First-person shooters are due for a reckoning in their treatment of history

The latest Medal of Honor, Above and Beyond.

It might be difficult to remember at this stage, but early on, the Call of Duty and Medal of Honor games showed a respectful approach to history. Influenced no doubt by Saving Private Ryan — and the relative novelty of a World War II setting in first-person shooters — both lines offered at least token acknowledgment that real people fought and died in the war, and that turning actual battles into Doom (or more aptly, Wolfenstein 3D) might be offensive. The games thus adopted semi-realistic combat, a serious tone, and in some cases documentary-style extras to put things in context.

Things shifted over time, particularly as studios decided to go modern or even sci-fi. Releases became more Michael Bay than Steven Spielberg, complete with jingoistic politics. We’re all aware of the “No Russian” level for example, and the games tend to show little skepticism of US (and allied) causes. It’s arguable that a major reason for the timeshift was so developers could free themselves from the moral and design constraints of history.

The two latest games — Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War and Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond — are back in historical settings, but don’t seem to have learned anything, feeling like regressions from where we started out. Cold War is probably the worst offender, glossing over Ronald Reagan’s legacy in the world of real black ops — like, say, his administration’s support for oppressive right-wing governments, including the Iran-Contra scandal.

It’s this that makes me think FPS developers need to take some downtime to reconsider how they approach history, in its entirety. Perhaps even the earliest games got it wrong.

For a start, the industry as a whole could stand a little more historical literacy. It’s not surprising that there are gaps in knowledge, given the state of the US education system and blindspots in other systems around the world. Yet when you tackle a historical subject there’s an obligation to delve deeper, get the facts right, and avoid perpetuating harmful myths. While it’s good to oppose the horrors of the Soviet regime for example, it’s problematic to diminish or ignore US-backed atrocities and coups. Wars are rarely fought for noble reasons, and virtually never with noble methods.

Perhaps then we should be treating protagonists less often as heroes and more as people caught in a maelstrom, trying to survive. Soldiers do sometimes enlist out of idealism of course, but even that contingent is beholden to generals and can end up in morally ambiguous situations.

It’s also a studio’s responsibility to depict enemy forces and civilians as human beings, rather than just cannon fodder. Many Germans enlisted during WWII not because they were Nazi automatons, but because they were conscripted or honestly believed they were defending their homeland. In the modern era, bigoted attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims may be (unfortunately) easier to come by when we only ever see extremists, and then on the other end of crosshairs.

Indeed the act of killing — though it has to be thrilling in some way for a game to be fun — should at least be acknowledged as a necessary evil, unless a character is being deliberately portrayed as a sociopath. Real soldiers may be hesitant to pull the trigger once they see their enemy’s humanity — we wouldn’t have had the Christmas Truce in 1914, otherwise. After WWII, a US Army study estimated that as few as 15 to 20 percent of soldiers had fired their weapons during the war, fewer still with the intent to kill. The results were such that the military worked to desensitize recruits.

US troops during the Battle of Luzon in the Philippines.

It might also be time to stop treating players like Rambo, at least in this context. It’s one thing for B.J. Blazkowicz to mow his way through a Nazi castle while barely taking a scratch, it’s another to grant such superpowers outside of fantasy. I realize of course that fully realistic weapons and damage aren’t entertaining to most people, yet turning players into one-man armies can distort what real soldiers experience. Some games are on the right track, others could stand to dial things back a notch.

I do recognize that for designers, what I’m suggesting can be a tricky balance for gameplay, narrative, and marketing/publishing reasons, or is already being put into effect in one way or another. Heck, Cold War’s predecessor, the Modern Warfare reboot, did take an important step towards humanizing Arabs and Muslims, for instance by adding Farah as one of its most badass operators.

Consider this article to be a wishlist, I suppose. The game industry is still coming to grips with its cultural impact, and until the past few years hadn’t been challenged much beyond controversies of being too violent or too racy. We don’t need shooters to be perfectly inoffensive to everyone — that’s impossible — but if they’re going to invoke history, they should be responsible in how they translate it.

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Writer and editor, formerly with AppleInsider.

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Roger Fingas

Roger Fingas

Writer and editor, formerly with AppleInsider.

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