The last time I wrote for Play the Past (unfortunately, far too long ago), I examined Valiant Hearts: The Great War as an object of remembrance and commemoration and an excellent way to understand the First World War without glorifying the conflict or understanding the war in a “top-down” view. It understood the people that fought and their reluctance to be a part of the conflict, on both sides. It is quite possibly the best popular culture item set in the First World War that I have ever experienced. I’ve also written about Nazi appearances in games and remembrance in Second World War video games. I do not consider myself an expert in this field but I find the notions of memory and remembrance of war in video games quite fascinating. One thing that I haven’t done yet though is compared the contrasting styles of commemoration that occurs within games.
The inspiration for this post came from a coworker, a die-hard World of Tanks player, who was telling me about all the Remembrance Day discounts, events and missions that have been put in play in honor of the upcoming holiday. My knee jerk reaction was frustration that the holiday could be used to encourage extra playing time. Similar to how Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare misplayed dealing with veterans issues, I felt this was in poor taste (this excellent piece by Charlie Hall at Polygon outlines what I mean about Advanced Warfare). However, understanding how World of Tanks uses themes of remembrance in comparison to Valiant Hearts or Call of Duty 2 can help us understand what Remembrance and Veterans Day mean in a 21st century context. Trevor Owens’ latest (and excellent) piece #GamerGame, The Great Cat Massacre, and Future Special Collections attempted to understand the GamerGate movement through a historical lens and I will try to do the same here. So what do these games tell us about understanding war and remembrance in video games? I think that it shows that our understanding of Remembrance Day is varied and confused with little cohesion. Let’s look at the different forms used in the games I described above.
During these Veteran Day Weekend events in World of Tanks, people will gather in this world to chat, post on forums and play games. However, remembrance will be passive at best. While these deals will draw plenty to play and battle on November the 11th, battling in tanks will hardly foster any understanding of what fighting in the Second World War was like or how veterans deal with PTSD. For World of Tanks, Remembrance Day acts as a device to encourage more gameplay. While it does allow for groups of people to gather and I have no doubt that there will be acts of remembrance within their game and forums, it has little to do with understanding sacrifice.
In Call of Duty 2, there is plenty of sacrifice acknowledged in their gameplay. A staple of many Call of Duty games (along with other First Person Shooter campaigns) is to include moments where comrades are lost with the theoretical purpose of letting the player understand that war inevitably means loss. However, this sort of inclusion (as is seen in the aforementioned Polygon article) is rather ironic coming from a franchise that actively glorifies war. There are brief moments where the player has to recognize the loss of an ally but those are few and far in between and rarely have a profound impact.
Then there’s Valiant Hearts that really flips the idea of war on its head and tries to understand war and sacrifice in its purest form. Where the people that perish were heroes on their own right, not because they fought for their country but because they fought for what they believed in. For Emile in Valiant Hearts, the war itself was the enemy and he was a merely fighting to survive in a brutal conflict.
These three uses of remembrance are drastically different from each other and show the division that exists among what Remembrance Day is supposed to mean. On the one hand, with World of Tanks there is using remembrance day to promote a game and bringing people together, a sort of clash of marketing and gathering. With Call of Duty it is a glorification of war and promotion of Nationalistic ideals (something more and more common in the Canadian context of Remembrance Day). Finally, Valiant Hearts chooses to remember the people and their sacrifice not in the context of the war but of their own self. Remembering heroes for who they were, not what they did.
It should be relatively obvious by now that I lean towards the last definition of Remembrance Day. I believe that as the veterans of the Second World War slowly fade, we will be left with veterans from a number of less clean cut conflicts like the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Canadian peacekeeping of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, the War in Afghanistan and Iraq and we will be left with little understanding of how to remember those that were there. I had great admiration of those that fought in those conflicts and I remember their sacrifice but I call for attention to the different definitions that exist of Remembrance Day and ask that above all we remember those that fought for their ideals.
Happy Remembrance Day everyone. Lest We Forget.