When one considers how war comes to play in video-games, violent and action-packed titles like ‘Call of Duty’ and ‘Battlefield’ often come to mind. While these have amassed millions of fans and tremendous revenue, they are not the sole representation of warfare in the gaming world. As an artistic medium, video games have impressively delved into more sensitive and painful topics in recent years – among them, the destructive impacts of wars and conflicts, loss, post-trauma, and coping with life during wartime.
This shift isn’t confined to the world of gaming, but extends to the realm of pop culture as a whole. Take cinema for example – while the ’80s and ’90s showcased strong and invincible action-heroes like Chuck Norris or Sylvester Stallone, today’s war hero is a much more vulnerable and trauma-filled character, such as those depicted in ‘American Sniper’ or ‘The Hurt Locker.’ Similar examples are seen in the transition from the typical games of the ’80s and ’90s – like ‘Castle Wolfenstein’ or ‘Doom’ – to complex characters and more personal stories.
A perfect example of this transition is ‘Mass Effect‘ – a successful game trilogy considered a classic in the gaming world. It follows the adventures of Commander Shepard, a soldier in a convoluted space-opera type story, involving surprising alliances, exotic planets and plenty of intrigue. The first two games portray Shepard as a heroic figure, almost impervious to harm. During these games he’s surviving near-death experiences, defeating ancient and powerful aliens, and easily resolving conflicts and crises across the galaxy.
However, this changes in the third game of the trilogy, when Earth is assaulted in a devastating surprise attack. For the first time, Shepard faces loss and vulnerability, leading to an acute traumatic reaction. He begins experiencing flashbacks and personally witnesses the horrors of war – losing friends in battle, encountering other emotionally scarred soldiers. Even his beloved space station is transformed into a sanctuary for refugees, who are trying to find their way after losing their homes and families.
Futuristic space battles aside, there are plenty of stories that deal with real-world wars. One interesting example is ‘Spec Ops: The Line’. At first glance, it appears to be no more than a combat shooter game set in the Middle East, albeit in a fictional situation in which a natural disaster has transformed Dubai into an abandoned battlefield. As the plot unfolds, the game purposely places its player in morally and psychologically impossible situations, ‘forcing’ them to take part in harsh and painful events, creating a somewhat traumatic experience for both player and characters. In fact, all the characters in the game suffer from various stages and degrees of PTSD, and as the battlefield becomes more challenging, the emotional experience intensifies. Some characters lose their sanity, plunge into deep depression, and even take their own lives.
Another game that tackles these topics is ‘The Last of Us,’ which gained great critical and financial success and has just been adapted to television. Beyond the framing of a zombie apocalypse survival story there is an interesting Israeli connection. The game’s creator, Neil Druckmann, is a former Israeli who was born into a religious family in the settlement of Beit Aryeh-Ofarim and moved to the United States during his childhood. His immigration didn’t disconnect him from the Israeli experience, and one significant event during the Israeli-Palestinian crisis – the lynching in Ramallah – led him to an identity crisis.
Druckmann recalls that after the lynching, he spiraled into a mix of anger, frustration, and a strong desire for revenge. Eventually he came to the conclusion the conflict is an endless cycle of violence, that if not broken unilaterally, could lead to catastrophic results. This idea is manifested in ‘The Last of Us,’ which portrays the cycle of violence as a central theme. The violence in question isn’t between humans and zombies, but between humans themselves – reaching extreme levels when catastrophic challenges arise.
“The Last of Us” – the original game and even more so in the sequel – not only depicts the experience of war-related trauma but also broadens our perspective, allowing us to experience this conflict and pain from both sides. It lets us control two separate characters, seemingly bitter enemies, until they reach an endpoint wherein they must make a choice: do they succumb to violence and the urge for revenge, or can they stand against the destructive impulse?
Indie titles are also exploring these themes, not just high-budget games. One of the most impactful in the field is ‘This War of Mine‘, which was inspired by the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in the 90’s. Instead of playing as a brave soldier or a heroic figure, the player assumes the role of ordinary citizens forced to deal with the consequences of war – scarcity of food, medicine, or a normal routine, surviving a prolonged siege under harsh and realistic conditions.
One might ask – if these games offer such unpleasant experiences, why do we need them? What benefit comes from representing such themes beyond the desire of the game designers to create a powerful experience? The impact and success these games achieved proves the audience is interested in these types of games as well, just as much as other works of art depicting devastating events.
An engaging portrayal of these stories can convey this unimaginable experience to an audience that only knows it from the news. For people who actually experienced it first hand, games like these can even have a therapeutic effect. Raising awareness and dealing with such a painful and sensitive issue can not only be an exciting narrative and gaming experience – but leave us with profound lessons and insights, and hopefully – clarify unequivocally that real war is definitely not a game.