If there is one thing that can be universally agreed upon is that videogames love a good war. Whether it be in far off galaxies, or the musty mires of our own history, it is hard not to find some genre of game where you can’t shoot, blast, stab, chop, exterminate, and other verbs for kill, your way to victory. Heck, we love war so much you can even right now play Attack Helicopter Dating Simulator and literally go and flirt with your very own spiny blade death machine. Yet through all the wars, all the shooting, and all the beautiful senseless violence, there is one war that videogames have never truly left, and if you’ve read the title you can probably guess. The Second World War.
It’s a story that’s been played out in so many games that some people have probably learnt more about WWII from Call of Duty than the classroom. Some of the most evil men alive decided that their idiotic ideas were the ideas everyone should follow, the world at large generally disagreed, we had a war, the bad buys lost, and now people need to think twice before they dress up as Charlie Chaplin. What people probably didn’t count on is that 40 years after we caught Hitler with his panzers down, that we would remake the experience over and over again for our kids and grandkids to enjoy. In fact, the biggest names in videogames have all got their start from this war. The very first of course being Castle Wolfenstein in 1981, where man first realised that shooting Nazis when they can't physically hurt you back is actually rather fun. Since then some of the biggest names in videogames have cut their teeth on the fields of Normandy, from the shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield, Strategy games of all types like Hearts of Iron and Company of Heroes, plane simulators like War Thunder, the list is almost as long as the war was! But the question remains, why this war? We have evidence of wars dating back to 12000BC, to conflicts happening around us as you read this very sentence. In fact, in the last 3,400 years, the world has only been completely at peace for only 268 of them! so if it’s not down to a lack of source material, what makes World War II so inviting?
Well, what about it being a conflict we can all relate too? I doubt there is a single living soul above the age of 4 that doesn’t know about the Second World War. A world war Afterall, tends to impact the world, funnily enough. Everyone can think of their own nation’s experience, and the impact the war has had on it. For Britain, it finally saw the sunset on its Empire. India, through the sacrifice of its countrymen, would pave their way to it’s independence. France, a nation that was supposedly defeated so quickly, can remember how it still refused to surrender through its resistance fighters. Even Switzerland must remember proudly how they bravely eat popcorn while watching from the side-lines.
Now this may pass as a logical reason for why we must continue to learn about World War II and why it’s an important war, I’d argue this is not the reason why games are so obsessed with it. Think for a moment how many World War II games star as Pvt. Yanky Mc.Stubbleface who can kill Nazis with the strength of his patriotism to the good ol’ US of A alone. Well that, and his giant American made machine gun. Nearly all war games take place switching between the perspectives of a British, Russian, or American soldier. Usually, to see the war from a perspective outside of these nations, you would have to venture out and look for more independently made titles such as the recently realised WARSAW, where you command a group of Polish resistance fighters. Yet attempts by bigger game developments to show that this was a world war tend to be mediocre at best. The very best that Call of Duty WWII could muster was one black soldier, with the game attempting to address the very serious issue of racial discrimination in the US army, via one slightly awkward silence when the protagonist meets him. The game also goes a step further to include, brace yourself, the chance to play as a woman. This, of course, led to the nerd community at large to clutch their pearls and gasp in horror at the audacity to being forced to fight Nazis as someone with boobs, even though the soviet army alone trained at least 20,000 female soldiers. It is fair to say therefore the Call of Duty franchise does little to try and create a worldly view of the war. The recently released Battlefield V, however, does do better, allowing you to play as a female Norwegian resistance fighter, a conscripted Senegalese soldier, and even a German tank commander. However, Battlefield V only came out last year, so only now, 3 decades after Wolfenstein, is the “world” being put into “world war”. We, therefore, can’t really say that the WWII experience depicted in videogames is one everyone can relate too, unless your Russian, American, or British. If videogames were truly obsessed with the world war because it was a war everyone could relate too, publishers would push for their games to have a more universal appeal, with more characters from different nations, instead of just the same stories of the battles fought by the Big 3.
Okay so it’s not due to everyone relating to the war, how about more simple reasons. The set-piece battles. A war game needs big battles, otherwise it’s not going to be fun, and let’s be honest World War II has quite a few knocking about. From Stalingrad to Kursk, from El Alamein to the D – Day landings, World War II is not short of places that blow up in spectacular fashion. In fact, the Pacific Front ends with the biggest bomb ever made, for the time, being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With such a big war you also get variety to your battles to boot! Want to fight in a city? You can take your pick from any major European city from Paris to Warsaw. How about fighting in the air? Battle of Britain and Medway have you covered my friend. What if you want to fight in the freezing cold, in the middle of a wood, on Christmas day? Oddly specific request but the Battle of the Bulge is there for you. World War II has something that some wars simply don’t. A changing landscape. Variety is therefore key. On the surface, it would seem other wars are not as popular as either they don’t have the same variety of locations, or are held back by the weapons used at the time. Sure, World War 1 took place across the world, but tactics were old fashioned and limited, and mainly involved running from one trench to the other, the weapons used mainly being cumbersome rifles. More recent conflicts like the Korean War or even Iraq war meanwhile lack the same scale. You can’t jump about from Normandy, to somewhere in Russia, to the pacific islands, like in WWII, you’re always going to be fighting in the same place. Yet although I defiantly think scale helps makes World War II the place to fight a virtual war I don’t believe it to be the main reason. So long as the combat is fun and varied, a game will usually succeed. For instance, the Vietnam war, despite taking place only, funnily enough, in Vietnam, still makes for popular games like Rising Storm 2: Vietnam. It even has a variety of places to fight, from the classic Vietmnese jungles, to cities fights like the Battle of Huế, which was actually the longest and bloodiest fight of the whole war! Any conflict can provide a variety of varied landscapes to fight in without the need to jump from continent to continent. Therefore, it can’t be the variety of battle types in World War 2 that draws its appeal.
The true reason World War II is so popular in videogames is simple. It’s because it’s literally simple. As wars go, World War II is not a particularly controversial conflict for the allies. Don’t get me wrong, all sides did arguably unneeded, atrocious things to one another. But in terms of other conflicts in history, World War II is very black and white. The bad guys are the Nazis, they are genocidal maniacs who believe they are “superior” to all other races and peoples. They have started a war for no other reason than because they believed it was their “right” to control Europe. You can’t have a more cliché bad guy, they’re even wearing cool uniforms. Since you are fighting this abomination pretending to be a human you are clearly the good guy. There’s no controversy why your fighting either, Britain joined after the Nazis refused to move out of Poland, Russian joined after they were attacked during Operation Barbarossa, as did the Americans after being attacked at Pearl Harbour, with all these nations bringing their allies with them for one united fight against a genuinely evil doctrine. Best of all, we win. The Axis forces lost, the key Nazi leaders either fled, or shot themselves. Their government was dismantled. Now compare that with Vietnam. If you’re playing from the perspective of an American GI, the “Bad guys” aren’t a highly-trained military force lead by a genocidal maniac, but average people, farmers, and more, who are fighting to unite their country. You, meanwhile, are not quite sure why you’re here, in fact, there are thousands of people back home protesting for the war to end and America to simply pull out, which of course they did. Already things are messy, and controversial, and not so cut and dry as World War II. America’s withdrawal makes things even more awkward. You lose the war. No happy ending for the USA. Yet one man’s insurgent is another man’s freedom fighter, for the end of the Vietnam war is still celebrated as Unification Day in Vietnamese boarders. To them, it’s seen as a good thing your character lost. Yet someone has to be the bad guy, right? But a developer can’t easily make a game with clearly goodies and baddies without writing an awkward apology as to why someone’s nation has been demonised for the sake of a videogame. Meanwhile, no one is going to kick up a fuss if you say Nazis are evil. Heck, I’ve been doing it this entire post and I’m certainly not going to apologise to anyone when I’m done! That is the appeal of World War II. Simplicity, the bad guy is clearly the bad guy, and you are clearly the good guy for fighting him and no one is going to say otherwise.
There are therefore loads of reasons why we find ourselves once more marching up the beaches of Normandy, but the most obvious one is that it is an easy story to make a game out of. questions about if a war is a just war, and is it right to kill this person I’m fighting can easily be dodged. Because who cares right? They’re Nazis. They’re the bad guys.