A few months ago, many Ukrainians were peacefully living their lives–suddenly found themselves running for their lives, leaving everything behind. Tank convoys passed through civilian neighbourhoods, and left them to ruin; residential buildings, schools and hospitals were completely destroyed, in many cases, with civilians still inside; families were torn apart, as parents were called to arms, sent to the battlefield without knowing if and when they'll even return. These events are still taking place. The war in Ukraine brings horrific images back to the surface– images we all wanted to believe were long gone.
In fact, up until very recently, it seemed that gaming was the only place where war is still a legitimate thing: from colorful, humour-packed battles in Fortnite to realistic warfare gameplay in Call of Duty. It’s even safe to assume that the unbearable ease of killing and destruction in war games has somewhat numbed our sense of empathy. But by taking a closer look at certain war games, we can already see a change. The paradigm is shifting.
An escapist playground, where players can carry out the darkest deeds without facing any consequences or even slightly troubling their conscience. That’s what many games have to offer. But if we look carefully, we can see more and more games offering something else, an entirely different angle altogether.
Themes and topics that used to be considered taboo, too harsh, or too realistic for games, are gradually becoming more popular in gaming. Things like mental illness, loss, grief, cancer, and rape continue to slowly make their way to the center stage and transform games from pure entertainment into a new type of coping mechanism. In some cases, having fun isn’t the purpose at all - but coping, sensemaking and sometimes even criticizing.
Anybody who’s unexpectedly lost their main character in a game (no spoilers) knows how real the pain is. The opportunity to actually live that character’s life for several dozens of hours, and not just observe it from a distance, creates a deep connection, a unique sense of involvement and empathy that’s not possible with any other type of medium. It gives us the ability to understand, contain, and safely face situations that would otherwise be extremely hard to bear and cope with.
When we were young, games taught us how to get back up on our feet and try over and over again, until we succeed - without us having to actually die. Similarly - when we grow older, and when the right time comes - the right game can teach us a new type of lesson: how to deal with tragedy and ordeal without us having to experience it ourselves.
From a meta point of view, war is particularly interesting - as the industry that once glorified it and turned it into both a goldmine and a legitimate form of entertainment - is now re-examining it with a critical eye, sometimes even adding a therapeutic perspective.
Five video games from the past decade have managed to offer a fresh take on war, portraying it from a different angle. They are highly recommended not only to those of us who have a hard time coping with what’s happening right now in Ukraine but to anyone who wants to look at war from a different perspective.
Spec Ops: The Line
This game’s genius lies in its surprising twist - what begins as another army-themed shooter game, unravels as a tragic, hurtful story about PTSD and the terrible price of war, one that all sides must pay–yes, even the winners, if you believe such a thing even exists in war. Specs Ops: The Line uses the war game genre to deconstruct the heroic narrative on which we all grew up and criticize the gaming industry’s exaggerated and not-necessarily-moral glorification of war.
In the game, you assume the role of Martin Walker - a Delta Force Captain sent to Dubai. His mission: locating and rescuing the survivors of the 33rd Brigade sent there on a secret mission 6 months earlier. Obviously, things go sour, and the team gets dragged into a blood-drenched sequence of extremely unsettling decisions and events. Ironically, as the game progresses and you successfully complete more military objectives - your character gradually loses his mind. He begins to question the morality of his deeds, experiences flashbacks and distressing hallucinations and keeps spiralling down into madness - until the inevitable tragic ending. Well, there are actually 4 endings, to be precise - and none of them are even remotely happy. In a certain way, Spec Ops: The Line is the most realistic war game out there, as it gives us a good taste of the destructive effects that killing has on one’s soul. And playing it isn’t really fun either.
Arma 3: Laws of War
Back in 2006, gamer and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) member Christian Rouffaer, took upon himself an interesting task: investigating war crimes in video games. Following his research, the ICRC issued a statement that made waves and received quite a bit of criticism:
“There is [a worldwide] audience of approximately 600 million gamers who may be virtually violating International Humanitarian Law”. On the verge of a PR crisis with the gaming industry, the ICRC decided to leverage the buzz and create a war game of a different type - one that will teach young gamers about human rights during wartime, and how important they are.
Moving forward, Bohemia Interactive Studio decided to pick up the camo gauntlet and create the game. The result? Arma 3: Laws of War - an official DLC for the popular Arma 3 game from 2017. The main emphasis of the game was to offer a fully enhanced battlefield, where rules of the International Humanitarian Law apply. Unlike other war games, Laws of War punishes gamers for violating human rights (i.e., firing at civilians or parachuters, destroying hospitals or schools, looting civilian property) - and rewards them for deeds that are relatively favourable, such as clearing minefields. Since war is inevitable, says the ICRC, we can at least try to make the future generations acknowledge that rules also apply to war. Anything to add, Mr. Putin?
Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Ubisoft’s 2D animated adventure game from 2014 lets you travel back in time to the horrors of World War 1. However, you won’t be revisiting it as brave soldiers. Instead, you’ll be assuming the role of Walt, a loyal dog sent to the French front lines along with his favourite humans: Emile (a middle-aged man who joins the army to protect his daughter and baby grandson), Freddie (an American who volunteers in the French army), Anna (a Belgian nurse who tends to the wounded soldiers on the battlefield, while searching for her father who was captured by the Germans), and Karl (Emile’s German cousin, who is deported from France and conscripted into the German army, forced to fight on their side).
Through Walt’s eyes, you become acquainted with each of the four characters and experience firsthand their heartbreaking stories (and of the other millions of people, whose lives were instantly smashed into pieces, or worse). To ensure the historical accuracy of the game, the team behind it read real letters from the era, listened to firsthand accounts of the war, and even travelled to the locations depicted in the game. It is all real, and you can expect to find yourself weeping just by watching the trailer.
This War of Mine
From all the games on the list, TWOM is probably the only one that will really give you some kind of idea of what the Ukrainians must be feeling nowadays. In this beautiful, harsh, and gruelling game you won’t be playing as some heroic elite soldier, but rather as a group of civilians that, up until recently, had enjoyed a relatively normal and peaceful life, until war erupted. From people who were dealing with questions like what dish to order off the menu - they turned into survivors who don’t even know if they’ll live to see another day. The goal of the game is to survive until the war ends, and just like in reality - there’s no way of knowing how long it will be and what horrors it has in store. The group of survivors is randomly generated from game to game, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. As a group, they need to gather food and medical supplies, all the while avoiding enemy patrols, snipers, and in many cases - other survivors who will do everything to lay their hands on your supplies and save themselves.
The real challenge here comes from the impossible dilemmas the game makes you face: Will you hurt other survivors to save your loved ones from starvation? Will you rat out a friend to get medicine for a young girl? How far are you willing to go to survive? And the decisions you make can be the very thing that leads to your demise? Moral dilemmas in games have always been a fascinating thing, and they’re becoming popular in more and more games. Developers have become well aware of this and use them to enrich their games and create interesting Reddit discussions around the choices players make.
However, in the specific case of TWOM, these choices are extra important and play a powerful role on their own. One after another, these dilemmas essentially strip players of any judgemental thoughts and any beliefs in moral absolutism they may have had. Terms like “good” and “bad”, and the concepts they represent become extremely vague when your own life and the life of your loved ones are on the line. And it gets even more blurry when these dilemmas turn into a reality that’s closer to us than ever.
This award-winning empathy game from 2013 was created by the independent developer Lucas Pope. It is considered one of the best-known examples of a Video Game as an Art Form, and it was even adapted into an award-winning short film.
In 1982, the fictional communist country Arstotzka and its neighbouring country Kolechia had just come out of a Six-Year War. You play as an immigration inspector at a border checkpoint, with a seemingly easy job: controlling the stream of people trying to cross the border, and simply deciding who is allowed to enter Arstokza. Based on the documents that people present to you at the border, you must determine whether they are legitimate law-abiding citizens or whether they are spies, terrorists, or smugglers.
At first, it is a fairly simple task. But as the game progresses, more rules come into play, as well as more factors and dilemmas that make it difficult to reach the right decision. Will you let a woman with faulty documents enter the country, only because her husband has entered one second before? Will you believe stories about a dying child waiting on the other side? Will you turn in people just to earn some money, or cooperate with a mysterious underground organization? Or how about breaking the rules and betraying big brother - who is always watching - by risking yourself for a bunch of strangers?
The darkness of the game is where it shines the most. It slowly creeps up and shows you, ever so cunningly, that under the right circumstances - anyone can become a racist bigot, and even violating human rights. Yes, even you.
Written by Sahar Lewenstein, Creative Marketing Director at Overwolf