Literature/Film Quarterly, 2010, Vol. 38, No. 3, SPECIAL ISSUE: LFA 2009
(2010), pp. 183-193
From Air Force (Howard Hawks, 1943) to Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009), the cinema has taken on the cultural task of visualizing World War II. Increasingly, however, this task has also been taken up by new media—video games, in particular—resulting in new perspectives on the social and political meanings of the war in contemporary America. World War II video games—which are some of the most popular games featuring military combat—participate in the cultural nostalgia for the war to which recent films like Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) and Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001) contributed. The nostalgic zeitgeist of the 1990s manifested itself in Stephen Ambrose and Tom Brokaw’s books on the “Greatest Generation,” the release of a number of World War II-themed films, and the construction of the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. These texts and events rewrote World War II as the last “good war” in which military force was justified and the United States played the role of world savior. The war era is still often seen as a time of moral authority and consensus, in which the whole nation united for a common cause. By the 1990s, the World War II video game had established itself as a resilient formula and an important way that the cultural memory of the war was activated for a growing segment of the population. In sharing some of these nostalgic ideologies of the war, contemporary World War II video games draw explicitly from cinema. In this essay, I explore how contemporary video games adapt the World War II combat film genre for their own cultural work.
The fact that in the case of the video game the “viewer” becomes a “player” means that the relationship between the user and the media changes. The interactivity of the video game appears to promise a different relation to the narrative and experience of the game, as well as a different relation to history. I contend that World War II video games reflect contemporary fantasies of the war as evidence for the assured triumph of the West (and particularly the United States). The victory of the Allied powers is literally played over and over again—both in various games, which recycle the same scenarios, as well as within gameplay, in which levels and campaigns are repeated over and over again until they are beaten. This repetition reflects not only an obsession with certain aspects of the war, but an emphasis on manual activity—particularly the simulation of shooting. Thus, World War II video games combine the moral and narrative associations of the war with the physical activity of shooting, creating a sense of mastery and control. However, I will make the case that this simulation of history actually better reflects contemporary warfare, providing a representation of the present disguised as the past.
World War II and the First-Person Shooter
The video game genre that has most fully embraced World War II is the first-person shooter.1 This genre of game uses 3D graphics to simulate the point of view of the primary character moving through space, usually with only the character’s hand and/or a weapon visible at the bottom center of the screen. Two extremely popular video game series have cemented the association of World War II and the first-person shooter genre: Medal of Honor (1999- ) and Call of Duty (2003- ). Both of these game series have been released in various formats for different gaming platforms, including Playstation (as well as Playstation 2 and 3), Xbox (and Xbox 360), personal computer, GameCube, Wii, GameBoy Advance, Playstation Portable, and mobile phone.2 The first Medal of Honor (MoH) game was developed simultaneously with Saving Private Ryan by Steven Spielberg and his Dreamworks Entertainment in 1998, and additional games have followed in the franchise every one or two years since then.
The influence of Saving Private Ryan can be found in the desaturated colors, mournful music, and similar scenarios played out in the Medal of Honor games. Some of the games steal scenes directly from the film, such as the Omaha Beach landing sequence in MoH: Allied Assault (2002).
Although some of the early games of the Medal of Honor franchise revolve around covert, single-player missions involving espionage, sabotage, and infiltration, the later games emphasize frontline action and give the player more choice about which missions to undertake and how to navigate the game. In this way, they conform to the cinematic formula followed by Saving Private Ryan of highlighting the mission of a group of soldiers in combat.
The Call of Duty video game series began in 2003 with a World War II-set game in which the player alternates among three different characters, one American, one British, and one Soviet. Two follow-up games (Call of Duty 2 and 3), as well as additional expansion packs and side-story games, also take World War II as their setting, despite the original plan to shift to a contemporary setting in any sequels or subsequent games. This shift did not take place until 2007, when the fourth installment of the series, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, was released. But the popularity of World War II was such that the series returned to the war for the fifth release, Call of Duty: World at War (2008), the first of the series to include combat missions in the Pacific. The latest addition to the series, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009), is a sequel to Call of Duty 4 and is set, like the earlier game, in an alternative present in which the player fights terrorists in the Middle East, Russia, and the United States.
The roots of the World War II video game extend back to Castle Wolfenstein (1981), a 2D stealth-espionage game in which an individual player must infiltrate a castle full of Nazis in order to confiscate secret war plans and escape alive.
The first game’s emphasis on stealth and avoiding detection, however, was replaced in its popular sequel, Wolfenstein 3D (1992), with direct armed conflict. More specifically, Wolfenstein 3D is hailed as the first game to popularize the first-person shooter format. In this game, the player takes on the role of an American soldier and spy, William “B. J.” Blazkowicz, who must escape from the eponymous castle, shooting Nazi guards and attack dogs in order to get out.
In following episodes, Blazkowicz fights mad scientists, clones, an army of undead mutants created by the scientists, and Adolf Hitler himself equipped with a robotic suit and four chain guns. The screen displays an approximation of Blazkowicz’s first-person point of view, and the player uses the game controls to aim and fire a gun at enemies, as well as to move through space. In addition to inspiring first-person shooters with sci-fi/horror themes such as Doom (1993), Wolfenstein spawned a number of supernatural Nazi-centered sequels, including Spear of Destiny (1992, a prequel), Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001), and most recently, Wolfenstein (2009).
Although other genres of video games also take the Second World War as their subject matter, the early and persistent confluence of World War II with the first-person shooter suggests that this mode reflects a significant way that American culture reimagines World War II, as well as warfare more generally. The historical convergence between the first-person shooter and the renewed cultural interest in World War II in the 1990s signals the emergence of a new way of understanding and experiencing history in the postmodern age. Before we turn to the unique properties of the histories that video games narrate, however, we must explore how these games remediate conventions from cinema.
Adapting the World War II Combat Film
Video games have drawn from and reshaped the conventional narratives of World War II given to us by cinema, which has been extremely influential in determining how American culture has reconceived the war as the “good war.” In what ways do video games conform to generic expectations—due, for instance, to the involvement of personnel from the film industry, like Spielberg? And in what ways do these games, because of a difference in medium, rewrite the genre, as well as the cultural history of World War II? Does it make sense to consider World War II video games to be part of the same combat genre as the films that are set during the war?
To explore how cinematic genre conventions have influenced video games, I will focus primarily on the video game Call of Duty 2: Big Red One (2005), a console-only variation on the second installment of Call of Duty.4
In some ways Big Red One stands as an exception to the bulk of other World War II shooters, allowing it to conform more closely to generic expectations derived from the World War II combat film genre. It is, for instance, the only Call of Duty game to feature exclusively American characters and to follow a single character through the entire game. In the other Call of Duty games set during the Second World War, the player rotates through American, British, and Soviet characters depending on the mission. Big Red One is also fairly unique in following the exploits of a singular unit of soldiers throughout an entire historical campaign—the route taken by the First Division of the US Army from 1942 to 1945, from North Africa through Sicily to the D-Day landings and into France. Although exceptional in these ways, Big Red One stands as a limit case of a game that follows the film genre to the largest extent possible. Yet, as I will argue, this conformity also serves to highlight the radical ways in which the game departs from these generic conventions as well.
At this point, it is worth being reminded of the distinction film genre theorist Rick Altman has made between the semantics and the syntax of a film genre. It is my contention that while the semantics of World War II combat films and video games remain the same, the syntax differs. For Altman, the semantics of a genre refers to what he calls its “building blocks” or “lexical elements” (219).5 By this he means the common traits shared by films of a certain genre, such as common historical or physical settings, particular character types, and parts of the film’s iconography, meaning significant props, costumes, or filmic devices like high-contrast lighting or rapid editing. The syntax, on the other hand, denotes the “constitutive relationships” among these elements, having greater implications for narrative and meaning (219). His basic example comes from the Western: the semantics include horses, six-shooters, and the setting of the Old West, while the syntax refers to the dialectic between nature and civilization, community and individual, and so forth.
In his updated theory of genre, Film/Genre, Altman includes a third term—pragmatic—to describe the way that audiences, critics, and fans use and redefine genres through discourse over time. Through this paratextual activity, a certain consensus has emerged about what constitutes the World War II combat genre—focusing on the bravado of certain actors like John Wayne, the heroics of individual characters in battle, and the typical character types and plot structures found in the films. Contemporary video games draw much more on these discursive associations of World War II film than on the films themselves. Furthermore, they draw explicitly from the contemporary World War II films that return to, but update and revise, these discursive conventions.
Call of Duty 2: Big Red One, as well as the other World War II shooter games, borrows much of the iconography of the World War II combat film. Along with the basic setting of the war, these video games also emulate with great attention to detail the authentic uniforms, weapons, vehicles, and insignia that also appear in films. Moreover, they visualize the same iconic spaces and events that appear over and over again in combat films—such as the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach, combat among the hedgerows and bombed-out villages in France, tank warfare in North Africa, winter combat at the Battle of the Bulge, and so on. As this list demonstrates, video games more than films have tended to favor the European Theater of Operations over the Pacific. Part of this is due to concern over racism—today, Nazis can be demonized as monsters, while the Japanese people cannot. (Obviously, this was not the case in the founding films of the genre from the 1940s.) But another reason is the lack of varied terrain in Pacific warfare beyond ocean, beach landings, and jungle warfare and the relative lack of iconic settings or spaces from the Pacific.
In addition to iconography, these video games also draw from the cinematic genre’s set of stock characters.
These characters include not only the mandatory presence of both enlisted men and officers, but also a group of representative types from various parts of the United States, demonstrating the “melting pot” ethos that the US government encouraged during the 1940s in order to increase unity and support for the war effort. The types found most often in World War II films include the immigrant representative, typically Polish and often from Pittsburgh; the Italian from New York, usually Brooklyn; and a Southerner, often called “Tex” whether or not he was from Texas (Basinger 51). The tendency to include a group of ethnically diverse types is somewhat less pronounced in the earlier Medal of Honor games because they are only single-player and tend to follow the war adventure tropes of an individual hero performing courageous acts, such as stowing away on a U-boat and sabotaging it (Medal of Honor: Frontline). But the Call of Duty games, which include online multiplayer options, emphasize coordinated action from the individual player and his squad (and I say “his” because the characters are always male), so these games invest in the creation of specific personalities and backgrounds for nonplayable characters as well. Call of Duty 2: Big Red One is the most overt in this, since it is the only Call of Duty game that uses a single playable character for the entire game and this character is American.
In Big Red One, one plays as Pvt. (and later Sgt.) Roland Roger. Roger is relatively indistinct as a character, in order to aid the player’s identification with him. He is, quite literally, invisible, since the user sees through his eyes. But his squad includes a modicum of ethnic and geographic diversity. The most obvious reference to the film genre is the inclusion of Pvt. Alvin Bloomfield, who is revealed through the game’s dialogue to be the son of a Jewish deli owner from the Bronx. Despite this, he is constantly called “Brooklyn,” and the other characters ignore his efforts to make a distinction. Visually, however, the squad is homogenous. Other than in cut scenes (non-interactive narrative scenes), which might include close-ups, the soldiers do not much vary in skin tone or appearance; they can only be told apart by their names, which appear on the screen every time the player aims at one of them (which helps to distinguish friendly soldiers from enemy combatants). Thus, names and voices are the only way to gauge ethnic, class, or racial identity. The accent and dialogue of one character, named Pvt. Denley, identifies him as a Texan former high school football star. Pvt. Castillo’s name and voice are vaguely Latino. The game’s overwhelmingly white cast of characters reflects the historical situation of segregation in America’s military during World War II, but not the cinematic genre, which invented situations in which it could plausibly include African-American characters or sympathetic Filipino or Chinese characters among the group.
A third semantic element that is shared between the cinematic and video game versions of World War II is the use of evidence and historical references as strategies of authentication (Kane 117). Like 1940s combat films, these video games include animated maps, epigraphs, inspirational quotations, and other markers, like date, time, and place specifications, to position the narrative in a distinct space and time and with a specific set of meanings and associations.
Moreover, like the films, almost all World War II shooter games include documentary or newsreel footage taken during the war. Unlike the films, however, which often integrate documentary footage into the fictional diegesis in order to visualize vehicles or events that would be difficult to recreate on a soundstage or studio backlot, video games isolate the documentary footage in montage sequences that occur in between levels of gameplay. In Big Red One, these montages mimic World War II-era documentaries in their use solely of black-and-white newsreel footage and the inclusion of a voice-of-God-style narrator with an old-fashioned tone to his voice. These sequences provide a minimal background to the war and its conflicts and introduce each new mission the First Division will encounter, from the Battle of the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia to the invasion of Sicily and the Normandy invasion.
Somewhat strangely, these documentary sequences are first introduced by the logo of the Military Channel, which is a present-day cable television network that airs primarily new documentaries about historical and current military topics. The logo of the Military Channel remains in the corner superimposed over the historical footage throughout the entire sequence.
In one way, this mimics the military insignia that would introduce a period documentary, and thus it serves, like the old-fashioned voiceover, to place the player into the historical period. In another way, however, this sequence places the player outside of history, as a contemporary viewer watching cable television and learning about events far in the past. The separation of these sequences from the rest of the gameplay reinforces the sense that this black-and-white footage may be authentic, but it is dated and obsolete, while the full-color, interactive combat missions of the game are immediate and viscerally engaging. The game may not be authentic in the same way this combat footage purports to be, but it does give the illusion of presence and interactivity that the older images lack.
Film and Video Game Syntax
The World War II combat game can therefore be seen as an update to the cinematic genre, but as part of it nonetheless, at least in terms of its semantic “building blocks”—the settings, characters, and stylistic elements described above. And on a broad level, the video games seem to share the same narrative syntax as well. Like combat films, these video games engage their group of soldiers in specific missions to achieve particular military objectives, and this always results in combat, the defining feature of the genre. Although there are no overt references to the 1980 Samuel Fuller film of the same title, the Big Red One video game also follows a group of soldiers from North Africa through D-Day to Germany as they mature from rookie recruits to an integrated fighting force.
But the broad narrative similarities do not account for all the integral situations and relationships of the combat film that are missing in the video games. The discourse of fans and critics—what Altman would call the “pragmatic” aspect of genre definition—has cemented certain syntactical elements as essential to the combat genre. For instance, these films revolve around an internal conflict among the soldiers, whether between rivals or between the enlisted men and the officers; they feature narratives of conversion in which selfish individualists are persuaded to sacrifice their own desires to join the group effort; much of the duration of the film is devoted to discussion of home and what they are fighting for; and the temporality of the film plays out along a dialectic between the frustrations of waiting and training and the exhilaration and terror of fighting.
All of these crucial, meaning-making structures are absent from the World War II video game. Instead, there is a compulsive focus on action and combat. Unlike a film, which might work its way up to a big combat climax, every battle in a video game is a combat climax. Every scene is a “last stand.” In Big Red One, basic contextual and character information is dispatched with quickly through the documentary montages and through brief cut scenes. The overwhelming bulk of the game is devoted to combat—combat in different situations, over different terrain, and using different weapons. This compulsive action differs from the syntax of the film genre. While meaning is arguably created in a film in the relationship between action sequences and dialogue or other scenes, the meaning in a video game is created in the action itself. To take it one step further, the meaning is the action. These games exist to create various scenarios that require a certain kind of activity from the player. Thus, the syntax of a film and a video game are necessarily different.
As should be clear by now, World War II shooting games are fundamentally about combat—with an intensity and singular focus that war films could never sustain, nor do they have any interest in doing so. Producing a sixteen-hour film of pure combat would be a piece of avant-garde cinema, not a popular narrative film, but this is exactly what a combat video game aims to do. But even more than combat per se, these video games are about shooting, as the name first-person shooter makes clear. Regardless of how they are packaged as history and as a justified fight against fascism and imperialism, these games are fundamentally about aiming weapons at digital reconstructions of people and firing until they fall down (and usually disappear). These games exist to simulate the activity of shooting weapons.
Therefore, on a base level, World War II shooters share the same fundamental syntax as every other first-person shooter. Instead of shooting monsters, the player shoots Nazis. Instead of clearing an abandoned medical facility filled with zombies (as in Resident Evil), the player clears an abandoned aircraft hangar filled with enemy soldiers. In this sense, all of the World War II iconography, settings, and characters discussed earlier are merely window dressing. The fundamental syntax of these games is not taken from the genre of the World War II combat film but is rather shared with all video game first-person shooters. This similarity among all first-person shooters is in fact inscribed within their software. Current video games tend to share the same game engines, which are software that determine the rendering of graphics, the simulation of physics, and the artificial intelligence, among other things, used to create a game. For instance, the first Call of Duty used the Quake III game engine—Quake III being a sort of sci-fi gladiatorial hybrid game. This engine was also used for a Medal of Honor game, as well as for a Star Trek and a Star Wars game. Thus, at a basic, technological level, excepting the express content of particular games, two first-person shooters can be virtually the same. And, in fact, all first-person shooters share the same basic form, meaning that World War II shooters have more in common with fantastical shooters, like Doom or Halo (2001), than they do with games of different genres that take World War II as their setting, such as a strategy game (which takes a God’s-eye-view and asks players to make broad strategic decisions).
Postmodern Histories of Warfare
Although I would maintain that these games are primarily shooters and only secondarily narratives of World War II, they are still the primary historical engagement with the war for a key demographic—namely, teenage and young adult males. Thus, I will conclude by asking, how does combining the semantics of a World War II combat film with the syntax of a first-person shooter affect the narrative and experience of twentieth-century American history for this demographic?
First of all, the focus of this history is on the enlisted man and his experience of close combat, not on the strategy or overarching view of the generals. In this, it mirrors contemporary World War II films like Flags of Our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, 2006) and Miracle at St. Anna (Spike Lee, 2008), as well as the HBO series Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010), and Ken Burns’s recent PBS documentary series The War (2007). This narrowing of scope celebrates the citizen soldier, allowing for the “apolitical” stance of honoring those in the service, while ostensibly being “antiwar.”
Second, in the case of the video game, history is made interactive. However, in just about every case, it is still already written. The success or failure of battles cannot be changed and does not hinge upon the actions of the individual player. As long as the player has the requisite skill, he or she will continue progressing through a preplanned route. And since death in a video game is never final, the player has unlimited chances at success. For this reason, true failure is never really a threat. Furthermore, World War II shooter games without exception take the point of view of the Allies. Only in a strategy game, where two players (or the player and the computer) face off in a series of simulated maneuvers, would the possibility of an Axis victory be allowed. In first-person shooters like Medal of Honor and Call of Duty, the triumph of the Allied powers is assured, over and over and over again.
Finally, the mode of warfare of these games reflects not World War II, but modern warfare (appropriately, the name of the newest Call of Duty games), which is, in many ways, merging with and emulating video games—not just in training, but in remote guidance systems, automated weapons, and digital technology being used on the battlefield. Ironically, then, these games fail at simulating the history of World War II, but succeed in reflecting contemporary combat conditions, or at least the American fantasy of what modern warfare is. The digital interface of a video game mirrors the interface on dozens of computerized instruments and weapons currently being used by the American military. In a particularly apt convergence of military and entertainment technology, Raytheon recently hired video game developers to redesign their drone aircraft guidance systems to look and respond to the user more like the video games with which military recruits are increasingly familiar (Saletan 1). If the World War II setting of games like Call of Duty 2: Big Red One is set aside as a part of the game’s visual exterior, the basic gameplay of the game—aiming and firing—is nearly identical to the digital simulations that the military uses to train soldiers, as well as the technology used in the field.
Furthermore, these games—including those produced by the armed forces, such as the free online first-person shooter America’s Army (2002)—are used to recruit real-world teenagers into the military.
Thus, even if the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan do not fit the model that is propounded by these games—a war of precision aiming and firing in which enemies are clearly located and there is no collateral damage—these games still reflect the fantasy of what modern war is: clean, precise, fast-paced, and with quantifiable success. Video games present war as something that can be controlled and mastered, without post-traumatic stress disorder or real death. World War II shooters present this scenario with the added morale booster of recalling the last great American success story, presented simply and misleadingly as winning the fight for freedom against fascism.
This reflects a contemporary celebration of victory culture and the triumph of the Allies—especially the US—in an era in which American military intervention has been viewed with skepticism. These games offer a chance to return to the “good war” and to win it all over again, this time with the input of the individual player. This version of history may follow the same basic trajectory of conventional history, but the emphasis is on action, specifically the action of the player. Rather than an act of cognitive reconstruction—imagining the world as it once was—history as told by the World War II shooter game attempts to be a visceral immersion in the activity of history. History becomes action, and action only. Broader historical connections, larger causes and consequences, considerations of strategy and supply—these are neglected in favor of the immediate gratification of activity. Cause and effect still apply but are reduced to a micro scale: the pressing of buttons as cause, the virtual destruction of a target as effect. This sequence is played over and over again, and indeed this repetition of activity, this honing of skills, is part of the pleasure of the game.
The structure of the game reduces all of World War II to a first-person shooter. Not only does the emphasis on the individual perspective reduce the massive scale of the war to that of the individual grunt (something that has long been celebrated in World War II representation, from Ernie Pyle’s dispatches to The Pacific miniseries), but the video game also reduces the war to the activity of killing. The games reflect a contemporary fantasy about what World War II was and what warfare is today. This fantasy involves the impression that combat is about precision and skill—the lining up of aim, the dexterity of trigger fingers, the clean and confirmed kills. The World War II video game may be very effective at recreating the mise-en-scene of the war, the weapons and the uniforms and the landscapes, but the gameplay is self-reflexive, reflecting back on the construction of a first-person shooter. In this way, World War II video games successfully adapt only the semantics of the World War II combat film, not its syntax, resulting in a vastly different representation of warfare.
1 Among those who study and play video games, the term “genre” denotes the mode of gameplay, rather than the explicit content or subject matter of the game. Mark J. P. Wolf, for instance, classifies video games into forty-two genres, based on their form of “interactivity.” These genres range from puzzle, racing, and sports to adventure, strategy, and shooter.
2 Playstation (as well as its more advanced versions, Playstation 2 and 3) is a home gaming console produced by Sony. Xbox (and its successor Xbox 360) is a home gaming console produced by Microsoft. The GameCube and the Wii are home gaming consoles created by Nintendo. Playstation Portable (Sony) and GameBoy Advance (Nintendo) are handheld gaming systems. These games are also created for mobile phones or for personal computers run by Windows, Linux, or Mac. Each version of the game is at least slightly different from the others, but in some cases, wholly different games are released for each platform.
3 Earlier video games experimented with first-person perspective, such as Maze War (1973), Spasim (1974), 3D Monster Maze (1981), and Hovertank 3D (1991). The success of Wolfenstein 3D led to the development of Doom (1993), an even more sophisticated and popular first-person shooter.
4 Console-only refers to games created only to be played on home consoles like the Playstation or Xbox, rather than on PCs. COD2: The Big Red One was created for Xbox, Playstation 2, and GameCube, whereas the first two games, Call of Duty and Call of Duty 2, were released for Windows and Mac PCs.
5 Altman’s essay ‘‘A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” reprinted as an appendix to Film/ Genre, was originally published in Cinema Journal 23, no. 3 (Spring 1984), 6-18.
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Kane, Kathryn. Visions of War: Hollywood Combat Films of World War II. Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1982. Print.
Pyle, Ernie. Here Is Your War: Story of G.I. Joe. New York: Holt, 1943. Print.
Saletan, William. “War Is Halo: Killing Real People Becomes a Video Game.” Slate.com 22 July 2008. Web. <http://www.slate.com/id/2195751/>. 28 Dec. 2009.
Wolf, Mark J. P. The Medium of the Video Game. Austin: U of Texas P, 2002. Print.