With their faces to the foe: the ethics of historical shooters

Every day at 8PM, a ceremony is held at the Menin Gate at Ypres in Belgium. A gathering of local residents and visitors from elsewhere wait up to an hour beforehand. Traffic is stopped. Buglers arrive – usually from the local Fire Brigade, but sometimes from the band of a Commonwealth military unit – and ready themselves. At 8 o’clock, the sound of brass fills the evening air, echoing off the gate’s vaulted stone ceiling. The Last Post is played. Silence falls. Participants gaze at the ground, into space, or at the rows and rows of names inscribed on the gate’s stonework – each one a Commonwealth soldier of the five battles of Ypres during the First World War, each one a body that has never been found or identified. There are fifty-four thousand of these names[1]. A minute passes. Then, the reveille sounds, the counterpoint to the Last Post. The sombre, almost stifling silence lifts. The ceremony ends. Sometimes, an extended ceremony takes place, with a laying of wreaths and the reading of an excerpt from Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

The Menin Gate. Inscribed on the walls are the names of soldiers whose bodies have never been found or identified.

This ceremony will be familiar to most people who grew up in the United Kingdom, and indeed many other Commonwealth nations: it’s a similar ceremony to that which is held every Remembrance Day (11th November, the date of the signing of the Armistice that ended the fighting on the Western Front – almost a century ago at the time of writing). It commemorates the many thousands of soldiers who died fighting to defend Ypres during the First World War. It is held every day without fail; the only period it was not held was when Ypres was under Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1944, and the ceremony resumed in 1944 even as fighting to liberate the town continued in other parts of Ypres.

Battlefield 1’s Apocalypse DLC allows players to refight part of the 3rd Battle of Ypres, using guns, bayonets, grenades, gas, and mortars to kill digital facsimilies of those fallen soldiers for entertainment.

The ethical implications are… unclear, at best.

Entertainment products based on conflict are a difficult and grey area of public history. On the one hand the First World War was a devastating conflict that left millions dead, millions displaced, and caused an untold amount of suffering and individual and shared trauma; representing these things as a form of entertainment, considering this context, can feel somewhat uncomfortable. On the other hand, that same shared trauma makes the experience of conflict a powerful cultural touchstone by which societies and individuals can define themselves.

This dilemma is not restricted to the First World War; Indeed, fictionalised historical depictions of the Second World War – inarguably a larger and more devastating conflict – were produced as soon as the fighting stopped (in many cases as extensions of productions that had been ongoing during the war). The film The Longest Day, for example, was a Hollywood blockbuster telling the story of the D-Day landings – landings in which many of the billed cast took part[2]. Depictions of the First World War are rarer, and tend to take a melancholy or futile tone – but they do exist. It is relatively uncontroversial to depict historical conflicts in film, television, novels or comic books for entertainment’s sake. Does the addition of the interactivity of a video game change the nature of the depiction?

Let’s unpack this question: what is it that interactivity does to a work of fiction? While works of entertainment are inevitably a process of interpretation between author and audience to a greater or lesser extent[3], most entertainment assumes a relatively passive audience. A film audience cannot change the film, and is not capable of interacting with the film on a physical level: a Casablanca viewer cannot talk to Humphrey Bogart, cannot do anything but watch what the characters on-screen do. A novel reader must play out the character’s action in their mind, but, while they can imaginatively interpret the words of the novelist, and while a film viewer can fill in the gaps beyond the edges of the screen, a gamer is, by the very nature of the medium, invited to in some way participate in the historical construct with which they are presented. They are afforded agency, and may choose how they engage with the historical simulation the game puts before them. Thus we might say that a gamer is an author of the experience of playing a game – guided by designers, artists, and other developers, but still a knowing participant.

On the other hand, the agency of a player is, in a video game, inherently constrained by the game’s design. The player can express themselves and shape their experience, but only so far as the designer has provided options for them to so do. In a shooter, for example, it is impossible for the player to engage in any way other than via combat; while many games allow players to choose their tactics, weapons, methods, and approaches, they are still not able to engage in other ways. The ways in which designers can shape the view of history a player receives from a game will be explored in a future post, but suffice it to say that designers are ultimately responsible for shaping the ways in which players can author their own experiences in games. This means they’re also responsible for the portrayal of the past that exists in a game, and the ethical implications thereof, if there are any.

Is it unethical to present the deaths of the soldiers of the First World War as part of a gameplay loop for entertainment? The question of ethics in the presentation of the historical dead generally hinges on the idea of respect – that we should treat the dead well, not only by our own standards but by theirs. This is why, for instance, the skeleton of a roman teenage girl discovered under London’s Gherkin[4] was reburied buried in a ceremony involving both Christian priesthood and Roman libations, and why the granite monument to her bears an inscription referencing the ‘spirits of the dead’ in English and Latin. Even when we put human remains on display in museums, modern practice places a host of ethical restrictions on how those remains may be treated and displayed.

The Tomb of the Unknown Roman Girl at 30 St. Mary’s Axe. Note how the tomb reflects Roman burial customs – mentioning the spirits of the dead, being a raised stone tomb rather than a burial plot, etc.

However, that’s the actual physical remains of specific individuals: is there such a responsibility in fictional depictions of the dead? If we’re talking about specific individuals, then most creators of fiction would say no; some would likely draw a distinction between the individual as a person who existed, and the character portrayed in fiction, even if that fiction is purporting to be a portrayal of the historical individual. With this being said, there is debate around the ethics of portraying specific individuals, even when those individuals are dead. Lindsay Ellis’ video on Mel Brooks and The Producers goes into the comparative ethics of portraying tyrants and genocidaires, and in the case of portraying individuals who caused great harm, there certainly is a school of thought that there is an ethical responsibility to not cause further harm by that portrayal. It also seems logical that there is a responsibility not to harm those who are still alive by fictional portrayals.

However, this question gets murkier when we step away from the portrayal of specific individuals or even fictionalised versions of specific individuals and move towards characters who are instead representative of broader historical groups. The soldiers in Battlefield 1 do not represent specific soldiers of the First World War – instead they are representative models that exist solely for the purpose of the game, evoking the armies portrayed rather than individuals. In this, the game inevitably sacrifices historical detail and context in the name of gameplay. Even so, the prospect of doing serious violence to representations of the war dead for fun is uncomfortable for many.

Is there a difference between these two portrayals? What is it?

It’s worth asking, at this point, whether this discomfort is a factor simply of being asked to do violence to a historical figure – a representation of someone who was once a living human – or whether it arises from historical proximity to the historical event being depicted. The First World War is an event which carries a great amount of historical significance in modern culture[5], and it holds a position in many countries as something of a sacred event[6]. Is it this sacredness that produces our ethical qualms, rather than an inherent respect for the dead? Is that sacredness a function of historical proximity?

I think it is, to some extent; certainly I felt far fewer qualms in, say, Assassin’s Creed: Origins than I did in Battlefield 1, despite the fact that Origins asked me to kill simulations of specific individuals. Is it ethically worse to produce a simulation where the player kills unnamed, anonymised soldiers of the First World War than it is to produce one where the player kills Julius Caesar? Are these two equivalent? Is there any moral quandary here, given that both are by definition fictional? I don’t have easy answers, but I suspect the reason we find one more difficult than the other has to do with the closeness of the one event and our cultural reactions to it.

[1] Fifty-four thousand is in fact not the full number of the dead whose bodies are missing; the names of another thirty-four thousand are inscribed at the nearby Tyne Cot cemetery.

[2] The standout example being Richard Todd, who played the part of Major John Howard, commanding officer of the British airborne operation to capture Pegasus Bridge. Todd himself fought in that operation, but declined filmmakers’ offer of playing himself.

[3] A novel may be defined, per Stephen King, as an act of telepathy where the author’s prose conjures an image in the reader’s mind, but television, theatre, and film all require some level of imaginative interpretation and contextualisation by the audience in order to make sense; it is easy for a movie to flash a “6th June, 1944” title card, but it takes an audience to assign meaning to that date and understand what the film is saying.

[4] 30 St. Mary’s Axe

[5] Indeed, the thesis of Battlefield 1, insofar as the game has a thesis, is that WWI was the point where the modern world – its conflicts, its divisions of power, its ideological struggles – came into being.

[6] The concept of ‘transfer of sacrality’ was first used by Mona Ozouf to describe the way French Revolutionary festivals sought to co-opt the institutional power and mystique of Catholic rituals in service of the new Republic, infusing secular institutions with sacred reverence. It is, I feel, highly applicable to the position remembrance services for the war dead hold in many nations – see the various Tombs of the Unknown in London, Paris, Arlington and elsewhere.

One thought on “With their faces to the foe: the ethics of historical shooters”

  1. I think, precisely because the remembrance and reverence for our war dead is concentrated on, although not limited to, the fallen of WWI, it is perhaps natural to feel uneasy about using it as a scenario for a game. Schools take students on history trips to the trenches around Ypres; attend the Last Post at the Menin Gate; go around the Gate during the day, perhaps in conjunction with having been to Tyne Cot and Langemarck Cemetery, both of which are sobering in their own right, but in combination with Sanctuary Wood, Hellfire Corner, seeing the sheer number of names on the Gate, touring the In Flanders Field Museum in the Cloth Hall, and then attending the Last Post, even the most hardened Year 11s sob their hearts out.

    We also have very little footage of WWI in comparison to the film crew embedded with WWII troops (with the US troops at Iwo Jima for example). so are more familiar with footage of the latter, and of course, the Hollywood effect (to which you refer in the blog) makes WWII seem more familiar, and we perhaps become inured to it.

    I have no problem with a first person shooter game based around Waterloo for example. One cannot ‘feel’ the battlefield at either Waterloo, Quatre Bras (the farm is now a newsagents and a car dealership) or Hougoumont (despite all the French purportedly thrown down the well); perhaps because of the time that has elapsed. One can ‘feel’ it at Tyne Cot, at Vimy Ridge, at Newfoundland Park, and for me, especially at Delville Wood, where I have never been so spooked before or since.

    It may also be, that as we approach the centenary of the end of the Great War, we are reminded again of the waste that war brings, and of the waste of a generation of young men on both sides, which makes a game set at that period distasteful.


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