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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 54.2: Debra Ramsay
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Afterthoughts: Reflections on History in Games and Games in History[1]

Debra Ramsay

I wrote ‘Brutal Games: Call of Duty and the Cultural Narrative of World War II’ almost four years ago.  Around that time, it was tempting to speculate that Call of Duty: World at War (Activision, 2008) would be the last top tier First Person Shooter (FPS) set in World War II, with both the Medal of Honor (Electronic Arts, 1999-2012) and Call of Duty (Activision, 2003-) franchises producing games set in current conflicts.  Medal of Honor’s 2010 release, for example, was set in Afghanistan and caused controversy by allowing games to play as the Taliban in multiplayer mode.  Call of Duty took the safer route by thinly disguising the war in Iraq in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007), or by setting games in imagined conflicts in the near future in Call of Duty: Black Ops II, (2012).  Prior to the release of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014), digital games, rather than films, were the most lucrative and popular depictions of America’s current conflicts, a topic that warrants an entirely separate blog.  Consequently, it appeared that World War II had ‘lost its attraction for video game developers’, in the words of games writer Brian Crecente.  The demise of representations of World War II in various forms of media has been predicted with some regularity in the seventy years or so since the war ended.  In 1962 film critic Bosley Crowther made an ‘educated guess’ that there would not be another World War II film to match Darryl Zanuck’s The Longest Day (1962), and twenty-four years after that, Jeanine Basinger ventured the same opinion for The Big Red One (Sam Fuller, 1980).[2] 

Yet, with the same regularity, World War II cycles back into the mediascape, something I investigate in more detail in American Media and the Memory of World War II, which features a chapter that expands on the themes of ‘Brutal Games’.  As an example of the ongoing cultural appeal of the conflict, almost seven years after the release of Call of Duty: World at War, games writers and gamers began calling for a return to World War II.  ‘The modern setting has become over saturated’, writes one, while another asks ‘Can we not just go back to Nazis?  Everyone hates those guys.’  The comments to both of these articles reveal a nostalgia for the World War II FPS and a dissatisfaction with the repetitive nature of games set in modern conflicts, caused in part by the high-powered nature of modern weaponry, which creates a very different kind of gameplay to that of World War II games.  Surfacing once more is an appreciation of the differences between the array of World War II weaponry and of the vast scope of World War II, with battlefields as yet unexplored in the First Person Shooter genre, together with a desire to see both the weapons and spaces of World War II rendered through the next generation of game engines.  Whether publishers and developers will take the risk on setting the next major FPS release in World War II remains to be seen, particularly given recent speculation as to the future of console and pc gaming in general, but the chatter in games magazines and forums is indicative that the conflict cannot ever be written off with any certainty, in any medium.

The impact of World War II on the American film industry and the conflict’s representation in American films has been thoroughly covered in scholarship (for examples, see Koppes and Black, 1988 or Basinger 1986).  Studies on the history of the relationship between World War II and the digital games industry are comparatively scarcer.  The focus of ‘Brutal Games’ is on World War II in the FPS in particular,  but the conflict was influential in changing the landscape of digital gaming as a whole, and it also features in strategy games and massively multiplayer online games such as Company of Heroes (developed by Relic Entertainment, 2006) and World of Tanks (developed by Wargaming, 2010).  Part of the challenge of writing about the history of games lies in the nature of gaming technology itself, where the rapid rate of redundancy created by ongoing technical innovation leaves earlier games at worst entirely inaccessible or at best difficult to play because outdated gaming mechanics can make the experience cumbersome for gamers accustomed to the next generation of game consoles and design.  Chad Sapieha argues that technological innovation in digital gaming is thus paradoxically ‘the greatest obstacle to specific video games achieving any sort of long-term historical significance.’

While Sapieha identifies the problem of accelerated redundancy as specific to digital games, the histories of film and television have not been without their issues.  Almost no care was taken with preservation with either films or television programs in the early stages of their respective development, resulting in the loss of large swathes of material that could have helped to shape our understanding of these formation periods.  Digital games are arguably in a better position when it comes to preservation as there is a greater awareness, predominantly in academia but also in the private sector, of the need to preserve the history of gaming technology and content as it develops, driven at least in part by the gaps in the histories of other media.  The Art of Video Games exhibit, which began in 2012 in the Smithsonian, and is due to end its tour of the US at Florida International University in 2016, is one example of the impetus to acknowledge and preserve the history of digital games. 

However, Sapieha’s point relates to the nature of gameplay itself, and to the inevitable loss of the sense of what made playing the game special at the time.  For instance, gamers who have played FPSs such as Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (2014) would arguably find it difficult to appreciate the thrill of simply being able to navigate a three dimensional environment in Wolfenstein 3D (ID Software, 1992), which has been recently added to the Internet Archive so that those without access to the original hardware can now play the game.  Sapieha therefore contends that ‘classic’ digital games, or those that persist in appeal through time and across generations, should be understood differently to the concept of ‘classics’ in any other medium.  Simon Parkin similarly argues that there is ‘no Criterion Collection of video games, no Penguin Classics’.   The idea of what constitutes the ‘classical’ canon of digital games, films, or television series is open to endless debate, but writing about World at War only four years after its release is certainly different to writing about The Longest Day, or Band of Brothers (HBO 2001) years, even decades, after their first appearance because of the sense that the game is already outdated in ways that are vastly different to older iterations of film and television narratives of World War II.  World at War may not be a ‘classic’ World War II game, and it may not be the last top tier FPS ever set in World War II, but as the last World War II game to be produced before the industry began changing in response to the development of mobile gaming, it occupies a significant place in the history of gaming as a whole.

There is a certain amount of traction to arguments such as Sapieha’s that digital games are unique among media technologies and content.  Following on from Espen Aarseth, I understand digital games not so much as a medium, but more as a ‘flexible material technology’ with changing affordances.[3]  However, while it is undeniable that digital games have properties that other media do not, it is equally undeniable that they also resemble other media in crucial ways and what’s more, are part of a highly-integrated media environment in which no media industry produces content in isolation.  In American Media and the Memory of World War II, I therefore situate the discussion of World at War within a holistic approach to the mediation of the memory of World War II.  Ignoring the role played by digital games in the construction of World War II memory runs the risk of missing out on how the war is perceived and understood by the generation of Americans that has grown to maturity in a mediascape in which gaming technologies occupy a significant role.  After all, for many in this generation, digital games, rather than film or television, are ‘the natural frame they use to understand the world around them’ (Tomas Rawlings, 2012).

The challenges presented by technological redundancy and by rapid rates of change associated with writing about history in digital games and on games in history are a measure of the recalibration of our relationship to history and memory created by the digital mediascape as a whole.  Digital media are changing the ways we access, process and understand the past.  More work needs to be done to establish exactly what role digital games play in an environment replete with multiple and multiplying sources of the past, and this forms a significant part of my next research project.  Unlike Crowther and Basinger, however, I hazard no guesses as to what, or when, the last World War II game will be.    

[1] I have borrowed this title from Robert Rosenstone’s book History on Film/Film on History (Harlow, UK: Pearson Education Ltd, 2006).

[2] Respectively, Bosley Crowther, “No More Worlds: Peak for War Films Hit by Longest DayNew York Times, October 7, 1962; Jeanine Basinger, (1986) The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003), 197.  Also in Debra Ramsay, American Media and the Memory of World War II (New York: Routledge, forthcoming March 2015) 206.

[3] Espen Aarseth, ‘Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation’ in First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2004), 46

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