Prisoners of War

Warning: The following article contains spoilers for the Call of Duty: WW2 campaign.

World War II, history’s most famous Team Deathmatch. A monumental conflict that, apparently, is in serious danger of becoming distorted and devalued if we continue to allow video games to chronicle its events.

In Call of Duty: WW2 it took me six attempts to get off the Normandy beaches. Five lives sacrificed amid the fury of the D-Day landings for one preserved. If you look at the statistics for some of the companies active that day, that’s pretty accurate. Although, on the fourth go, I was crushed to death by a falling loot box. So perhaps it’s not as realistic as it could be.

The fact that we’re back here again, crashing through the same waves, crawling across the same sands, hunkering down behind the same Czech hedgehogs, is a potentially worrying example of history repeating itself. The COD war machine has already scorched the Earth of the past, present and future. Now it appears it’s beginning a second tour of duty, picking over the corpses, searching for any signs of life.

Recently, I’ve read a couple of incredibly well-written articles insisting that Sledgehammer Games, the makers of this Call of Duty, were seriously misguided in their decision to acknowledge, (or at least not completely ignore) some of the uncomfortable, unconscionable and under-reported aspects of World War II. Issues such as the Holocaust, race relations amongst the allies and the role of women. It’s a perfectly valid argument considering these are some of the “facts” you could erroneously infer from the game:

1. World War II was fought between the evil Germans and the heroic Americans. The Americans did get a bit of help from a handful of French resistance fighters and an English bloke, all of whom enjoyed dressing up as Nazis. The total might of the combined Allied forces, therefore, was basically a U.S. band of brothers supported by the cast of ‘Allo ‘Allo.

2. Any injury, no matter how severe, could be dealt with by a magical health pack tossed to you by a squadmate. Laceration to the leg caused by flying shrapnel? Health pack. Multiple shots to the chest? Health pack. Stabbed in the gut with a bayonet, bullet to the head, hand grenade down the trousers, arms and legs blown off by mortar fire, run over by a German tank, then another German tank, then an Allied tank, then your commanding officer’s jeep? Heath pack.

3. The Allies’ victory was made even more impressive due to the fact that, after being killed, many Nazis came back to life as zombies. To be fair, let’s wait to see if Sledgehammer can rationally explain this one away with some DLC that introduces werewolf G.I.s and Stalin’s vampire surf ninjas.

4. Russia: 1939 to 1945. Nothing to see here.

Of course, it’s easy to deflect many of these criticisms. Call of Duty: WW2 has deliberately set out to tell a fabricated, Boy’s Own tale of heroism set against the backdrop of real events. And if fictionalisation equals trivialisation when it comes to historical matters, then COD simply joins a vast library of works, many highly praised, doing exactly the same. From The Great Escape to The Thin Red Line, Blackadder to The Pillars of the Earth, Wolf Hall to The Bible, storytellers emanating from all strands of art and entertainment have never been bashful about blurring facts with creative licence for their own advancement.

Call of Duty hopes to prestige in the past.

The main indictment against COD: WW2, however, isn’t over what is or isn’t included, but the manner in which subjects are depicted. The Holocaust is addressed primarily via a short guided tour of a deserted concentration camp that takes nothing more than a passing glance at the true scale of the suffering. It’s little more than rubbernecking at a genocide site. The game briefly features a couple of women, but they’re highly stereotypical, wholly underdeveloped characters who reinforce the myth that the only female roles available during the World Wars were: desperate civilian; Land Girl; radio operator at HQ; nurse; enigmatic dark-haired French Resistance fighter; enigmatic blonde-haired Russian/German spy; sweetheart back home who has provided a faded black and white photo for brave man soldier to gaze at wistfully.

The campaign does see your unit link up with a black soldier, Corporal Howard, but the subplot surrounding him is a stunted, shallower version of the one belonging to the character John in the Homer’s Phobia episode of The Simpsons. The main differences are that COD has substituted in skin colour for sexuality and Nazis for homicidal reindeer. And the best line that encapsulates the sentiment behind both stories comes from the cartoon:

John: Homer, I won your respect, and all I had to do was save your life. Now, if every gay man could just do the same, you’d be set.

Even at its best, the writing in Call of Duty marches along in an extremely regimented, straightforward way that never wanders far from being clunky and clichéd. This, together with its factual flippancies and incessant and inherent glorification of violence may make COD seem an inappropriate forum for tackling serious subject matter. Yet, despite all this, I applaud the game’s makers for the risks they have taken attempting to include more difficult issues.

We’re getting to the point now where those who survived World War Two are leaving us on an increasingly frequent basis, and the impact of their first-hand accounts will quickly ebb away. Empathy erodes rapidly over time, and while I don’t want a small child perched on their grandfather’s knee listening to how he heroically stormed Omaha beach armed with only Duel Shock controller in his hands to be anyone’s primary point of historical reference, video games provide the potential for opportunities and experiences other media does not.

Games are an easy point of access for historical re-enactment capable of enriching settings and resurrecting the dead. Their interactive nature allows history to live and breathe again and their immersive qualities open up possibilities for granting unique insights.

As we move forward, it’s going to be up to generations who grew up playing games to preserve the history of war. Just because games like COD, Brothers in Arms and This War of Mine don’t do a perfect job, doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Does Call of Duty do justice to those who experienced WW2? No. Can anything? No. And surely the biggest injustice of all would be to ignore them completely. These are things too important to be made sacrosanct. This is hallowed ground that we should all continue to walk all over. We need to commit to the idea that video games have an important role to play in the future of the past.