Watching History Fade Away in 'Call of Duty: WW2'
November 29, 2017 9:02 AM   Subscribe

"Now, with Call of Duty: WW2, even the humanity and the hope are draining out of the story. It is World War 2 as viewed from an era of endless war, compounding geopolitical crises, and a political system that cannot even articulate objections to much less act against fascism and racial supremacy. It’s only fitting that the all-American platoon of Call of Duty: World War II seems almost to be fighting a forever war, acting more like members of the modern professionalized military that replaced the citizen-soldier ideal with a warrior ethos. Waypoint's Rob Zacny argues that the latest game in the long-running 'Call of Duty' videogame series" isn't just a hackneyed war story, it's the endpoint of a 70 year process of stripping the Second World War of meaning and context.
posted by firechicago (35 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
A couple of days ago, The President of the United States used a ceremony celebrating World War II heroes as an opportunity to mock their race and culture. This morning he supportively retweeted British neo-Nazis, three times. The context is still with us. The war against the Nazis is not over.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:07 AM on November 29 [36 favorites]


it's the endpoint of a 70 year process of stripping the Second World War of meaning and context.

We're losing all of the people who personally experienced the war. Most people are now three generations removed from their ancestors who were in Europe and the Pacific. Few, if any, have had any conversation or contact with a WW2 veteran. Let's not blame a video game for what the slow march of time has done.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 9:20 AM on November 29 [8 favorites]


Related: A Closer Look At Battlefield 1's Historical Accuracy [Kotaku]
“Fans curious about the history behind Battlefield 1's stories are in for a treat. YouTube channel Games of History released a longform video essay discussing the game in full. They talk about the truth and lies found throughout the game’s exciting campaign.
• The game’s Bedouin protagonist Zara Ghufran was likely based off a Lebanese woman named Farida al Akle. She was purportedly a lover of T.E. Lawrence who taught him Arabic.
• A British tank crew actually did spend extended time behind lines during the Battle of Amiens. They pressed on and advanced for nine hours before being killed and captured.
• The Harlem Hellfighters arrived in France nearly nine months after the United States joined the war. They fought in their first battle on April 8th, 1918. They fought aside the French, as the majority of US forces did not want to fight along an African American unit.
• Australian character Jack Foster bears strong resemblance to James Martin. Martin was 14 years old when he died of typhoid during the Gallipoli Campaign.”
posted by Fizz at 9:23 AM on November 29 [3 favorites]


Battlefield 1 is about WWI but it's still an interesting look at how history is distilled into a video game campaign.
posted by Fizz at 9:23 AM on November 29


We're losing all of the people who personally experienced the war. Most people are now three generations removed from their ancestors who were in Europe and the Pacific. Few, if any, have had any conversation or contact with a WW2 veteran. Let's not blame a video game for what the slow march of time has done.

That's addressed pretty explicitly in the actual article. Sorry if my single sentence summary didn't do it justice.
posted by firechicago at 9:24 AM on November 29 [14 favorites]


1. D-Day
2. ??
3. Kill Hitler
4. Proffit!!!
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:24 AM on November 29 [1 favorite]


To be fair the real-life situation of the President of the United States electronically endorsing Nazi propaganda is less Call of Duty and more Wolfenstein
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:26 AM on November 29 [23 favorites]


To be fair the real-life situation of the President of the United States electronically endorsing Nazi propaganda is less Call of Duty and more Wolfenstein

We live in a really fucked up time-line. That you actually typed that and we all read it. It's so sad and weird sometimes.
posted by Fizz at 9:34 AM on November 29 [9 favorites]


Has any game really portrayed the tedium and terror of war as it is really experienced? Would it be possible to flip the script and put war-fighting into the framework of a survival horror game instead? Has it been done?

(All genuine questions; I haven't played a game about war since about 2001ish.)
posted by uncleozzy at 9:37 AM on November 29 [2 favorites]


This War of Mine flips the whole scenario around and focuses on the depression, boredom and horror of living in a war zone. It’s not fun, per se, but it’s very good.
posted by frimble at 9:46 AM on November 29 [10 favorites]


Has any game really portrayed the tedium and terror of war as it is really experienced? Would it be possible to flip the script and put war-fighting into the framework of a survival horror game instead? Has it been done?

This War of Mine tackles the horrors of war very realistically.

The Making Of A Very Different Kind of War Video Game [Kotaku]
“A few weeks ago, Miechowski's small indie game company from Warsaw, Poland, 11 Bit Studios, grabbed my attention. They had announced they were working on a different kind of video game about war. They call it This War Of Mine and are using the tagline: "In war, not everyone is a soldier."

Their idea is to make a war game in which players don't control soldiers or generals or anyone charged with fighting for their country. We control the people usually left out of war games: civilians. The war happens around our characters. The war happens to them.

"It's going to be a really difficult game," Miechowski told me when I met him in San Francisco for a demonstration of the game a few weeks ago, "because surviving war is a difficult experience."”
posted by Fizz at 9:51 AM on November 29 [4 favorites]


Oops, was in preview, what frimble said.
posted by Fizz at 9:51 AM on November 29


I call This War of Mine 'The Grim Sims', as it shares a lot of the Sims games 'managing people's needs' dynamics, although they are far further down the Maslow pyramid than making sure your little person has a nice enough couch. It's a pretty powerful game, especially since you can't really win it per se, you can only hang on until the war ends (except if you put it in 'war never ends' mode) and I suspect it's functionally impossible to get all of your starting characters right through to the end.

Has any game really portrayed the tedium and terror of war as it is really experienced? Would it be possible to flip the script and put war-fighting into the framework of a survival horror game instead? Has it been done?

I don't think it has, in a commercial game. There's very realistic military sims out there where travel is real time (and hence takes ages), death is instant and weapons have realistic physics etc, but they are still 'highlight reels' without the logistics, grind, and unrelenting grimness of real conflict. And of course you can just start another game if you die.

I have heard about VR simulations being used to allow veterans to re-experience and come to terms with their trauma in a controlled setting, which is probably about as close as we'll get to being able to experience a war without actually fighting in one. But I suspect such simulations probably wouldn't be big sellers.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:59 AM on November 29 [2 favorites]


Has any game really portrayed the tedium and terror of war as it is really experienced?

The main campaign (Cold War Crisis) in Operation Flashpoint did a great job of this. There was one mission that was entirely walk with the platoon, get on a truck, ride around, wait a bit, ride some more, get out and stand there. It was, on the one hand, boring as shit. On the other, it was such a flashback to my time in the military and the banter and small talk really brought those side characters to life.

The successors to that game - the Armed Assault series - have done a great job of retaining that feeling.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:01 AM on November 29 [5 favorites]


We're losing all of the people who personally experienced the war. Most people are now three generations removed from their ancestors who were in Europe and the Pacific. Few, if any, have had any conversation or contact with a WW2 veteran. Let's not blame a video game for what the slow march of time has done.

To a first approximation, everyone who has ever been involved in an enormous continent-wide conflict is now dead. Most of the Western world now seems ready to set aside globalism, economic and political cooperation, and the post-war idea that solutions to major geopolitical problems can be arrived at by talking them through. Instead we are all busily creating the preconditions for the next giant war. I do not think the timing is coincidental.
posted by killdevil at 10:04 AM on November 29 [13 favorites]


It is ironic that the country doing the best in the fight against Nazis since WWII is Germany.
posted by srboisvert at 10:21 AM on November 29 [1 favorite]


It is ironic that the country doing the best in the fight against Nazis since WWII is Germany.


I don't think it's that ironic that the people who you'd think Learned Their Collective Lesson about a bad thing have in fact done so.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:27 AM on November 29 [16 favorites]


Let's not blame a video game for what the slow march of time has done.

The article doesn't blame the game for causing the ever-more-widespread misrepresentation of the war, but for exemplifying it. The review naturally criticizes the game's dull-witted and conventional plot, but it's more of an essay on the sad effects of time's passage and America's modern imperial wars on the memory of World War II. To quote the piece at length:
Call of Duty: WW2 is also telling its story in a different context than its predecessors. The early World War 2 shooters were explicitly copying Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, which were themselves rooted in the massively popular histories of Stephen Ambrose. A late-career plagiarism scandal seriously damaged Ambrose’s professional reputation, but prior to that his books—published around the 50th anniversaries of the U.S. war effort’s great events—helped ignite intense nostalgia around the war.

Ambrose was able to bring history to life with vividness and coherence. And because his stories seemed to be coming straight from the sources, the veterans themselves, they had an air of unfiltered authenticity. In the movies and shows he inspired, his perspective becomes an aesthetic: the combat is harrowing and shockingly violent, but the characters are simple, virtuous, and reassuring. They are the heralds of America’s arrival as the benevolent hegemon of the 1990s.

It was never that simple, of course. Ambrose approached his subjects more as a fan than as a historian, and he sought and interpreted the stories he heard through that filter. If you go back and read Studs Terkel’s “The Good War” (the quote marks are a pointed comment from Terkel), written a decade earlier and with a more documentary purpose, you’ll find a similar method yielding a very different impression.

Terkel interviewed his subjects when the war was both more recent and less popular. He talked to far more people than just American riflemen who served in the final, victorious year of the war, speaking with those whose service was often far less remarkable but far more representative of what that generation went through. Across Terkel’s pages, they disagree with each other and argue about what the war meant or accomplished, or about how America evolved in the wake of its victory. Like ordinary people everywhere, they are complicated, conflicted, diverse. All that individuality and contrasting personal experience was flattened and erased by the Greatest Generation panegyrics that Ambrose and his disciples composed.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:55 AM on November 29 [6 favorites]


I find it weird to see a complaint about World War II being 'stripped of meaning'. War has no meaning, at least not in any sense I recognize, except what the winners' PR machine tries to project on it.

WWII propaganda only lasted 70 years? I don't think this is very high on the spectrum of things we need to worry about.
posted by signal at 11:16 AM on November 29 [1 favorite]


I know it's too much to ask that people read the article before commenting, but maybe at least skim it first to make sure it's not saying literally the exact opposite of what you think it's saying.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:28 AM on November 29 [12 favorites]


I find it weird to see a complaint about World War II being 'stripped of meaning'. War has no meaning, at least not in any sense I recognize, except what the winners' PR machine tries to project on it.

Maybe 'stripped of meaning' was the wrong phrase to use. Zacny talks at length about the efforts to impose a propagandistic meaning on the experience of those who fought. I find myself more upset than I expected that this thread is turning into an extended exegesis of everything wrong with the one-sentence summary I wrote to try to sum up the article, and basically no discussion of the much more thoughtful and interesting article itself. I guess in the future I'll remember not to try to offer context or summary for links I post.

TLDR: RTFA
posted by firechicago at 11:30 AM on November 29 [7 favorites]


I find it weird to see a complaint about World War II being 'stripped of meaning'.

Well the complaint is mostly that WWII has been stripped of its mundanity and general shittiness, which everybody involved in the conflict understood very well but which has been increasingly lost amidst the "Greatest Generation" panegyric revisionism and the deaths of those who witnessed it, etc. Instead of a bunch of guys reluctantly pressed into service against a faceless enemy, who are all cold and wet and bored and want nothing more than to go home and avoid meaningless death, the GIs in the game are depicted as professional soldiers with no greater ambition than to die gloriously to save their comrades.

You could use the game as a recruitment video for WW3, in other words, which is somewhat problematic given the jingo nationalism and drum-beating of our orange president and his friends.
posted by killdevil at 11:33 AM on November 29 [10 favorites]


My grandfather on my father's side ran a field kitchen. I think the closest he ever got to the action was when his truck got ahead of Allied lines during the Battle of Kassel. They were driving up the autobahn, and noticed a lot of the German vehicles on the road were still on fire. Then they decided to turn back. Most of his other war stories were about ways the Army screwed up, or about things like organizing a Christmas party for British schoolchildren in their mess.

My grandmother on my mother's side joined the American Red Cross with her sister, and was posted to the hospital attached to the 8th Air Force. They would have seen some pretty horrific injuries, but most of her stories were about getting involved in amateur dramatics, an interest that stayed with her for the rest of her life.

While she was there, she met my grandfather, a lieutenant in the Canadian Army. They were both taking a course on British history and culture, which was voluntary for Americans, but compulsory for colonials (ignoring the fact that my grandfather was born in Scotland).

His brother-in-law went all the way up through Italy with the 1st Canadian Armoured, and was then sent to help open the Scheldt estuary. He never really talked about the war.

For me, I think a really interesting WWII game would be a sort of MMO that addresses this variety of experience (not to mention the experiences of, let's say, Communist and FFI resistance fighters in France, or civilians in occupied countries trying to avoid the German labor draft, or codebreakers at Bletchley Park, or guerillas in Philippines or Indochina).

Yes, I am a nerd, why do you ask?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:45 AM on November 29 [7 favorites]


> Their idea is to make a war game in which players don't control soldiers or generals or anyone charged with fighting for their country. We control the people usually left out of war games: civilians. The war happens around our characters. The war happens to them.

Don't want to derail too much, but if you're interested in games like that there's a co-operative board game called The Grizzled; you control French soldiers during WWI, but there's no fighting the Germans, the enemy is the war itself and the goal of the game is to just survive the war.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:55 AM on November 29 [4 favorites]


Has any game really portrayed the tedium and terror of war as it is really experienced?

This one from Microsoft is state-of-the-art.



Anyway, more seriously — the storytelling in the game sounds atrocious, but I question the more general idea that there's an overall march away from understanding WWII. The game seems like something of an aberration in what has generally seemed (at least to me) to be slowly-improving and increasingly-nuanced portrayals of the war.

There aren't a lot of computer games to compare to, because they didn't exist in their modern high-budget form, but movies did and provide a nice baseline. So to that end, feel free to compare Saving Private Ryan to, say, The Guns of Navarone. They're both fictitious stories using the war as a backdrop or canvas, but the backdrop by 1998 has gotten a hell of a lot darker and more complex than 1961's.

Band of Brothers, which has informed a lot of subsequent portrayals of the war, doesn't seem like something that could have been released in the 60s. I doubt a lot of the participants would have given the same interviews if they'd been interviewed back then (and doubtless some had). Sometimes you need a certain amount of temporal distance to avoid the natural hesitation to air one's dirty laundry in public.

Although the number of actual WWII veterans is sadly and inexorably declining, the amount of primary source materials available to a casual researcher has greatly increased, as well as good analysis based on these materials. There's really no excuse, except laziness, for the sort of storytelling described in the game.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:05 PM on November 29 [2 favorites]


The thing is - this article calls for nuance, but it itself loses a lot of nuance. Like, they're right that there is a difference between 'citizen-soldiers' and the professional army we have today, but they also miss that there was a higher degree of nationalism and patriotism and 'Every generation of my family has fought in the Army' families back then as well. So I don't really buy their 'this is unrealistic because no one wrote home about dreaming of having their own platoon.' People absolutely wanted commands at the time, soldiers absolutely had hopes and dreams and aspirations that involved military service. Even if they didn't write home about it.

The reason the storytelling in Call of Duty: WWII is made with the faintest of colors is because that's not what people play those games for, and the people who want that kind of nuance don't play shooters. Like, you could absolutely sign me up for a complicated retelling of the politics of the homefront in WWII, but you can't fund a game with me and the six other people who would be interested in that.
posted by corb at 1:15 PM on November 29 [3 favorites]


For me, I think a really interesting WWII game would be a sort of MMO that addresses this variety of experience (not to mention the experiences of, let's say, Communist and FFI resistance fighters in France, or civilians in occupied countries trying to avoid the German labor draft, or codebreakers at Bletchley Park, or guerillas in Philippines or Indochina).
this is not exactly that, but something in that vein is Foxhole, which is basically a post industrial/pre atomic war sandbox mmo where players are soldiers, but as a soldier, you can just be a truck driver, taking supplies to the front. You can just be a logistics officer trying to determine the optimal amount of bullets, gas masks, and first aid kits that your side needs to produce. You can be a base builder who's just crafting sandbags, tank traps and pillboxes. Or you can be a tank driver or a machine gunner. You then get commendations for doing your job well (whether that's healing people or killing the enemy or just getting your supply truck to an objective) and commendations result in rank progression and additional options.

So, if you want an experience for a war that is just, basically "amateurs discuss tactics, professionals discuss logistics" you can do that, or you can be all violence all the time, or you can be Euro War Truck Simulator 2017.
posted by bl1nk at 2:46 PM on November 29 [2 favorites]


there was a higher degree of nationalism and patriotism and 'Every generation of my family has fought in the Army' families back then

Near the end of the recently-discussed era of erecting statues to the Confederate war adversaries of the United States, and not long after black members of the military might still be lynched for wearing their uniforms in public, during a conflict when—as mentioned in the OP article—the families of service members might be held in detention camps while they were off fighting (and while other Americans and local governments looted said families' homes), if they were of Asian descent, and when for example a few years earlier veterans had to riot for access to part of their pay from WWI during the Great Depression (because even during the fat times of the Roaring Twenties the country could only be persuaded to give them bonds set to mature in 1945, three decades after the war, rather than just paying them for their service, and even that was initially vetoed by the president because "patriotism...bought and paid for is not patriotism")... I'm a bit skeptical that people of the time could generally be called "more patriotic" except in a very qualified sense, and involving debatable forms of patriotism like obedience to politicians.
posted by XMLicious at 2:49 PM on November 29 [9 favorites]


People absolutely wanted commands at the time, soldiers absolutely had hopes and dreams and aspirations that involved military service. Even if they didn't write home about it.

The sticking point isn't that anyone at all wants to rise in the service, but that everyone in the game wants to rise in the service, talks as though the war will go on forever, and don't seem troubled by the idea of a war without end. It's lazy, emptily heroic writing. You're right that games of this kind often have terrible plots - even the classics like Half-Life are usually better for the manner of the telling than the story itself - but that's no reason to let this one off the hook.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:03 PM on November 29 [3 favorites]


I was appalled when Inglourious Basterds came out. (Full disclosure: I am old. A War Baby, though maybe that's been folded into Boomer now. I can't keep that shit straight.) As a kid I knew what evil bastards the Nazis were (and the Japanese militarists, too). They formed part of the moral framework I took into the struggle over Civil Rights and Vietnam. So I was upset when Tarantino said, "This was long ago. Now it's just myth fodder, like the American West or ancient Rome. Just a background for a story." I've mellowed a bit since. The erosion of historic memory is an inevitable process. But I still don't play WWII-based games.
Kadin2048: I don't know about the 1960s but in 1949 the movie Battleground covered some of the same ground as Band of Brothers (The Bulge part) and used some of the same anecdotes that appeared later in the series.
posted by CCBC at 5:28 PM on November 29 [3 favorites]


Honestly, I'm not sure if there's an American film that was ever really "honest" about what the Second World War was, or didn't come along with great heaps of hagiography and propaganda. Granted, the way that WWII storytelling has evolved since Steven Ambrose and "the Greatest Generation" came about has amped both the gloss and the gore. But it's not like A Bridge Too Far or The Longest Day or The Dirty Dozen were short on sentimentality either. That's just the economics of making a popular motion picture in Hollywood. The films that meditate, say, on the tedium and terror, the pointlessness and the esprit de corps of just trying to survive are films like Das Boot, Empire of the Sun, Empire of Shadows or Grave of the Fireflies, which are all European or Japanese and, I think, bear the mark of having to live with the destruction and trauma in a way that Americans never had to.

"The Greatest Generation" is, as the article points out, all about framing WWII as the crucible origin story for America's late 90s hegemony. But for many other parts of the world, the war fundamentally different experience.

This isn't intended to excuse whatever lazy storytelling is in the game, but I think rather than debate about whether it's gotten worse as a trend, let's just say that it's about time that we've deserved a more nuanced treatment from the American perspective, or just create more space for European or Asian voices on this conflict.
posted by bl1nk at 8:19 PM on November 29 [2 favorites]


Most people are now three generations removed from their ancestors who were in Europe and the Pacific. Few, if any, have had any conversation or contact with a WW2 veteran.

The last point here is over generalised. In the UK if you are over 45 now then there is a really strong chance that one or both of your grandfathers fought in WW2 and your grandmothers may have seen service, and even those who were not in uniform would have experienced other aspects of the war. People over 45 account for 42% of the population. The figures for other European countries will be similar and obviously for occupied Europe than the experience of WW2 was very direct even for those not in uniform. Basically there are plenty of people around who have spoken to WW2 veterans.
posted by biffa at 5:40 AM on November 30 [6 favorites]


Has any game really portrayed the tedium and terror of war as it is really experienced?

The Onion thought so...
posted by Shatner's Bassoon at 7:46 AM on November 30


Honestly, I'm not sure if there's an American film that was ever really "honest" about what the Second World War was, or didn't come along with great heaps of hagiography and propaganda.

Sam Fuller's Big Red One is often mentioned in that context, especially in its restored version.
posted by Jahaza at 12:42 PM on November 30


Basically there are plenty of people around who have spoken to WW2 veterans.

FWIW, I’m in the UK and aged 36 and my grandparents all served during the war, as did the grandparents of all of my peers. Both of my grandfathers died before I was old enough to ask them it, but I spoke at length to my grandmothers about their experiences (Land Army and translation respectively) and my step-grandmother and grandmothers-in-law are all still alive and were a nurse, pilot and secretary during the war.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:36 AM on December 1 [1 favorite]


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