War In Video Games: What Is It Good For?

We've been playing video games about war for as long as I can remember, and I'm old. What does that mean? And why do video games struggle to make statements about war in the way movies like Apocalypse Now have? These are some of the questions that a panel of Academics and Game Designers (including Cory Davis, lead designer of Spec Ops: The Line) are looking to answer at SAE Institute on November 24.

Warfare, on one scale or another, has long been a common theme of games, from Chess and Go to Call of Duty and Civilisation. War is also common in other media, such as film and literature, yet rarely do we see games which call to question the morality of war in the manner of Apocalypse Now, Slaughterhouse-5 or Catch-22. Why does this gap exist? It is clear that people enjoy ethically challenging works; our struggle with moral ambiguity is what makes these titles great. Our games seem shallow in comparison. How do we change this?
How do we design gameplay which meaningfully engages a player’s ethical sensibilities? Is it just a matter of writing? Or are there more fundamental problems to be addressed with gameplay as a medium? The Workshop on Games, Ethics and War will be a gathering of designers, writers, philosophers and psychologists looking at these questions from a variety of perspectives. Keynoting the workshop will be Cory Davis, lead designer of Spec Ops: The Line, Michał Drozdowski, lead designer of The War of Mine, and Jose Zagal, editor of the Videogames Ethics Reader.

The event kicks off at 6pm and is scheduled for two and a half hours. Sounds super interesting.

You can find out more about the event, and buy tickets, here.


    We’ve been playing video games about war for as long as I can remember, and I’m old

    You are? I thought you were only like, 35 or something.

    Anyways, this is me whenever I ask about fighting in a war.

    "How" is one question. But I think the critical question is "why should they."

    I stopped playing Mass Effect because of its desire to engage me on the moral level. Seriously, if you are going to write that shit you should probably actually engage someone familiar with ethics at an academic level. That aspect of the game was so staggeringly stupid that I probably won't purchase any more Bioware titles.

    Ignoring that...

    Why do people play games - there are likely as many answers as there are people.

    But a lot of us play them for fun and as a brief respite from considerations like the complex morality of conflict. For me the "ethically" engaging part is about as interesting as the "narrative" part. i.e., not at all.

    I have read Slaughterhouse 5 and Catch-22. I have seen Apocalypse Now. Those and many other works handle that stuff really well without the distraction of having to also create interesting gameplay.

    Sure, if you don't partake in art outside of video games, there might be a case for making sure you are not missing out on some basic humanities. But for me that merely suggest you should probably broaden your horizons.

    All I know is that when I am relaxing, the last thing I want is some whiny voice actor trying to engage my moral sensibilities. Fuck that.

      Which part of Mass Effect are you referring to exactly? There are a few parts of the story that involve moral ambiguity from memory.

        Not any moral ambiguities - all morality is ultimately ambiguous - just the appalling ignorance of the ethics in both theory and practice.

        Most of the "moral" choice seemed to boil down to being a and sickening do-gooder or a complete bastard.

        There is not even a basic recognition of deontic, or virtue ethics, or utilitarianism, or any recognisable system.

        For example - When Spock says the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, he is some kind of enlightened hero, but when "renegade" Shep makes exactly the same moral judgement drawing on the same moral premises, he is portrayed as a psychotic murderer.

        When we reason morally in practice we usually use a mixture of utilitarian intuitions and deontic - or rule based - heuristics. Some kind of awareness of this might have moved it beyond unbearable do-gooder Shep and unbearable asshole Shep.

        Any kind of theoretical knowledge would have helped it.

          Fair enough. Although I think dev's trying to incorporate some kind of morality into games can be good generally, helping drive discussion and conversation, even when those attempts end up being quite ham-fisted.

            For me Mass Effect would have been much better with all the same decisions but with all the gameplay mechanics linked to them - i.e paragon, renegade system - removed and the scripted responses treated more neutrally.

            There should be no gameplay imperative that leads towards a certain answer. Remove all the cues that said you have done something "blue" or "red". Just let the decisions be made and the consequences play out.

            That would have been interesting.

              I agree - and I haven't played Mass Effect. I actually know what you're talking about when you mention utilitarianism and virtue ethics.
              I agree that "morality" is too black and white in games that aspire to give you meaningful choices.
              In Bioshock, I remember thinking that the morality system was too obvious, that the stance you took was directly related to whether or not you knew that saving the Little Sisters was ultimately more beneficial. When one arbitrary ethical stance gave you more of a material advantage than the only other option it basically undermined the entire system.

    One day they will make a military simulator where your not some hot shot special forces but a grunt doing the daily duties remembering the loved ones back home having your gun jam in a firefight as your brother in arms takes one in the shoulder, you must carry him to the medic and when all is said and done the last mission is you returning home after 3 years, seeing everything change in those years and eventually end up questioning your life outside of the military..

    It’s good ‘fur shootin Nazi’s, Commies and sand-people.

    *fires pistols into ceiling*

    An observation.

    Most of my waking life I work in an office, in administration. I have no real interest in my work, it's beige, pedestrian and thankless – though at least it’s for a good cause.

    I play video games because, due to their wondrous interactive component, they allow me the rare chance to become, just for a time, ‘a hero out of legend’ – all in a completely safe environment. I can forget the real world and its unquestioned horrors and the tedium (often) associated with modern life.

    In short, I don’t want to be beaten over the head with hard hitting statements about war and the like. I get that from other sources. Thanks to globalised information networks I’m well aware of the true horrors of war and I’m thankful every day I’ve never had to go to one.

    Don’t get me wrong I loved Spec Ops, but only as the exception, not the rule…

    But I understand people play games for many reasons; this is just why I do.

      That's fine. There's 800 millions games out there for you that aren't about war.

        I think he's trying to say that he appreciates the issues with war from other sources such as the news so doesn't mind playing a war game that is just "NFL with guns". Which is fine. Not every war game has to be Apocalypse Now.

    The movies mentioned were made in the vietnam war era, or shortly after, when the anti-war movement was in full swing.

    It doesn't make much sense to compare video games from present-day culture to movies of that era and scratch your head over why the don't make similar statements about war. The answer is obvious.

    It is not like the war movies of today tackle the horror of war in much more depth than the computer games is it? Is Fury a movie that makes powerful statements about war?

      It makes perfect sense to compare games to these films and books if your concern is to look at what games can do differently to address certain issues.

      Publication and release dates, or there relation to previous movements is irrelevant if the core questions is why are games shallow in comparison. Once you have decided to compare X to Y you just get on with comparing X and Y.

      More importantly, the themes addressed in the nominated artworks are universally applicable - it is not the particular conflicts that are of interest, but the experience of people in conflicts in general.

      The comparison is between media that addresses these issues and media that, while ostensibly situated in the same context, do not.

      That's just US/UK films though - I'm sure there are films from other parts of the world that are dealing with war and violence. So while other places and other people in other media have gone on to continue to make films and write books about war, games have still never really reached that point. And that's still a valid question to be asking.

    Opening up the dialogue on video games with these issues can only help to enrich the media. I think it's great that these sorts of talks happen, and hope that more diverse games get made as a result.

    As others have said, we all play games for different reasons. There's certainly room within the gaming landscape for serious and casual games to all co-exist. Just as films and books come in various styles and genres and tones, so games should be able to as well.

    It's a very convenient setting for butchering hundreds and hundreds of people in morally-sanctioned murder. The sublimation of thousands of years of instincts to hunt, fight, kill, establish dominance. Human civilization is built on a mountain of bones.

    Hell, the way the multiplayer plays out these days, these virtual 'wars' (or more contemporary guerrilla/terrorist conflicts) play out more like a sport than anything else. And I'm sure anthropologists could intellectually masturbate for dozens of pages on the psychological and sociological links between warfare and sport across various cultures and periods in history.

    Power fantasy in a life where we have none, fantasy outlet for aggression, channeled into unfeeling pixels instead of real, thinking, feeling humans... take your pick on reasons, I don't care. All I know is I'm a big fan of the virtual man-shooty. It scratches an itch.

    Last edited 18/11/14 5:00 pm

    And why do video games struggle to make statements about war in the way movies like Apocalypse Now have?


    Publishers want to make their money back (and more) so they stick to same old cliche/micheal bay ripoff stuff to sell units.

    Intelligent, thought provoking explorations of man's fascination with death and the never ending struggle for money and power don't shift units like bros and explosions.

    Absolutely nothin'!

    I can't believe nobody said it yet.

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