Video games can deepen remembrance: “playing at war” isn’t always offensive or vapid

Warning: this article includes mentions of the Holocaust, which may be triggering.

“The most sensible commemoration of any war is not to repeat it.” –Simon Jenkins

It has been 100 years since the major powers of Europe declared war against each other, culminating in the Great War, one of the bloodiest military engagements in history.

With a staggering toll of 37,466,904 casualties (8,528,831 deaths), the war, known in its time as the Great War, cast a shadow over Europe.

It created the notion of a universal suffering that united Europe in its scope, as seen in Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, where the real enemy of the war was the war itself.

It is no surprise that the Great War was most commonly referred to as “The Seminal Tragedy,” irreparably changing popular considerations of war as a theater of glory.

The sentiment of the war’s legacy is illustrated in the term “remembrance,” which is differentiated from the act of remembering by placing a unique amount of emphasis on the act itself.

So, on the centennial anniversary, a number of wargame companies such as Battlefront Miniatures, Warlord Games and Peter Pig Minis are commemorating the war by producing various rules and models with which to game the Great War.

A number of historians have seen these kinds of “playing at war” as a way of trivializing the atrocity of the war or, even worse, glamorizing it.

Lisa Jardine, Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of London, is worried that these depictions of the war are, “perhaps a little too upbeat, too coherent and focused” and “no more frightening than an office foyer.”

On the contrary, historians such as Jardine fail to understand the potential of games to be more than simple entertainment.

They possess too inflexible of a definition for the medium of games, implying that they are designed to be an inherently entertaining and vapid experience–that they can only abstract the experience it is simulating by simplifying its reality into a series of mechanics—disservicing the actual event rather than reflecting it.

Like any other art form, games have the ability to elicit complex emotions such as feelings of horror or disgust.

For example, games like Brenda Romero’s Train simulate a grimly aware and mature perspective of the Holocaust.

The game is played over a broken window, representing the Nazi terror of Kristallnacht, where the players are tasked with transporting as many Jews as possible into concentration camps. The kicker? You win when you realize that you can stop playing the game—that you can stop committing simulated genocide.

This level of meta-textuality is exactly what war games need. There is no other art form that can accurately represent the fact that human agency is required for these monstrous events to occur.

Romero has said that all “human-on-human tragedy has a system,” and games are unique because they require systems and agency to function—they are interactive by nature and are only dead instruction manuals without it.

On the centennial anniversary of the Great War, the concept of remembrance, being an action taken to remember, is exactly what war games are poised to do best.

The issue is not with war games, but with the lack of self-aware war games that are designed to communicate the horrors of war through player interaction.

It requires the dismantling of the popular perception that “fun” is the lynchpin of what makes a game enjoyable—instead it should be broadened to a general sense of engagement.

In a self-aware war game, that engagement can easily be a sense of horror and repulsion.

The issue is with the feelings that a game is designed to elicit in its players—specifically war games like chess and Risk, which abstract its domination and death into a cartoon to create a romantic feeling of battlefield triumph.

But we don’t feel repulsed whenever we win at Risk, do we?

World domination is presented as a lazy Sunday activity.

It’s only by giving a tragic and human face to Risk that it explicitly becomes an interactive narrative of death and domination.

There are a number of historical instances in the Great War that suit a self-aware and anti-war war game.

Front-line officers were constantly under pressure from their superiors to accept unprecedented casualties for meager territorial advances.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme resulted in 60,000 British casualties that only advanced the front by two miles­­—characterized by British High Command as a “complete success.”

A war game that allows the player to take on the role of one of these under-officers could hurl the player into the battle, with the objective to save as many lives as possible. The form stays the same, but the objective is reversed.

An anti-war war game has an unconsidered amount of power to convey feelings of horror and repulsion­—but moreover, to provide an avenue for an unflinching remembrance of past tragedies, including but not limited to the Great War.