Battlefield 1 and the problems of making a game out of World War I

Last week, the latest iteration in the long-running Battlefield games was announced. Called Battlefield 1, it signals a reset of sorts – a leap back from the series’ World War II origins and subsequent steps through the Cold War, contemporary conflicts, and close-future scenarios – to the beginning of the 20th century and World War I.

Battlefield 1’s launch trailer has since racked up over a million likes on YouTube, making it one of the video site’s most-liked clips. In comparison, the trailer for future-set rival shooter Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare has managed to amass 1.5 million dislikes. People, it seems, have an appetite for historical conflict.

But World War I is a problematic setting. There are, of course, issues with setting any action game during a period real-world conflict, but WWI, in particular, has deep-running social reverberations at odds with what’s been seen so far of Battlefield 1.

“The tone [in the trailer] is so different from most discourse on World War I, especially in the UK proper,” says Murphy Temple, a historian at Stanford University specialising in the World War I and memory. “In British culture, treatment of the war is so sombre and melancholy – maybe even excessively so, at a century’s remove. But everything about this trailer – the anachronistic use of an amped-up version of “Seven Nation Army,” the dramatic Michael Bay-esque angles and explosions, the gratuitously violent hand-to-hand combat – is a glorification of war.”

As Temple suggests, DICE’s handling of World War I in the Battlefield 1 reveal trailer shows a very different war to the one currently lodged in the popular imagination. There’s little in the way of protracted trench warfare, Siegfried Sassoon, Blackadder and two minutes’ silence, and more of – in EA’s words – “tight urban fights”, “frantic combats in the deserts of Arabia” and “high-octane dogfights through treacherous landscapes”.

A war of attrition is unlikely to make for a fun sandbox game, and DICE has been canny in broadening the scope of World War I beyond the western front. There is nevertheless an unshakeable sense of irony in glorifying a war that did a great deal to shatter the illusions of modern conflict as a theatre for honour and glory.


The poet Wilfred Owen’s vivid depiction of a gas attack in ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, for example, famously undermined the jingoist propaganda surrounding World War I, such as Jessie Pope’s depiction of war as a fun, jovial affair in ‘Who’s for the game.’ Those same sentiments are played up in a video game that asks you to “squad-up with your allies in epic multiplayer battles” and “experience the dawn of all-out war”.

“Life in the trenches was notoriously unpredictable and seemingly irrational.”

“Life in the trenches was notoriously unpredictable and seemingly irrational,” says Temple. “In his famous book on British literature and World War I, ‘The Great War and Modern Memory’, Paul Fussell writes of the war as ironic, a conflict in which ends and means didn’t match and the idea of cause and effect – that a particular action could have a predictable outcome – broke down.

“The video game is totally at odds with this conception of the war,” she adds. “The very premise of a video game is that a particular set of actions or decisions on the part of the player will enact a particular set of outcomes; that logic is literally programmed into the game. But trench warfare was utterly unpredictable. Shells dropped; men who were drinking coffee in the trenches one moment were cradling their intestines the next. I don’t imagine that that sort of irrationality will play a role in this game.”

Breathing space

Dr Chris Kempshall, associate tutor in History at the University of Sussex and author of “The First World War in Computer Games”, tells me that, despite the disparity between the public perception of WWI and the freeform sandbox action promised in Battlefield 1, it’s no surprise DICE and EA have decided to focus on the period. For all the cultural weight given to WWI in literature, the conflict is relatively untouched in popular culture. The period simply has more breathing space than WW2.

“World War I games can start making things up,” he says. “They’re not beholden to existing cultural imagery like storming the D-Day beaches. That’s a weakness to an extent, but it’s also a massive strength because now developers can show people a computer war they know a little of, but not a huge amount about.”


Kempshall signposts two recent games that pre-empt DICE’s direction with Battlefield 1. The first is 2015 multiplayer shooter Verdun – set on the western front between 1914 and 1918, allowing players to play as either British, French or German forces. This, he explains, is one way the game manages to avoid the grim reality of day-to-day life in the trenches.  

“No-one wants to play a game that’s basically Trench Canon-fodder Simulator 2016.”

“No-one wants to play a game that’s basically Trench Canon-fodder Simulator 2016,” he explains. “What Verdun did was take that idea and make it multiplayer. Instead of being attacked by a dead-eyed computer AI, you’re being shot at by other people – so it’s not guaranteed you’re going to die.”

The second game Kempshall mentions is 2014 puzzle-adventure game Valiant Hearts. This game places the player in the role of four different characters on the battlefield, including a young German soldier and Belgian nurse.  “What I think Valiant Hearts did was show that there’s a wealth of possible stories and settings in World War I that people didn’t necessarily know about,” Kempshall says.


(Above: Valiant Hearts)

Both Verdun and Valiant Hearts show that there is scope to make narrative and multiplayer games set during World War I, but they also highlight a problem facing the makers of Battlefield 1. “The Great War” does not have the same archetypal roles of good vs. evil that come with popular depictions of World War II.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, DICE creative director Lars Gustavsson said “We wanted to tell the story of several different people and how they react to the world changing around them. It’s about more freedom and different angles on what this war was all about.” This at least suggests the team behind the game is conscious of the multiplicity of perspectives needed to tell a story set during WWI, although it doesn’t give much away as to how Battlefield 1 will deal with such complex politics.

“I do wonder if they’re going to take a particularly light touch to the general politics of it, or if they’re going to ignore it altogether and not pass any form of overt editorial judgement,” Kempshall asks.

“You’re not killing Nazis, you’re not saving the world…What you’re doing is shooting at people who are just like you.”

“Which is interesting in its own way, because the instinct is to go, ‘It’s not World War II, so there’s not any real good guys or bad guys.’ But when you start thinking about it, what you’re actually saying is: because there’s no good or bad guys, it’s just a war populated by people. You’re not killing Nazis, you’re not saving the world, you’re not stopping genocide and facing the worst evil we have as a social touch-point. What you’re doing is shooting at people who are just like you.”battlefield_1_royal_irish_ww1

(Above: Royal Irish Rifles, 1916)

Shooting people like you is exactly what multiplayer games offer. In this sense, then, World War I may be an ideal setting for a 64 player online battle, where no nation is off limits. In another sense, however, there are clear problems to making a blockbuster shooter from a conflict marked by its lack of clear moral certainties.

It’s too soon to tell what DICE and EA’s final direction with Battlefield 1 will be. But without nuance the game runs the risk of creating a misleading portrayal of the period and – at worst – may unintentionally resuscitate a perception of global conflict that the wake of World War I very much helped to dismantle.

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