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WWI games a good case study for thinking about the kind of tensions that can exist between the game medium and the historical content represented within it.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, 1897−1918”, 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, 59–89) 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://gamestudies.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, 137–153.
- 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, 656–672, 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, 17–30.
- 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 1914–1918’ for Palgrave and due to be published in 2018 and is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board to the Imperial War Museum.
-  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. [↩]
-  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. [↩]
-  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. [↩]