As I approach the onset of my 40s, I find that I have very mixed feelings about warfare-based video games.
It wasn't always this way. When I was younger, I stormed the beaches of Normandy time and time again in Medal of Honor. I fought Nazis in Return to Castle Wolfenstein. I played a number of Command and Conquer games (my favourite was always Red Alert). And, prior to the 9/11 attack, I was a devoted Counter-Strike player.
Today, however, as I look back on it all, I can't help but think that the best war game I've ever seen is Valiant Hearts - a World War I-based puzzle game in which there isn't a single player character who so much as picks up a rifle.
I think one of the reasons comes from having gone through a Master of Arts degree at the Royal Military College of Canada. My degree was in War Studies, with a thesis on World War I British Cavalry. And, throughout the course of my classes and the conferences I attended, I met my share of veterans, from World War II to Afghanistan. It's a bit harder to be comfortable with playing or watching a game about a real world battlefield when you've known people who were there.
But it's so much more complicated than that.
For example, where does one draw the line between honouring, commemorating, and exploiting? World War II is the backdrop of a number of war games - as I mentioned above, storming Omaha Beach in Medal of Honor was an intense, adrenaline-fuelled, and fun experience. But it wasn't fun for the people who were there in 1944, watching their friends get blown to pieces. At the same time, that war was over 70 years ago, the conflict behind it long-settled. If it's all right to make popcorn movies about it, then surely there's nothing wrong with video games doing the same thing. But can we really say that about Afghanistan and Iraq, where the battlefield still exists and soldiers are dying there?
To make it even more complex, while a lot of gamers see first person battlefield shooters as a fun pastime, for some people the games are a key part of rebuilding their lives. Soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq sometimes use games like Call of Duty to help treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD). Is it truly exploitation when the games capitalizing on current, real-world conflicts may be the key to helping veterans recover from those same conflicts?
But this only scratches the surface. Having spoken to a number of veterans, the experience of war that they described was complicated, to say the least. I remember one Afghanistan veteran, a lovely lady who is an officer in the Canadian artillery, who had one of her happiest moments at the start of a major engagement. Having heard about and trained to carry out the mass barrages of World War I, II, and Korea, she was disappointed to discover that her tour of duty involved waiting for hours and occasionally lobbing one or two shells to some specified coordinates. But then, an actual battle started, and she got to fire a proper barrage! Her eyes lit up with excitement as she told me this.
And then there's a friend of mine, who has asked to go nameless for reasons that will become clear. He served in communications, and spent most of his time in Afghanistan on a hill. He phoned me more often from that hill than he ever had before his deployment, and became a dedicated camel watcher (our standard joke was, "No, you can't take a camel home with you," followed by, "Awww..."). He also returned home with severe PTSD, and to this day he cannot play military shooters without being triggered.
There's also the story about a group of soldiers in a paratrooper bar who, having been comparing the stories of their dozens of drops, noticed an old fellow come in and take a seat. Thinking that perhaps he had wandered into the wrong place by accident, some of the young men asked him how many drops he had been through. "Just two," he replied, "Normandy and Holland." The old veteran did not have to buy a single drink that night.
There's my great grandfather, Isaac Voskoboinik, who served in the Imperial Russian Cavalry in World War I. Because he was Jewish he was not permitted to hold rank, but because he did not look Jewish, he was trusted by his fellow soldiers. He was captured in Austria in 1915, declared dead by the Russian army, and spent most of the war in a POW camp. He was also one of the millions of prisoners on the Eastern Front forgotten about when the war ended, and led a band of men home to Russia, foraging across Eastern Europe to survive.
Finally, there's my grandfather Albert Marks, who spent a lot of World War II in England training to fly Mosquitos (a type of wooden warplane). We don't know much about what happened there - he never liked to talk about it. We do know that he had a roommate during training who was killed in action, leaving him so distraught that he could not bring himself to return to the barracks, and later had to have somebody collect and deliver his belongings to his new quarters. The war ended while my grandfather was still in training, and he managed the amazing feat of coming out of it without a single drop of blood on his hands. He also met somebody, fell in love, and got married there - to my grandmother, who was with him until he died four years ago at the age of 93.
I guess it is fitting that this seems to be a complicated issue without any real answers. After all, the experience of war is complicated. Perhaps that's why Valiant Hearts works so well. In stripping away the combat gameplay, it allows us to concentrate instead on the stories of the characters - their laughter and sadness, their rejoicing and heartbreak, and the excitement and the horror. Instead of playing at war, we get to experience it.
It may also be the closest we can ever come to understanding it without going there ourselves.
Robert B. Marks is the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, Garwulf's Corner, and the co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora. His current fiction project is The Eternity Quartet, with Ed Greenwood. His Livejournal can be found here, his Patreon-based magazine experiment, Garwulf Speaks, can be found here, and he is now on Facebook. He can be reached by email at garwulf at escapistmag.com.