The Games People Play: The (Sometimes) Serious Business of War Games


As senior historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Andrew Burtch has made a habit of wandering the galleries during the day to see which exhibits pique visitors’ interest.

Amid the dimly lit nooks of exhibits on World War II and the Cold War, he noticed a strange phenomenon: groups of schoolchildren debating, in startling detail, the merits of individual weapons.

“So after seeing this habit happen a few times, I finally said, ‘Hey, yeah, do you know those guns? Why are you talking about it? ‘” Burtch said. “And they said, ‘Oh, well, we play with these guns in the games that we play, you know, first-person shooters. Call of Duty. “”

It was surprising for Burtch, a player himself.

“It made me think that people approach history in different ways,” he said.

Some engage with past wars through personal experience, he said — by meeting a veteran or talking to a family member who served.

Andrew Burtch, Senior Historian at the Canadian War Museum: “Games are ultimately entertainment. (Radio-Canada News)

“But a lot of people don’t have any of those personal relationships, and instead approach it through the media, and in particular, increasingly in ways, through games,” he added.

It’s an intriguing idea — intriguing enough to convince the Ottawa museum to embark on a major research project to put together a full exhibit for visitors next spring.

The effect of war games on society – and history – is becoming a major area of ​​study in Canada, the United States and elsewhere.

Burtch said he approaches the subject with caution and knowing full well that games, like movies, have the potential to skew or distort views of past events.

“War is not necessarily fun”

“Games are, ultimately, entertainment,” he said.

“They present a story. They present an activity that is intended to be fun, and war is not necessarily fun. It is challenging, it is difficult. It has a terrible human cost and it is not necessarily communicated effectively through these games.”

This concern may be somewhat abstract. In online and in-person discussion forums, young gamers say they understand that when they turn on the console, they’re not flipping through a history book.

Catherine Robson, 16, is an Ottawa high school student and avid gamer. She said she uses games like Call of Duty: D-Day and Call of Duty: WW2 as launching pads for his own curiosity.

Catherine Robson, 16, Ottawa high school student and avid gamer: “I research why certain things happened the way they did. » (Marc Robichaud/CBC News)

“I was like, ‘Hey, that’s really cool.’ And so I’ve always been a big fan of history,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s very interesting because I see things in there, and I look at it more. I did more research on the battles. I research why certain things happened the way they did.”

Now in 11th grade, Robson, whose family are history buffs, said the knowledge she gains from researching the game has given her an edge in her current history class, which studies 20th-century conflict. century, from the Russian Revolution to World War II. World War.

She said she and her friends recognize the difference between the real war and the digital version.

“It’s a video game. So I feel like they took a few liberties with it, but I’m sure they wrote down the main ideas,” Robson said. “I’m sure it’s not true to what it really was during the war. But you get a better idea of ​​the people fighting.”

And the immersive nature of certain scenarios and characters in the game gives young people a more intimate and personal appreciation of the loss and sacrifice at the heart of Remembrance Day.

“These are real people. These people are almost like you and me,” Robson said.

“They have lives, they have loved ones, they have families, and you have to see that it’s not just a fun shooter, you have to remember that they almost represent people who are gone and have sacrificed their lives for the world we know today.”

Matthew Caffrey, Civilian Wargaming Coordinator for the US Air Force, has studied wargaming for decades. (Radio-Canada News)

Matthew Caffrey, civilian coordinator of war games for the US Air Force, has been immersed in the study and analysis of war games for decades.

The practice of the game – both military and civilian – is now fully understood and appreciated, he said.

Wargaming, he said, is literally as old as civilization. Archaeological digs in the Middle East have unearthed the earliest games used to instruct children.

“The first toys, they were used by hunters and gatherers to teach their children to be more efficient hunter-gatherers,” Caffrey said in a recent interview with CBC News from Dayton, Ohio.

“But when cities grew, the rulers didn’t need to teach their children to hunt and gather. They needed to teach their children to surpass the son of the other king or emperor, or pharaoh. So they designed the first abstract war games.”

A mural from the 3,300-year-old tomb of Queen Nefertari shows her playing Senet against an unseen opponent. (The York Project)

For centuries, these games were the preserve of the ruling elite – until they were modified and used more widely among ordinary people in later civilizations.

“In Greek democracies, people played war games, which I think says a lot,” said Caffrey, who noted that Greeks believed games were made for better citizens.

One of the first war games was chess. It can trace its origins to 6th century India, where it was initially called Chatarung.

In rehearsal for the next great war

Prussian Baron George von Reisswitz perfected modern board games in the late 18th century to instruct European monarchs who knew nothing about wars. It was a response to the growth of warfare on the continent after the French Revolution.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Germans—prohibited from maintaining a large army after World War I—secretly turned wargaming into high art at their military college. Eventually called Kriegsakademie, it helped create a cadre of generals that nearly won World War II.

The Americans credit their pre-1941 naval war games with helping them win the Pacific War against Japan.

In the 1960s and 1970s, games became more accessible in the civilian world. The commercial industry exploded with World War II board games.

The advent of computers gave us games like Civilization, which Caffrey classifies as a war game.

“It helps with critical thinking. And it helps with anticipating, you know, that if you see problems ahead of time,” he said.

“One way that I like to sum up very quickly is that war games help to develop strategists and strategies. So war games can help an individual think more strategically and be more effective in crafting of strategies.”

However, it offers an important qualification: gambling, whether professional or personal, military or commercial, must be practiced in moderation.

“You have to exercise, you have to read books as well, you have to do a lot of other things as well,” Caffrey said.

“But if you, if they’re playing the right amount of games and the right kinds of games, I think you could really give kids a competitive edge for the rest of their lives.”


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