Three War Games With an Anti-War Message

May 19, 2020
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In all of the years I’ve been playing video games, the vast majority of my time has been spent shooting virtual guns. I’ve spent a few thousand hours in the various Call of Duties, another few thousand in the Battlefields and about 200 in the two Insurgency games. Although I’d be hard pressed to say I actually like any of these games, they’re only ones that I can reliably enjoy in between playing masterpieces and ignoring my teachers in Zoom calls.

Despite enjoying these games,  I’ve always found it concerning that the games I play the most are also the ones that glorify combat the most. It’s a well-established fact at this point that war is A Bad Thing™. In all of these games, however, war is portrayed as being fun. In all three of those franchises, you use the latest military technology to kill other players quickly. Your guns are intrinsically satisfying to use, there’s little consequence to dying and you never have to worry about the real world repercussions of what you’re doing.

This is something that many military recruiters have noticed and started to take advantage of. The U.S. Army famously had America’s Army: Proving Grounds developed as their own Call of Duty knock-off so they could use it for recruitment purposes. More recently, many militaries have made eSports teams for a similar reason. 

The loading screens of America’s Army are all 30-second recruitment videos showcasing just how cool the game’s firearms are in real life

This is also something that many game developers have noticed, and intentionally or otherwise, made games that feature an anti-war sentiment. Setting aside the ones that are explicit about this message, like This War of Mine, however, a select few games exist that maintain their status as almost propagandist while still showcasing the more negative aspects of modern conflict.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019)

Call of Duty could easily be the poster child for propaganda games. Each entry into the franchise throws you into the same plot: you’re either an American or British soldier who’s given the task of saving democracy by any means necessary. Every level starts you in an unwinnable situation where you mow down hundreds of whichever ethnic group America hates this week, then killing a bad guy to save the day.

In the vast majority of the levels, too, you’re never in any danger of failing. You have regenerating health, a near infinite supply of ammunition, and when all else fails, you can call in an airstrike on your position. All of this is enjoyable in its own right, but at best it’s popcorn entertainment and at worst it’s a six-hour ethnocentric slog.

The sometimes preventable explosions in this Call of Duty often come with a cost that’s greater than $92 million

All of this was true until Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2019. This entry still has you saving the world from terrorism and involves more than a few airstrikes, but it does so with a greater emphasis on the costs of the combat. A few standout missions involve you methodically clearing out levels that are full of civilian bystanders. It’s almost impossible to make it through the level without killing one of them, but when you do, the game doesn’t force you to restart.

Instead, the game allows you to experience things that are usually reserved for helmet camera footage. When you kill a civilian, you simply continue with your mission. You’re given enough time to come to your own conclusions about it if you so choose, but those conclusions are never forced on you or come from a cutscene. Instead, the game allows you to think about your actions as you experienced them and come to your own conclusions.

A few levels in this entry feature women who rush to pick up items in the room after it’s clear, those items being either a child or an AK-47.

This refreshing take on the morality of conflict still allows you to play out a Michael Bay film, but it also lets you think about your choices after experiencing them first hand. No ideology is forced on you here, and although you’d be hard-pressed to say that war is the answer after playing it, it lets you come to that conclusion on your own. 

Wargame: Red Dragon

A game that takes a different approach to modern conflict is Wargame: Red Dragon. Like with most military games, the game is all about showcasing the technology of the modern military. It boasts a record-holding twenty-one factions with over 2,000 distinct units spread across them for you to combine into a deck that you then use as your troop pool in the game’s real-time strategy battles.

This staggering amount of content may seem like it would lead to exciting battles, but it’s the lack of excitement that makes Wargame: Red Dragon so unique. Battles in the game are almost always weirdly boring affairs. You spawn your units, move them to locations and hold positions to gain points. Once you have enough points, the battle is over. It’s possible to have entire sessions where you and your enemy don’t engage at all, or more commonly, where you only engage with indirect fire. You send scouts to find out where the enemy artillery is, then you use your artillery to blow it up while moving around to avoid getting detected. At no point should two direct-fire units, such as infantry or tanks, ever actually shoot at one another. 

The best decks in Wargame feature almost no infantry but instead tons of units that can effectively level buildings.

The result is a game that requires an insane amount of patience to play. Sending a special forces unit across the field often takes twenty minutes, wherein you’ll do nothing but twiddle your thumbs. Then, when those units find something, you’ll bomb it for a few seconds before starting the process all over. As a whole, Wargame: Red Dragon is a boring game even by strategy game standards, which sends a message about just how “cool” war can be.

Arma 3

The boringness of conflict, and the anti-war war game mentality as a whole, is showcased by no better game than Arma 3. As the commercial version of VBS3 training software that the US Military uses, it would be easy to write Arma off as something more pro-conflict than Battlefield. This would be something that’s made easier by the generic “America good” single-player campaign and massive amount of military technology on display.

There’s even more military technology added in game mods, including a popular one that adds the entirety of the British Army’s equipment for players to toy with.

Once you leave the campaign behind, however, the game becomes one of the most unappealing shooters on the market. Within the game, most of the community plays in clans. These clans organise their players into real military structures and have them going on missions that are similarly realistic. Like with the previous two games, then, the result is something that may seem cool but in reality is just boring.

In these missions, you will probably never see your enemy. You may see a tank move a kilometre away, but most of your time in the game will be spent unloading magazines into places where enemies should technically be. The guns you use to shoot empty buildings, too, are simply unenjoyable to use. This makes for a game that’s simply not fun to play at best and tedious at worst. 

Some missions in Arma 3 have players walking through empty fields and not even firing their weapons

Many veterans say that this is the most realistic depiction of warfare available, too, so with that in mind it’s hard to see the appeal of conflict regardless of what many other games try to say about the issue. The game sends the strongest anti-war message of almost anything in this medium while remaining very, very pro-war on the surface.

All three of these games, then, do a good job at defying the often pro-war medium standard. None of them explicitly tell you that conflict is bad, but instead allow you to experience it through their gameplay and come to your own conclusions. When World War 3 seems to be drawing closer every day, it’s important that games like these exist so that people can see the true ugliness of conflict before anyone goes into combat expecting it to be as fun as Battlefield. 

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Derek Johnson

Somebody once told me the world was going to roll me, and they were right. I love games that let me take good-looking screenshots and ones that make me depressed, so long as the game doesn't overstay its welcome.