Battlefield 1: Can The Great War Be A Great Game?

by Adam Chapman and Chris Kempshall
This feature is part of our special series on History and Games.


ADAM: My inter­est in Battlefield 1 stems from my broad­er research focus on his­tor­i­cal games, which has cul­mi­nat­ed in my recent­ly released book Digital Games as History (Chapman 2016). However, my par­tic­u­lar inter­est in this game stems from an analy­sis I con­duct­ed of the 58 WWI videogames that I could find (Chapman In press). Unusually, most of these games (40) didn’t con­tain the kind of imagery we would expect to find in pop­u­lar rep­re­sen­ta­tions of WWI. Particularly notice­able is the absence of depic­tions of the front­line infantry sol­dier (the core pop­u­lar image of WWI, par­tic­u­lar­ly when com­bined with trench­es, no-mans land, gas, rats, mud etc.). This seems to be due to the nature of WWI col­lec­tive mem­o­ry. It presents game devel­op­ers with dif­fi­cul­ties, and even poten­tial con­tro­ver­sy, in a way that, for instance, WW2 doesn’t (exclud­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the Holocaust). In pop­u­lar cul­ture, there is often a fear that play­ing with seri­ous themes might triv­i­al­ize them. Furthermore, videogames, par­tic­u­lar­ly when vio­lent, tend to work through ‘good guy’ (player-character) vs. ‘bad guy’ (enemy NPCs) dynam­ics, fram­ing the player-character’s (and by exten­sions the player’s) actions as hero­ic and/or jus­ti­fied. The com­mon per­cep­tion of WWI is obtuse in both these regards. The mem­o­ry of the con­flict is still seri­ous, sen­si­tive, tied to nation­al and polit­i­cal iden­ti­ties, and some­what con­test­ed. Furthermore, from the pop­u­lar point of view, there isn’t real­ly an easy ‘good guy’ to play as or a ‘bad guy’ to play against – with sol­diers of all sides of the con­flict gen­er­al­ly viewed as vic­tims of an uncar­ing and/or incom­pe­tent upper class.

These dif­fi­cul­ties part­ly explain why WWI is a rel­a­tive­ly rare set­ting for videogames (par­tic­u­lar­ly in com­par­i­son to the less con­test­ed and moral­ly clear mem­o­ry of WW2). And why, even when WWI is actu­al­ly used, this is most often in game­play gen­res, such as fly­ing, naval and strat­e­gy games, that inher­ent­ly avoid the cen­tral sen­si­tive image of WWI – the sol­dier in the trench­es – and, in doing so, the good guy/bad guy prob­lem.1 This makes WWI games a good case study for think­ing about the kind of ten­sions that can exist between the game medi­um and the his­tor­i­cal con­tent rep­re­sent­ed with­in it. Battlefield 1 is a par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing exam­ple because it both bucks the gen­er­al trend by includ­ing the aspects of WWI that games tend to avoid and because it also (at least ini­tial­ly) simul­ta­ne­ous­ly fell prey to the poten­tial pit­falls of doing so and gen­er­at­ed some con­tro­ver­sy (Chapman In press). As EDGE mag­a­zine put it in their review in issue 300, “a lot has been writ­ten ques­tion­ing the logic of build­ing a fast-paced enter­tain­ment on what was ulti­mate­ly an unnec­es­sary stale­mate sat­u­rat­ed by unchecked human suf­fer­ing”.

CHRIS: As both a First World War his­to­ri­an and some­one who focus­es on the First World War in com­put­er games, Battlefield 1 might be one of the most impor­tant por­tray­als of the war in pop­u­lar cul­ture for years. The foun­da­tions for such a game to appear in the main­stream have been laid in recent years by games such as Verdun and Valiant Hearts: The Great War.

My book exam­in­ing the por­tray­al of the First World War in com­put­er games (Kempshall 2015a) emerged par­tial­ly out of my desire to exam­ine the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the con­flict in a medi­um which had so far been over­looked by First World War his­to­ri­ans, but also as an indi­ca­tion that, whilst over­looked, the medi­um was not inac­tive.2 Something has been devel­op­ing with­in the world of First World War com­put­er games and to my mind it is a spir­it of reflec­tiv­i­ty and aware­ness.

It appears that game devel­op­ers and play­ers may have grown bored with exist­ing games repro­duc­ing well-worn con­flicts. The move from Second World War games into modern-day con­flicts and beyond into futur­is­tic wars clear­ly found favour with their audi­ence, but that inter­est also appeared to wane over time. Both the audi­ence and the cre­ators seem to want ‘more’. What the First World War pro­vides is a recog­nis­able time­frame and recog­nis­able ele­ments (trench­es, mud, etc) but also a remote­ness. The First World War is a con­flict that is par­tial­ly under­stood. It is the parts that have not been wide­ly acknowl­edged or remem­bered that pro­vide com­put­er games on the topic room to grow.

Whilst my book par­tial­ly pre­dict­ed the even­tu­al appear­ance of a game like Battlefield 1 there are many ele­ments with­in it that I would have found very hard to imag­ine or pre­dict before this game arrived. Battlefield 1’s geo­graph­ic spread is to be admired and applaud­ed. The fact that it touch­es on dif­fi­cul­ties and ten­sions with­in allied ranks (such as between Australian sol­diers and British offi­cers) is also wor­thy of note. However, it may be the game’s very exis­tence that is most remark­able at all.

Battlefield 1 must cer­tain­ly be con­sid­ered one of the biggest game releas­es of the year. For one of the biggest games on the main­stream mar­ket to be a First World War focused game is an indi­ca­tion of quite how far cul­tur­al under­stand­ings and por­tray­als of the con­flict have come in the last few years. The First World War is a com­pli­cat­ed con­flict and for a long time was deemed either too sen­si­tive or too bor­ing for com­put­er games.

Battlefield 1 may not be the deci­sive answer to such accu­sa­tions but it is indica­tive of a shift in both the way the war is under­stood and por­trayed and also in under­stand­ings of what play­ers are both will­ing and inter­est­ed in expe­ri­enc­ing.

ADAM: Speaking in terms of shifts in the ways in which wars are por­trayed, in a sense, WWI in Battlefield 1 often feels sur­pris­ing­ly like WW2. This might be due to a slight uncer­tain­ty about how to rep­re­sent this col­lec­tive mem­o­ry that, as noted above, is in some ways poten­tial­ly sen­si­tive to the game medi­um, as well as the fact that WWI is a less well-trodden ground than WW2 in design terms. Furthermore, fram­ing his­tor­i­cal wars using the codes of rep­re­sen­ta­tion asso­ci­at­ed with oth­ers is a com­mon tech­nique (for exam­ple, the film Fury uses many of the tropes of Vietnam War films to cre­ate a par­tic­u­lar­ly grit­ty depic­tion of WW2). This can be used to cre­ate dis­tance, point to sim­i­lar­i­ties between events, or to func­tion as short­hand to speak to audi­ences in a visu­al lan­guage they are already famil­iar with. In part, I think the fre­quen­cy of exper­i­men­tal weapons that were actu­al­ly con­tem­porar­i­ly rare con­tributes to this feel­ing in Battlefield. Similarly, the land­scapes, the pas­toral scenes, vil­lages, urban envi­ron­ments and (to some degree) deserts, are gen­er­al­ly much more com­mon to depic­tions of WW2, with pop­u­lar sto­ries of WWI nor­mal­ly tak­ing place in the hell­ish and oth­er­world­ly land­scapes of trench­es and no-man’s‑land. Though these envi­ron­ments clear­ly also have par­tic­u­lar advan­tages for game­play (such as pro­vid­ing cover), this design deci­sion also has ben­e­fits in terms of show­ing that WWI was fought far beyond only the trench­es of the Western Front.

However, there is also a refram­ing of WWI in the tropes of WW2 games that is poten­tial­ly prob­lem­at­ic. All of the player-characters in Battlefield 1’s cam­paign are from the Allied Powers and we never play as sol­diers from the Central Powers (just as is, per­haps more under­stand­ably, often the case in WW2 games – see Chapman and Linderoth 2015). This posi­tions the lat­ter sol­diers only as antag­o­nists, reject­ing the moral uncer­tain­ty of WWI that exists in pop­u­lar mem­o­ry, which tends to paint troops as equal­ly unde­serv­ing vic­tims of cir­cum­stance. The troops of the Central Powers thus become ‘other’ to those we play as; intrin­si­cal­ly dif­fer­ent, less relat­able, dis­tanced (often lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly) and there­fore palat­ably viable ene­mies. Chris, in your “Pixel Lions” arti­cle (Kempshall 2015b), you talk about how sol­diers in WWI games are gen­er­al­ly char­ac­terised as either indi­vid­u­als or as a mass. As you point out there, in Verdun there is a sense of sol­diers of both sides being part of the mass (and the same argu­ment could be made of Battlefield 1’s mul­ti­play­er). However, Battlefield 1’s cam­paign almost seems to work in the oppo­site man­ner. We come to know the Allied player-characters and their com­rades as indi­vid­u­als through cutscenes and game­play events. But the Central Powers gen­er­al­ly fea­ture only as an unknow­able, unplayable and, ulti­mate­ly, a dehu­man­ised, face­less mass – we have rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle insight into these sol­diers’ hopes, fears, beliefs and moti­va­tions.3 They are posi­tioned only as ene­mies that will never real­ly give us pause in our killing of them. This is sim­i­lar (though not as extreme) to the arguably reduc­tion­ist depic­tions of German forces in WW2 games as a sim­ple antag­o­nis­ti­cal­ly vil­lain­ous mass to be over­come, rather than indi­vid­u­als under par­tic­u­lar con­di­tions and with poten­tial­ly dif­fer­ent moti­va­tions and beliefs. There is lit­tle of the com­mon­ly per­ceived rel­a­tive moral ambi­gu­i­ty of WWI in Battlefield 1. Whilst this qui­et­ly sub­sumes the prob­lem of a lack of clear antag­o­nists, I think this was a bit of a missed oppor­tu­ni­ty to offer a more com­plex char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion than we gen­er­al­ly see in his­tor­i­cal shoot­ers. As you put it in your arti­cle, “In a war where the pop­u­lar image of the sol­diers is that they were often young men who fought through an acci­dent of geog­ra­phy and birth, then it would seem almost obscene to cre­ate a bar­barous or ‘evil’ image around any one nation” (Kempshall 2015b, 669). Yet, some­times Battlefield 1 feels to be verg­ing on this.

CHRIS: I agree with a lot of this, there is a pecu­liar­ly large amount of the Second World War with­in Battlefield 1. The film Fury in par­tic­u­lar is an inter­est­ing one to bring up, because the film def­i­nite­ly ref­er­ences Vietnam tropes, but also the tank level in Battlefield 1 seems to direct­ly ref­er­ence Fury!

I have argued before that it’s the lack of wide­spread knowl­edge on the First World War that allows games to find a niche for them­selves, and yet at times with Battlefield 1 I won­der if the devel­op­ers have tried to plug some of those gaps with semi-recognisable Second World War mate­r­i­al. Alongside the tank/Fury sim­i­lar­i­ty you also storm beach­es at Gallipoli in a man­ner that harkens back to Saving Private Ryan and the wealth of games that is copied in.

Perhaps the biggest sim­i­lar­i­ty to Second World War games is the reluc­tance to allow you to play as Germany. You have writ­ten before on how com­put­er games steer clear of any topic in WW2 games that are too taint­ed by the Nazis, and it is rare you can play as a German sol­dier. We can debate the rea­sons for that but at least it is a pol­i­cy that makes log­i­cal sense. However, the same reluc­tance when it comes to play­ing German sol­diers in the cam­paign of Battlefield 1 con­tin­ues to strike me as very odd.

The game seems to avoid using sym­bol­ism of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and yet it is very hard not to feel that they are either hint­ing that the Germans might be ‘the bad guys’ here after all, or they feel that it would not be per­mis­si­ble for play­ers to take on the role of German sol­diers. If either of those are the answer as to why there is this absence in the game, then nei­ther feel sat­is­fy­ing.

ADAM: I think Battlefield 1 also has some inter­est­ing ten­sions in terms of tone. In pop­u­lar cul­ture, WWI sto­ries tend to be trag­ic (e.g. the pro­tag­o­nist becomes sub­ject to the world they find them­selves in and gen­er­al­ly becomes dis­em­pow­ered in some way). However, in Battlefield 1’s cam­paign we most­ly find the sto­ries of adven­ture, hero­ism and empow­er­ment com­mon to FPS or action games (and again, par­tic­u­lar­ly WW2 games – one of the lens­es through which the tropes of the his­tor­i­cal action game and FPS have been devel­oped). Games often use these sto­ries because they res­onate eas­i­ly with the game­play expe­ri­ence of over­com­ing chal­lenges and with the fre­quent empow­er­ment of play­ers (Linderoth 2013) and because they help to cre­ate, and work well with­in, moral­ly unam­bigu­ous fic­tion­al worlds. The very notice­able excep­tion to this in Battlefield 1 is the open­ing level that begins by inform­ing play­ers “What fol­lows is front­line com­bat, you are not expect­ed to sur­vive”. Here both play­er and player-characters are dis­em­pow­ered, with the inevitable result being the death of every char­ac­ter the play­er plays as (sig­ni­fied by the sur­pris­ing­ly affect­ing use of epi­taphs, e.g. “Willie Jefferson, 18971918”, that echo memo­r­i­al imagery – anoth­er core part of our col­lec­tive mem­o­ry of WWI). To say I enjoyed this sec­tion might be the wrong term, but I thought it was a use­ful dis­rup­tion of the nor­mal expe­ri­ence of his­tor­i­cal games that was used mean­ing­ful­ly. I would like to see more risks like this taken by AAA his­tor­i­cal game devel­op­ers.

However, after this sec­tion it is most­ly back to busi­ness as usual. We become the pro­to­typ­i­cal FPS hero: mak­ing inex­orable progress by fac­ing down waves of ene­mies (often vir­tu­al­ly single-handedly), we are fre­quent­ly posi­tioned as the key fac­tor in the out­come of events, and death once again feels only like a nar­ra­tive wrong-turn (with the epi­taphs ceas­ing to be as affect­ing once we can sim­ply reload). Again, there is an echo of WW2 games here: we are hint­ed to be a mem­ber of a great gen­er­a­tion, there is a tech­no­log­i­cal fetishism and for some of the char­ac­ters it is these tools of war that allow them to pass from child­hood to man­hood (see Salvati and Bullinger 2013). These sec­tions read as a rejec­tion of the futil­i­ty and sense­less­ness of the war com­mon to pop­u­lar rep­re­sen­ta­tions and imbued in that open­ing level and our actions are once again filled with hero­ic mean­ing. As the char­ac­ters put it in one level “if we hit them here we can make a real dif­fer­ence”.

The Australian player-character is inter­est­ing because of his cyn­i­cism towards the war and seem­ing opin­ion that there is lit­tle high­er pur­pose or glory in war. It might have been a brave move by DICE to step out­side the FPS tem­plate and have this character’s sus­pi­cions con­firmed by hav­ing him die for no per­ceiv­ably good rea­son. But they ulti­mate­ly back away from this and the character’s death finds a high­er, noble pur­pose in pro­tect­ing his younger fel­low sol­diers. This pur­pose is an admirable duty to one’s com­rades, rather than an ideal of coun­try, nation or empire. And the con­cept of ‘mate­ship’, which Battlefield 1 actu­al­ly men­tions, is cer­tain­ly impor­tant to the con­cept of the ‘Anzac spir­it’ (and the devel­op­ment of New Zealand and Australian nation­al iden­ti­ties – though this is not to say that this has result­ed in the same per­spec­tives on the war in each nation). However, it is also a com­mon tech­nique in war media to con­cen­trate on the bonds between fel­low sol­diers in com­bat in order to avoid hav­ing to make any com­men­tary on the larg­er social and polit­i­cal struc­tures that result­ed in them being there in the first place and which the Australian soldier’s cyn­i­cism seems to hint at.

This said, there are moments when more com­plex or reflec­tive per­spec­tives do man­age to break free from the con­ven­tions of the FPS. For exam­ple, in other character’s sto­ries we find some com­men­tary on the costs of war on sol­diers beyond actu­al com­bat, some­thing rarely depict­ed in games. There are hints at PTSD, with some cutscenes fram­ing events almost as flash­backs (inter­est­ing­ly one of the char­ac­ters also point­ed­ly stares at the cam­era in a seem­ing direct address to the play­er dur­ing one of these moments). One of the sto­ries fea­tures the repeat­ed motif of blood on a character’s hands, imply­ing feel­ings of guilt or shame. Similarly, the nar­ra­tive for the Italian player-character, whilst again ulti­mate­ly hero­ic, has a poignant edge that address­es the cross-generational nature of loss and mem­o­ry and the very real costs of such hero­ism. In these scenes we get at least some sense that for many sol­diers the war did not end in 1918. However, per­haps the most inter­est­ing player-character is the American pilot. This cal­lous, lying, cheat­ing and thiev­ing fig­ure seems to be a direct rejec­tion of the idea of WWI pilots as chival­rous ‘knights of the sky’ – con­cep­tu­al­ly and lit­er­al­ly dis­tanced from the hor­ror and moral ambi­gu­i­ty of the trench­es. It would be easy to dis­miss this char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion as mere­ly util­is­ing the tropes of the ‘rogueish but ulti­mate­ly good’ Han Solo type char­ac­ter were it not for the final twist in his story. This hints that he may in fact not be a hero at all but sim­ply an unre­li­able nar­ra­tor. In doing so, this com­ments on the sub­jec­tive nature of mem­o­ry, his­to­ry and ulti­mate­ly the con­struc­tion of hero­ic fig­ures.

None of these nar­ra­tives choic­es are nec­es­sar­i­ly inher­ent­ly right or wrong. And as many schol­ars have argued, the trag­ic tone that we con­tem­porar­i­ly apply to WWI is not real­ly how the con­flict was always under­stood at the time. However, often in Battlefield 1 the nar­ra­tives of hero­ism feel more of an acci­dent of the ten­sions between the game form and WWI mem­o­ry, rather than a delib­er­ate move to ques­tion con­tem­po­rary under­stand­ings. However, there are cer­tain­ly also some inter­est­ing moments here, even if they result in a some­what con­flict­ed tone for the game – per­haps itself reflect­ing the on-going strug­gles for mean­ing in WWI mem­o­ry.

CHRIS: If in the mid­dle of adver­si­ty lies oppor­tu­ni­ty, then in the mid­dle of tragedy lies hero­ism. At least in First World War terms. I have to say that I agree that Battlefield 1 is not an exces­sive­ly trag­ic game. While the weav­ing of tragedy into First World War nar­ra­tives has been long estab­lished by his­to­ri­ans such as Todman and Sheffield, what Battlefield 1 does, again build­ing on nar­ra­tives espe­cial­ly notice­able in Valiant Hearts, is to show the sim­ple hero­ism of being ordi­nary in extra­or­di­nary times.

Because Battlefield 1 does not define what the war is actu­al­ly for, it means that each indi­vid­ual playable char­ac­ter defines what it means for them­selves. Your Han Solo com­par­i­son for the pilot is spot on. The appear­ance of amoral­i­ty but with a hint of depth. This char­ac­ter is such a sub­ver­sion of the ‘Biggles meets the Red Baron’ stereo­type of the First World War pilot as to be star­tling. The cul­mi­na­tion of his story is also huge­ly open to inter­pre­ta­tion. An anti-hero in a First World War game is a new nov­el­ty and I rather like it.

In more famil­iar terms the tank dri­ver gets to fight for his friends and com­pa­tri­ots which is, as you say, a recog­nis­able First World War expe­ri­ence. This expands out into pater­nal­ism with the Australian sol­dier who gets to fight to pro­tect the young man under his wing. The idea of fight­ing for the man next to you has a dual res­o­nance in that, first­ly, a good deal of sol­diers did exact­ly that, but per­haps more impor­tant­ly; it is an easy way for the audi­ence to ratio­nalise what they would have done in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion. If you are fight­ing in a war deemed hope­less and death may come at any moment, then what else do you fight for but your friends?

None of these char­ac­ters are going to indi­vid­u­al­ly win the war, and some are not going to sur­vive it at all. But the nature of their sub­jec­tive hero­ism means that dying in bat­tle can be both hero­ic and trag­ic if it ful­fils par­tic­u­lar objec­tives. The war has already been declared as trag­ic, and the deaths of the char­ac­ters you con­trol in the pro­logue gives Battlefield 1 a plat­form to stand upon and tell its sto­ries. It is able to say: ‘this war solved noth­ing, and the infantry were basi­cal­ly fod­der, but here are five sto­ries of peo­ple who defined their own war expe­ri­ences’.

ADAM: I actu­al­ly very much liked the ‘war sto­ries’ struc­ture of the cam­paign (which sig­nif­i­cant­ly builds upon the nar­ra­tive struc­ture we saw in the early Call of Duty games). Using a series of vignettes, rather than the nor­mal lin­ear nar­ra­tive com­mon to most his­tor­i­cal FPSs, allows a broad­er and diverse pic­ture of the war to be drawn. This is most obvi­ous­ly in terms of the vari­ety of con­tent, but also in terms of help­ing to give at least some sense of the fact that there are mul­ti­ple and diverse expe­ri­ences of any major his­tor­i­cal event (par­tic­u­lar­ly some­thing as vast and incom­pre­hen­si­ble as a world war). This nar­ra­tive struc­ture also helps to reject often instinc­tive efforts to neat­ly sum up ‘what it all means’ into one uni­fy­ing nar­ra­tive that then must stand for every­thing (and in this regard per­haps reflects some of the cul­tur­al uncer­tain­ty with which WWI is treat­ed by com­par­i­son to WW2). This is ham­pered some­what by the afore­men­tioned recur­ring themes but I also think the moments where these themes pro­duc­tive­ly and reflec­tive­ly vary (and per­haps even con­flict) are also allowed part­ly by this nar­ra­tive struc­ture. In a sense, depart­ing from the nor­mal struc­ture of the FPS was a risk for DICE, but I do think it pays off. A more cyn­i­cal per­spec­tive might also note that in anoth­er sense this is also a risk-averse strat­e­gy and it is per­haps notable that the increased diver­si­ty of the cast in this entry into the series meets the oppor­tu­ni­ty to include female and minor­i­ty char­ac­ters along­side, rather than replac­ing, the nor­mal white, European, male char­ac­ters. And of course these war sto­ries also have cer­tain design advan­tages (e.g. allow­ing for a var­ied set of envi­ron­ments with­out strained nar­ra­tive expla­na­tions for doing so).

Nonetheless, the mon­tage effect that emerges from this nar­ra­tive struc­ture does offer some­thing dif­fer­ent and does so by play­ing pre­cise­ly to the strengths of the videogame medi­um. I think this has poten­tial for the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of his­tor­i­cal events in games and it is easy to imag­ine using these vignettes to, for exam­ple, offer com­pet­ing accounts of the same events. The struc­ture also puts me in mind of post­mod­ernist or post­struc­tural­ist calls for his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives that reject the cer­tain­ty of tra­di­tion­al his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives by util­is­ing, for instance, frac­tured nar­ra­tives, ‘snap­shots’ and mul­ti­ple voic­es. Ultimately, Battlefield 1’s pieces hang too coher­ent­ly and lack the self-reflexivity to be con­sid­ered a post­mod­ernist his­to­ry. And the game’s ‘real­ist sim­u­la­tion style’ (Chapman 2016, 5989) con­cen­trates on empha­sis­ing the game’s authen­tic­i­ty. However, I do think it’s still a poten­tial­ly inter­est­ing hint of how such nar­ra­tive struc­tures might be used to pro­duce more unortho­dox his­tor­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions even in seem­ing­ly unlike­ly game gen­res such as the FPS.

CHRIS: Yes, I agree. You know, I some­times look at the pro­logue mis­sion from Battlefield 1 and slight­ly imag­ine it to be part of an alter­na­tive game or exam­i­na­tion of the war. It isn’t that it is total­ly at odds with the rest of Battlefield 1’s nar­ra­tive but it does pro­vide a dif­fer­ing approach. Jumping between dif­fer­ent com­bat­ants, all of whom are doomed to die, is in line with some exist­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the war and does an excel­lent job of set­ting up this par­tic­u­lar exam­i­na­tion of the con­flict.

However, you never real­ly end up in such a sit­u­a­tion again. The char­ac­ters that you come to take on are all pret­ty round­ed in a nar­ra­tive sense whilst embody­ing some exist­ing tropes, but none of them real­ly feel like they are immi­nent cannon-fodder. Each has a nar­ra­tive arc that they will pass through. It might lead them to death but it will be a death made rea­son­able by the process and events they pass through.

There are meta-narratives that pass over the top of all this; the war is deemed to have achieved noth­ing, men can only trust in their com­rades (or not, in the case of the pilot lev­els) but there is no nar­ra­tive that encom­pass­es the actu­al war. A dis­cus­sion of the point of the con­flict is left out in favour of indi­vid­ual nar­ra­tives that attempt to make sense of the ground upon which each of the heroes stands. To be hon­est that is prob­a­bly an under­stand­able deci­sion, as try­ing to clar­i­fy the whole con­flict is a tricky under­tak­ing.

What you instead get, as you say, are the ‘War Stories’ of char­ac­ters who inhab­it a small part of a wider con­flict. It also allows the game to spread its focus with­out hav­ing to dis­rupt the indi­vid­ual sto­ries them­selves. It can include the war in Arabia with­out hav­ing to com­pro­mise on an exam­i­na­tion of the air war in Europe. In fact, as you say, it is prob­a­bly a ben­e­fit. The war on the Western Front often tends to be over­ly brown and lack­ing in any grand visu­al aes­thet­ic. By shift­ing out into the deserts then the game can pro­vide a star­tling visu­al expe­ri­ence as well. That being said it also gives the devel­op­ers a few oppor­tu­ni­ties to make par­tic­u­lar­ly unsub­tle ref­er­ences to wars being fought in Arabia for oil.

Although nar­ra­tive shifts in the cam­paign aren’t the only dif­fer­ences that we should prob­a­bly talk about. There is some inter­est­ing ele­ments to the divide between cam­paign and mul­ti­play­er too. From its ear­li­est days the Battlefield fran­chise has always been a game heav­i­ly focused on the mul­ti­play­er expe­ri­ence. Single-player cam­paigns were not even part of the orig­i­nal 2002 title Battlefield 1942 and only began to appear in later incar­na­tions. Despite this a single-player nar­ra­tive has become a sta­ple of games that are focused on mul­ti­play­er options, per­haps almost as a sign that the devel­op­ers of such games can ‘do plots’ as well as they can do mul­ti­play­er maps.

With this in mind both the single-player cam­paign and the mul­ti­play­er expe­ri­ences have to be under­stood dif­fer­ent­ly, and the dif­fer­ences between them in Battlefield 1 are very inter­est­ing. The cam­paign gives the play­er var­ied expe­ri­ences of the war in mul­ti­ple loca­tions through a plot designed to show the war’s bru­tal­i­ty and its effect on the pri­ma­ry play­er con­trolled pro­tag­o­nists. And yet, how much do we actu­al­ly learn about the war through the cam­paign? The glob­al spread of lev­els is high­ly impres­sive, but the actu­al nature of trench war­fare and the moti­va­tions behind some of the bat­tles is fair­ly thin. It is instead in the mul­ti­play­er mode ‘Operations’ where some of the best expe­ri­ences are to be found. The loca­tions for this game mode are the same as in the main cam­paign, but the play­er now gets a much more round­ed expla­na­tion of why these bat­tles are being fought.

The com­bat itself owes a debt of grat­i­tude to the game Verdun for repli­cat­ing the offen­sive and defen­sive strug­gles between com­pet­ing teams that is, depend­ing on the result of each bat­tle, then spread out over mul­ti­ple maps as the ‘Operation’ goes on. The very fact that half the play­ers in this mode will end up on the defen­sive for a pro­longed peri­od of time is a key dif­fer­ence from the main cam­paign which eschews the defen­sive nature of trench bat­tles, bar­ring a few short excep­tions, in favour of allow­ing the play­er to assume the offen­sive in set piece bat­tles. The result is that whilst the single-player cam­paign might be what Battlefield 1’s devel­op­ers want the play­er to see as the First World War, the mul­ti­play­er aspect might give a bet­ter demon­stra­tion of it.

ADAM: I think this is a real­ly good point. Generally when I approach a his­tor­i­cal game I tend to dive into analysing the cam­paign first because this is gen­er­al­ly the bit where the his­tor­i­cal aspects of games tend to be brought most clear­ly into focus. However, in Battlefield 1 the mul­ti­play­er does also seem to have some impor­tant things to say, as you note. I think this is inter­est­ing because it shows the ways in which games can make mean­ing about the past in very medium-specific ways, with­out even the fram­ing of, for exam­ple, cutscenes. The dynam­ics of mul­ti­play­er do seem bet­ter placed to explain some aspects of trench war­fare, par­tic­u­lar­ly because in this mode all play­ers must be given most­ly equal oppor­tu­ni­ties to suc­ceed, rather than the sin­gle play­er mode that obvi­ous­ly con­cen­trates on empow­er­ing a sin­gle par­tic­i­pant. As such this much more eas­i­ly allows for the back and forth play that sim­u­lates trench war­fare rather effec­tive­ly. However, it is also in the explo­sive chaos of this mode that we get more of a sense that some­times in mod­ern wars deaths were (and still are) caused by ran­dom, unlucky, unavoid­able vio­lence and that the desire to fight for a pur­pose (even such as one’s friends) might trag­i­cal­ly make no dif­fer­ence to the out­come. Of course these are com­plex and emo­tive issues. But it does seem that this sense in the mul­ti­play­er aspect that, whilst undoubt­ed­ly hero­ic sto­ries do emerge from war, sol­diers also some­times die for no dis­cernibly good rea­son – not for a lack of skill, brav­ery or lack of a will to fight but sim­ply because of over­whelm­ing and ran­dom vio­lence – says some­thing impor­tant about war that per­haps doesn’t come across as strong­ly in the cam­paign.

I also think the rela­tion of this mode to Verdun, as you men­tion, points to the cycli­cal and iter­a­tive nature of wider pat­terns in games design. Verdun in turn prob­a­bly owes some­thing to the large-scale and open com­bat of the early Battlefield series. This points to how these design influ­ences and deci­sions are con­stant­ly evolv­ing and in doing so pro­vid­ing new ways to rep­re­sent the past through games.

CHRIS: An addi­tion­al issue we should prob­a­bly con­sid­er for this is the chang­ing nature of the games indus­try and the way it deliv­ers con­tent. The nature of com­put­er games these days is for there to be a core ver­sion at launch which then becomes sup­ple­ment­ed by down­load­able con­tent (DLC). Battlefield 1 is no dif­fer­ent in this approach to any other main­stream AAA title. However, because the DLC is option­al and viewed as adding some­thing to the main game rather than that the main game is some­how lack­ing in some­thing, you cre­ate an inter­est­ing split between them.

Therefore the orig­i­nal and pur­chasable Battlefield 1 must be under­stood as EA and DICE’s com­ment on the stand­alone ver­sion of both the game and the First World War. What results is a curi­ous­ly broad yet nar­row rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the con­flict. The fact that play­ers can expe­ri­ence com­bat between Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces in the Dolomites is such a refresh­ing change from con­tem­po­rary por­tray­als of the First World War that never move beyond the Somme or Flanders, that its inclu­sion can­not be under­stat­ed. Similarly the por­tray­al of the war at Gallipoli and the Arabian Peninsula is huge­ly wel­come.

However, this ‘core’ ver­sion is not with­out lim­i­ta­tions. For a game that often makes the argu­ment sol­diers on both sides suf­fered equal­ly, the non-inclusion of any of the Central Powers as playable fac­tions in the main cam­paign is curi­ous. If there is no stig­ma of ‘good’ or ‘evil’ in this war, why limit the play­er sim­ply to the Entente? Speaking of the Entente, the non-appearance of both France and Russia is prob­lem­at­ic. It is scarce­ly pos­si­ble to under­stand the Western Front or the out­break of the War with­out includ­ing France and Russia. It is dif­fi­cult not to read their absence from the core game (though they are forth­com­ing as DLC) as a state­ment that they are not need­ed to under­stand the war, which is per­haps one of the game’s biggest his­tor­i­cal aber­ra­tions.

ADAM: I agree. As we dis­cussed ear­li­er, the game does seem to exclude the Central Powers and per­haps even ‘other’ these forces as antag­o­nists. And I do think this has a lot to do with the con­ven­tions of the FPS, as noted. Whilst we can play as sol­diers from the Central Powers in the mul­ti­play­er mode, in a sense this exclu­sion from the cam­paign also func­tions in a sim­i­lar way to the divi­sion between the core game and DLC that you men­tion. This, and the rel­e­ga­tion of French and Russian forces to later con­tent, almost seem to imply that the expe­ri­ences of these sol­diers are not impor­tant, or at least less impor­tant, to the story of WWI – as would even, as you imply, later rem­e­dy­ing this in DLC. Of course mak­ing all his­to­ries involves tak­ing deci­sions about con­tent and no book, film or game can include every­thing about a par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal event. But these par­tic­u­lar choic­es that exclude the Central Powers, French and Russian sol­diers in dif­fer­ent ways do seem to be a rather glar­ing omis­sion.

CHRIS: Making games about the First World War is not an easy under­tak­ing. The First World War has an almost sacred place in British social con­scious­ness and the spec­tre of insult­ing the mem­o­ry of the war, and by asso­ci­a­tion, those who fought and died in it is never far away. Interestingly this same spec­tre does not appear to haunt Second World War games, but per­haps that is a debate for anoth­er day.

EA and DICE must have known at the out­set that the set­ting of Battlefield 1 would poten­tial­ly prove con­tentious and they would have to han­dle it in a man­ner that could be wide­ly recog­nised as ‘fit­ting and sen­si­tive’. For the most part the actu­al game itself does a fair­ly good job. Yes it is vio­lent, yes it has blood and death in it, but it does not appear to glory in the car­nage that it cre­ates.

If only the same could be said of the social media cam­paign behind the game. Some of the attempts by team behind the Battlefield 1 twit­ter account to, for want of a bet­ter term, ‘meme-ise’ the game have been ill-judged to say the least. The use of a gif of a flamethrow­er being used to burn play­ers in-game along with a comedic cap­tion was never going to be a good idea. The big­ger ques­tion is why they thought it was nec­es­sary to attempt a mar­ket­ing cam­paign like that in the first place, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it is at odds with how the game itself attempts to por­tray the con­flict.

At times it feels as if they have been try­ing to pitch the title at com­pet­ing audi­ences using com­pet­ing lan­guage. On the one-hand it is a game that plays due rev­er­ence to a con­flict that effec­tive­ly birthed the total wars of the Twentieth Century. On the other it might be a game por­tray­ing war but it is a game nonethe­less and open to be used in a light-hearted or irrev­er­ent man­ner.

If EA and DICE want to pin their flag to either of these con­cepts then they should go ahead, but it is the attempt to walk the line between them that draws atten­tion to the con­cep­tu­al clash.

ADAM: The rel­a­tive sen­si­tiv­i­ty of WWI con­tent to games is an inter­est­ing topic that I began to explore in the piece I men­tioned ear­li­er (Chapman In press). This debate seems to func­tion quite dif­fer­ent­ly in rela­tion to WW2 games, which seem to be per­ceived to be sen­si­tive only in a very par­tic­u­lar way – such as in rela­tion to the events of the Holocaust and when allow­ing play­ers to take up the playable posi­tion of Nazi forces (see Chapman and Linderoth 2015). I am also inter­est­ed in how games that do man­age to nego­ti­ate these del­i­cate top­ics do so – the ways in which they frame their rep­re­sen­ta­tions to present their games as a viable way to con­sid­er these sen­si­tive events and high­light that due care and atten­tion has been taken. In many ways Battlefield 1 oper­ates sim­i­lar­ly to some of the other 18 WWI games I found that also include the par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive aspects of WWI mem­o­ry. For exam­ple, the game often frames itself as ful­fill­ing a memo­r­i­al, and even occa­sion­al­ly edu­ca­tion­al, func­tion. However, I agree com­plete­ly that this care­ful fram­ing seems to have fall­en almost com­plete­ly apart in the mar­ket­ing almost imme­di­ate­ly from the point of the game’s ini­tial reveal, which gen­er­at­ed quite a lot of dis­cus­sion as to appro­pri­ate­ness (again see Chapman In press for more on this). These are inter­est­ing exam­ples though for point­ing to the ten­sions between the cul­tur­al, eco­nom­ic and for­mal pres­sures of games with par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal con­tent (as is the case, though in vary­ing ways, with all media forms). I think this also points to the fact that games, par­tic­u­lar­ly AAA games like Battlefield 1, gen­er­al­ly aren’t made and dis­sem­i­nat­ed with the sin­gu­lar­i­ty of vision that is per­haps eas­i­er to achieve in some other media (as evi­dent from the rel­a­tive lack of per­ceived auteurs in game cul­ture). I think this can be a pro­duc­tive aspect of games (allow­ing for sin­gle games to speak in mul­ti­ple and even com­pet­ing ways), but in the case of Battlefield 1 the ten­sion between try­ing to appeal to a par­tic­u­lar per­cep­tion of gamer cul­ture and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly pay due respect to the sen­si­tive con­tent has pro­duced some very strange results.


ADAM: Overall I think that Battlefield 1 is an inter­est­ing­ly mixed bag. I think the game has some real­ly inter­est­ing moments and DICE has made some very laud­able deci­sions. Perhaps though there are also some missed oppor­tu­ni­ties. This said, even these make the game an intrigu­ing case study for con­sid­er­ing the kind of ten­sions that mak­ing his­to­ry, mak­ing games and par­tic­u­lar­ly mak­ing his­tor­i­cal games often involves. Games undoubt­ed­ly have extreme­ly excit­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties as his­to­ry (e.g. see Chapman 2016), but it is also always a use­ful exer­cise to think about what kind of pres­sures and com­plex­i­ties each his­tor­i­cal medi­um (includ­ing aca­d­e­m­ic his­tor­i­cal writ­ing) intro­duce to what we say or might want to say about the past. I think that Battlefield 1 also stands as a good exam­ple of how these ten­sions can also help serve to push the enve­lope in terms of rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al cre­ativ­i­ty. The game has occa­sion­al­ly gen­er­at­ed exact­ly the kind of con­tro­ver­sy that per­haps explains why games have tend­ed to avoid WWI, par­tic­u­lar­ly in FPS and action games. And the con­ven­tions and prece­dents of FPSs, and par­tic­u­lar­ly WW2 FPSs, can cer­tain­ly still be felt in the game. However, some of the most inter­est­ing moments do seem to have emerged at least part­ly from tak­ing his­tor­i­cal con­tent that doesn’t res­onate quite as eas­i­ly (and which hasn’t been dealt with as much before in these kinds of games) and work­ing out how this might fit into the FPS tem­plate. Finally, I think the game also shows how every design deci­sion has the poten­tial to influ­ence what a game says about the past, even when some­times this might not be the inten­tion. As a final exam­ple, there is some­thing inter­est­ing about the fact that in Battlefield 1 the series’ noto­ri­ous­ly patchy AI (with ene­mies often sim­ply rush­ing the play­er) takes on a new sig­nif­i­cance – echo­ing that ever-present image of WWI in pop­u­lar cul­ture of mass­es of sol­diers run­ning hope­less­ly across no man’s‑land into relent­less oncom­ing enemy fire.

CHRIS: I think the first thing I should say about Battlefield 1 is that it is fun to play. I’m sure we’ve both played games based on the First World War or other his­tor­i­cal events that are inter­est­ing from an analy­sis point of view but just no fun at all to play. Battlefield 1 avoids that which is great­ly to the devel­op­ers’ cred­it. I also do not come away from the game with an ‘if only…’ feel­ing. Some of the ele­ments includ­ed in the game, and I almost inevitably come back to the sheer nov­el­ty of includ­ing the Italian cam­paign, are huge­ly impres­sive.

That being said, it is clear­ly not a game with­out issues. Some of the areas that are not includ­ed in the game are clear­ly jus­ti­fi­able in DICE’s busi­ness model but far less jus­ti­fi­able on his­tor­i­cal grounds. A game which includes the Western Front and does not include the French is a prob­lem for me. If it was an essay it would not be receiv­ing a high mark! It would also be nice if the social media adver­tis­ing of the game could maybe, for want of a bet­ter phrase, grow up a bit.

But as an explo­ration of the First World War in a main­stream game envi­ron­ment Battlefield 1 is a very wel­come addi­tion to the genre and, because of its reach and pres­ence in the mar­ket­place may well set the tone for First World War games to come. And that is no bad thing.



  • Chapman, A. (In press). It’s hard to play in the trench­es: WWI, col­lec­tive mem­o­ry and videogames. Game Studies Journal. http://​games​tud​ies​.org/
  • Chapman, A. 2016. Digital Games as History: How Videogames Represent the Past and Offer Access to Historical Practice. New York: Routledge.
  • Chapman, A. & Linderoth, J. 2015. Exploring the lim­its of play – A case study of rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Nazism in games. In T.E. Mortensen, J. Linderoth and A.M.L. Brown (Eds.), The dark side of game play: Controversial issues in play­ful envi­ron­ments. New York: Routledge, 137153.
  • EDGE. 2016. Battlefield I (review). EDGE 300. December 2016.
  • Kempshall, C. 2015a. The First World War in Computer Games. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
  • Kempshall, C. 2015b. Pixel Lions – the image of the sol­dier in First World War com­put­er games, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 35:4, 656672, DOI: 10.1080/01439685.2015.1096665
  • Linderoth, J. (2013). Superheroes, Greek gods and sport stars: Ecological empow­er­ment as a ludo-narratological con­struct, In Mitgutsch, K. Huber, S., Wimmer, J., Wagner, H. G., & Rosenstingl, H. (Eds.) Context Matters! Proceedings of the Vienna Games Conference 2013:Exploring and Reframing Games and Play in Context. Vienna: New aca­d­e­m­ic press, 1730.
  • Sheffield GD. ‘Oh! What a Futile War’: Representations of the Western Front in mod­ern British media and Popular Culture. In: Stewart IMT, Carruthers SL (eds.) War, cul­ture and the media : rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the mil­i­tary in 20th cen­tu­ry Britain. Trowbridge: Flicks; 1996.
  • Todman, D. The Great War : Myth and Memory. London: Hambledon and London, 2005.
  • Wackerfuss A. ‘This Game of Sudden Death’: Simulating Air Combat of the First World War. In: Kapell M, Elliott ABR (eds.) Playing with the past: dig­i­tal games and the sim­u­la­tion of his­to­ry. New York: Bloomsbury Academic; 2013.


About the authors

Adam Chapman is a senior lec­tur­er at the University of Gothenburg. His research focus­es on his­tor­i­cal games, i.e. those games that in some way rep­re­sent, or relate to dis­cours­es about the past. He is author of Digital Games as History: How Videogames Represent the Past and Offer Access to Historical Practice (Routledge, 2016), along­side a num­ber of other pub­li­ca­tions on the topic of his­tor­i­cal games. He is also the founder of the Historical Game Studies Network. Chris Kempshall is an Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. His research focus­es on allied rela­tions dur­ing the First World War and also the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the con­flict in com­put­er games. He is the author of ‘The First World War in Computer Games’ (Palgrave 2015). He is cur­rent­ly work­ing on ‘British, French, and American Relations on the Western Front 19141918’ for Palgrave and due to be pub­lished in 2018 and is also a mem­ber of the Academic Advisory Board to the Imperial War Museum.
  1. [1] As implied, there are some excep­tions to this (18 games out of the 58). What is inter­est­ing in these cases is how these games nego­ti­ate the prob­lem­at­ic aspects of WWI mem­o­ry by empha­sis­ing their edu­ca­tion­al, doc­u­men­tary, or memo­r­i­al poten­tial. []
  2. [2] This slight lack of atten­tion is large­ly only with­in the sphere of First World War his­to­ry, how­ev­er. The con­flict has already been a source of exam­i­na­tion with­in game stud­ies and his­to­ry by schol­ars such as Chapman and Wackerfuss. []
  3. [3] Rare excep­tions to this are the human­is­ing moments in the open­ing level that see German sol­diers sob­bing or wan­der­ing dazed, and a cutscene in this sec­tion where a ‘Harlem Hellfighter’ and German sol­dier choose not to kill each other. []