If we want to get biblical about it, war — or at least, violence — has been around since Cain and Abel. The first actual war occurs shortly afterwards, when the Bible says an alliance of kings including Amraphel, Arioch, Chedorlaomer and Tidal waged war against Bera, Birsha, Shinab and a chap called Shemeber.
If you believe the names, at least.
Just stories, of course, but battle has been a part of the human experience since we stepped out of the primordial ooze. Survival of the fittest, and all that. Archaeologists have found examples of prehistoric warfare between hunter-gatherer groups from 10,000 years ago — including a rock painting in northern Australia depicting inter-group conflict.
We love to fight each other. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes, way back in the 1600s, wrote about how the state of men without civil society “is nothing else but a mere war of all against all; and in that war all men have equal right unto all things.”
Like we need to be reminded. Since the dawn of men, there has always been war. In some part of the world, a group of men and women are fighting against others for a multitude of reasons, usually involving land. Sometimes someone got their feelings hurt. Greed and fear — like the stock market — are usually involved.
Is it any surprise, then, that videogames have reflected this perpetual conflict?
An innocent tennis game may have been one of the first popular videogames, but violent conflict is the medium’s true bread and butter. Missile Command, Doom, Street Fighter, Quake and Wolfenstein are what gave videogames their mainstream recognition. But even in the industry’s non-violent examples, Super Mario, Zelda and hell, Pacman, are about pitting yourself against an enemy and conquering them. So, war, in a sense.
But in the past few years, at least, the scope of war games has changed to focus less on the conflict, and more on how the conflict affects others. Games like Spec Ops: The Line and This War of Mine examine the psychological toll warfare can have on both its participants and those unfortunately caught in its grasp.
Could the change in this perspective be partly due to the overall decline of war during the last century? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s because games, like other mediums, have done some growing up in the past few years.
In any case, Call of Duty still dominates the charts, so we owe it to ourselves to ask some questions. What drives us to make these games, what drives us to play them, and above all else — what has driven us lately to play games that go beyond that typical war experience into something more captivating, sympathetic and perhaps, even more radical?
Talking from the technical perspective
Let’s go back a ways.
At its most basic, war is an extension of the human psyche — and is connected to the very primal feelings we have when someone makes us feel unequal. We are a social species, and this is why we have created cities and thrived. It is also why we fight; societies which trade more often with each are more likely to fight wars.
That little titbit comes from a 1996 book called War Before Civilization, written by Lawrence H. Keeley, an archaeology professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. His book, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History, investigated the relationship between war and pre-civilization society.
"We are a social species, and this is why we have created cities and thrived. It is also why we fight..."
His conclusion? Peaceful societies are the exception, not the rule, and about 90% of societies take part in war or war-like activities. (He also found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that early warfare was much more horrific, violent and had a higher casualty rate than modern war.)
Dr Steve Taylor, a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, says the spread of warfare boils down to humans’ need to enhance either their status, safety, or their wealth.
“Individually, humans have a general need to enhance their status, or their possessions. We have a desire for accumulation,” he says. “On a group level, that moves into a desire to gain more territory, to gain other people’s land, and to claim other people’s wealth and resources.”
“I mean, it’s obvious geographically with the rise of empires throughout history.”
So, wars are real estate deals gone wrong, then. Fine. But that doesn’t explain why so many people are too eager to leave the comfort of their own homes and sign up for battle. As Taylor explains, individuals subscribe to warfare on a human level.
“It has a lot to do with the glory, and the kind of sense of intensity which warfare can bring,” he says.
This isn’t new — it’s the same message told in a different way over a hundred years. In 1914, young Australian men were convinced they were off on a wild adventure. Twenty-five years later, it was about glory and duty to stop Hitler from advancing his armies across the world. And today? Well, you only need to watch a “join the Navy” television ad to see the armed services playing off the need for men and women to have a sense of purpose in life.
Of course, nationalism and imperialism play a part, here. (One only needs to visit the United States to see just how much free stuff is given to its military — free stuff that in any other country would be a basic human right afforded to absolutely everyone.)
But Taylor is right — there is a yearning inside people to prove themselves. In 1910, the psychologist William James, one of the most cited psychologist of the 20th century, wrote an essay called The Moral Equivalent of War, in which he explored the relationship between humanity and warfare.
His finding was pretty simple: warfare makes people feel exaggerated emotions, and lifts people to “a higher plane of power”. Discipline, courage, and heroism — these are all things that make us feel good. And not just for soldiers, Williams argued. If you’re a civilian, you’re called to a sense of purpose and duty. (If you’ve seen the first Marvel Captain America film, you would have seen this played out during Cap’s tour for war bonds — “Each bond you buy is a bullet in your best man’s gun!”)
"War is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble,” Williams writes.
Williams, of course, says war is obviously not the greatest means to this good end. And so he argues for what he calls a “moral equivalent”. He argues for something that makes us feel the same positive effects of warfare, but doesn’t involve the reality of violence and wanton destruction.
Talking about Games
Videogames and war have had a close and often beneficial relationship. Not only have games, from their earliest days, sought to put players in the midst of conflict, the fetishism of war within these games has no doubt helped bring new recruits.
Indeed, Baruch College professor Corey Read reported as much in his 2013 book War Play, which examined the relationship between the US military and videogames. He writes that as early as 1960 “the armed forces took the lead in financing, sponsoring, and inventing the specific technology used in videogames." The book claims that Spacewar!, which many historians believe to be the first videogame ever made, was produced by MIT students with direct funding from the Pentagon.
America’s Army, released in 2002, was deliberately created as a recruitment tool for the United States Army. This is hardly a conspiracy theory, but it helps view the current range of military games in a new light. Battlefield, Call of Duty, even a title as pulpy as Wolfenstein: these games are built on the idea that combat and war are something to be admired, or at least, a medium through which to feel alive. (William James would be rather proud.)
Ben Lewis-Evans is a UX Researcher at Epic Games. Previously, he worked at Player Research, a company which conducted user testing for developers and gave recommendations based on how people reacted to their games.
There are plenty of psychological reasons games are obsessed with conflict, says Evans — but it’s important to note videogames aren’t a special medium.
“Violence, sex and love are universal elements we love to talk about,” he says. “War being a popular setting is not limited to games — it’s been popular in every type of media, including movies, books, stories and plays.”
And games were obsessed with combat before videogames came along. Chess, Lewis-Evans points out, is a war game.
“It’s such a good feedback loop,” he says. “You make an action, and you get a response.”
“In usability, this feedback loop has plenty of what we could call “affordances”. Basically, you can always know who the sides are, what the stakes are, if someone is trying to take over something. It’s relatable on lots of levels, including an emotional level.”
Even something as simple as checkers, he says, simulates combat.
“Taking territory is something simple and understandable to anyone. We all understand what conflict is, and we understand it has a lot of psychological levels. At its very basic, it’s an understandable feedback loop.”
“We’re easily drawn to the idea of 'us vs them',” says Lewis-Evans. He points to the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, which found that people, when divided into two separate groups, will tend to work against each other even when they have no reason to. (Lewis-Evans says the experiment has been questioned in recent years.)
But the point remains. “War is a situation that can very strongly take advantage of those things,” he says.
"He points to the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, which found that people, when divided into two separate groups, will tend to work against each other..."
Consider a title like Call of Duty. Players get to run around and shoot guns, which isn’t something they get to do every day. They shoot bullets, they take down enemies, and positive feedback loops ensure that as they kill more, they get more powerful. It’s a pretty simple formula. And it’s a formula that works, given the FPS has been one of the most dominant forms of play for decades.
The only problem with this is that games, naturally, aren’t able to replicate the horrors of war very well. Or at least, they can’t do it intuitively. By the nature of a first-person shooter, players need to be given positive feedback or they won’t continue playing. This naturally creates a problem — players of videogames aren’t able to experience anything other than a heightened sense of euphoria after playing a game like Call of Duty, no matter how many sombre cutscenes developers can throw in discussing the horrors of war.
Call of Duty tried to do this originally by inserting quotes about the horror of war when players die. They don’t do this anymore.
“The problem with a game situation is that it sets up rewards and punishments that aren’t real life behaviour,” says Lewis-Evans.
But this point actually goes further. Dr Nina Huntemann, Director of Academics and Research at edX, wrote on Kotaku in 2012 that action-packed blockbusters “reduce the complex world of counter-terrorism to an array of advanced weapons systems and precision-guided munitions in a lock-and-load shoot-fest.”
“Blind faith is placed in the technologies of war, and the photo-realistic graphics capabilities of contemporary videogame consoles create breathtaking, heart-pumping explosions,” she says.
“However, the cost and consequences of these shock-and-awe machines are largely missing.”
That’s exactly what developers, over the last few years, have been trying to change.
Talking about the shift of games towards other subjects
Between 2007 and 2012, the FPS was dominating the conversation in the games industry. It was also dominating criticism — after EA decided to release a game with the actual title Medal of Honor: Warfighter, it seemed the genre may have reached peak ludicrousness.
But the backlash to the traditional understanding of war in videogames has generated genuinely moving experiences. The first of these to dominate the popular conversation was Spec Ops: The Line, a game in which you play a soldier suffering the horrific consequences of PTSD.
More recently, one title transforming the idea of a “war game” is This War of Mine. Set during the siege of Bosnia, the player is put in the shoes of a civilian, not a soldier, and tasked with surviving. Difficult choices are truly heartbreaking — do you turn away other civilians who ask for medicine, because you need it for your own family? Depression, PTSD and suicide are all dealt with.
“Showing one perspective leads to an extreme,” says Pawel Miechowski, the game’s Senior Writer. The key, he says, is different perspectives.
“I’m just looking for a different perspective,” Miechowski says. “Even a game like Papers, Please, which shows how trivial life could be for a customs officer and showing how brutal it can be.”
The rise of games such as That Dragon, Cancer, about two parents’ experience in helping their four-year-old son deal with terminal illness, and indeed, games such as Papers, Please, or the text adventure Depression Quest, explore complex, emotional stories. There is no reason, Miechowski says, games about war can’t do this also.
While not specifically about war, games such as This War of Mine and Valiant Hearts aim to demonstrate humanity at the centre of war. The message is simple, but new for videogames: the person you’re shooting is another human.
But the real goal, Miechowski argues, is not just creating a good in-game experience; it’s about changing people’s real-world perspectives.
“The major feedback we’ve had from the game is that it’s an eye-opening experience,” he says. “It brings you closer to what people would have went through during the war, and it shows you the suffering people went through.”
“It’s much easier for you to understand. It could almost be considered an anti-war manifest.”
There will always be war. It is part of our nature and cannot be escaped. Yet during the last 100 years, the number of wars has continued to decline and we are now experiencing one of the most peaceful times in human history.
Could we be heading for a future in which war is abolished? Perhaps. But as Miechowski explains, until we get there, we should ensure stories about war are told which don’t just honour the bravery and courage of soldiers, but the humanity, consequence and impact on the rest of humanity. Playing Battlefield may make you feel like a soldier — but in reality, if war ever came to our shores, we’d be much more likely to haggle over the price of medicine.
“I’m open to covering every type of story,” says Miechowski. “And I think we’re on the verge of this golden age of games.”
“If Call of Duty is number one? I’m fine with it. But I’m not fine with Call of Duty being the only perspective.”