When will they stop setting video games in World War II?

It might provide the most unambiguous bad guys in history, but WWII is surely is getting a bit old now.

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There can be little denying the fascination so many videogames have for military conflict. You can see this manifested in several recurring elements of modern game design, from the intricate modelling and animations that go into weapons and the jingoistic nature of many stories to the perpetuation of narratives promoting the idea that wars turn ordinary young men into heroes. While games might seek to mature as a creative medium they cannot seem to shake a profoundly childish glee directed towards weapons of war and the men who wield them.

The Battlefield series exemplified this, a huge emphasis upon weapons, factions divided along national lines, characters gaining experience and levels and with them access to better weapons and abilities. In the most recent entry in the series, Battlefield: Hardline, the game switched its setting from warfare to some sort of new-fangled police war thing (I’m not sure what you call it when dozens of cops and dozens of criminals have a pitched battle over a suitcase, is that even a thing that ever happens?) but the tropes remain largely intact. Battlefield was not alone and alongside the Call of Duty and the now defunct Medal of Honor series it repeatedly presented a world where war was an exciting and productive way to resolve problems and audiences munched this down for over a decade.

It would be unfair to pink on just those three because there are games about war in all sorts of genres from strategy to survival horror and on all sorts of platforms dating back to the earliest home computers. Games have passionately embraced war as a subject and have glorified it to the point of caricature and beyond. While some games have explored the idea of war as a bad thing, for the most part war is accepted in games as necessary, noble and character building.

However, there is a big problem for games in pursuing this philosophy, a Panzerjäger Tiger (P) in the room so to speak. This is that modern wars make for terrible games. In fact, nearly all actual wars make for terrible games, except for one.

World War Two has been a wellspring of inspiration for games developers going back decades and it is easy to see why. On a narrative level you’ve got the most unambiguous bad guys in history, a just cause and an unambiguous victory. On the design level too games set in this era benefit from a technological sweet spot, unique in history, where war machines and weapons are powerful enough to be enjoyable to play with yet simple enough to give the player lots to do in order to use them effectively. It is without any doubt as close to the perfect historical setting for a militaristic video game that has ever, perhaps can ever, exist. If World War Two didn’t exist, games designers would have had to invent it (and sometimes they do anyway).

The drawback is that while developers can keep fishing inspiration out of that particular war it does get increasingly old. You can wheel out the zombies or you can play “what if” but whichever way you slice it the fall of the Third Reich isn’t getting any fresher. The message that brave men and women stepped up to answer the call and stop a bunch of fascists in sharp uniforms from having their way with the world is drummed into us from a young age, there isn’t much more to be said about it.

In many ways this is something to be grateful for. I would rather grow bored hearing about some huge war that happened long before I was born than actually see it happen for myself.

But as World War Two grows increasingly stale as a setting videogames have been forced to improvise in order to continue to provide their audience with entertaining battlefields to play in. In short they have to invent wars. The locales and enemies might be drawn from reality, but the scenarios and circumstances have to be exaggerated beyond all recognition. North Korean soldiers are suddenly able to cross the Pacific Ocean in force, Russia can magically afford a viable modern military and naturally the combined naval forces of Nato always manage to call in sick on the same day.

There are exceptions and some games are made based on conflicts in recent history, but the asymmetrical nature of modern wars and the problem that western nations keep losing them makes them an awkward subject. Where World War Two is still celebrated in high profile games of all genres (with a Wolfenstein expansion, another Brothers In Arms game and Hearts of Iron 4 all due this year for example), more recent conflicts are almost completely overlooked. Players want their war stories to end with conquest and victory, not bland statements about troop reductions or footage of helicopters being pushed off the decks of aircraft carriers. You can’t glorify war from the losing side in a videogame.

This is markedly different to cinema, which can glorify a lost cause with much more success by pulling focus onto the development of the characters. Films like Platoon, Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker or American Sniper can speak to the horrors of war while also painting it as noble and heroic endeavour in a way that a videogame cannot. A lost war in a videogame simply feels like a waste of everybody’s time and not in a good way.

This presents us with an interesting situation. While videogames are often criticised as being unhealthily militaristic they are, perhaps unintentionally, subverting their hawkish qualities by having to couch them in increasingly bizarre alternate realities. Videogames ostensibly about the virtues of war are delivering the most damning verdict on modern warfare they can simply by disassociating themselves from it, deeming it unworthy of attention. Actual wars are no longer interesting enough to be the subject of war games.

I’m not sure if this means we’re evolving as a species or completely beyond help.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture