The world is still fascinated by the Second World War. From an entertainment point of view, WWII is a rich setting for every genre. War films such as Saving Private Ryan and Enemy at the Gates aim to turn war into exciting adventures with heroes and antagonists. Romances such as Casablanca use WWII as the backdrop to personal tales of love and drama. WWII can even be the setting for comedies like Hogan’s Heroes, which benefits from contrasting comedy with war.
Over the past few weeks, I have been doing a lot of reading about World War II. Two books in particular, both written by British historian Antony Beevor, Stalingrad and Berlin: The Downfall 1945, have pulled me into the graphic accounts of the Eastern Front between Germany and the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945. Not coincidently, as I have read the books, I have been playing a few video games that also use World War II as the primary setting. A few months ago, I played Call of Duty: World at War’s campaign, which involves the heroic struggle of a Soviet protagonist fighting against Nazi Germany. The campaign begins with the Germans occupying Stalingrad and ends with the Soviets pushing their way into the German capital of Berlin. Currently, I am playing the new Tripwire Interactive title, Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad. This is a multiplayer-focused game which is often noted for its “gritty realism.” For instance, one bullet is enough to kill an opponent, friendly fire is a dangerous problem and explosions can cause the gruesome loss of limbs.
It was Red Orchestra that made me want to study the Battle of Stalingrad. Here we have a game that claims to portray Stalingrad realistically, and here I am, an American consumer with only the vaguest knowledge of the terrible battle. How do I know if it is realistic or not?
Once upon a time, I would have driven to a Borders and searched the stacks for books about Stalingrad and hauled the mighty tome on my back, trying to read a few pages at night. Times have changed. Borders is out of business, and even if it weren’t, I live in Hong Kong now, where the English book selection is simply not as good as it is in the U.S. Fortunately for me, I always have my favorite toy, a third generation Amazon Kindle, close at hand. Antony Beevor’s book on Stalingrad was both popular and well-reviewed, so I took the plunge and started to read.
Every spare moment I had, I took out my Kindle and read. I read human tales about the horrors of war, the civilian cost of conflict, the ambitions of mad men and immense suffering. This was a tale of war that did not attempt to shroud the reality of the battles with stories of heroism and evil antagonists. This was an attempt at a truthful telling of war.
As I read the book, I also played in the beta of Red Orchestra 2 and had a number of thoughts about the game that Antony Beevor’s book allowed me to consider. To start, I was impressed with the geographical and historical fidelity of the game. Before reading Beevor’s book, the map “Gumrak” was just an open battlefield where players madly rushed at each other with tanks. After reading about the battle of Gumrak in Stalingrad however, I now play the map with a better understanding of its significance in the Battle of Stalingrad as a whole. The Battle of Gumrak essentially sealed the fate of the German Sixth Army, which upon losing Gumrak Airfield to the Soviet Army, had no guaranteed means of evacuating the wounded or receiving supplies.
To most players however, Gumrak is still just a map.
A number of RO2 maps are modeled after history, but only to a certain point. As I played RO2 and read Stalingrad, I came to a realization: at a certain point, depicting war accurately is not fun.
In RO2¸the combat is relatively realistic. Ballistics are accurately modeled, weapons are based on real-life designs and bullets do the type of damage one would expect them to do in real life. The realism of RO2 is tempered by the fact that players rarely have to wait long to respawn. In some modes, the longest a player has to wait is 20 seconds. The game still has to be a game, even though in real life, soldiers do not respawn. If a game becomes too realistic, the player no longer feels like he or she is playing a game; it feels more like a history lesson.
A brief moment of calm in Red Orchestra 2
It reminds me of an interesting experiment. Pop in a first person shooter and join a multiplayer match. Play the match, trying your best to be cautious while achieving objectives. Play until you are killed once. Quit the match. Uninstall the game. Never play it again.
Realistic enough for you?
I do not mean to suggest that all games that involve violence should be realistic; those games would not be fun and let us never forget that games are, first and foremost, modes of entertainment. I do think that talking about the realism of violence in games is a good starting point for taking note of what else game developers do not include in their supposedly realistic treatment of World War II.
When I finished Beevor’s book on Stalingrad, I was eager to continue reading. Beevor wrote about how after the Battle of Stalingrad, a Soviet soldier pointed to the burning ruins of Stalingrad and told a German prisoner of war that this was the fate awaiting Berlin. Beevor notes that he wanted to write about the Soviet advance into Berlin near the end of the war in his next book, so I went back to Amazon and purchased Berlin: The Downfall 1945.
I have not yet finished this book, but so far, I am finding it difficult to read. Beevor once again does a fantastic job of presenting the conflict as a collection of stories from foot soldiers and civilians to generals and politicians. What gives me pause however is just how much detail Beevor goes into with his discussion of how civilians and soldiers were treated as the falling Reich fell to the overwhelming Soviet forces.
The amount of rape and wanton murder that Beevor illustrates is, simply put, difficult to absorb. One cannot help but become a little ill with the prospect of picturing German women being raped by drunk Soviet soldiers and SS officers murdered the remaining populations of concentration camps before the arrival of the Red Army.
Once again however, Beevor’s intent is not to promote heroism or demonize any particular side–such is the task of propaganda; rather, Beevor has succeeded in presenting war with as much honesty as possible—even if it is to the outrage of Russian critics.
As I continue to read Beevor’s account of the fall of Berlin, I cannot help but think back to other forms of media which have presented this era in history. I think of Downfall, a German historical drama which shows Adolf Hitler’s last days and the fall of Berlin; here was a film that did not seek to glorify war, showing the conflict for what it was: ugly, terrible and frightening. I also think about video games, and wonder if games can—or even should—present war in such a stark light.
As I have mentioned before, I feel that the Call of Duty games are inherently conflicted about how they present war. In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the player has to experience the first-hand death of a protagonist. Throughout the rest of the game however, the player takes the role of an unapologetic action hero, killing enemies in a context closer to a James Bond film rather than a modern theater of war.
If anything, COD4’s sequel, Call of Duty: World at War is a game that is even more conflicted than its predecessor. The single player campaign is broken into two parts. In one half of the game, the player plays as a U.S. Marine fighting the Japanese Imperial Army in the Pacific. In the other half, the player takes the role of Private Dimitri Petrenko, friend and comrade of the blustering Sargeant Viktor Reznov.
Each campaign has a certain amount of ugliness to it, and I am still at a loss as to whether or not this was intentional. In the U.S. campaign, the Japanese are treated as barbarians and the U.S. Marines are treated like nearly divine saints on the battlefield, butchering the evil and animal-like Japanese. The Russian campaign is even uglier. Throughout the entire campaign, the protagonist has no dialog, instead taking his orders from Sergeant Reznov who rarely has anything to say beyond how many Germans he wants to kill out of revenge for what they did at Stalingrad and to his homeland.
Reznov encouraging Dimitri in Call of Duty: World at War
I think most games that concern WWII too often take the faceless evil of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan for granted. Some of the greatest WWII dramas I have ever seen have put a human and empathetic face on Axis forces (i.e. Downfall, Letters from Iwo Jima). The Russian campaign in particular is framed rather awkwardly. Only the first mission pits the Russians in a battle in which they are not the overwhelming majority, and even then the battle ends with the Red Army virtually dancing circles around the invading German force.
The rest of the Soviet campaign places the Red Army in a position of absolute dominance over their German enemy which in my case, made me feel pity for the German soldiers I was facing. My cohorts and I were completely trampling the German opposition and a part of me felt that surely not all of the Germans I was massacring were evil. During one cut scene, the narrator explains that the defenders at Berlin were the elderly and the very young, but they were evil Nazis all the same. Throughout the campaign, Sergeant Reznov is the champion of punishing the Germans and slaughtering them.
As I was reading Beevor’s book on Berlin, I realized something about Reznov. His boisterous enthusiasm for killing Germans was probably historically accurate, but there was one thing the game did not show that was probably true of Reznov and his comrades: these men were likely guilty of terrible crimes. They were blood-thirsty and may even have been guilty of sex crimes against civilians. It frames the game in an unsettling light.
Beevor’s book goes into great detail about the Soviet atrocities against the female population of pretty much all of Eastern Europe and this is why his book has received so much criticism from Russian critics who believe that the Red Army is well-deserving of its reputation as the army which brought the malicious Third Reich to its knees. Indeed, the victors write history.
Nevertheless, Soviet and German accounts of the war both point to widespread rape and looting. The developers of Call of Duty: World at War must have known that fact, but excluded those details from the game.
Were they right for doing so?
On the one hand, a game in which the player or his squad mates engage in forceful acts of sexual violence against civilians is nothing short of appalling. The game would not be fun; in fact, it would be repulsive for the player. This fact is not limited to video games; it is rare for any form of media to take the concept of rape, violence against children and other atrocities and turn it into thought-provoking entertainment. Video games are especially vulnerable to this because the player has a central-role in the terrible activities, which understandably creates discomfort. Furthermore, not every video game has a responsibility to deliver meaningful messages about war or violence.
On the other hand, World at War still white washes history to a certain extent. The lack of the truly disturbing events of the battles along the Eastern Front serve only to glorifying war. The battles no longer have the horror of rape and terrible violence and are instead full of exotic-sounding Russian battle cries. Players who have not studied WWII in any depth may be misled by World at War’s depiction of historical events. They may even think war is *kinda* fun.
Video games have been and will continue to color our impressions of war. If you ask a child what war is like, he or she may say war is bad, but his or her impressions of it have been affected by the fact that when you can respawn, war is rather fun (like paintball).
I do not believe that games should not cover historical events, nor do I believe they should all aim to be as realistic as possible. I am saying that games do not have the inherent responsibility to teach or inform us about history. By understand the entertainment focus of games, we have already reduced our impression that war might possibly be fun. We have given ourselves the understanding that games can never fully represent the horror of war because of what is missing, be it war crimes or permanent death.
We can learn about war through other means. We can start with learning about history. What starts war? Who benefits from war and who suffers the most? Who fights? Who lives? Who dies? Seeking answers to these questions will make us understand war in ways that video games cannot.
Stay tuned for another essay about something else. Maybe casual games. I have been reading too much about war!