Written by Andrew Busch // Edited by Drew Beyer // Header Image courtesy of Activision
In the last couple of years the first-person shooter market seems to have been oversaturated with hyper-futuristic games that emphasize high mobility and utterly ridiculous weaponry. The Call of Duty series has certainly taken this direction of future war to heart, pumping out title after title of fast-paced mobile gameplay with guns that are so high tech they do everything except rack up kills for you. Beyond this franchise, games like Halo 5, TitanFall 2, and Star Wars: Battlefront are all trying to grab a share of the market which contributes to this emphasis on futuristic combat.
However, some developers are drifting away from this desire to jump into an imagined future of giant robots and self-driving warplanes that can leave earth’s atmosphere to take battles into space. EA’s Battlefield 1 is a great example of this, swapping the science fiction elements for the tanks and trenches of World War I. The results of this change of pace are stunning, as the title recently reached around 19 million copies sold. A 50% improvement over Battlefield 4’s player base backs up this impressive sales figure, proving that EA tapped into something that people did not realize they wanted: A break from the future. (GameInformer)
Publisher Activision and developer Sledgehammer seek to fill a similar vacancy in gamers’ libraries with their newly announced Call of Duty WWII. As the title suggests, this latest iteration of Call of Duty promises to bring World War II to the current generation of consoles, realizing the historical setting through the power of modern graphics and hardware. Whether or not Activision spotted the gap in the marketplace before or after EA is irrelevant; what is worth discussing and deliberation is the sudden trend toward the past and historical conflicts.
This direction for both the Battlefield and Call of Duty series is hardly new territory. Each franchise started with games set in World War II with Battlefield 1942 being released in 2002 and the original Call of Duty following shortly after in 2003. So what’s the big deal? Why wouldn’t we want to play a brand new, sweet ass World War II game?
I’ll be honest with you— I couldn’t contain my excitement when I heard that these triple A shooter franchises were returning to their roots. But the more I thought about it, the more wary I became of this sudden change in direction. I was left with one question. Are these developers out of ideas? I mean it sounds like a basic observation and maybe even an overreaction to some of you, but I believe it is a legitimate concern. Popular culture is rebooting dead movie franchises every time you blink your eyes so the gaming industry could be using the same approach. I mean playing as soldiers in the European theater is hardly something new for FPS veterans.
My second concern is that games representing past wars are in and of themselves problematic. I am not a total history buff but I have enough background knowledge on these conflicts to know that both World War I and II were periods of immense division, extreme destruction, and mass death which created some of the worst ethical dilemmas that humankind has ever encountered. Yet when developers release games representing these periods they market them as a chance to take part in the historical conflict and play a role in the events of history, ignoring many of these issues. The transportation of gamers to the past leads to an unavoidable process of glorification and trivialization. For example, in past Call of Duty games the campaign modes portray both the American and British soldiers as forces of supreme ass-kicking goodness delivering justice to Germans, Russians, and nondescript terrorist groups alike. This oversimplification of these historical conflicts into a simple “good guys” versus “bad guys” preserves a sense of “us vs them” nationalism, even if that’s not the developer’s intention. Creating divides like this threatens to stoke the flames within their player base.
Historical war games also fall into an ethical gray area. When we play Battlefield 1 or Call of Duty WWII, we kill soldiers to rack up points which unlock new weapons and lead to promotions. This structure makes light of situations that involved human loss on a mass scale. Does purchasing these game imply that this is something we are alright with?
Before you angrily close out of this article and slam your laptop screen just hear me out for a couple more moments. I am not attempting to make purchasing a game into an ethical decision. But before you swap your laser guns for an M1 Garand and a rucksack, I want to draw your attention to the political implications and biases that disguise themselves as a blast from your past or a series making a nostalgic return to its roots.