Gaming's Forgotten War: World War I
Published Mar 7 2010, 06:00 GMT | By Andrew Laughlin
It's now a cliché in video game circles that World War II has been well and truly mined by first-person shooter developers. The Call Of Duty
and Medal of Honour
franchises, which made their names with WWII titles, recently shifted focus to more modern conflicts in search of fresh inspiration. Possibly, though, they should have looked back instead of forward. World War I has been largely forgotten by FPS developers, but it could actually provide rich source material for future titles. As the last WWI veterans depart this world and knowledge of the conflict turns to second-hand source and myth, games could actually play a vital role in bringing the conflict to life so that the sacrifice of so many people is never, ever forgotten.
Firstly, a disclaimer - this article is merely meant to stimulate debate about a possible WWI FPS game and is certainly not intended to trivialise the heavy cost borne by those who fought in the war, quite the opposite in fact. That aside, let us discuss a bit of history. The blue touch paper of WWI ignited when Austria-Hungary's Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, 1914. Rightly suspecting Serbian involvement, Austria Hungary threatened retribution for the Slavic nation, backed by 'blank cheque' support from Germany and its leader Kaiser Wilhelm II, who cannily saw an opportunity to forward his imperialist aims.
Seeing a clear threat to Europe's balance of power, the entente nations of France, Britain and Russia declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary, leading to four years of conflict which tore a bloody stain through the world and introduced the concept of Total War. At a terrible cost of over 16 million lives, the conflict also laid down a lasting blueprint for modern warfare techniques. However, the most identifiable facet of WWI's military operations was trench warfare, in which enemies dug in defensive positions to fight stagnant, destructive contests over small yet strategically important patches of land. Fighting in WWI's trenches at first appears unsuited for video games development, but there are many more dimensions to the Great War.
Creating a WWI FPS game raises questions about respecting the war's history, but immersion is a powerful tool which could play a vital role in ensuring that particularly young people better understand the Great War's significance. After all, some gamers know more about the Allied sacrifice in WWII from playing Medal of Honour
or Call Of Duty
than from any text book or school history lesson. Indeed, as games become more sophisticated and mature as an artistic medium, why shouldn't they play an important role in interpreting historical events?
Interestingly, there has been a glut of WWI flight simulation games, possibly due to the perceived greater level of individual skill involved. However, we could only find one FPS title based on the war, with 505 Games' Necrovision
opting to introduce horror and supernatural elements to the conflict. So the question remains: Why have FPS developers avoided the Great War? Justin Champion, history professor at Royal Holloway University and an expert in historical sociology, said that the biggest challenge facing a WWI FPS would be convincing the audience as to "why it was such an important conflict".
Among issues potentially working against WWI is the lack of a clear enemy on the scale of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. As discussed in our historic FPS gaming retrospective
, the Nazis in WWII were an enemy so tangibly evil as to become almost caricatures. In the absence of such a defined threat, it's possible that WWI has been viewed as too problematic a conflict to easily portray in games. However, Champion said that British perception of the Germans at the time told a very different story.
"We talk about the Nazis, but one thing we have lost is the Boche, the Fritz," he said. "You look at British propaganda in the First World War and it is brutal. In fact, it goes back to the 1880s and '90s. It's the round glasses and pointy hats, they really demonised the Germans."
In a global gaming market still dominated by the US, a further issue facing WWI has been the less-than-clear involvement of American troops in the conflict. Queen Mary University's Dr Dan Todman, who has written various books on WWI, including The Great War: Myth and Memory
, explained that US troops entered the war in 1917 but did not really see combat until the final allied push to victory in 1918. However, he said that American soldiers still took part in "some pretty big battles" during the final 100 Days Offensive of the war, starting with the pivotal Battle of Amiens on August 8, 1918 and running to the armistice on November 11 of the same year.
American troops were involved in various operations in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive which could have FPS potential, such as the taking of Montbrehain village or the Battle of St Quentin Canal. Todman also pointed to the story of American hero Sergeant Alvin York, immortalised in a 1941 Gary Cooper film, which could "make a good episode in a computer game". York was awarded the Medal of Honour for leading a raid on a German stronghold in which his squad seized 32 machine guns nests, killing 28 Germans and capturing a further 132 in the process. Certainly, there are enough examples of US troop involvement in WWI to provide worthy material for a Call Of Duty
or Medal of Honour
Even WWI's trench warfare could provide aspects for recreation in an FPS, including the infamous Battle of the Somme in 1916. There is plenty of evidence supporting the use of trench raiding and night patrol operations in No Man's Land during the Somme and other trench conflicts which could provide some powerful gaming moments. Sometimes involving squads of up to 100 people, these missions meant retrieving a fallen comrade or sniping a German officer in an opposing trench, where skill and nerve were essential for survival.
"Considering the experience of front-line soldiers, if you were going to make a game from parts of World War II, then you could certainly do it for World War I," said Todman. "Even in 1916 and the first day of the Somme, the perception is people standing up to be shot but there were actually things like trench raiding or operations outside of the Western Front that could be adapted to a gaming format."
There are also examples of early Special Forces-style operations, where small groups of soldiers completed a covert mission. On April 23, 1918, around 200 Royal Marines joined a Naval force to raid a German base in the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. The mission ultimately fell short of achieving its aims, but was still a precursor to modern Commando operations which could widen understanding of WWI. Likewise, in the war's Middle Eastern Theatre there were the actions of Captain T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, in the Allied-backed Arab resistance against the Ottoman Empire. Despite his involvement somewhat falling into myth, there are many examples of Lawrence's covert operations which could be translated into a game, such as the Battle of Aqaba.
"You have famously got what we would now call Special Forces and guerrillas in the Middle East, which was what Lawrence of Arabia was doing," said Todman. "There were examples in the war against Turkey of submarines being used to insert soldiers behind enemy lines to attack bridges and things like that. Certainly sabotage wasn't something foreign to the armed forces."
Todman and Champion both acknowledged that it is strange so many FPS games have taken inspiration from WWII while the Great War remains untouched. EEDR vice president - analyst services Jesse Divnich claimed that WWI has been largely avoided because it lacks the type of weaponry and technology that gamers would consider "fun". At the start of the war, soldiers used standard Lee-Enfield rifles, but they rapidly got access to Lewis guns, light machine guns, tank mortars and adaptors to turn the Lee-Enfield into a rudimentary grenade launcher. Todman said that the mix of arms in a 20-man company in WWI was actually reflective of a modern Army unit.
"At the start of the war, the platoon commander only really had rifles, but by the end of the war he had a whole range of weapons his men could use," said Todman. "And in terms of how they used them, that is pretty much how soldier units use them today. They would use the indirect fire weapons or heavy machine guns to fix the enemy and then outflank them. They call it fix and strike."
However, one thing less advanced about the war was the tanks, which were unsophisticated and noisy by today's standards. However, a British tank called the Whippet could be transferred to gaming as it worked effectively with the infantry towards the end of the war. Mostly, though, soldiers got around the battlefield on horseback as it was the easiest way to traverse broken ground quickly.
Considering the rich military history in WWI, there seems to be an incredible and powerful story to be told by utilising intelligent game design and writing. Imagine taking a British soldier from the giddy naivety of signing up to the horrors of going over the top at the Somme in a hail of gunfire and artillery flak. As the war became more tactically sophisticated, the player could take on the role of US, French, Australian or Canadian troops in commando-style raids, operational attacks, trench raiding, sniping and tunnel mining. Despite Total War bringing massive deaths, there are still many examples of individual heroism. After all, it's no coincidence that 628 Victoria Crosses for bravery were awarded in the Great War, the most ever for a single conflict.
"I think that if these games serve a purpose then it's getting people thinking about the Great War in ways that they didn't before," said Todman. "It certainly surprises me that a lot of my undergraduates have played Call Of Duty
and that is their reference point when we start talking about operations in the Second World War."
Due to limited space in this article it has only been possible to scratch the surface of the rich and surprisingly varied military history in WWI. Certainly, there is enough material in the conflict to create a powerful FPS game to rival anything based on the Second World War. The challenge would be combining historical accuracy and sensitivity with the need to create a compelling experience for gamers, but that is not beyond modern development capabilities. More importantly, though, a Great War FPS could really bring the conflict to life for particularly young people to ensure that the sacrifice and hardship of so many never slips into myth for future generations.