The depiction of the first world war in Battlefield 1, and a disastrous social media campaign to promote it, raise questions of rules, respect and responsibility
The first world war has never been a major subject for video games, perhaps because the endless weeks of trench-digging and letter-writing followed by a vault over the top and a brief, futile sprint into a “game over” screen doesn’t play to the medium’s conventional strengths. For years the second world war was the preferred theatre for the game director. That conflict’s variety has allowed players to partake in skirmishes in pretty French villages in Brothers in Arms, to storm Normandy beaches in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and to draw a bead on Hitler’s testicles in Sniper V2 Elite.
With its centenary, however, attention has turned to the first world war. 2014’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War was a cartoonish yet sombre game that, much like Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, examines the pressures exerted by wartime circumstance and misfortune on the human heart. This month’s Battlefield 1 takes a more visceral approach, placing you in the boots of a number of soldiers across a range of French, Italian and Mesopotamian historical arenas. While there’s a brief story, Battlefield’s long-term offering is in its vast, disorienting multiplayer battles, where up to 64 players assume the roles of infantrymen, horse riders, tank drivers and biplane pilots, and trade shots while using war pigeons to call down artillery strikes on one another. Some may baulk at the appropriation of one of the world’s deadliest conflicts as set dressing for a sort of Scout-like wide game, but its no more morally questionable than a film director using war to mawkish ends.
Games are defined by systems of rules, but they are contextualised and elevated by their theme