The Trivialisation of World War II?
I have enjoyed Sniper Elite 4 and all of the sundry DLC immensely since its release in Spring. The game presents an interesting alternative to the traditional shooter with its stealth based level design. The latest instalment, Obliteration (the third part of an ongoing story), is set in an empty Bavarian town and has an intricate map with an authentic period feel. It offers opportunities for both long range sniping and close quarters stealth kills. Overall, I have found that the franchise provides engaging and complex gameplay, as well as satisfying the players baser need for blood and violence. However, playing this and other similar titles got me thinking. It would appear that World War II, one of the defining periods of the last century that still has ramifications today, is in certain quarters now simply a setting, a plot device or a Hitchcockian MacGuffin. Is the broader subtext of this major event now irrelevant to a generation of players because they have immediate connection to this period in history? If that is the case, exactly when does it become acceptable for something of this magnitude, to be trivialised in this manner (if that is indeed the case).
If memory serves, in early 2010 EA ran into some PR problems during the run up to the launch of Medal of Honor, when it was revealed that in the multiplayer mode players could play as the Taliban. Needless to say, this decision was robustly challenged by sections of the “popular” press, politicians and many bodies representing servicemen and their families. Eventually, EA capitulated and changed the multiplayer game so that the enemy was known as the Opposing Force or OP4 in military jargon. If we dispense with the tabloid hyperbole and faux moral outrage from blustering politicians, it would appear that the main objection to this situation was that there are still many servicemen and women as well as their families that have suffered directly or indirectly at the hands of the Taliban. It is the current and ongoing human connection to the associated events in Afghanistan that was problematic and thus causes potential public outrage.
So, it would seem that time and an emotional link to the matter in hand, decides whether a historical event is either a bonafide setting for a game or nothing more than tasteless exploitation. Because when you apply these criteria to World War II then we find that many people, especially those under twenty-five, have no living relatives that served or grew up during that era and that the passage of time renders these profoundly important events into abstract, textbook history. Effectively it becomes something that to be read about but with no immediate bearing on one’s current existence, although obviously the complete opposite is true. This sense of disconnection with the past if further compounded by socio-political and economic change. Culturally speaking, contemporary London, as seen through the eyes of a twentysomething, is a world apart from what my Father’s generation experienced, seventy plus years earlier.
Both my Grandfathers served during World War II. One was an Army Surgeon and the other served in the Eighth Army. My Father was born in 1929 and lived in South London during the Blitz. For him and his peers, World War II was a defining point in his life. He still uses to this day the phrase “before the War” as a means to reference the societal difference between then and now. I grew up in the seventies knowing many men and women who had served. There was a Theology teacher at one of my schools who had spent several years in a Japanese P.O.W camp. One of our neighbours when I was growing up, was a veteran and a member of The Burma Star Association. I would conservatively estimate that for at least four decades after the end of World War II, British society was still tangibly experiencing its fallout in some shape or form.
Yet, time and tide wait for no man. Call of Duty will be releasing their latest instalment of their game in November this year and the franchise is returning to its roots with a World War II setting. Due to the immense popularity of this FPS, a substantial percentage of players who are young, will be introduced to a historical setting that they are not overly familiar with. What will they make of the Normandy landings, the scale of the loss of life and the fundamental causes for World War II itself? Will they simply see the Germans as “baddies” by cultural default? Has the inherent evil of Nazi policies and of Hitler himself any immediate significance, or are they now nothing more than clichéd exemplars of stereotypical notions of evil. Have the years and popular culture simply neutered them of their potency?
As I stated at the start of this post, this article stems from a train of thought and still remains a point to ponder, rather than a working theory. Such a subject needs to be explored by greater thinkers than I and no doubt has. Already I’m pondering counterpoints to my own assertion. For example, I grew up at a time when a substantial number of comics still had stories set in World War II. Precious few were of any note. Where these also contributing to the trivialisation process I have suggested? What about the films and TV dramas that filled theatres and broadcasting schedules during the post war decades? Are comedies such as 'Allo 'Allo! or Hogan's Heroes artistically justified or potentially just as offensive and exploitative as games such as Sniper Elite (assuming you see them in such terms)?
As someone who tries to avoid the binary or a tendency towards knee-jerk responses, these are all difficult questions to answer. Especially at a time when rationality has been usurped by the cult of virtue signalling and an addiction to “finding offense”. I would like to think that common sense may prevail but even that seems to be a term that we cannot agree upon these days. As for the trivialisation of World War II and potentially many other important events and causes, I think that it will remain a hotly debated topic. If you’re looking for games publishers to act and think responsibly then I’m sure the majority will disappoint you. Morality seldom deters and as we have seen, change is usually only embraced if there is risk to the bottom line. As for myself, I have sufficient gumption not to allow the depiction of World War II in video games to impact upon my real-world perspective of those historical events themselves. Yet I still have a nagging feeling from time to time that something about these titles is somehow “troubling”.