Popular memory of WWI is something that video-games are scared to engage
In his article “It’s Hard to Play in the Trenches: World War I, Collective Memory and Videogames”, Adam Chapman examines the depiction World War 1 (WWI) in video games in relation to popular memory and mental images about the war. Chapman states even thought the war ended a century ago, it is still strongly present in collective memory as a “postmemory” (a term originally introduced by Marianne Hirsch). Postmemory is a term that is used to describe a generation’s relation to powerful traumatic historical events that took place before their own birth.
For the study, Chapman examined a total of 58 games that depict WWI. In order to keep the sample size manageable Chapman ignored mobile games in his study. The gameplay of these 58 games was the compared to the popular memory images about WWI. Chapman provides the following definition for popular memory: “Popular memory, as I use it here, refers to the dominant strand of this collective memory in the consciousness of the populations of some of the countries involved in WWI, one that is commonly supported and reproduced in popular (as well as often official) cultural discourses”. Chapman states that the most common of these popular images of the war are the trenches of the Western Front. The image of infantrymen stuck in trenches filled with mud, blood, gas and rats is the one that is prominently featured in various forms of culture as well, like movies and novels. This image is usually accompanied by two other mental images: the desolated no-man’s land between the trenches, and the post-war memorials and graveyards. In Chapman’s study, the games which visually represent these experiences of the frontline combat and the other important imagery (no-man’s land, barbed wire, corpses, gas etc.) are categorized as engaging the popular memory. Chapman also combines his results with those found in a similar, smaller scale study conducted by Andrew Wackerfuss.
Chapman’s Findings (total)
Wackerfuss’ Findings (total)
Air combat simulation
Naval combat simulation
Grand Strategy/turn-based strategy
Grand Strategy/turn-based strategy
Real-time strategy (RTS)
First-person Shooter (FPS)
Tower Defence/Castle Attack
Science fiction or supernatural combat
A table showing the games analyzed by Chapman and Wackerfuss by genre. Note that the studies used different genre definitions and titles.
Out of the 58 games analyzed by Chapman, only 18 engaged with the popular memory by featuring trench warfare set in the frontlines. Chapman states that there is a clear difference when compared to other popular historical media like documentaries, fictional movies and novels. These other forms of popular historical media engage the popular memory much more frequently than video games do.
Chapman’s article gives two possible explanations why WWI videogames so rarely engage the popular memory of the war. The first one has to do with the nature of these popular memories and the nature of video games. Chapman argues that the tone of the popular memories of WWI are not very suitable for video games: they depict the soldiers as tragic figures who are powerless to do anything about their own fate. This disempowerment of the player characters is something that, according to Chapman, is not suitable for mainstream gaming. This also explains the popularity of WWI themed air combat games: the chivalrous and noble images of air combat aces is much more suitable for mainstream gaming than the image of infantrymen stuck in the mud-filled trenches.
The other possible explanation given by Chapman is the seriousness of WWI as a topic. He argues that games are often seen as an unsuitable media for dealing with serious or controversial topics, and thus such topics are avoided in order to avoid controversies. Chapman gives the example of the Holocaust: while WWII is a frequent theme in video games, the Holocaust is rarely depicted in games. WWI is a similar serious topic, which many see as inappropriate for play. The fear of trivializing the events of the war is one of the reasons why game makers might be afraid of engaging the popular memory. WWI is also a divisive topic when it comes to its justification and the question of who is to be blamed. This means that there is no clear good vs. evil narrative present in WWI, which is something that makes the topic even more sensitive. The fear of trivialization, combined with the lack of clear morality make WWI a difficult subject for video games.
To summarize, games about WWI seem to avoid engaging with the popular memory of infantrymen fighting in the trenches. Out of the 58 games examined by Chapman, only 18 (less than a third) engaged with the popular memory. Chapman states that possible reasons for this is the disempowered status of the frontline soldiers that does not fit mainstream gaming tradition, the possibility of trivializing such a serious topic , and the lack of clearly defined “good and bad guys”. Chapman also mentions the benefit of these difficulties: for example, while other forms of popular history have been accused of undermining air and naval warfare of WWI, video games have explored these themes.
Original Article: It’s Hard to Play in the Trenches: World War I, Collective Memory and Videogames
Author: Adam Chapman
Published: Game Studies: Volume 16, Issue 2, December 2016