Recently, we celebrated Remembrance day (Veteran's day in the U.S), which made me think about how we see war, especially in video games. Today, one word is used above all others to describe soldiers: Hero. They fight against the country's enemies, risking their lives for their cause. But whether or not this is a fair use of the word 'hero', it is interesting to see how the concept has evolved, and is represented in video games.
In a broader sense, fictional heroes can be split roughly into two camps. The ideal, Classical hero and the more modern, and more relevant antihero. Although for a long time the idealized hero was more popular, the classical hero has been replaced No longer are heroes grand, strong, virile, and capable. Now we have the every-man hero, a hero closer to our own mundane selves. Rather than have a hero as an ideal to strive towards, we now have a hero as an exploration of what we already are underneath. We all want to believe that we would do the right thing, and, perhaps beyond that, the brave thing, in a time of crisis. But we can never know until we are in that situation.
How does this relate to war? Well, war is typically the arena for heroics. Whereas in Classical times it was a place for heroes to display their nobility and prowess, and also a place for the clash of ideals, today it is the place for accidental heroics, those who lack the qualities to become the type of hero who can never exist. People no longer want to strive towards an ideal, instead they want to see the events which can form heroes from ordinary people. Almost every superhero begins their origin as a normal person. We want to believe that power is both a reward for righteousness and a test of it, and the privileged classical hero can't represent this modern desire in the way that modern antiheroes can. It is no longer interesting to see a perfect hero's perceived struggles. We want to see someone flawed cope with adversity and triumph through their flaws.
But gaming is not focused on the passive watching experience. As players we want to be active in our own narratives. We do not want to play as a flawed antihero, neither do we want to play as some idealized hero that we can never be. We want to play fantasies, an alternate, heroic version of ourselves. We fight, we win, we get the girl and we manage to survive it all and come home. And if something goes wrong, we get to try again, because that is not the end of our story.
My question then has two parts. Do video games represent the established tropes of war? And if they do, or don't, why do they do this?
Video games seem to edge a lot closer to the Classical role of the hero than the modern variation. It simply doesn't suit most war games, which thrive on the thrill of combat, to portray war as horrifying, lethal, disorientating, strange and dark. At least, when they do this it is as another means to the ultimate end of entertainment: Atmosphere is rarely used for its own sense but rather to amplify the tension of the combat. And, quite simply War games can't often show war as negative and then rely on the thrill of combat as the main selling point. That would be a textbook case of ludo-narrative dissonance. You can't tell me war is bad, then show me how fun it is. One of those two messages is not going to stick. And, as always, showing works better than telling.
However, rather than regard this as a glorification of war, I would believe that this is more the 'arcadification' of war, reducing it to a competitive sports arena, where the stakes are low and adrenaline and mountain dew course through the veins of young, foul-mouthed gamers. And perhaps I would not think this is so bad, except that this is the dominant representation of war within video games (or, at least through Call of Duty's popularity, the most culturally definitive). And, perhaps worse than this, given the age of many of the player base the dominant representation of war both socially and historically for many young people today. And I don't expect this to change anytime soon. Negative representations of war simply don't suit action-oriented war games.
This is what kids see when they think "War".
But what about Strategy games? Most war games are either first-person or third-person shooters, with the occasional stealth game as well. But many strategy games are based on war. The brilliant yet underrated Valkyria Chronicles actually manages to address the futility and pity of war without drowning its message in thrill-seeking gunplay. Strategy is key, there's a steep learning curve and once a soldier dies, they're gone. And much like the recent Fire Emblem, Soldiers are not faceless pawns but real characters, with personalities and aspirations, so losing them doesn't just suck because of their strategic value but also because you don't want to see people you know die. Fire Emblem goes even further, allowing team members to have relationships and even marry. For a game to resonate when it represents the horrors of war and the burdens of command it needs to represent loss not only in a strategic way but in a personal one.
Perhaps the most striking truth about soldiers in video games is that they totally disregard the notion of soldiers as heroes. Most are simply cannon fodder, dressed in the uniform of the enemy du jour: Nazis, Al Qaeda, loud-mouthed Russians. Often it doesn't matter, as long as it's recognizable. At best, a couple of allies are vaguely heroic, and even they pale in comparison to the player, often because they must. At worst, allies are passive and incompetent, without even the complexity of cowardice or naivete to explain their actions. The player has to be the deciding factor in the narrative, else games would struggle to justify why their story is being played and not another. However, I think this comes from the weakness of the representation of war, and the narrow, thrill-focused experiences which result from this. I, for one, would not mind playing a game where I am mostly powerless, where I am not the hero, where others decide the fate of the world. Because when the world revolves around you, you can't see what makes it turn.