This was a 2500 word essay I wrote at University. We were tasked with writing an essay on a video game theme, and I decided that looking at how war is portrayed in games could lead to an interesting essay.

The Portrayal of War in Videogames

| Abstract

War is the physical culmination of human conflict, and has been a popular thematic depiction in media for decades. In this report I will be investigating the portrayal of realistic warfare in videogames, a medium which has been growing substantially through the years; I will be doing this by researching and discussing common thematic principles and the reasoning for their inclusion, as well as the different forms which the videogames can take and the reasons and experience-related differences which can occur from them. The players who play them and the effect these games can potentially have of them will also be discussed. Sources and references are taken from a variety of publications and backgrounds to ensure reliable results and discussion points are brought up.


The setting of War has been a common theme portrayed in media through-out the ages, in books, movies, and television series. In modern times it has been used as a form of propaganda to support wars (Paris, 1987) and are considered a highly influential theme on public opinion of current warfare (Griffin, 2010); it has also been used for educational purposes in documentaries or dramatized fictions of real-life actions performed by soldiers in warfare, as well as purely for entertainment purposes.

Not only has it been common in movies and television, but it has become an increasingly common thematic scenario in video-games (Cowlishaw, 2005). Both war and military have become elements found in a variety of modern games, but the portrayal of the same theme can vary across different products to a high degree.

Thematic Elements

Despite the very different portrayal of War between video-games of different genres and even cultures, with militaristic videogames developed in the now growing Eastern European videogame industry (Crawley, 2014) despite initially worrying conditions (Mezihorak, 2004) having a stark difference in nature to Western counterparts, videogames based around War do tend to share some elements to their narrative and experience.

| Realism

Most videogames based upon war are realistic in their aesthetics and events portrayed, though with exaggerations to what an individual can do and liberties taken in order to ensure a fun experience is not corrupted by an overly-realistic simulation of warfare. Authenticity is an important part of these types of games however, and strides will be taken to ensure the realism of what is depicted heightens such a point. (Constantine, 2004)

Photo-realism is often a graphic level aimed for, a term coined in the 80s and one which describes graphics that strive to look as close to real-life as is possible. Though discussion often happens over the importance of graphics in videogames, with some condemning studios for putting graphics above gameplay (Beaudette, 2014), realistic visual styles are thought to increase immersion and impact of real events. A Market Research Group’s study revealed, of their cross-section, 75% of players said a game’s visuals did impact their potential purchase of it, however. (Usher, 2014)

| Violence

Violence is an unavoidable trait of War, and as such is also a common theme with videogames, with many of the most popular games based upon this theme featuring varying, but always consistent in initial appearance, levels of brutality and violence. An employee at a Digital Marketing Agency discussing Call of Duty’s worldwide success (Skipper, 2016) commented that,

“If you want to create a good narrative, you need to create conflict, and violence is a really easy way to create conflict.”

(Yenigun, 2013)

Arguably one of the most potent instances of human conflict would be War itself, and it is commonly used as an easy way to portray realistic conflict to drive narratives, with videogames often depicting fictional wars either in modern times or another time period and not always using conflicts based upon real-life events. (Archer, 2013)

Violence in videogames has been a hot topic for many years, with the discussion of its influence on those who play them being something a large amount of people have dedicated their time to try and either prove or disprove. Studies into if it can cause them to be more violent have returned inconclusive, with no evidence for or against if this is true. (Makuch, 2014), (Dotinga, 2015)

Andy McNab, a Veteran of the British SAS Special Forces, believes that the violence in videogames inherently teaches children morality, in contrast to what many others sometimes believe.

“The characters in games are now as culturally iconic as the likes of David Beckham. And they’re probably better role models than most in normal life. Because, ultimately, the heroes in these games do the right thing. These games are teaching lessons of morality through a well-known medium — violence.”

(Hargreaves, 2012)

| Death

As with violence, death is an unavoidable part of warfare and as such is also an unavoidable part of videogames depicting War. People around the main playable character will often die, whether you learned of their names or not, and their deaths can come in a variety of ways, and are not solely kept to happening only to other soldiers.

Death, however, is not always just happening around the player. In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, there is an emotional scene of the main character, Pvt. Jackson, and his team being in the radius of a nuclear warhead being detonated, and the frightening scenes of him crawling through the wreckage and slaughter of his team before finally succumbing to his wounds and you slowly lose control of him (Workman, 2014), (Holleman, 2012). Though death is expected, it is still a powerful and emotional story-telling technique and War videogames arguably utilize it more than any other genre.

Betrayal & Sacrifice

A common element which occurs during videogames based on War is that of sacrifice or betrayal; it is often used as a narrative option to add some form of meaning and reasoning behind a death of a character that is known to the player, unlike the many deaths which are often witnessed. Examples of this are Mordin Solus in the videogame Mass Effect 3, who sacrifices himself to bring about an end to a conflict which has occurred over centuries, and the character Ghost in Modern Warfare 2 who is shot before being able to react to a betrayal as the player character themselves lays there dying.

“No Russian”

An extremely controversial scene in the videogame Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Revoir, 2009) was an optional mission (making it optional being retroactively added in due to the potentially distressing nature of the actions depicted) that had the player control a soldier whom had infiltrated a terrorist organisation amidst a heightening tension and War. This group of enemies you are with enter an airport with firearms drawn and proceed to kill every civilian they see, making their way through the airport leaving none alive.

One of the designers had this to say about what they were attempting to accomplish with the mission No Russian.

“We were trying to do three things; sell why Russia would attack the US, make the player have an emotional connection to the bad guy Makarov, and do that in a memorable and engaging way.”

(Senior, 2012)

Death here was used as a tool to heighten the player’s negative emotions in regards to the main villain of the videogame, Makarov, with the controversy mainly being around the use of innocent civilians as the victims rather than soldiers, with the former not being expected to be killed mercilessly during conflict.

War as a Game

| First Person Shooter

One of the most common types of videogames based on War are first-person shooters and includes franchises such as Call of Duty and Battlefield. They are played through the eyes of a soldier, sometimes switching to different soldiers in differing positions of the war, with a few elements often being shared across iterations of this genre.

Lower Ranked

One shared element often seen in first-person shooter videogames is playing as a lower ranked soldier, often being a Private or Corporeal rather than anyone of a higher rank. This is usually used as a tool for easier progression in a videogame, where following orders and being moved through a linear and cinematic path being easier on level and game designers than otherwise. (Dyer, 2012)

| Strategy 

Another common videogame format which is utilized for war-based thematic videogames is that of the real-time strategy game, which would include Company of Heroes and Age of Empires, a modern and medieval take on the concept, respectively. Some strategy games are played in real-time and others are turn-based, allowing different sides or teams a dedicated ‘turn’ each to decide what to do. The latter is considered much more approachable, whereas real-time feels more real. (Shafer, 2013)

Higher Ranked

An RTS is the opposite of the FPS, in that you do not play as a single soldier, but instead command what is often an entire army or squadron of soldiers and a variety of other available units, such as vehicles. This is a stark comparison to the common FPS where you are not being told what needs to be done, but instead ordering units to do things at your whim.


| Appeal

The two very different, main forms of War-based videogame product may depict similar events, with Call of Duty 4 and Company of Heroes sharing missions where you control the SAS, a Special Operations division of the British Army, they do so in very differing ways and the appeal of each shifts wildly to suit different players.

Pacing in either types of videogames vary wildly, with the density of narrative content of the FPS, being much faster in nature, being higher than that of a strategy game which tackles larger scale warfare over a longer period of time. (Shafer, 2013) This can appeal to different audiences; not every player likes fast-paced titles, and so may be swayed more towards the tactical mind required in a strategy game rather than the fast reaction times needed in a first-person war shooter.

Player Types

There are a variety of player-types that have been researched and discovered, with Bartle having produced the most unified example of them which is used by many as a basis for discussion even today. (Stewart, 2005). Those who play videogames based on War often fall into either the Killers or Achievers category; the former being relatively self-explanatory, those who decide to kill others and tend to be emotionally detached somewhat, and the latter referring to players who long for a sense of achievement. Something military videogames offer.

As well as Bartle, there is an additional temperament table used to judge players, Kerisey, with most fans of videogames depicting War likely falling into the Artisan category; words associated to players of this category are “realistic, tactical, manipulative, pragmatic, action-focused, sensation-seeking.”

In the article sourced above written by Bart Stewart for Gamasutra, he cross-referenced the two player-type tests above, as well as some additional ones, in order to create a more in-depth and unified table for judging players. This is below,


Unified Player-Type Table (Stewart, 2005)

The two I listed both fall together; players will favour Power, with solve problems found within videogames by their performance most of all, and their overall goal when playing the videogame title is to ‘Do’ things, rather than Have, Know, or Become something else. I believe this to be an apt description of general players who enjoy titles such as Call of Duty, and the style of player those types of games often cater for.


War-like videogames, with you playing sometimes as the one soldier who accomplishes monumental feats and saves the lives of many others, can be considered very empowering to the player, featuring just enough challenge to not be impossible, but to also have accomplishment upon completion of events. (Avard, 2014). As Alex Avard phrased it,

It’s a form of empowerment that can’t be effectively described by mere words but perhaps instead by an analogy to watching a Michael Bay film; you know that it’s far from the best or most satisfying experience out there, but that child-like nature in all of us can’t help but indulge in the chaos and destruction on display.

(Avard, 2014)

However, not all empowerment can be considered a good thing. Anders Behring Breivik, the perpetrator of the 2011 Norwegian Attacks, commented during his testiomony that he had used the videogame Call of Duty in order to train for the shootings which occurred, which caused the death of 69 people. (Narcisse, 2012). The use of weapons and becoming a soldier can have a powerful effect on people, though Breivik was declared clinically insane prior to explaining this. (BBC, 2011)

Comparison with other Entertainment Mediums

Videogames have joined other entertainment mediums like Television and Movies in the portrayal of warfare, and share a variety of similarities with them.

Historical Accuracy is one element shared between all entertainment mediums, and is the case in videogames as well; the second Call of Duty videogame was “focused more on historical accuracy than its predecessor” (Bacchus, 2011), and features battles in the American and Pacific episodes of World War 2. It features the same campaign as Easy Company took during the European Liberation, featured in the military series Band of Brothers, both featuring Bastogne as a location. Though both were naturally dramatized for playing and viewing entertainment, respectively, they do remain accurate to the events which happened. (Smith, 2001)

Despite violence being shown in all mediums, videogames tend to not show-case the extreme violence that movies have done. Saving Private Ryan is one of the most critically acclaimed movies depicting the D-Day landings at Omaha beach, with a variety of perfect reviews (Ebert, 1998) and praise given to the realistic and brutal depiction of war and even being overwhelming for Veterans (The Times-Union, 1998).

Videogames depicting similar events, however, do not go in so much depth. Reasoning for this is not often explored, but the graphical processing required for it would be large and is likely the main reason limbs remain attached to bodies despite explosions, and similar things, and only blood is seen.


War in videogames has been a growing concept and, though considerably younger as an entertainment media than both movies and television, arguably it seems to have caught them up in regards to the maturity and realism as to what a videogame will portray. Though the actual depiction of war can vary wildly, with videogames as a medium having a more vast array of ways in which they can be produced unlike other entertainment forms, the various games still show war in similar ways; they show-case the realism and violence of it, they don’t shy away from that, and it is often used as a narrative tool in order to install high levels of emotion on the player. The lack of that could be de-sensitized when War is not like that, and the bonds of soldiers are a powerful thing. (Puiu, 2014)

Arguably what can be depicted by videogames in regards to warfare can only improve as technology and hardware does as such; with sales of militaristic videogames continuing to be high, this medium will likely have many more years to grow.


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