War as an aesthetic: Battlefield V and historical accuracy

Battlefield V’s debut trailer and pre-release coverage have been rather controversial. EA and DICE[1] revealed Battlefield V with a highly bombastic, action-packed trailer, following a squad of British soldiers (including a female sniper with a prosthetic arm,) through a series of action set-pieces: clearing a house of Germans, moving fast alongside a tank advance, holding off a German attack, and the impact of a V1 flying bomb.

This portrayal, EA’s marketing focus on customisation of player characters so soldiers look unique, and the reveal’s emphasis on high-octane action all contributed to accusations that the game was not hewing to the spirit of what it portrays: the Second World War.

Battlefield V’s Reveal Trailer

It is instantly obvious that this is not a depiction of a real engagement in WWII; the British Army did not deploy women in uniform in its frontline units, nor were V1s, Churchill tanks, or MG42s involved in the 1940 fighting around Escaut the trailer ostensibly depicts. A great deal of artistic licence has been used in order to produce a cinematic trailer and to highlight gameplay or customisation elements DICE wishes to emphasize. The trailer caused significant amounts of controversy within the series’ community, with much focus on the character models of the four soldiers. EA’s description of in-game customisation options has led to accusations that the game will lose its identity as a WWII game. These criticisms generally did not focus on the weaponry (with some exceptions – the cricket bat and katana melee weapons caused some comment) or the vehicles, but on the visual customisation. Why is it specifically these elements that caused controversy, when many other elements of the game are equally inaccurate?

28547200188_a580ec0d66_b
Battlefield V heavily emphasises player customisation, especially visual customisation, allowing players to create their own personalised soldiers – even when this makes them impausible in the context of WWII.

Battlefield is not an accurate depiction of historical or contemporary conflict, nor has it ever been. DICE have always been open about the fact that their aim is to create an interesting sandbox for players by drawing from their inspirations – modern war in the case of Battlefields 3 and 4, the First World War in the case of Battlefield 1, and now WWII in Battlefield V. This does not generally generate a great deal of controversy; realistic shooter games exist, but the loosened realism of the series has always let it attract gamers who are interested in fast gameplay and action rather than the slower pace of many more realistic games. When it comes to historical representation, the series has always taken inspiration from past events rather than aim for hyper-faithful depiction.

This appears to be true of Battlefield V, judging from its pre-release footage and the gameplay that was displayed in its closed Alpha[3]. DICE’s marketing line is that Battlefield V is all about World War 2 as you’ve never seen it before”, and that the game will take players to lesser-known or underexplored areas of the war. From a public history perspective, the effect appears to be two-fold: in exploring less-depicted fronts and theatres, DICE can distinguish the game from its competitors and provide fresh experiences to players, while at the same time letting players learn about a wider scope of the war, not simply highly-depicted snapshots that are frequently seen in movies, tv, and other games.

However, the gameplay itself rests upon a highly inaccurate depiction of what combat in the Second World War was like[4], with soldiers being able to take multiple bullets before being disabled, revived with a single adrenaline injection, heal and resupply themselves mid-fight, quickly repair vehicles in combat, operate machine guns single-handed, et cetera. It’s clear that DICE is prioritising fast-moving action-packed gameplay over a realistic depiction of infantry combat and tactics in the Second World War[5].

An example of Battlefield V’s gameplay

It’s in this light we must examine the inaccuracies at the heart of the controversy: female soldiers. While the British Army and Wehrmacht deploying large numbers of female combatants in uniform on the front lines is greatly implausible, it is not more implausible than those same armies deploying V1 and JB-2 flying bombs at the Battle of Narvik, as the Alpha depicts, or indeed a host of late-war weapons and equipment that postdate that engagement. As previously noted, the gameplay itself is a construct designed for fun, not one designed to reflect real historical tactics and practices. Why, then, is the presence of female soldiers at Narvik more immediately obvious as a ‘wrong element’ than the presence of a Churchill Tank (which first saw action two full years after Narvik)?

My contention is twofold: first, the precise service histories of weapons and equipment are not a subject of which most casual players or viewers have much knowledge[6], whereas the fact that most armies in the war did not deploy women to frontline combat is well-known. It’s therefore understandable that a casual viewer would understand one element as obviously wrong rather than both. However, this element also appears to have caused controversy among gamers with a passion for the Second World War, who we can presume know that the Sturmgewehr 44 entered service in 1944 and should thus not be present in 1940. It therefore seems that there is a greater reason than simple inaccuracy causing this objection[7].

The reason, I suspect, stems from the Battlefield series’ approach to depicting conflict. Earlier I said that the games do not restrict themselves to realistic depiction, but instead draw from contemporary and historical conflicts to provide a framework for gameplay. Specifically, I would argue that the Battlefield series (and many, many other shooters) draw from an aesthetic of conflict rather than necessarily the conflict itself. This is greatly obvious when one examines the previous game in the series, Battlefield 1.

Battlefield 1’s Reveal Trailer. Note the differences in style from V’s.

Like Battlefield V, Battlefield 1 is not an accurate depiction of its subject matter. Its vision of the First World War draws heavily from the period, but it favours interesting or rare weaponry or equipment in order to frame its gameplay. Rather than the mass assault principally with bolt-action rifles, combat in Battlefield 1 is very similar to the combat found in the series’ modern-day instalments, with automatic weaponry common, and most players carrying weapons that were produced in very limited numbers or in several cases only existed as prototypes. What Battlefield 1 does do, however, is reinforce a culturally-understood aesthetic of the First World War. Many maps depict the Western Front, and those that do not, import elements of it: gas is a common weapon, even in environments where it was sparsely used; Mark V Tanks battle German A7Vs on fronts neither ever saw, and early-war battles involve the use of Fokker triplanes and Gotha Bombers, despite these being late-war innovations. We must therefore view the series’ approach to history as using a historical aesthetic to frame a shooter game, rather than crafting a shooter from historical reality.

The important point here is that the ‘understood aesthetic’ of historical conflicts often only bears a passing resemblance to their reality, due to other entertainment depictions, entrenched narratives that historiography has moved past but which still are accepted by the public, and a lack of understanding of the length of periods. This is true for almost all periods of history; the image we have of the ‘Victorian era’, for instance, will inevitably sandwich together elements from the full length of the period, despite it constituting a lifetime’s length of rapid change[8].

maxresdefault[1]
The female British soldier in the reveal trailer. Note the prosthetic arm.
The Second World War has a very strongly-entrenched cultural aesthetic, especially in videogame depictions. Hundreds of games have allowed players to step into the shoes of soldiers on the front lines of the war, and many have bent history to provide players interesting weapons and equipment, and to make design simpler. It is difficult from a design perspective to restrict weapons on a given map to those which were actually used in the theatre or engagement that map depicts while maintaining the game’s balance and gameplay loops, and it is frustrating for players if their favourite weapon is taken away simply because of a map’s mise-en-scene.  Thus many games reinforce the perception that certain elements were ubiquitous when they were not, and contribute to the cultural aesthetic of WWII, despite that aesthetic not matching historical reality.

Battlefield V appears to follow the same trajectory, but it makes greater departures from that understood aesthetic than many other games in terms of player customisation. While a Sturmgewehr might be a part of the war’s cultural aesthetic, female soldiers are not, so the latter element stands out as wrong despite being no more wrong than the former. Our reactions to media depicting history is governed as much by ourselves and the preconceptions we bring to that media as by the media’s actual plausibility[9]. It is worth remembering this when we discuss the accuracy of given videogames.

9aa734f997e3a56aa4132666b3b3fdf7[1]
A WWII prosthetic arm. Sometimes real, accurate items can violate the understood aesthetic of a period. This is sometimes called the Aluminium Christmas Tree effect.
Battlefield V’s employment of this historical aesthetic, and its cheerful preference for player options and interesting gameplay over historical plausibility, however, puts it somewhat at odds with one of the game’s stated objectives: to increase awareness of lesser-known portions of the war. In positioning themselves simultaneously as some kind of historical educators and also purveyors of interesting gameplay cadging an aesthetic, DICE have set themselves a fine tightrope to walk. They must simultaneously get details right (and they do, in many cases; the sound design and visual details of most things depicted in the game are spot-on) and disregard details in the name of fun.

DICE have historically paid great attention to small details in the Battlefield series, producing games that are rich in verisimilitude but low on realism.

The backlash over the reveal can be taken as a consequence of getting this balance wrong. Battlefield V is about World War II as you’ve never seen it before, because it depicts World War II as it never existed. Whether or not this is a problem for the game depends on the individual player. Where should players and developers draw the line? How far can a game go before it ceases to be a meaningful representation of a period? Is accuracy, ultimately, a goal worth pursuing?

[1] Publisher and Developer of the Battlefield series respectively.

[3] A limited public release to allow gamers to try the game, and allow developers to tune gameplay and test servers.

[4] This is not necessarily a problem. ‘Accuracy’ as a metric for public historians is common, and pointing out things that entertainment gets ‘wrong’ is something many public historians do (indeed, it’s something many people with a knowledge of history do for fun; nit-picking can be highly enjoyable). However, I feel it is, perhaps, an unhelpful metric. For a start, it is absolute: even the most ardent postmodernist will generally agree that there was a single progression of past events that actually happened.

Therefore, historical fiction, due to its nature as fiction, is inaccurate by definition. What we are instead discussing when we talk about ‘accuracy’ is perhaps better called plausibility. We are assessing a likelihood that a given element could have existed in the past in the way in which it is depicted in a work of fiction, and that is inherently an interpretation.

[5] Indeed, the series markets itself partially on this exaggerated version of reality; ‘only-in-Battlefield’ moments of sudden, implausible chaos have been a touchstone for developers and community for years. Battlefield V‘s trailer appears to have been designed to showcase this.

[6] I, for example, had to look up the Churchill’s history for this post.

[7] It is worth questioning whether this controversy would have existed had the trailer depicted female Soviet soldiers on the eastern front.

[8] A prime example of this ‘sandwiching’ in entertainment is the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which depicts the East India Company being a global corporate superpower in the early 18th century Caribbean, while one movie’s foray to London depicts George II as an elderly king, with port Royal being the capital of Jamaica.

[9] Literary criticism calls the melange of preconceptions, cultural understandings, and personal feelings and ideas a viewer brings to a piece of media ‘paratext’.

3 thoughts on “War as an aesthetic: Battlefield V and historical accuracy”

  1. Presumably, if one doesn’t pursue some semblance of historical accuracy, then the game might as well be set in hyperspace, as the context is ignored, and the period used is merely set dressing for yet another shooter game.

    As you say inconsistency in weaponry might be acceptable as the majority will not be informed about it; but I think the inclusion of a British female sniper is stretching the envelope, as that is a glaring inaccuracy. Had the female been dressed in Russian uniform that would have been a different matter, albeit why would she be embedded with with the Brits?

    Like

    1. “Presumably, if one doesn’t pursue some semblance of historical accuracy, then the game might as well be set in hyperspace, as the context is ignored, and the period used is merely set dressing for yet another shooter game.”

      While this is to some extent true, I think it’s not necessarily a fair criticism of a piece of entertainment that is open and honest about being such; I used the example of Pirates of the Caribbean in the post, because I think it’s a useful one. PotC doesn’t claim to be accurate – indeed, it’s a screamingly anachronistic piece of film, mixing elements of the 17th, 18th, and even 19th centuries into a strange, supernatural hodgepodge to tell an interesting and dramatic story – and so to critique its accuracy is to miss the point somewhat.

      This ties in somewhat with the concept of ‘Disneyfication’ (and PotC is at its heart a very Disney product), where historical nuance is flattened in order to tell whichever story the creator wants (Lindsay Ellis’ video on Disneyland and its treatment of history is insightful, so I won’t repeat its points here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9dCWUuJZLw).

      While as a historian I think it’s a big problem, I can’t help but look at pop-cultural depictions of other times and conclude that this sort of process is inevitable, and that historical fiction is less about depicting the past as it is speaking to the present through the lens of the past. In addition, the generation that fought WWII very much engaged in similar anachronisms in their depiction of the war for political or mythmaking purposes – so I don’t think it’s fair to fault modern creators for doing the same.

      Like

  2. There are some really interesting questions here. I imagine it is very difficult for any game to be entirely historically accurate but in battlefield V we probably see the most liberties taken with historical accuracy in a game that still advertises itself as set in a historical era. On the left of this spectrum we have the sort of Divisional level wargames, which have a following and user base that just craves accuracy and no game of this genre would survive without ensuring every unit and game methodology was steeped in as much accuracy as it could define. In fact most games, purporting to represent an historical period, from the hex board wargames transferred to the computer, to the Total War series, to first person shooters have made an attempt to tie historical accuracy into the fabric of the game as much as the mechanics and the potential audience expectations would allow.

    Does a line need to be drawn somewhere before a game can call itself historically based ? Has battlefield V crossed that line ? Does depicting a King Tiger in a Tank engagement set in the latter half of 1943 in Russia breach that line, as there was only a handful of King Tigers in production and none exposed to battle in the real 1943, it might be considered to, but few would argue this alone disallowed the historical accuracy completely by itself. Especially as many of the Audience would be unaware that 1943 saw few King Tigers in battle as opposed to 1944 which saw many more. However, depicting women with prosthetic arms being employed in front line units in WW2 in combat, does seem to stretch the acceptability beyond the reasonable in a game which purports to depict WWII.

    Where is the line drawn and who draws it ?
    What are the dangers of allowing such clear breaches of historical accuracy ?
    Why has this been done ? is it to appease a section of modern society that might find bending history more acceptable than accurately depicting it ?
    Why not just abandon the historical reference and make it a fantasy ? What does the gaming company gain from the former ?
    Will the fan base rebel ? or will they have such a limited understanding of the history that they will accept the distortions without question ?

    very interesting stuff

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s