracy for dramatic effect in the same way as these games have.
…they received a lot of flack for including playable female characters. Their response? Their products have always been about fun and not historical accuracy.
Then I realized that the immersive storytelling power of these videogames to change our perception of warfare and how many of the important and pivotal moments of history are edited out for the sake of adventure.
Desensitizing Death and Bloodshed
It’s a Saturday afternoon and I’ve fired up the old gaming system, turned on my wireless headphones (so I don’t scare the living bejeezus out of my neighbors), lock and load my Selbstlader 1906 Factory rifle and run off to help secure the nearest indicated contested zone. I whip out behind a wall to unleash some hellfire, only to be eviscerated by a support gunner’s MG15 Low Weight. I respawn meters away, watching as my former position is covered in a haze of smoke and exploding incendiary grenades. Some unsuspecting poor soul is flanked and get’s a rib full of bayonet for his trouble.
If it were real war, I’d flee, yet I mindlessly dash back in again, spraying rounds into the firefight. And herein is my first thought. Are we training ourselves to tolerate gunfire and bloodshed? I slam my knee in frustration as a bomber roars over, wiping me and my whole squad out with a devastating payload. I’m more angry that I’m tallying more deaths than kills. Somewhere in the back of my mind, while I’m enjoying the carnage, I question whether thinking of beating my kill score of the last round should be a cause of concern. Like, is it symptomatic of a collective mass of accepted insanity?
What are we fighting for? If we remember history for a moment, it’s against oppression, hate, genocide – the totalitarian power of national socialism and some of the most feared empire builders we have come to know in our modern age.
For these souls are the shells of men. None of them stay rotting on the battlefield. Not a single one will have a letter home from the war office telling loved ones they were KIA or MIA. And for a moment, I pause before choosing to respawn. We have endless supplies of ammo, can don another digital human ‘sleeve’ at the press of a button, use assault tactics to outmaneuver tanks, but there is little life in it. What are we fighting for? If we remember history for a moment, it’s against oppression, hate, genocide – the totalitarian power of national socialism and some of the most feared empire builders we have come to know in our modern age. Here, on a simulated WWI, we fight to dominate and to kill. They once told us that we should fear the machines of war of the future. But it is us who are becoming the machines.
How far is the jump really, between ignoring the dangers of the fight because we are virtually invincible, to running through the latest quagmire of bloodshed in the East and feeling the greatest threat to humanity: callous indifference?
Is Gameplay Redefining Historical Events?
I love a good RPG story. Action games come and go, but if something blends enough culture, spot on acting and emotion, it can last a long time. Witcher 3, Last of Us, Assassin’s Creed III, and COD: these are the some of the storylines we keep returning to, playing again and again. History is threaded with performance which is threaded with an ever-growing freedom to do and explore whatever you wish, pushing the boundaries of the sandbox environment. Battlefield 1 was no different. The single player campaign was one of the best dense, graphic and gripping tales which included pitting ‘Old Bessy’ against other tanks and fighting as an armored member of the Italian Arditi. But the stories are spliced heavily with movie sequences and mission-centered gameplay. There is some touching upon valor and the loss of life, but mostly they deal with how good of a killer you are.
My issue? In many historical fiction titles, we encounter real world events that have been changed for the sake of the game.
And looking at the impressive environmental effects and battle realism of Battlefield V, it appears like it’s much of the same. My issue? In many historical fiction titles, we encounter real world events that have been changed for the sake of the game. At one point, Connor meets George Washington in AC III and actually joins in one of the pivotal battles. In Wolfenstein II we are thrown into a sci fi-alternate history of a Nazi-dominated world, where you get to meet an aged and incoherent Hitler. Lastly, in Battlefield 1 you get to meet Laurence of Arabia as you fight against Ottoman control of the Arabian Peninsula. My point is, logically speaking, all these adventures are fictitious creative interpretations. So what, you might say. It’s just entertainment. But a lot more people play games and binge watch series than ever before, all of which are based on a skewed depiction of reality. So our knowledge of what is real has no basis on what we have read or know to be true. We trick ourselves, on some subtle level, that we know about warfare and historical figures like King Louis of France in The Musketeers BBC series because we’ve watched a version of it.
So what, you might say. It’s just entertainment. But a lot more people play games and binge watch series than ever before, all of which are based on a skewed depiction of reality.
My fear is what will happen when dramatic storytelling takes an even greater precedence over fact in future games. Will we encounter a censorship of what really happened? And if you don’t think it could happen and drastically change our knowledge of the past and what is, consider this: The Battle of Hastings never happened at Hastings, but at the Ridge of Sangelach. Carl Yung held possession of a Nag Hammadi codex for decades (How did such a famous piece of writing come to be in his possession? Did he change or release everything?). The Vatican library holds mystic and historical works not deemed suitable for common public access. Alexander the Great explored and conquered, but secretly was on a mission to find the Fountains of Bimini. A sunken 15th century Spanish galleon has allegedly been discovered near Queensland’s North Australian coast, predating later explorers, thus changing known recorded history. Reincarnation was considered uncontested fact until the Justinian period, when it was removed from sacred Christian teachings. In our day, Netflix releases war documentaries that caption English speakers, but ignore translating the rants of Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler (in effect positively silencing their hate speech, but also stripping their words out of its own context). We are even silenced by our families who never wanted to talk about the war, so we never get to learn a real account of it. The truth is indeed stranger than fiction. But are we interested in it or does the comforts of endless entertainment prove satisfying enough?
If this doesn’t give you the hebee jeebies, try a bit of paradoxical thinking on for size:
Image, if you could, going back in time and telling a young WWI private, who survived the war and outlived his friends, that in the future there will be hundreds of fiction books, movies, action figures, games and reenactments based on the War – all amassing countless trillions, what do you think he might say? Ah sir, the machine of war n’ver stopped rolling, did it? Yes old Mother Courage is still at it…
Learning about true historical events may not be a popular pastime. Many of us are too busy learning the mythology of an epic fantasy, dressing up as our favourite costumed heroes, or remembering which actor was who in what episode of what (myself included!). But remember that there are people out there, right now, making money off our willful ignorance. As George Orwell once wrote in a proposed preface to Animal Farm:
Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news — things which on their own merits would get the big headlines — being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that “it wouldn’t do” to mention that particular fact.
So what happens when news is changed and history is manipulated because its deemed too sensitive for us to know at the time? You are changed. And your history is largely unknown.