A historical defense of Battlefield 1

Minutes after its announcement, controversy bubbled up around Battlefield 1. Set during World War I, the game’s trailer features brutal kills and a pumping remix of “Seven Nation Army,” promising intense action and huge battles — but it also runs against the popular memory of the war. Certain circles have even gone so far as to suggest EA DICE shouldn’t make a game about the conflict.

This reaction is understandable. Much of the world — particularly Europe and former British colonies — sees the war as a senseless tragedy and holds the memory of their war dead with a special reverence. Despite this, I believe that making a game about World War I isn’t only legitimate, but could enhance popular interest in, and ultimately expand the public’s understanding of the conflict. Strangely enough, I even think Battlefield’s game mechanics are uniquely suited to portray warfare during this period.

In Flanders Fields

Napoleon once said “history is a set of lies agreed upon.” While I differ with the emperor on this point, the quote does point out that history is not fact, but the interpretation of fact — and naturally, those interpretations change over time. This constant cycle of reevaluation is why one generation will stamp Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, while the next will applaud stripping him off. These interpretations can tell you a lot about society. Indeed, the study of historical memory — how Victorians saw the Elizabethans, for example — has become an area of study in itself.

The anger at DICE’s announcement has come largely from British, Australian, and New Zealand gamers and journalists — and that’s not surprising given how these nations collectively remember the war.

To be blunt, World War I was a heavy blow for Britain and its Empire. In fact, it’s difficult to overestimate how deeply the war hurt the British psyche. Despite their brutality, the colonial wars of the 19th century didn’t prepare the British public for industrialized warfare. A generation of young Britons left the trenches dead, mutilated or mad. Women working in shell factories contracted TNT poisoning, faces turning yellow as the chemicals killed them. Zeppelins bombed London. As casualties mounted, they psychologically, and in some cases legally, changed what it meant to be British. Colonial outposts such as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada grew apart from the homeland, feeling their sacrifices at Gallipoli and Vimy Ridge entitled them to their own government and identity. Furthermore, the war killed Victorian optimism, shattering the sense that (white, European) people were fundamentally decent, and that technology would continually improve their lives. Therefore, the historical memory of World War I — as continued with Remembrance Day ceremonies — not only came to encompass individual sacrifice, but the death of what’s seen as a more innocent and chivalric time. It’s no accident, after all, that Westminster’s Unknown Warrior was interred with a 16th century crusader’s sword.

But we also have to remember that the current feeling– that the war was a pointless loss of life– was not widely shared at the time. While we tend to remember books like All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms that emphasize the filth, death, and futility of the conflict, these didn’t become the dominant view until the 1930s, once it became apparent the Allies would again fight Germany. During the war and the decade following it, these nihilistic accounts shared the stage with other viewpoints that cast the deaths as necessary, or even leant them a religious character. Plays, films, and novels emphasized soldiers’ deaths as noble sacrifices, or mined them for action-packed accounts in pulp magazines.

So while it’s understandable to look at a WWI game as being in poor taste, it’s also clear that our feelings about it don’t necessarily line up with the people whose memory we’re guarding. After all, the WWI generation wasn’t averse to giving their children toy tanks or producing board games about the conflict.

Now, I don’t want this to come off like an endorsement, since I have concerns about the trailer myself. The rock soundtrack doesn’t inspire confidence, for example, but I’ve long ago learned that announcement trailers don’t always convey a game’s true tone. On the other hand, it excites me that the game could interest a new generation in the defining event of the 20th century.

The Most Important Period No One Cares About

World War I destroyed the 19th century world and created the modern one. The British Empire started disintegrating. Russia fell to revolution. The German, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian Empires ceased to exist. With British forces engaged in France, Irish republicans kicked off the Easter Uprisings and put their country on the way to independence. China’s entry into the war stalled Japan’s plans to invade the mainland, possibly saving their unstable government from falling. Europe’s industrial and social devastation laid the groundwork for America to evolve into an international power. And at the end of the war, the remaining nations divided up the Middle East without regard for ethnic or religious affiliations — a decision that still drives many of the conflicts we see today.

Ask anyone what World War I was about, and you’ll hear that it achieved nothing– it was an obtuse political dispute that swallowed 16 million people. It was nothing but a colossal and regrettable blunder.

While that may be true, it’s also true that this colossal, regrettable blunder defined the 20th century. And yet, no one cares.

There’s not much popular interest in World War I. People don’t watch movies or read novels about it the same way they do World War II. Spielberg’s not producing an HBO miniseries about the Somme. Even academically, teachers struggle to interest students in the war and its effects. Ask any history professor that’s tried to fill seats in a World War I class — it’s tough. Most history departments end up grafting the subject onto the end of a British Empire curriculum. This is especially true in America, where it’s become a forgotten conflict.

As a result, the popular conception of the war comes mostly from All Quiet on the Western Front, the Australian film Gallipoli, and Lawrence of Arabia. And frankly, I’m guessing that a four-hour movie released in 1962 isn’t exactly a cultural touchstone for today’s youth. The result is that World War I doesn’t inspire much excitement or passion — which is a problem, since people tend to ignore topics they don’t have an emotional connection to. In a way, the constant emphasis on World War I’s sadness and stagnation has doomed it as a field of study.

That’s where Battlefield 1 can do some good. With the game making the Great War exciting again, it could inspire a new generation to have some connection to these century-old, but vitally important, events. Consider how the musical Hamilton — by far the most successful historical fiction piece of the year — uses modern music to inspire passion for America’s neglected founding father. The gleefully out-of-period hip-hop soundtrack has made young people fall in love with America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, and connected people of color to a period in history they’re often told (implicitly, and incorrectly) that they had no part in. This surge in popularity halted Hamilton’s removal from the $10 bill, and has revitalized tourist visits to the tomb of America’s favorite immigrant-orphan-turned-founder.

Battlefield 1 has the potential to do something similar, and it already looks like it’s heading in the right direction.

Battlefield: The Perfect Game System for World War I

Far from having to shoehorn in game systems, Battlefield is already the perfect format to express World War I battle — and the launch trailer proves DICE is trying to expand our concept of the war.

One of the criticisms I’ve seen is that Battlefield isn’t the right venue to express the war’s waste in life. However, I’d argue that it’s uniquely suited to do so.

Think about your average lifespan in a Battlefield game — not long, is it? Unless you’re a particularly studied player, the Battlefield experience mostly consists of grim attrition warfare. Players overwhelm objectives in waves, often falling without knowing who shot them. Once you respawn, it’s right back into the meat grinder, doing all you can to move the line before catching a bullet. DICE’s latest game, Star Wars: Battlefront, upped this lethal cycle to the point that its tactics resemble human wave attacks.

These Battlefield-style engagements actually aren’t a great depiction of modern military tactics — they’re a little haphazard and inefficient — but they’re perfect for depicting a World War I offensive. Added to this, the trailer hints that EA DICE shortened the weapon ranges, encouraging players to fight face-to-face with spiked maces and entrenching tools. It’s as good a way as any for a shooter to represent the often brutal and personal nature of the war, where trenches were so close men could hear enemy soldiers talking at night. And the visuals we’ve seen support the idea that DICE won’t shy away from the grimy, dehumanizing conditions in the trenches.

Will this depiction be perfect? Of course not, but it’s a start. Hopefully the game’s single-player campaign will fill in the gaps, addressing the quieter themes like boredom, cynicism, and hopelessness that aren’t easy to communicate via action. That may be a longshot — Battlefield’s mechanics are much more geared toward portraying machines rather than people — but luckily for DICE, machines were at the heart of WWI.

The First World War was a machine war. Machine guns made their large-scale debut, as did aircraft, poison gas, tanks, strategic bombing, submarines, and mass artillery barrages. Infantrymen armed with bolt-action rifles could fire at the staggering rate of 15 rounds a minute. Airplanes evolved from unarmed wood-and-cloth models that barely stayed aloft to nimble, metal-framed fighters that stalked and killed aerial targets. War production moved forward by leaps and bounds. This was conflict on an industrial scale.

While I’ve previously criticized how FPS games fetishize technology, (Vietnam and Iraq showed us that better tech isn’t enough to win wars) it’s completely appropriate for a World War I game to heavily emphasize weapons and vehicles. The Battlefield 1 announcement itself hints at this, displaying airplanes, gas, flamethrowers, tanks, sniper rifles, and artillery batteries. The final shot, with an infantryman gazing in fear at an enormous zeppelin, hints at the war’s theme of technology overshadowing individual achievement.

But that technology focus is only the tip of the iceberg. The trailer, and several interviews surrounding it, reveal that Battlefield 1 will challenge common pre-conceptions about the conflict. First of all, it includes many of the lesser-known theaters like North Africa, the Italian Alps, and naval battles. That’s a good move in my book — it pushes us outside the normal, color-between-the-lines narrative we have about the conflict.

While trench warfare was one of the major themes of the war, it wasn’t the only way people experienced the conflict. This is a product of historical memory — the fact that we teach World War I through All Quiet on the Western Front and episodes of Blackadder — when in reality the conflict was global in every sense. The Japanese Navy besieged the German-held port of Tsingtao in China. South African forces invaded German Namibia. Central Europe fractured, with the Austro-Hungarians battering Serbian forces, and Greece opening a new Allied front in Macedonia. Russia battled the Ottomans in the Caucasus and Britain and Russia tried to hold the Middle East with a string of local allies. Few of these battlegrounds looked like the trenches — or soldiers — we usually associate with World War I.

And that’s another thing that gives me hope. EA DICE has stated that diversity was a priority with Battlefield 1, and from what we’ve seen they’re holding themselves to it. There are only two playable characters we know about so far. The first is a Bedouin woman we see in the trailer — the one with the tattooed face — charging on horseback with a sword drawn. The other is the man on the game box, a member of a U.S. Army African-American (and Puerto Rican) regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters. These men volunteered in hopes that honorable service would end discrimination in their homeland — instead they got six months at the front, 100 individual awards, a ticker-tape parade, and 1,500 casualties. Last year, Obama awarded one Hellfighter a posthumous Medal of Honor for fighting off a dozen enemies in hand-to-hand combat.

They Hellfighters and members of the Arab Revolt weren’t alone — colonized people and ethnic minorities all over the world saw the war as a chance to show that they deserved to govern themselves. That worked well for the ANZACs and Canadians, both others weren’t so lucky. For a time, it looked like the 1.3 million Indians who served alongside the British had gained better treatment — English authorities even built a ghat to cremate Hindu and Sikh soldiers who died while undergoing treatment in Brighton — but that didn’t translate into support for independence. Men who fought in Lawrence’s Arab Revolt quickly learned that they would have little to say in how borders would divide their ethnic and religious groups.

These stories are every bit a part of World War One as the trench narrative we all know. Indeed, Britain has increasingly tried to highlight the racial diversity among its WWI soldiers, and went so far as to release a BBC documentary on them during the centennial celebrations. It seems DICE listened.

I’m not making any sort of judgment about Battlefield 1 — not yet. But I vehemently disagree that making a game about this conflict is immoral, or at least, that it’s no more immoral than a game about World War II, Vietnam, or the many games we make about wars people are still fighting as we speak. In fact, I don’t see how DICE’s previous World War II games — where you play as a Nazi 50% of the time — are morally superior because that was a “just” war. What does Allied righteousness matter when you’re controlling the Waffen-SS?

I see nothing wrong with a World War I FPS, historically or ethically. Even if DICE gets it wrong, I’d rather we get the chance to bring the war into the public discourse and correct the game’s historical mistakes. Better that than keep the war on a high shelf where it does no one any good.

After all, we’re talking about World War I now, aren’t we? Would we be doing so if the next Battlefield game was set in space?


Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp