Why the U.K.’s Imperial War Museum curated an exhibit on video games

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The United Kingdom’s Imperial War Museum in London recently launched an exhibit that explores what video games can tell us about war.

War Games: Real Conflicts | Virtual Worlds | Extreme Entertainment delves into the medium of games, challenging perceptions of how video games interpret stories about war and conflict through a series of titles which, over the last 40 years, have reflected events from the First World War to the present.

It’s not about how patriotic games have been used as propaganda. One of the titles featured is the distinctly anti-war This War of Mine, which depicts war from the point of view of civilians trying to find food and survive in a war-torn city. It was published by Polish game studio 11bit studios in 2014.

It also included Victura‘s documentary related to its upcoming Six Days in Fallujah video game. Victura has been making one of the most controversial projects in the works in gaming with Six Days in Fallujah, which is a first-person shooter game that captures the Second Battle of Fallujah during the Iraq War in 2004. The game was canceled once, then it was revived by Victura. It still faced criticism as war propaganda, while the studio says it is making a historically accurate depiction of one of the harshest battles in modern warfare.

Other titles on display include Sniper Elite 5, recently released by lead exhibition sponsor Rebellion, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The exhibit will present 12 unique titles including video games and a military training simulator alongside new acquisitions and objects from the war museum’s collection. In one area, people can also play classic military video games.

War Games: Real Conflicts / Virtiual Worlds / Extreme Entertainment exhibition at IWM London. Photographed 26th September 2022

While some view the museum as a tribute to Britain’s military colonialism, I’ve been to the place and it has moving stories about war and the sacrifices made by soldiers over the centuries. I also wrote an honors these on the subject of anti-war literature in the 20th century.

The exhibit raises questions about how different developers have portrayed conflict and highlighting real-life stories which many have drawn similar inspiration from. From first-person shooters to real-time strategy campaigns, modern games often depict thoroughly researched historical events. Others use distinctive graphic styles and techniques which reveal contemporary societal attitudes.

Chris Cooper (head of Second World War and Mid-20th Century Conflict) and Ian Kikuchi (senior curator historian, Second World War and Mid-20th Century), curated war games. It was developed in close collaboration with an advisory panel of gaming experts, enthusiasts and historians whose voices feature throughout the exhibition to give a variety of unique perspectives. I talked with Cooper about it.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Chris Cooper
Chris Cooper is co-curator of the video game exhibit at the Imperial War Museum.

GamesBeat: How did the video game exhibit come to life? How did you start this?

Chris Cooper: The War Games exhibition has sort of been in development for a number of years now. I think the first concepts came about back in 2016. It’s obviously been interrupted in development because of world events since. It’s been an interesting development process. A few years back before that we did an exhibition that looked at movies, films, and their relationship to conflict, the sorts of stories and how that might influence people’s perception of war, what reality is reflected in movies. The consideration was that video games were the next big interpretive medium, the next big storytelling medium, the biggest entertainment medium I suppose. That seemed like the next logical step.

We were interested to explore what it was that video games in general were saying about war and conflict, how they approach the topic across a range of different genres in the video games world, and what sorts of stories they were telling. Whether there was any disparity in how they approached different conflicts, whether the First World War was regarded or reflected in a different manner compared to the Second World War, or even the contemporary conflicts you see in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Six Days in Fallujah for example. That was really where it came about.

The point of the exhibition is to explore video games as an interpretive medium, as a storytelling medium, and then maybe to raise awareness or ask questions of our audiences about the influence that medium maybe has on our perception and our understanding of conflict, be that positive or negative. We want to start asking that question.

GamesBeat: What the selections get across, I think, is that not all of this is about a memorial for veterans or a nationalistic view of war–that there’s a fairly antiwar point of view in this selection, or this collection?

Cooper: There’s a whole range of experiences represented. The IWM’s mission–it was established in the midst of the First World War as a national war museum. Its intention was to record the stories, even then, of everyone affected by conflict, be that civilians or frontline servicepeople. Not just from Britain but across the world, the empire as it was then, and civilians affected by war then too. Our aim and our mission is always to do that. We’re not here to necessarily reflect just one point of view or one person’s perspective. We tried to reflect that in the games we’ve chosen as case studies as well. We have a broad range to tell all of those different stories, or try to look at conflict from all these different points of view.

We have Bury Me, My Love, which reflects the experience of what it’s like to be a Syrian refugee fleeing from conflict in Syria. We have various others that show different points of view, including Six Days in Fallujah, which is based on interviews with servicepeople. We have a broad range in the exhibition.

Kicking down doors and discerning what lies beyond them is a big par t of Six Days in Fallujah.
Kicking down doors and discerning what lies beyond them is a big part of Six Days in Fallujah.

GamesBeat: How did you apply that thinking to choosing which games to highlight, given that there are so many?

Cooper: When we were putting together the exhibition, we developed–it’s a long sort of thematic narrative. We started thinking about what sort of questions we wanted answers to. How might video games, or any other medium, attempt to reflect conflict? What sort of stories might they reflect?

The exhibition is built on three main strands, main lines. First, whether these mediums can reflect any sort of truthful reality, some sort of historical fact, hard facts. We looked at examples that might reflect those and the ways in which we might do it. Six Days in Fallujah seemed like it might be a particularly apt one, because they were so heavily advertising it along the lines of all the research that they’d done specifically with U.S. Marines and Iraqi civilians that had been involved directly in the second battle of Fallujah. They seemed to be pushing that aspect, the research aspect, quite hard. It seemed like quite an obvious choice. In the same area we’re looking at Through the Darkest of Times, which again, the developers put in a lot of research into archives and newspapers from 1930s Germany leading up to the Second World War, to ground the game and the experience in a strong historical narrative, which you ultimately can’t change. We found those case studies quite interesting. They were done from different perspectives, which obviously helped, because as I said we were looking for a broad range of perspectives and a broad range of genres.

Other themes we looked at were how games can create empathy or connection to a human experience or human story. That seemed to be one of the things that our advisors–we worked with quite a strong advisory panel of psychologists, gamers, and academics who helped us develop the narrative lines. They were telling us that games as a medium, unlike any other medium, allow you to engage with the subject by participating in the story in ways that other mediums can’t. Therefore they maybe were more successful in allowing you to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes in that regard. How could they impart that experience narratively to you in a way that’s strong? We looked at Bury Me, My Love in that respect, which was a text-based narrative game that takes you through the journey of a Syrian refugee, and This War of Mine, which again, is done from a different perspective, putting you in the shoes of someone trying to survive a city under siege, how they convey that experience.

Finally, as these are art forms, whether we as creators or players of these games–whether our anxieties or attitudes as makers or consumers are inherently part of the making of these products. We looked at 11-11 Memories Retold and explored how the First World War is treated with far more reverence compared to other conflicts. And also Worms, which we were excited to include in the exhibition. We thought it might be a slightly more surprising one. We looked at how protagonists–how artists and storytellers maybe dehumanize the horrors of war.

GamesBeat: That was one question I had, about how media is quite often collectively accused of glorifying war. Video games are often at the heart of that. When you were studying the whole collection, what did you find about how games lean in that way?

Cooper: The thing that you have to bear in mind, and that we’ve had to bear in mind too, is that–I mean, this is an entertainment business, ultimately. Video games companies, video games producers, traditionally have to go where the money is to some extent, where the entertainment is, and what’s consumable.

What we found in particular is that for the Second World War, adventure and heroism were the most popular themes for games, the ones you see the most. We found that the industry, as video games mature, as we become more accustomed to them, as development becomes easier and more democratic, you do see more of an interesting spread, more interesting takes. Developers become more conscientious about the power of their medium, and their understanding of how that imparts knowledge, how they can shape perceptions, and how they can use video games as a tool to raise awareness around some of these issues. The developer we spoke to who did Bury Me, My Love was very conscious of that fact. He started as a journalist and collected a catalog of stories talking to refugees.

Bury Me, My Love
Bury Me, My Love is a game about war refugees.

GamesBeat: Maybe it’s not surprising to see the civilian point of view among the independent games.

Cooper: I think that’s right, yes. Amongst the indie games in particular you do see a broader range of perspectives compared to the triple-A franchises, which are bigger money and focused on entertainment and sales in the main. They’re all action packed and fast paced. They aren’t necessarily reflecting the whole of a real conflict experience. But the effort and the time and the dedication they put toward making a lot of the graphics–we looked at Modern Warfare’s attention to detail when it comes to trying to re-create night vision in some of their levels. And the sound as well, the work they put into immersing you in that environment is really interesting. While it might not be teaching you what it’s like to be in a firefight in reality, it does give you an idea of what some of the sights and sounds might be.

GamesBeat: You brought up Worms and that style of dehumanization. I recall Black Mirror building one of its episodes around the idea of soldiers wearing AR glasses that turned enemy combatants into big rats. It was an interesting point about how you dehumanize the enemy and it becomes easier to do what you want to them.

Cooper: I didn’t catch that episode, but you can see that in the propaganda we have throughout our collection, from all across history. We have propaganda posters from the First World War, the Second World War, and they do that. They dehumanize the enemy. They reduce them to a bestial form. One of the other objects I was keen to include next to Worms, although we didn’t have space unfortunately, was a watercolor produced by John Nash, which showed Hitler depicted as a shark, flying through the clouds with the Luftwaffe on his way to blitz Britain. You can see similar tropes in Wolfenstein, where Hitler appears at the end as a robot. Again, not necessarily saying that Worms processes the anxieties of conflict in those games in exactly that way, but it’s interesting that the dehumanization of your target or your enemy makes it easier to excuse what you do, because they can’t be human, or it makes it easier for you to oppose them in one way or another.

GamesBeat: The Fallujah game, I take it you’re using the documentary, because the game isn’t done yet?

Cooper: When we picked up Fallujah I think it was due to be released by now. We were hoping to play it. But we’ve used quite a lot of game clips that Peter and Steve have provided to us. We’ve had a good look at some of the interviews that they’ve done with the U.S. Marines and Iraqi journalists, and we’ve included those clips. We interviewed the team about some of their motivations and what they were hoping to achieve with the game.

GamesBeat: What do you feel that game represents as far as you’re concerned?

Cooper: We were interested in all of the work they’d done, specifically with the U.S. Marines and the Iraqi civilians, in the distance of the battle. That was what piqued our interest to begin with. We were interested to see what they expected to re-create in that regard in a video game environment. It’s hard to say exactly because the game’s not out yet. From what I’ve seen, from the clips and everything, it does look like they’ve paid an awful lot of attention to the photographs and the film and all the other bits that were collected by the U.S. Marine field historians while they were out there in Fallujah. It looks like Fallujah in that sense.

That said, from the sound of things their intention wasn’t to re-create faithfully a map of Fallujah to let you run around the city. What they wanted to do, from talking to them, was to create the fear of the unknown that U.S. Marines talked about when they were faced with urban warfare. That’s something that we at the museum hear when speaking to veterans themselves, the fears that soldiers, and also civilians, face in urban fighting. What the Fallujah team are trying to do, by using a procedurally generated level every time you plug in, is to put you in that situation where you don’t know what’s behind every door or what’s around every corner, to get across that sense of not knowing what might happen.

Hostage rescue is part of Modern Warfare II multiplayer.
Hostage rescue is part of Modern Warfare II multiplayer.

GamesBeat: Sniper Elite 5 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare are part of the exhibition too. What did you want to do by showing those games?

Cooper: Call of Duty, we’re using it alongside Arma 3 to explore exactly what it is we think–one of our advisors suggested this to us. What is it that video games, apart from any other media–with Call of Duty we’re looking specifically at graphics, visual design, all the attention that they put into looking at vehicles and equipment and weapons. Reproducing this hyper-realistic environment, both artistically and through their sound. Bullets whizzing past your ears, sound reflecting off different in-game environments, we found that very interesting.

Then Arma 3 looks at the idea of video games giving you agency, giving you control. This sandbox experience that you can make your own and engage with in the way you want. And also how it connects you with other people, how you engage with other people socially when you play video games, and what that means in terms of your learning experience, how that teaches you about conflict and teamwork.

With Sniper Elite 5 we worked quite closely with the team at Rebellion. They were the main sponsors of the exhibition. We’re looking at how they’re taking objects from our collection and using photogrammetry to capture those objects and reproduce them within Sniper Elite 5. We talked to a lot of their designers and narrative guys along those lines.

GamesBeat: As a sponsor, did Rebellion have a particular mission or point of view?

Cooper: Not really at all, actually, no. They’ve been very generous in terms of giving us whatever content we’ve needed. They’ve answered all of our questions, but beyond that, they haven’t had any expectations. They haven’t placed any boundaries on us whatsoever.

sniper elite 5
Sniper Elite 5 scene.

GamesBeat: Battlefield, I didn’t notice if that was mentioned, but that is in the camp of these ultra-realistic experiences. Did you look at them?

Cooper: We looked at Battlefield–I think it was Battlefield 4? Or maybe it was Battlefield 5. We did reach out to EA, but we didn’t hear anything back from them. But we were looking at different perspectives on World War II. One of their games had a Norwegian woman as a player character, a resistance fighter. We were interested in how that, while it might not necessarily have been historically accurate in terms of women being on the front lines–we were interested in how that reflected some academic trends in terms of the areas of the conflict that academics were looking at.

Some of the academics we’ve spoken to on our advisory panel suggested that students coming through university were more aware of certain areas of interest, different perspectives on the Second World War, because of stories and experiences they’d encountered in Battlefield. It raised awareness of other theaters of operation where they might not necessarily have been aware of those previously. In those ways it’s interesting to think about how video games influence perception or direct attention. They might not give you a historically accurate portrayal of those things, and obviously that’s not necessarily their role, but they can raise awareness of those different perspectives and start asking those questions.

GamesBeat: I did think it was interesting that for both the World War I and World War II Battlefield games, they drew attention to stories that you normally didn’t hear about in those wars, with that blend of research and storytelling.

Cooper: It’s interesting to consider the impact of that. That’s what we wanted to do with the exhibition, to ask our audiences to maybe reconsider the influence video games might have in that regard. Not necessarily in a positive or a negative way. We wanted to open a debate up to our audiences. All through our exhibition we’re asking these questions, people giving their opinions on how they react.

GamesBeat: Was there anything left on the cutting room floor for you? Or did you manage to represent everything you wanted to in the exhibit?

Cooper: A lot of it’s left on the cutting room floor. I don’t think there’s necessarily a right or wrong answer. It depends on the case study you’re looking at. Some games do a great job in terms of representing certain perspectives of conflict. No representation, no art form is going to be wholly true to life representation of an event as it happened. There’s only different perspectives and angles to consider. But obviously some do a better job than others. Some clearly aren’t too worried about it. Others are very conscientious about it. It depends on what you want to engage with, I suppose.

This War of Mine screenshot
Your character can scavenge or fight. Hand icons show where there might be items to salvage; other icons indicate doors or debris that must be moved in This War of Mine.

GamesBeat: I thought it was interesting that you had the phrase “extreme entertainment” on it. One interesting thing over time is that graphics have gotten better. We started out in this eight-bit world where there wasn’t a lot to get concerned about. But as you get to these hyper-realistic graphics, it becomes more worrisome, sometimes more the subject of moral panic. How did you look at some of that transition in graphics and what that means?

Cooper: We haven’t necessarily explored the impact of hyper-realistic violence or that graphic representation within the exhibition itself. But our advisors were keen to point out that the links between video game violence and real-life violence are pretty baseless. They’re nonexistent. The research shows that when a new video game comes out, general violence and crime actually goes down, perhaps because people are off playing the new game. The general questions around the hyper-realistic graphics and what that might mean in terms of future gaming or VR and how that translates into training soldiers, for example–again, it’s a sort of TBD, a next chapter that we left at the end of the exhibition. We hint that that’s the next step, the next question that we might want to consider.

In the exhibition for Sniper Elite 5, for example, we did focus very specifically on their x-ray kill cam. We wanted to draw out the real-life impact of that violence in particular, and how it’s gamified through something like Sniper Elite 5. We’ve matched that, in considering the historical objects from our collection that are on display, with some facial prosthetics from the First World War, to draw out that story about what the actual impact – psychologically, physically – on victims of that hyper-realistic violence. So throughout the exhibition we’ve hinted at that, the tension that exists between reality, the real-world impacts of that sort of violence, and the entertainment that you get through a video game. There is that tension. These are games, and they are commercial products at the end of the day. I guess our job is to also remind people of the real-life consequences that these stories and experiences have on people. We’re a conflict museum. We explore stories about the real-life impact on people that these events have. We’re very conscious of that.

GamesBeat: I’ve been to the museum before, and I thought it was very well-done. There’s always a humanitarian point of view in what’s displayed, and that seems to carry on here.

Cooper: As I say, we’ve tried to draw out those stories, the real-life impacts, through objects from our collection, and to act as counterpoints as well, whether to the games’ narratives, or to elaborate on themes that you might find some games are exploring. Next to Bury Me, My Love you’ll find archives, letters written by evacuees from the Second World War who were on their way to Canada and didn’t make it. Some very tragic stories, real stories from our archives. Objects that remind us of the real-life impact of what games depict.

GamesBeat: And you have a selection of games that are playable as well?

Cooper: Yes, we have the retro games exhibit just across the corridor from the main exhibition site. We have about 10 games in there, dating from the ‘80s up to the early ‘00s. All conflict themed, with some short insights into what those games might say. They range from Top Gun to Desert Strike. Tetris is in there as a classic Cold War game. GoldenEye as well, and Cannon Fodder, which we considered as a case study for the main exhibition space. We thought that had an interesting antiwar comment at its heart.

GamesBeat: Is there any plan for this in some permanent way beyond May, or is it a temporary exhibit?

Cooper: It’s considered a temporary exhibit for now. There are no plans to make it permanent, unfortunately, unless I can make my arguments.

GamesBeat: Who else was part of the curation?

Cooper: Ian Kikuchi was the co-curator on the exhibition. He’s also a curator at the Second World War museum. And Jack Gelsthorpe was our exhibition manager. He did most of the corralling and organizing, keeping us all on track. We’re the three main staff.

Originally appeared on: TheSpuzz