World War II, as a setting, has been a staple in video games for many years now. There are over 50 first or third person shooter video games in the last twenty years. Easily over 100 titles if you count real time strategy and simulation games. From Medal of Honor in 1999, to Call of Duty: World at War in 2008, I have been taking part of digital recreations of World War II for most of my life.
The opening levels to most of these games usually take place on D day. They tend to follow the same intro scene from Saving Private Ryan. You're on a boat slowly wading towards the beach as machine guns open fire on you, killing the soldiers standing around you. You swim your way to shore and gather with a few survivors, working together to break thru Nazi defenses and take out the gun turrets to secure the beach for the remainder of the allied troops, but not before the whole place is littered with dead bodies.
I've played through this scenario numerous times across various different games, as I imagine numerous gamers have. For awhile it felt like I was storming the beaches anew every couple years on a newer console with better graphics and tighter controls. Eventually, however, the severity of what was going on seemed less like a recreation of a historical event, and more like another round of an annual paintball match. Despite the increasing graphical recreation and visual accuracy of the event, it seemed to lose some gravity with each playthrough.
I'm not saying that a game like Call of Duty World at War utterly fails to do this, because they did a decent job, but the game doesn't exactly succeed either. As a game, its great. Fun FPS gameplay, the set pieces are engaging, and most importantly the controls are tight. As a way of telling the struggles of WWII though, I didn't come away with anything. The most memorable part of the game was when you had to fend off zombies!
Often times I've racked my brain about how historical reenactments should be handled in games and its not an easy task. Perhaps including short documentary style vignettes telling about the scenario you just played through, or a biography segment about the actual person you played as, might go a long way towards making a connection between gamers and the war they are taking part in. Or including unlockable war footage and photographs, complete in their brutality and tragedy. I've often wished for a sort of epilogue after a games final level, where the player gets to walk around the National World War II Memorial or the Cemetery at Colleville. And while the credits of the game scroll on the side, they are free to inspect the names on gravestones, or of the Freedom Wall.
Most gamers don't want to be lectured or force fed pedagogically during their entertainment, and I understand that. But I wonder if they should have a choice, at least when it comes to taking part in a real war which cost real people their very real lives.