A lot of the top-selling games right now – namely the Call of Duty series – make hundreds of millions of dollars depicting real and fictional wars. Other games like Spec-Ops: The Line are praised for its different takes on war and the way it affects soldiers mentally. But, is it enough? More than that, could it be better?
The easy answer is, yes, they could be. The harder answer, one Andrew Barron director of design for Bohemia Interactive Simulations tried to answer during his GDC panel – "Depiction of War in Games: Can You Do Better?" – is how.
According to Barron, who was deployed in Afghanistan in 2010 for seven months, the general population doesn't really understand what the military does. We know they kill people, but that's far from what being deployed is actually like.
"In general, I'd say people have a deep appreciation for the military, but a very shallow understanding of what the military does and war itself," Barron said.
He likens writing a game about war, focusing solely on combat, like writing a movie about relationships solely about sex. That movie is a porno, it's pointless, he said. Games – and wider media such as movies, television shows and books have conditioned us to thinking war is doing "hero shit," as he puts it. But focusing solely on combat downplays the day to day jobs of the military, which has "hundreds of tasks – not just shooting."
To do this, games about war need, as Barron puts it, "less killing … more war."
"I think in general, video games are much, much more violent than military operations or military simulations," he said. "And I mean, orders of magnitudes more violent."
He brings up an example of real-world military tactics. If the military is going to attack a group of defenders, typically it's going to want three times more soldiers than its adversary has. So, if a group of defenders is 30-people deep, the military will want to send in 90 soldiers. In video games, a level with a similar task is often carried out by either small teams or even one person – portraying the character as a one-man killing machine.
"Essentially that level, you would be having the player doing the killing that would normally be done by 90 soldiers in real life," Barron said. "In other words, you could say that level would be 90 times more violent than a military simulation."
He references the military shooter Arma and how, as he puts it, the simple changes it makes to gameplay more closely resemble a real-world military operation. In Arma, players are quickly taken down by bullets – one shot to the head and you're dead. Additionally, players can play with a larger squad of allies, planning out their attack and progressing cautiously. It gives players something to do other than just shooting a gun, Barron said.
But it's not just combat where games are disingenuous to the realities of war. War is complex, Barron said. There's "hundreds and hundreds" of tasks soldiers must be ready for, scenarios they're ready to tackle. In simulations his team works on actually used by the military, there are "thousands" of different features necessary to prepare soldiers for deployment. A lot of them violent, sure, but just as many aren't – such as convoys using turn signals to indicate when an upcoming turn is coming to following vehicles.
"A lot of them you never really see in a first person shooter because war is so complex," Barron said.
To make games true to the experience of being at war, Barron said these hundreds of tasks should be represented; a war game shouldn't solely be about shooting the bad guys. If there is combat, it should be dangerous, "not a cartoon," he added. And lastly, the games should free up space for the other experiences of war.