When videogames become a hotbed of public controversy, the enraged gamer’s default defense is “it’s just a game.” But when told that interactive entertainment is nothing more than a brain-rotting waste of time, he’ll declare it a medium of artistic expression. Pundits decrying violent or sexual content in games are taking them too seriously; everyone else isn’t taking games seriously enough. Never shall the two conflicting defenses meet.

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That’s a problem. If we as gamers want our hobby to garner positive attention from the mainstream media and public, we need to present valid arguments as to why our favorite pastime (or job, in some cases) is more than just a game. Before we can do this, however, developers need to untie the knot between games and senseless violence that has existed since the medium’s infancy. With the oversaturated “war game” market spread over a breadth of genres, from real-time strategy to first- and third-person shooters, it’s a natural place to start.

It’s not because of a lack of multiplayer modes, upgradable weapons or spiffy gameplay mechanics that we’re seeing a dying interest in World War II games, but rather a total lack of innovation; they all seem to feature the same shoddily created atmosphere and one-dimensional narratives. Of course, we naturally want games to entertain us, but the content of the game should reflect the unpleasant realities of wartime rather than glorifying combat as one continuous, adrenaline-fueled firefight. The portrayal of war in videogames is rarely as grave as the subject warrants, but a couple titles have hit that nail on the head.

Strangely enough, Guerrilla GamesShellshock: ‘Nam 67, though unabashedly terrible, achieved an atmosphere of horror unlike any title before or since. The PlayStation 2 and PC shooter was riddled with gameplay issues, but its emotional resonance and gruesome imagery still hold up as an example from which developers can learn. Shellshock: ‘Nam 67 includes severed heads left on tables, bodies hanging from trees, soldiers impaled by slow-to-explode missiles, tortured teammates and nasty throat slitting, to name a few notable situations. The gritty color palette, blood-stained battlefield and grim undertones gave players an unconventional scare in place of the traditional “kill ’em all” attitude that shooters often exhibit.

That approach is also what gives developer Relic Entertainment‘s real-time strategy Company of Heroes such a spectacular ambience. Its appropriately bleak overtones, compounded by the fearful soldiers under your command, who try to maintain a positive outlook under hellish conditions, exude a clear understanding of the grisly consequences of failure. And it’s all done without the exploitation to make players want to high-five everyone in a five mile radius when they take out an enemy machine gun encampment. Winning battles isn’t just satisfying: It’s relieving, and losing them is mentally exhausting. And yet, crucially, the game is still fun.

Shouldn’t that be why we go to videogames in the first place? It’s an interactive experience, not a social studies class. But can’t we have both? Videogames hold the still untapped potential to become educational products, but there needs to be a subtle alteration in the “distraction” aspect of the design. We shouldn’t stop playing or making games that don’t acknowledge appalling phenomena like POW camps, the Holocaust or Hitler’s dictatorial reign – after all, the Battlefield franchise got its astoundingly successful start in a 1942 setting, and featured nothing but zone-capturing multiplayer – but we should push for games that tackle weightier issues than merely how to dispatch the Panzer advancing on your position.

It may seem like an unreachable goal. But two games are already at the forefront of this game/documentary vision: Infinity Ward‘s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and Gearbox Software‘s Brothers in Arms.

Call of Duty 4‘s pivotal “wow” moment occurs early in the game’s narrative. A nuclear missile detonates as invading American soldiers withdraw from a Middle Eastern hotspot, incinerating everything in its wake. To nobody’s surprise, your character survives the blast and ensuing helicopter crash. But in a daring twist of events, you’re unable to fight on. You crawl out of the smoldering chopper into a red-tinted wasteland to get a brief glimpse of the crumbling buildings, disintegrated greenery and dead bodies that line the streets before your vision fades to black.

This is, in my mind, one of the most emotionally charged scenes in videogames. There are very few people on the planet who have lived through a nuclear attack, but Infinity Ward managed to capture pure horror in that sixty second chapter. Call of Duty 4‘s isolated detonation sequence is a brilliant way to teach the effect of nuclear holocaust – beyond simply shocking viewers, it compels them to imagine the effects that such an event would have on their own surroundings.

The Brothers in Arms series, too, ditches the “run and gun” urgency of most shooters without shying away from brutal violence. The first title follows a party of men trying to reach Hill 30, an American-occupied zone, from Normandy, France. Along the way, your character’s comrades and closest friends fall under Nazi gunfire. Based on real people and events, the tactical shooter has an immediate sense of disturbing realism. The upcoming current-gen sequel, Hell’s Highway, features similar objectives and true-to-life events. Gearbox isn’t afraid to show the worst parts of war, yet the Brothers in Arms series is still incredibly fun to play. Could the developer take a lesson from itself and utilize these grim settings to create a simulation that focuses less on chewing apart bad guys with machine guns and more on giving players a feel for the time? They’ve created characters that are emotionally engaging, so what’s to stop them from creating real-life scenarios in which players can participate in more ways than we’re seeing today?

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Therein lays the roadblock. We know what we want, but how do you make a game playable and informative at the same time? The developers I’ve mentioned have approached this paradigm, but why isn’t someone compiling it in to one cohesive experience?

When this dream is eventually achieved, we’ll see videogames become more respected. The violence inherent in the public’s negative assumptions about gaming would no longer be scoffed at as disgusting or morbid – it would be part of a pragmatic and educational product that would remind players of the sobering realities of war. With Saving Private Ryan as the go-to reference point for all things World War II, we could use something that could best it.

Why not a videogame that’s more than just a game?

Mitch Dyer is a Canadian freelancer who regularly contributes reviews and features to Official Xbox Magazine and OXMOnline, and is one of two head Editors at gaming website Nukoda, where he writes pertinent news, the odd preview and reviews for games that are way old. When he feels like it, he complains about terrible anime on his personal blog.

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