— Jonathan Ware (@ReassessHistory) June 14, 2017
I’m a gamer. I’ve played video games since I was in elementary school, spending my free time with titles like Medal of Honor, Battlefield 1942, and Call of Duty. Like the rest of these franchises, Call of Duty started as a first-person shooter set during the Second World War. I fondly remember running and gunning through levels as a paratrooper in the American 101st Airborne Division, a British Special Operations Executive operative, or a Russian conscript. In recent years, Call of Duty has opted to showcase modern or even futuristic warfare. However, following the recent success of Battlefield 1 set in the First World War, Call of Duty has returned to its roots with their 2017 title – Call of Duty: WWII.
The games have changed a lot since the first Call of Duty title released in 2003. Where there were once two game modes (campaign and multiplayer), there are now three with the addition of Zombies. I’ll be focusing primarily on the campaign mode for this post. Here’s a snippet from the game’s marketing:
Call of Duty®: WWII tells the story of Private Ronald “Red” Daniels, a young recruit in the U.S. First Infantry Division who experiences combat for the first time on D-Day, one of the largest amphibious assaults in history. After surviving the beaches of Normandy, Red and his squad will fight their way across Europe, engaging the enemy in iconic battle locations such as the Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge, as they make their way into Germany.
If you’re more of a visual person, check out the Official Call of Duty: WWII – Story Trailer below.
On September 18th, the game launched its marketing campaign, ‘Welcome to the Frontlines (Mission Briefing): A Week of Intel.’ I was browsing Twitter when I came across this Tweet by British military historian, Jonathan Ware:
— Jonathan Ware (@ReassessHistory) September 23, 2017
Jonathan took issue with an image that features one of the game’s characters, Major Arthur Crowley. In the image, his file states that he joined the BEF in 1938. The BEF is the British Expeditionary Force, the name for the British Army in Western Europe in 1939-1940. Arthur Crowley, therefore, could not have joined the BEF in 1938. A better background would have him joining the British Army in 1938, perhaps indicating that he served with the BEF during the Battle of France in 1940. Jonathan is right. Small details like this aren’t hard to get right. So, I asked myself. Did the developers employ an historical consultant to help them be faithful to the past?
It turns out that they did. Call of Duty: WWII employs American military historian Martin K.A. Morgan. Morgan has extensive public history experience, as a park ranger and museum professional with publishing and broadcasting credits to his name. As part of the game’s marketing campaign, they also released the short documentary, ‘Brotherhood of Heroes.’
It’s a video focused on how the game developers want to honour the past. They want the player to “have a strong understanding of what happened and what the time was like.” This begs the question. Are video games entertainment, or are they education? Perhaps they’re edutainment?
For me, the video was interesting in a few ways. First, coupled with the story trailer above, it really does illustrate how compelling video games can be. Adam Chapman, senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg and author of Digital Games as History, notes that “these games have similar potential to historical film and television, they can easily communicate a lot of visual information about historical environments and artefacts and they add life, movement and colour to history in a way that can be very engaging.”
Second, I found it interesting that while Morgan introduces the D-Day landings in Normandy as a multinational, coalition operation involving 14 different nations, the developers chose to focus on an American story: Omaha Beach. Omaha Beach is a compelling story, but it’s been done so many times. It’s featured in Saving Private Ryan (1998) and in past Call of Duty and other video games. Since the developers are mostly American and their primary market is an American audience, this makes sense, but I still feel it’s a missed opportunity to focus on parts of history the general public is less familiar with. After all, there were four other beaches in Normandy: Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword. At least the game is dealing with the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest, which often gets forgotten in the shadow of the Battle of the Bulge.
Third, I’m not comfortable with the glorifying message near the end of the doc. Freedom from oppression and the greatest generation are terms that get thrown around rather liberally. I personally do believe that those who served the Allied cause saved the world, but the cost was immense! Furthermore, as Jeff Keshen’s book Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada’s Second World War suggests, our history is much more complicated than the simplified notion of good versus evil. The same goes for the United States, where African Americans like the Tuskegee Airmen had to overcome segregation and prejudice to fight for their own country.
Lastly, Morgan and the developers entirely refrain from referring to the enemy as Germany. Instead, the enemy is Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. It’s not even Nazi Germany, my preferred expression. For me, only speaking about Hitler and the Nazis without mentioning Germany tends to sanitize the war and misses the fact that much of German society supported Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and his government’s war effort to the end.
Am I nitpicking? You tell me. I will say this: Chapman is right. Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers (2001), and Call of Duty were all experiences that helped increase my interest in the Second World War and ultimately inspired my path to becoming an historian. The ability for these visual mediums to convey personal stories can make them enthralling experiences. I, for one, am excited about Call of Duty: WWII’s November 3rd release date. In fact, I’ve already got the game pre-ordered. Maybe I’ll have more to say about the subject then.
In related, personal news, there’s an initiative that I get involved in every year that’s related to this subject. On November 4th, I’ll be playing games for 24 hours to raise funds for sick kids at my local children’s hospital! This year, I’m supporting the Children’s Health Foundation in London, Ontario. Please support me by making a donation at THIS LINK. I’ll likely be streaming my play online, and my focus will be games with historical settings such as Call of Duty: WWII or Assassin’s Creed: Origins.