The first world war has never been a major subject for video games, perhaps because the endless weeks of trench-digging and letter-writing followed by a vault over the top and a brief, futile sprint into a “game over” screen doesn’t play to the medium’s conventional strengths.
For years the second world war was the preferred theatre for the game director. That conflict’s variety has allowed players to partake in skirmishes in pretty French villages in Brothers in Arms, to storm Normandy beaches in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and to draw a bead on Hitler’s testicles in Sniper V2 Elite.
With its centenary, however, attention has turned to the first world war. 2014’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War was a cartoonish yet sombre game that, much like Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, examines the pressures exerted by wartime circumstance and misfortune on the human heart. This month’s Battlefield 1takes a more visceral approach, placing you in the boots of a number of soldiers across a range of French, Italian and Mesopotamian historical arenas. While there’s a brief story, Battlefield’s long-term offering is in its vast, disorienting multiplayer battles, where up to 64 players assume the roles of infantrymen, horse riders, tank drivers and biplane pilots, and trade shots while using war pigeons to call down artillery strikes on one another. Some may baulk at the appropriation of one of the world’s deadliest conflicts as set dressing for a sort of Scout-like wide game, but its no more morally questionable than a film director using war to mawkish ends.
Swedish developer Dice has been aware of the need to treat the subject matter, especially in the context of a brash shoot ’em up, with the care of an educator. In September, the game’s senior producer, Aleksander Grøndal, told Vice: “This was a pivotal moment in western history, and if we can encourage people to read up on it, then that’s a win in itself.” This prudence was undermined last week by a series of tone-deaf promotional tweets issued from the social media account of EA, the game’s multinational publisher. One showed an infantryman from the game blazing a rival with a flamethrower alongside the regretful caption: “When you’re too hot for the club, #justWWIthings”. Another used a Spielberg-esque shot of a soldier in a billowing cape standing in front of an exploding Zeppelin, with the words: “When your squad is looking on point”.
Some droll Twitter users took up the hashtag, applying it to more historically appropriate phrases as a way of highlighting the insensitivity of the approach. (“tfw ur dying imperial dreams necessitate the needless slaughter of millions” wrote one Guardian correspondent). The ensuing outcry drew an official apology from EA, which stated that the tweets “did not treat the World War I era with the respect and sensitivity that we have strived to maintain with the game and our communications”.
Games are defined by systems of rules, but they are contextualised and elevated by their theme. War is the predominant metaphor in sport, with “sides” led by the “captains”. It’s the theme used by chess, that bloodiest of all tabletop pursuits. Battlefield 1 is not much different from team sports such as football – likewise a rambling battle in which attackers and defenders ebb and flow up and down the pitch in a clash of will and power. The problem, perhaps, is with the specificity of the theme. If rugby, with its frantic dashes for a few metres of territory, were played in khaki uniform and the ball was shaped like a bomb, the sport might not have thrived as it has done. As Fifa’s ban on England and Scotland players wearing poppies when their teams meet on Armistice Day demonstrates, there is a kind of moral impunity in abstraction.
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