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Digital Culture

World War II: Will video games replace history books?

You can relive history as an American sniper or German bomber pilot: World War II is one of the most popular settings for computer games. But do they teach us the right things about war?

The desert landscape is bathed in cold blue. I am still lying in my hideout in the thicket. The sky is almost black. The uniformed men patrolling the camp can hardly be recognized. Slowly I crawl forward on the dusty ground. A generator hums, rattling for a while, before becoming quiet again. I look out for the soldiers. There are not many, but they seem to be alert. I must avoid attracting their attention. Quietly, I take my sniper rifle and aim at my target. More rattling noises are heard, followed by a shot. The German officer tumbles into the desert dust just in front of me.

World War II relived through games

In the role of Karl Fairburne, a muscular, intrepid man of the US intelligence service OSS, I am fighting in Libya, North Africa, against the Axis powers in 1942. "Sniper Elite 3" is just one video game among over 500 others which are set in World War II.

Junkers Ju 87, German bomber aircraft used in World War II Copyright: Opitz Institution

German dive bombers during World War II

There are several reasons which can explain why most computer games with historical content pick World War II as a backdrop.

The historian Angela Schwarz of the University of Siegen focuses her research on historical depictions in computer games. Game developers who use historical topics have the advantage of not needing to invent a background for their story. The Second World War, particularly well known by the public, was a mobile war with important territorial gains and losses, making it "a more interesting platform for games than any other war," Schwarz says. In addition, the military technology - powerful tanks, cannons, missiles and bombers - is very attractive for many players.

Youtuber Mootality loves to play "War Thunder" on his computer. The 30-year-old is a few years younger than the average player and is one of the 29 million Germans who play digital games several times a month. He likes historical subjects. Apart from games, "vehicles of the Second World War can only be seen in a museum," he says. "It's interesting to see them in motion." But above all, he likes playing games in teams.

Games instead of history classes?

Most games do not downplay the brutality of the war - even though some just ignore war crimes. Both developers and players attach a lot of importance to details because they create the illusion of immersing into history. Weapons, vehicles and war locations are therefore often replicated in detail.

According to the historian, games do not usually aim to teach history. The past is merely seen as a framework for the game, determining the storyline or the player's possible actions in the game.

And yet games produce perceptions of history. They can only expose certain aspects of history at once, but that's no different in history books. Unfortunately, some narrative shortcuts are so exaggerated that they distort the actual historical events, explains Angela Schwarz. Most players are presumably well aware of this fact, although there are no actual studies to prove this yet.

Igniting interest for the past

A screen shot from War Thunder Copyright: Gaijin Entertainment

A screen shot from "War Thunder"

In first-person shooter games, the Germans tend to be the bad guys, whereas this might not be the case in strategy games and simulations. In "War Thunder," the player is free to choose his side. He can be a German, Russian, American, British or Japanese soldier fighting in a tank or as a pilot in this virtual World War re-enacting numerous battles from the early 1930s to the 1950s.

The goal of the game is to give players the opportunity to test their skills on realistic aircraft and land vehicles of the mid-20th century, says Michael Praschak, online marketing manager at Gaijin Entertainment.

"War Thunder" is not about violence - it rather offers a realistic portrayal of the technological developments of the period. The simulation does not tell a story and does not want to teach history. It is nevertheless a way to put the players in touch with this historical period, says Michael Praschak. "The game includes articles describing vehicles and their use in the game, while providing background knowledge on technological developments and their historic use."

British soldiers in the battle of El Alamein in 1942. Copyright: picture alliance/Heritage Images

British soldiers in the battle of El Alamein in 1942

Back in the desert

Will games beat history books in the near future? No. But games can make people curious to find out more about history, said Angela Schwarz.

As a matter of fact, I end up reading about this particular part of history: In 1942, the German Africa Corps under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel fought together with Italian troops in Libya against the Allied Forces.

Mussolini was worried he would lose his colony in North Africa and asked Hitler to help him. Hitler wanted to prevent Italy from weakening at all costs and possibly hoped to weaken the British enemy by blocking their access to Libyan oil. That summer, Rommel conquered the Lybian city of Tobruk and advanced toward the Egyptian city of El Alamein. Following these quick successes the Germans were forced to capitulate in Tunis in May 1943.

Back to the virtual year 1942: I am crawling through the sand of the oasis of Gaberoun in western Libya, trying to sneak through enemy positions. But someone must have detected me: The screen turns red - I am dead.

After a short interval to restart the game, I am back lying next to a generator, looking through binoculars and mark my enemies, German soldiers, by simply pressing a key. It gives me a strange impression: My own grandfather was also drawn into the army. The brothers of my grandmother never returned from the war. All of a sudden, it's hard to avoid the facts.

Should war games allowed to be fun? I have had enough of it - and put the controller away.

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