The Changing Face of War Games: Allowing Victims to Speak?

A recent article in the Guardian Newspaper UK, ‘War games: POV switches from shooting to emotional impact’ raised interesting issues about whether or not the scope for videogames to offer alternative depictions centred on the human cost of war had moved forward a step with the release of the game This War of Mine.

The article contrasts the game with ‘mainstream’ military shooters such as Battlefield and Call of Duty, suggesting that This War of Mine offers an important space to reflect on the impact of war on civilians. This is not a space to debate the merits of this particular game – others have reviewed it with near universal acclaim elsewhere – rather, here I want to explore the importance of this game (alongside others) as an object which explicitly seeks to open up a space to reflect on what may be termed an ‘aesthetic of war’.

Both This War of Mine and the forthcoming game Sunset centre on representing war through the eyes of non-combatants. In this sense they give voice to those who are normally scripted out of military war videogames entirely. Furthermore, this voice takes on added impact as the player engages in navigating their (frequently harrowing) experience of war through gameplay. Such interactions are potentially extremely powerful, and it is here that these games offer an important capacity to open up affective experience and move us towards an aesthetic of war. But in doing so, these games become quite different to a conventional war videogame and are instead perhaps better thought of as a game about war/game within a war-based setting. Here rather than ‘doing war’ within a shooter-based gameplay dynamic where the player ‘embodies the soldier’, the player comes closer to embodying the victim who hitherto has been absent or silent within war-based military videogames. To this degree, such games are incredibly important and take games gradually towards the position occupied by film, which as Michael Shapiro has argued frequently offers a critical space to reflect on the efficacies of war by giving a voice to both a narrator, director and the victim themselves (see for example his books Cinematic Geopolitics and War Crimes, Atriocity and Justice. In the case of film, Shapiro emphasises that the viewer (or reader in terms of fiction) can gain some sense of the victim’s voice as they observe their struggles to navigate the warzone. In the case of games, of course, this potential becomes even greater as the player’s actions are integral to the very ‘success’ of the victim’s capacity to navigate this space. The potential for an empathetic encounter between the player and the victim of war is thus magnified.

These games are part of a growing (if hitherto minority trend) in which war games have started to think more critically about what war might mean for the soldier and to ask searching questions of the player and the implications of their engagement in virtual war. Four examples immediately spring to mind: September 12th and Unmanned – both of which were made by artists with the explicit intent of opening up critical space to reflect on the efficacies of a move towards drone warfare; Spec Ops: The Line – a critically-lauded commercial game which places the player in the role of a team of combat troops on the ground to show the traumatic effect of war on the individual soldier, and the Metal Gear Solid series which offer a more cerebral form of play, traditionally placing a focus on stealth that is in tune with the broadly anti-war message contained within the series as a whole.

The commercial and critical success of This War of Mine may thus mark a significant moment for the games industry and may be evidence of that industry’s growing maturity as it increasingly uses the power of the medium for critical artistic intent. The extent to which this proves to be a sustained pattern, however, is yet to be revealed.


Unmanned – reflecting on ethical choices

Spec Ops: The Line

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