Call of Duty WWII: Using History to Sell Violence

Normandy Invasion

Call of Duty WWII: Using History to Sell Violence

Are violent video games teaching history or twisted morals?

In November, Activision will release its latest first-person shooter game, Call of Duty: WWII. This will be the 14th installment in the Call of Duty franchise, and the game is returning to its roots.

The Call of Duty series began in 2003, and put the player in the boots of a serviceman in World War ii’s famous battles in Europe. The game seeks to simulate combat with realistic graphics, sounds and story lines as the player makes digital life-and-death decisions to conquer the enemies of freedom.

Since its first release in 2003, the game settings have moved forward in time and technology, with the most recent titles depicting futuristic wars. The most popular version was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, released in 2011 and selling nearly 31 million copies. In total, the Call of Duty franchise has sold an astonishing 230 million games for Xbox, Playstation and PC.

Call of Duty: WWII returns the game to its original setting. The player controls Pvt. “Red” Daniels, who is a raw recruit in the United States Army 1st Infantry Division. The story line begins on the blood-soaked shores of Omaha Beach and ends as the Allies battle their way into Germany. Activision released a two-minute trailer that displays the game play and graphics. The trailer features a particularly gruesome scene in which the player bashes in a German enemy’s head with his helmet in desperate close-quarters combat.

These sort of games have become a cultural phenomenon, with first-person shooter games with historic war settings dominating the gaming world.

But what impact does this sort of entertainment have on our society? Historians are conceding that this generation relies on video games to teach them about the past, to the great detriment of our future. These games also condition people to think killing people is fun.

Video Game History

The very first video games released in the late 1980s were classics: Pac Man, Tetris and Super Mario to name a few. Since then, video games have far advanced. Now they are a huge industry, netting $91 billion worldwide in 2016, with $31 billion of that in the United States. Games feature intricate story lines, realistic graphics, and explosive game play: a ready-made fantasy world for the player to indulge in, hour after hour.

Many games use history as their story lines. Most of the time, these games send the player to the front lines of a famous battle, following one particular character, who kills as many enemies as possible, earning “skills,” unlocking achievements, and eventually winning the game’s scenario. When the player isn’t squeezing the trigger, the game provides exposition on the battle, the enemy and the consequences of losing the battle: a brief history lesson before the player gets back to blasting away the enemy.

With video games dominating people’s time, interest and thoughts, they are beginning to become part of popular history. Many gamers, whether deliberately or not, are actually being educated on history by these video games. Video games do have factual information woven in, sometimes in detail, but even the most historically accurate games are completely inadequate to equip an individual with a proper sense of any historical event. Yet historians realize that it is a losing battle. In a Guardian article “Call of Duty: WWII Could Be the Most Important Game of All Time for Historians, Holly Nielsen wrote:

From an academic standpoint, engaging properly with games that depict historical events should extend far beyond simply picking apart their accuracy—it’s a matter of public history. Historians interested in seeing where a huge portion of society is engaging with themes, ideas and material from the past should—and often do—look to games. How history is represented in these titles, how the player interacts with the world, and why historical settings are utilized in such a way are all big topics worthy of academic attention.

The concept of a historian sitting down and examining a Call of Duty game may seem a little odd to those unfamiliar with the medium. However, games are hugely influential both culturally and economically—ignoring them is a missed opportunity.

Historians and educators are in a dilemma. History cannot compete with video games, especially with the younger generations. Young people spend several hours a day playing any number of video games, often staying up into the early hours of the morning, focusing intently on whatever ready-made fantasy is before them. But sitting in a classroom learning about how America became a republic or how Winston Churchill led Britain to victory in World War ii is simply too much to ask. The old adage is proving true: “If you can’t beat them, join them.”

Nielsen continued:

Adam Chapman, senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg and author of Digital Games as History, [said,] “This is now a way that millions of people engage with the past and I think we therefore have a duty to take the relationship between games, history and players seriously and explore its implications. Furthermore, these games have similar potential to historical film and television, they can easily communicate a lot of visual information about historical environments and artifacts and they add life, movement and color to history in a way that can be very engaging.”

Some historians are very enthusiastic about using this medium to teach history, but doing so would be a terrible tragedy. Western societies already suffer from a plague of historical amnesia, and violent video games are not the remedy. This form of entertainment does not teach any lessons from history, but rather compounds the dangerous behavior history warns us about.

Video Game Violence

When November rolls around, gamers will not buy Call of Duty: WWII to learn about history. They may revel in the nostalgic feel of the game, and they may enjoy the thought of defeating Nazi Germany, but the majority buy the game to kill people. Digital people. Keith Stuart wrote in the Guardian under the title “Call of Duty: WWII Is About Killing for Fun. Why Pretend Otherwise?” that the presentation of game over a livestream event was distinctly uncomfortable:

But the underlying discomfort for some will be this highly telegraphed commitment to authenticity, this bowed historical reverence, which was (intentionally or not) paraded as a marketing attribute on Wednesday evening. This is Call of Duty—a series built on turbo-charged, hyper-real combat, a game about twitch-based skill in a glinting world of highly choreographed mega explosions and a game of skittish, attention-deficit narrative beats that pummel the player like endless drum rolls. From the very beginning, the genius of Call of Duty was its shameless appropriation of epic war movie tropes to create a wild, exhilarating shooter experience. There is nothing authentic about the way Call of Duty—or any other shooter game—depicts warfare. You can accurately re-create all the weapons, battles and locations (and CoD: WII clearly does this beautifully), but this is not going to be an authentic evocation of the infantry experience. It’s going to be about running around with a machine gun, killing and respawning for hundreds of hours. And that’s fine.

As much as video-game developers envelop their games in history, under the surface they are murder simulators. Any historian would tell you that soldiers fought and died on the beaches of Normandy, and throughout the world in World War ii, not for the sake of murdering for pleasure, but for the exact opposite.

Stuart may be impartial toward violent video games, but he does see the strange moral dichotomy when developers use history to sell violence:

Perhaps it is a measure of the games industry’s continuing sense of narrative and cultural illegitimacy that great developers still need to strive for the authentic. Sometimes, it is not necessary, and sometimes it just jars. In the preview event, the focus went very quickly from a discussion about the depth and detail of the historical research, and the determination to depict an emotional, truthful story, to a section about the game’s zombie Nazi mode. It was so dissonant and tonally strange, it was almost unwatchable.

Despite all the time spent making Call of Duty: WWII as accurate as possible, there is a zombie mode, where the player can kill already dead Nazi soldiers again, most of them grotesquely deformed as they attempt to kill you and eat your brains. Not only is this a horrific image to be exposed to, it also assaults the dignity of real German soldiers buried in Europe, who had family members grieve their loss. In all probability, most gamers do not stop to think about the moral quandaries of the medium because it is more comfortable to be immersed in a fantasy world than accept the truth, as Stuart pointed out:

Of course, Activision and Sledgehammer are free to tell the story they want to tell—and crucially the story they need to sell to their audience. But there is such an overwhelming disparity between the narrative of sacrifice, truth and loss, and the reality of playing a Call of Duty game. And there is nothing wrong with the way Call of Duty games work, the way they distort ideas of military power and conflict into discrete sense-shattering encounters. It’s fun. It doesn’t have to be justified, it doesn’t need to lean on the worn, pitted post of authentic, gritty realism. The problem is, acknowledging the reality of Call of Duty—what it is and why people enjoy it—is a lot harder than acknowledging the weight of history.

There is something terribly wrong with the way Call of Duty: WWII works, and all other games like it. This sort of entertainment conditions gamers to believe violence is fun and to derive enjoyment from shooting people, savagely beating them, and competing with others on who can kill the most. In fact, the multiplayer form of these kind of games usually pits two teams against each other, where dozens of people work to kill the most. In fact, if you look up any YouTube footage of a gamer playing Call of Duty with friends, you will hear laughter as their enemies are mangled and butchered, egging on one another to get the most gruesome kill or the highest body count. Any historical benefit is erased by the obsession with violence.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that game developers tout the realism the game delivers, when no video game can ever re-create the battlefield in a meaningful way. First off, sitting in an air conditioned room on a computer disperses any sense of realism. The games also ignore the extreme discomforts soldiers endure in the line of duty: hunger, thirst, exhaustion, freezing nights, water-filled boots, fighting off vermin, injury and disease. It offers the opportunity to play war while failing to understand the emotional trauma and the moral decisions war forces upon soldiers, let alone the ideals and convictions that motivate real men to do real fighting.

The combat environment is the most complex and chaotic scenario in which a human being can participate. The extreme emotional distress of homesickness, losing friends, depression and combat stress leave scars on all soldiers. This is all compounded by the conscious decision to take away another human’s life: a split-second moral decision that has lifelong consequences even for the person who survives. The most dominant theme of combat is fear and the ordinary soldier conquering it with courage. This environment is so demanding that after World War ii the U.S. Army published a report titled “Combat Exhaustion,” which said:

There is no such thing as “getting used to combat.” … Each moment of combat imposes a strain so great that men will break down in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their exposure. … [P]sychiatric casualties are inevitable as gunshot and shrapnel wounds in warfare. … Most men were ineffective after 180 or even 140 days. The general consensus was that a man reached his peak of effectiveness in the first 90 days of combat, that after that his efficiency began to fall off, and that he became steadily less valuable thereafter until he was completely useless ….

No video game can convey the realism of being responsible for ending another human’s life, of losing your best friend, of constantly fearing death, of knowing you may leave your wife without a husband and your children without a father.

An example to illustrate the vast gulf between real combat and video game combat is that of Sgt. Alvin C. York, one of the most decorated U.S. soldiers of World War i. On Oct. 8, 1918 , York led an attack on a German machine-gun unit blocking the American advance. Running into the face of incoming fire, bullets whizzing past, with no cover, York took on 35 machine guns single-handedly, killing 25 enemy soldiers and capturing 132 Germans. He won the Medal of Honor for this act of sheer courage—the type of thing gamers would jump up from their couches to celebrate. Yet for Sergeant York, it was more than bittersweet. In American Soldiers, Peter S. Kindsvatter wrote:

Sergeant York received permission to return the next day to the site of his famous shootout with a German machine-gun unit, for which he later received the Congressional Medal of Honor (cmh), to look for missing comrades. All he found were fresh graves, including that of his best friend: “Cpl. Murray Savage, my best pal, dead. Oh, my, it seemed so unbelievable … I would never share the same blanket with Corporal Savage. We’d never read the Bible together again. We would never talk about our faith and pray to our God. I was mussed up inside worser than I had ever been. I’m a-telling you when you lose your best buddie and you know you ain’t never going to see him again, you sorter know how terrible cruel war is.”

Men like Sergeant York fought, and men like Corporal Savage died, to defeat enemies so that the vast majority of us would never taste the bitter dregs of war. They lived and died to give all of us a life of peace. It seems a sick irony that the society we have built atop their sacred sacrifices indulges heavily in the simulated violence that they strove to protect us from. The callous attitude toward death and violence that these companies foster inhibits the learning of history, and it is a grave dishonor to the memory of those men to use their sacrifices and deaths as marketing material for a video-game studio.

The grand lesson of history is that war is inevitable and it involves bitter sacrifice. What happens if we raise a generation that is not only ignorant of the past, but has a callous, unrealistic view of combat? It will only make another world war more likely. Perhaps the most important lesson soldiers learn is that life is sacred. Violent videos games rob our youth of this reality and also rob our society from enjoying a life of peace and righteousness. While we should learn about war so that we can learn to avoid it, we should not dress up violent entertainment in history. Violent video games like Call of Duty: WWII dishonor the memory of a noble sacrifice and dishonor the incredible human potential of our youth. We need to learn about the weight of history, not escape into a violent fantasy. To learn more about where our society is heading, order our free booklet Character in Crisis.