Unless you happen to have been living under a stone for the past few years, you have surely seen the popularity of the Call of Duty series of games. Before that there were games such as Medal of Honour too. I have had a play on several of them, and for the large part they are impressively acurate, detailed and fun to play. There were obviously some knowledgeable historical consultants and researchers working alongside the programmers and animators.
Do games such as this encourage people to become interested in military history? I would hope so. If Call of Duty helps even a minority of players develop and interest and awareness in military history, then it has to be a good thing. It would be wrong of us to get snobby and think of it as ‘just a computer game’. Computer Games happen to be a medium that young people use and is relevant to them. In many ways players are getting as close to the experiences that men not much older than them experienced in the war. Engaging young people with history is hard as it is, so if it works, then why not?
I think looking into military history would actually help when playing these games. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of various weapons would come in handy – knowing when to swap a Tommy Gun for a Japanese sniper rifle, for example. Looking into tatics might also come in handy – firing short burts rather than blazing away, giving covering fire, and flanking maneouvres, for example. Most of the games are based around a specific theatre of war – such as the Pacific – so it would never be a bad thing to go away and read up on it. The same kind of ideas also go for pursuits such as paintball and airsoft. How many stag do’s involve blokes running round like idiots madly zapping each other?
And we’re only watching a very small part of the experience of war. Soldiers do not spend all of their time blazing away. On a computer game you do not go through the training, the drill, the boredom of waiting around. In my mind there is something ironic about people who play airsoft or paintball but arent interested in military history. Very strange indeed. And why not put in some of the physical training that the men who do it for real undergo?
We should be mindful that while we are playing these games for fun, years ago many men did it for real and did not come home to tell the tale. We should be very careful not to ignore or trivialise their experiences. We need to be aware that the images in front of us represent real men, and true stories – unlike Wold of Warcraft, which is a complete fantasy world. These are not games like any other.