What with the newly released (and excellent) Exploring the War Underground simulator that can be found on this website (and if you haven’t tried it yet go and do so now; I’ll wait) I wanted to discuss some of the interactive ways of experiencing the war.
A while back now there was a discussion on the email forum of the International Society for First World War Studies (ISFWWS) about the relative absence of First World War related computer games. The Second World War has always been fertile ground for computer game designers because there definitely seems to be an audience of people who, deep down, want to shoot Nazi soldiers in the face.
During the teaching for my course (Time and Place: 1916: The Somme) I gave my students a link to this computer game on the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/worldwarone/hq/trenchwarfare.shtml [Editor’s comment : This page is no longer available on the BBC website (2019)]
It’s clearly aimed at school children and, as such, shouldn’t be viewed as ‘deep history’ but at the same time I (and after I brought it to their attention) the ISFWWS found it rather troubling.
The game presents a fairly cliched view of the war (hardly unusual, I blame A J P Taylor) but there are several subversive aspects to it that carry it beyond the traditional ‘mud, blood and death’ view of war in the trenches.
First of all the actual tactics you are able to employ don’t properly match their real world equivalents. The notion of a ‘creeping barrage’ is well documented in historical terms but the order and implementation of the various aspects within the game often results in you losing the battle and all your men being killed. Even when it comes to employing sound defensive tactics (artillery, machine guns, infantry) the game seems to take a contrary view of such decisions and informs you that you have chosen unwisely. After encountering this response numerous times my eventual reaction was; ‘No I have not!’
Most concerning though is that the game cannot actually be ‘won’. There are only 4 levels and the 4th (a reproduction apparently designed to mirror the Passchendaele offensive of 1917) is impossible to complete. After trying once the game informs you that to continue attacking in these circumstances would be tantamount to murder and that you should be thoroughly ashamed of yourself (or words to that effect).
How do we reconcile the idea that trench warfare could not be mastered and that, to attempt to, robs you of your humanity? Particularly considering the fact that the war in the trenches was, eventually, won by the Entente powers?
This is a Canadian game called ‘Over the Top’ and is modelled on those generally awesome ‘Choose your own Adventure’ books which made my childhood far more exciting than it would otherwise have been.
Now the actual game setup is pretty good, the choices and results etc are interesting. However it does have many of the ‘blood, mud, death’ qualities that you expect form the dominant view of WW1.
We have to discuss though whether this is always going to be the inherent issue with attempting to craft narrative entities (such as computer games) around a conflict that, for the vast majority of time, was incredibly dull for the participants and elements of danger were often implied rather than constant. Nobody is going to want to play a game where you spend large portions of time sitting around and doing nothing, with 3-4 days in the front line and the rest moving between the reserve lines and behind the front on work duty.
At least with the image of WW2 there is the perception of forwards movement (post D-Day when most games are set) and progressive combat. The huge set-piece battles of WW1 would probably translate well into a computer game format (look how many times the Call of Duty / Medal of Honour games have reproduced the Saving Private Ryan beach landings or the Enemy at the Gates battle for Red Square and Stalingrad) but would that be enough? Also given how the war is usually portrayed, would your controlled character die in the end? Doesn’t seem right really.
That’s not to say that you can’t have games focusing on WW1, I think you probably could. The question is; where do you draw the line on an ‘acceptable’ trade off?
Recently there have been new emerging games focused on the war. I can recommend ‘Trenches II’ a strategy game for iOS and, having downloaded it and taken it on holiday with me a few months ago found it very enjoyable. But it is a strange relationship regarding interactive games and WW1. The focus on death and destruction is hardly unusual for games but there’s a thin line to be trod here between glorification on one side and misrepresentation on the other.