In in the past seven years, the video gaming market has more than doubled its annual revenue, increasing its worth to over 150 billion U.S. dollars annually. This dramatic up rise in video gaming has come as a result of a number of factors including the widened availability of games, the increasing number of gaming platforms, and the new audiences that games are being targeted at. With designers constantly trying to create stimulating ideas for their games, new avenues have begun to be explored. History is one such avenue that has become increasingly popular within the gaming community; this may be as a result of history’s ‘boom’ in the early 2000s. Unlike the early arcade games of the 1980s, producers have now instead tried to touch on subjects that are non-fiction. It is hence for this reason that some games are now being considered as works of public history.
Public history as defined by Ludmilla Jordanova is ‘all the means, deliberate and otherwise, through which those who are not professional historians acquire their senses of the past’. With the massive audience that video games can attract, it is understandable that a video game based on the past can be a means from which the public obtain their view of a certain part of history. Adam Chapman, a senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg has himself stated that gaming, ‘is now a way that millions of people engage with the past’.
Currently, the most common type of history being covered in gaming is military history. The ‘first person shooter’ genre has become extremely popular, and so it makes sense that developers have chosen an aspect of history that includes the weaponry and violence that their audience seek. Of the games that follow this route, no other has been as well received as that of the Call of Duty series. Released in 2003, the series originally focused on the Second World War however, this was only continued until 2008 when the company decided to produce gaming with a genre of modern warfare. It wasn’t until 2017 that publishers, Activision, decided to look once again at the conflict. Their answer was Call of Duty: WW2.
Released on November 3rd 2017, CoD: WW2, as it is commonly abbreviated, sold a whopping 20.7 million copies within two months, making it one of the best-selling CoD games in the series’ history. Despite these sales, the game received mixed reviews, and to the surprise of many, some of the main criticism was not aimed towards gameplay. CoD: WW2 received a backlash of complaints surrounding its historical interpretation. It is for this reason that I have chosen to use this essay to review this piece of public history. This essay intends to discuss the game’s effectiveness as a piece of public history by looking at its accessibility to the public, how effective it conveys its intended message, its balance between education and entertainment, and whether or not academics were consulted in its development. It will also address any historical discourses that the game possesses in order to come to a comprehensive conclusion.
As a piece of public history, the accessibility of CoD: WW2 has a number of strengths and weaknesses. The main strength of the game is that it has been able to reach tens of millions of people worldwide, with its only legal restraint being that it may only be purchased by someone over the age of eighteen. When you consider that the British Museum, one of the UK’s most visited public historical attractions, only attracted 6.8 million visitors in 2015, Activision should be given credit for their achievements. To the public’s misfortune, what the game gives in geographical freedom, it fails in a number of other aspects. The recommended retail price of the game is £59.99, a price that in the world of public history is quite expensive, especially when you consider a large number of museums and exhibitions are free. In addition to the price of the game, if one is to play the game, a gaming console must first be owned. In the current market, a console will typically cost anywhere between £100 and £300. While this may be an investment for an avid gamer, it is unlikely going to entice an average member of the public who is only looking to increase their own knowledge of the past. If we assume however, that this person is willing to fork out their money in order to experience all the history the game has to offer, they would require some previous gaming experience. It would unlikely be possible to progress through the whole game without such, meaning that they would miss out on a significant part of the game’s historical interpretation. This is likely a problem for older generations who may have not been introduced to gaming before.
Balancing entertainment with education is something that Sledgehammer Games, the producers of CoD: WW2, has strongly claimed to do. Co-founder of the company Michael Condrey has stated, ‘In no way do you want to glorify violence, but at the same time you can’t ignore it’. He adds further, ‘how do you respect the loss of life that happened?’. Sledgehammer’s answer is what they believe to be detailed research, and to not shy away from what was happening. In an attempt to do this, they decided to employ historian Marty Morgan, who had previously worked on Band of Brothers, in order to get some extra historical insight on the period. As the main academic influence to CoD: WW2, he will be discussed further later on in this essay. Morgan explains that ‘it would be insincere not to touch on what was really happening… From the politics at the time, segregation among the allies, to the Holocaust… By turning away from them we would not have brought the right level of awareness or be able to honour what was really happening’. From what the producers have stated, and the fact that they employed a historian to aid in creating both a historically accurate interpretation of the Second World War, as well as an inclusive one, this would suggest that CoD: WW2 has tried its utmost to create the right balance between entertainment and education.
Unfortunately, while Sledgehammer have stated everything that historians wish to hear, the effort they put in to achieve their goals has been somewhat underwhelming. Of the issues that Morgan raises in his statement, two of them are poorly underrepresented within the game. The first is the issue of segregation. The game attempts to address this issue by having one African American character in its main campaign. Corporal Howard is an engineer within an all-black division, and only appears on screen twice and only for a few minutes throughout the campaign. When first introduced, Howard is subject to a racist comment from the player’s virtual teammate Private Aiello who states, “I can’t believe they let them fight”, to which Howard replies, “yeah, they even let us die too”. While this small conversation serves purpose to show the racial tensions that occurred throughout the Second World War, it gives the player hardly any insight into what was really going on at the time. In fact, the only time Howard reappears on screen is in the final parts of the campaign, where Aiello provides an expected unoriginal apology after the Allies achieve victory in their final battle. ‘I believe I owe you an apology’ were Aiello’s exact words, and the simplicity of this apology sums up the lack of effort Sledgehammer put into covering segregation within their game. If the producers really wished to be effective in covering segregation they should have put more effort into telling Howard’s story. They could have covered the more substantial issues of segregation, explaining that the black soldiers who died on the battlefield were flown home in segregated planes is just one of many ways that the producers could have helped make the game a more fulfilling piece of public history.
The Holocaust is another area that is underrepresented within the game. The epilogue of the campaign is where the player first learns of the holocaust. The platoon visits a burning concentration camp, and Private Daniels orders his comrade Private Stiles to ‘take out your camera, the world has got to know’. No horrors of Holocaust however, are actually shown. Although there are a few unidentifiable bodies poking out of bunk beds and some others hanging from firing posts, the true cruelty of the Nazis to the millions of Jews, Slavs homosexuals and others, are hidden from view. The story does not even identify which camp the division is within. Considering that 1st division actually liberated two sub-camps in Flossenbürg in 1945, it is confusing as to why the game didn’t focus on this. This could have shown what a liberated camp looked like. Jessica Wells states in her review that, ‘the game refuses to cross the threshold of a taboo subject and show the player the inner workings of these camps and the toll this had not only on the prisoners – but on the soldiers, too’. Wells has a good point, CoD: WW2 gave themselves a golden opportunity to making gaming history; an accurate, shocking portrayal of the holocaust that would stimulate the player to really think about the history behind the game. Instead they toned it down to a dull experience with no context to which the player is unlikely to either remember or learn anything of the real horrors that occurred.
CoD: WW2 must however, be given credit for some of the education it brings to the viewers’ attention. Its portrayal of the 1st division’s journey through western Europe should be given particular credit. Its recreation of battles such of that at the Battle of the Bulge is excellent. The ‘brothers in arms’ feel is certainly something that the producers wished to create and they successfully did so throughout the campaign. Overall though, CoD: WW2 fails to strike the correct balance between education and entertainment. Its lack of attention to expand on ideas in the previously mentioned topics is one of its most blatant pitfalls.
As already stated, Marty K. A. Morgan was only academic influence employed by Sledgehammer to provide the historical insight for the game. Graduating from the University of Alabama in 1991, Morgan then went on to work as a research historian at the National WWII Museum. Whilst working there, he was consulted to work on a number of public history pieces including the renowned Band of Brothers as well as The Pacific. As well as being a regular contributor to the History Channel, Morgan has also worked as a tour guide for Stephen Ambrose.
Whilst Morgan has an impressive résumé in the world of the dramatised, American history of World War Two, his academic career doesn’t extend anywhere as far. Apart from his undergraduate degree at Alabama, Morgan seems to have no experience in practising history. There is no mention of him doing a master’s degree or a further PhD in his chosen field. It can therefore be assumed that he is not a professional historian but a public historian. Whether Sledgehammer was right to employ Morgan as their lead adviser for their historical is a difficult question, but with the budget the producers had that they could have, if they really wanted to, put more effort into bringing in more professionally acclaimed historians to help create a more expansive and accurate depiction of the conflict.
In the game’s ‘Brotherhood of Heroes’ documentary, Morgan states that, ‘final victory wasn’t something delivered by one nation. Call of Duty WW2 tells us of the story of our brothers and sisters who experienced combat in the Second World War, and contributed together to deliver a final victory’. This statement is one of the biggest false promises provided by Sledgehammer. The game does not tell the story of the Second World War; it instead tells the outdated, overcooked story of the ‘greatest generation’ incorporating only the American side of the story. There is one mission that involves one French resistance fighter and one British secret serviceman included however, these genuinely feel like they have been thrown in simply to make the game appear more inclusive. The game has let its community down as more could have been down with these characters as well as with the impact their respective nations had. Even by including these two extra nations the game only shows the war for four of the fifty-eight countries involved in the conflict. While it would be unreasonable to expect any campaign to include all of those who participated, a meagre four is not suffice if Sledgehammer really wished to tell a story of ‘our brothers and sisters’.
While there are many negatives surrounding the game, there are only a few historical inaccuracies that can be picked up on. The first regards the weaponry used in both the campaign and the multiplayer. The large number of Russian submachine guns within the campaign is not appropriate as they would not have been deployed on the western front. The same can be said in the multiplayer, where both Russian and Japanese weaponry are being included even though neither country’s armies are represented in the game. Another is that in the campaign, during the Battle of the Bulge, the German soldiers the player’s platoon is fighting against are dressed in inappropriate camouflage. The Platenenmuster camo was discontinued in 1942, while the battle took place in 1944.
The relevance of CoD: WW2 today as a piece of public history seems to be relatively unsubstantial. As a brief look into the American 1st Infantry Division’s impact in western Europe during their campaign in the Second World War, you could do worse. As a piece of public history to gain an insight into any other aspect of the war, you could do a lot better. I would have to agree, in the case of this game, with Jamie Taylor who writes, ‘history is designed with the goal of knowledge, understanding and enlightenment in mind; video games are designed to be played… playability can be seen to overpower historicity’. It is true that Sledgehammer put a certain amount of effort into creating a fairly historically accurate campaign for their video game. What makes the game somewhat irrelevant as a piece of public history however, is its lack of diversity in its narrative. CoD: WW2 brings nothing new to the public’s eye. While it brings attention to the 1st division’s impact, the narrative of the American infantry in western Europe is simply over told in public history. Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, have been seen and enjoyed by millions, and it just seems that Sledgehammer have tried to play off of their successes. The piece would have been more relevant if it had worked harder to bring something original to the histories of World War Two.
In conclusion, there is certainly a lot that can be said about CoD: WW2 in terms of its effectiveness as a piece of public history. It is accessible worldwide, but this comes at a price. It covers the disturbing issues within the conflict, but only to insignificant extents. It made the effort to employ an expert on the topic they built their game around, but his reputation as an academic professional is questionable. What can be said about the game is that for all it promised in its build up surrounding its intent to be an accurate and credible piece of public history, it has underwhelmed in almost every aspect. I believe that Sledgehammer have tried to play it safe, that they simply wished to state that they had ticked all the boxes that their audiences wished to hear rather than to actually produce them. After seeing what had previously worked before, Sledgehammer seemed to have got lazy and decided to produce an unoriginal video game with their largest worry being the commercial benefits they could reap. The effort they put in to CoD: WW2 in order to create a game that would respect those who contributed ‘to deliver a final victory’, was nowhere near as substantial as the effort they put into pleasing their publisher, Activision.
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