It looks like a normal Xbox 360 controller, one that I could have held for long gaming sessions in my teenage years. However, the gadget in the glass case at London’s Imperial War Museum had another purpose entirely: it controlled the camera of the Desert Hawk, an unmanned aerial vehicle used for military surveillance in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, realized that Xbox controllers were cheaper than military-grade alternatives and did the job just as well. Many new recruits had already used game controllers to engage in war fantasies; now they could use them for reality.
This uneasy elision of war and entertainment is explored in IWM London’s new exhibition, war games While the drama of war has long proved irresistible to storytellers, technological innovations regularly offer new angles. In the case of games, war stories can be experienced as if you were the protagonist of the story, rather than a mere spectator. In a survey of 40 years of gaming history, the exhibition asks: What can games teach us about conflict?
“There’s always a tension when playing war because war is primarily about violence and destruction, while the defining characteristic of games is fun,” says co-curator Ian Kikuchi. Fans of the first-person shooter genre know that the easiest way to resolve this tension is to simply make violence feel fun. We see the team behind the sniper Sniper Elite 5 discussing how they fine-tune each rifle to make it satisfying to shoot and how much care goes into timing each gruesome headshot. There’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying this—entertainment has long given audiences a safe space to explore their darkest impulses and ideas. Gore can be a thrilling spectacle as long as we know it’s not real.
However, war games are constantly moving towards greater realism. The exhibition includes the rifle with which the Sniper Elite 5 team modeled its digital version. And in a video, the creators of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare slavishly pursuing graphical fidelity, a goal that remains a core concern for large sectors of the gaming community. It is interesting to note that modern shooter players demand the utmost realism in terms of weapon design and blood spatter physics, but at the same time desire a depiction of war that is anything but realistic, a fantasy narrative that take away all the boredom, the trauma…in other words, the humanity.
While the main theme of most shooters is simple heroism, several indie games have tried to explore the emotional realities of war and build more empathy. The exhibition presents Through the darkest of timesin which you lead the opposition to the Nazi party in Berlin in the 1930s, and This war of mine, where you control civilians struggling to survive in a city under siege. The most moved is Bury me, my love, an innovative game that casts players as a man who communicates via text with his wife while trying to escape Syria. The messages you send determine whether he reaches Europe safely, ends up in a refugee camp or drowns at sea.
Alongside the games are objects from the museum’s collections that resonate with these humanist narratives of war stories: a blanket carried across Europe by a World War II refugee and the charred musical instrument of a Iraqi who fled his home in Mosul to escape Isis.
An intriguing observation here is about the trends according to which different wars are depicted in popular culture. “World War II always felt like a setting where it was okay to have adventures,” says Kikuchi, invoking films such as The great escape as well as the Call of Duty games Meanwhile, the First World War is mostly remembered as a tragedy that traumatized an entire generation. This continues with the First World War art game 11-11: Memories related, whose engagement with the story is more poignant and painful than brilliant. Meanwhile, modern wars in the Middle East are too often based on clumsy stereotypes of Arabs.
We also see a demonstration of the controversial Six days in Fallujah, which has drawn criticism from gamers who are concerned whether it can sensitively portray the plight of Iraqi civilians while extolling the heroism of US Marines. This raises questions about whether games can provide a sensitive enough canvas to portray the recent conflict: There are still no games about the war in Ukraine, although the industry has rallied to support Ukrainian developers.
“More than anything else, games tell us the stories we want to tell about conflict,” says Kikuchi. “They overemphasize the difference that individuals can make. Conflicts are rarely resolved by a surgical strike or a special forces squad.” To walk through the main galleries of IWM London is to understand that war is beyond the control of any one individual. It is a colossal phenomenon that tears through history like a force of nature, something to be endured, not enjoyed.
Games can mine the theme for a nice show or explore its darker underbelly, but mostly they’re selling a fantasy. “They reveal our desire to be in control of our destiny,” says Kikuchi, “in a way that real war always denies us.”
“War Games” runs through May 28, 2023, iwm.org.uk