“Making Sense of Memory in Call of Duty: WWII,” by Will Partin

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Along with 18 million men and women, World War I also obliterated around 2,000 towns and villages across Europe. Fleury-devant-Donaumont (population: 422) was one of them, guilty of no crime other than being situated near the city of Verdun. Between 1914 and 1918, Fleury changed hands 16 times, despite having exactly zero strategic significance. Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of the German General Staff, had orchestrated the Battle of Verdun not to win land, but simply to kill more. For every German that would die, he calculated, three Frenchmen would die too. He was wrong, but that hardly matters. When the war ended, Fleury had been so thoroughly irradiated—by artillery, noxious gas, half-buried corpses, and unexploded ordnance—that the decision was made to abandon it entirely (not that anyone was left to object). Today, a small plinth, set within a ruined foundation, states the facts: “Here stood Fleury-devant-Donaumont, destroyed in 1916.”

Though it lacks the grandeur of the nearby Douaumont Ossuary, the ruins of Fleury are now among the most visited memorial sites in France. Perhaps this is because it offers one solution to a question that has haunted writers, artists, and poets (most videogame designers are, it goes without saying, incapable of being haunted) for as long as there has been writing, art, and poetry: how do you represent war without glorifying it? Is it even possible to depict a historical calamity without disrespecting the memory of those whose lives it swallowed?

Fleury-devant-Donaumont is among the few memorials that manage this difficult balancing act. Today, the ground on which the village once stood ripples unnaturally; 23,000,000 artillery rounds will do that to a landscape. The roots of what trees that have managed to grow in the last century are twisted and strange, as if confused and hurt by the wounded terrain. The site is in no way violent, but it is unmistakably the result of violence. It displays one consequence of war without ever being equivalent to it. This is representation without glorification—entirely possible, often preferable—and it invites us not only to consider the overwhelming destruction of Verdun, but to imagine that this did not have to have been. If only all war memorials carried this message, perhaps we’d soon stop making them.

What lessons might videogames learn from the ruins of Fleury-devant-Douaumont and its artful management of the relationship between media, war, and memory?

Call of Duty: WWII, the latest bit of effluvium to leak out of one of Activision’s distended gonads, Sledgehammer Games, is an object lesson in what not to do, but not, perhaps, for the reasons you might think. Historical wars are the go-to setting whenever a lagging franchise is in need of a reboot, and no war was ever more fecund for videogames than the morally unambiguous World War II. We’ve been well-conditioned to respect the sanctity of the good war, the kind we can no longer imagine fighting for ourselves. No wonder they make so much money.

Call of Duty: WWII is not, of course, a memorial in any meaningful sense of the term. But you need not be cut from stone to shape how we interface with the past today. Games like Call of Duty: WWII and Battlefield 1 contribute to our ever-evolving public memory as surely as Catch-22 or Tora! Tora! Tora! did when they were new. And what videogames may lack for in tradition, they more than make up for in ubiquity.

In the United States, memorials are almost always, as the historian Chris Hedges put it, “temples to the god of war.” Whether Fredrick St. Florian’s pompous World War II Memorial or the Air Force’s take on the triumphal arch, most of our memorials can’t help but make fading men’s habit of sending the young and the poor to die seem valorous. “War,” Hedges writes, “by the time it is collectively remembered is glorified and heavily censored.” It goes without saying that most videogames based on historical wars do the same.

But why are we so worried about glorification anyway? Surely, glorification itself isn’t an issue. Nor is the feeling that we’re being unfair to history – as if such a thing as a fair history existed in the first place. In his rebuke to the pearl-clutching that accompanied the announcement of Battlefield 1, Gareth Damian Martin argues that the game owes nothing to history: “The ideas that are making critics uncomfortable with Battlefield 1 are the same ideas that motivated its creation in the first place: the mythical status of historical wars.” I agree, and Call of Duty: WWII owes no truth to the conflict whose mythos it plunders. When lootboxes drop from the skies over Normandy, why is anyone bothering to talk about historical accuracy in the first place?

No, it’s not representation that matters, but its effects—or, more precisely, it’s representation’s effects that makes it come to matter in the first place. Instead of asking what Call of Duty: WWII owes to history, we might wonder what history may someday owe to Call of Duty.

Endless war, probably, the kind that American liberalism has buffed to a flashbang sheen. Hedges, summing up the problem with our habit of commemorating the periodic culling of young people, blames “war memorials, books, [and] films for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as much as the lies of the Bush administration.” (I’m sure he’d include games too if he had any interest in them). Media, he concludes, provides “the mental images and historical references to justify new conflicts . . . Romantic depictions of war are the social and moral props used to create the psychological conditions to wage new wars.”

Clinical research into memory backs his point up. In a recent essay for The Atlantic, Julie Beck reminds us that imagining the future is really just another form of remembering the past. “Your accumulated experiences,” she writes, “are the only building blocks you have to construct a vision of the future.” This is true at the level of societies as well. Memory matters because it shapes our world, opening certain ways of thinking and doing while foreclosing others. And memory is, by definition, mediated—by our bodies, by language, and by technology, videogames inclusive and especially. Memory does not lie in things, but the space between them. Every representation of the past, then, points in two directions: it reaches back to make a receding moment familiar, even as it sets us on a path towards particular futures that may or may not be realized.

But how exactly does this work? By what processes does media shape our futures? In arguments against media that supposedly turns war into a desirable fantasy, there is always an underlying mechanistic assumption that such depictions will necessarily make us less inclined to prevent wars in the future. Such accusations are familiar fare for all sorts of creative media, but they’re particularly acute when it comes to videogames because of—what else?—interactivity. If watching Brad Pitt roast a theater full of Germans for the 10th time will leave you begging for a war of your own, then putting 10,000 slugs between Nazi eyes in Call of Duty: WWII will do so faster and even more completely.

But I want to suggest that it’s this doing that matters least about Call of Duty: WWII and its (inarguably) vainglorious depiction of the most devastating conflict in human history. Even the game’s most sympathetic reviewers concede that Sledgehammer’s latest is another slot machine shooter, designed mostly by the excrement of big data analytics and coaxed into being at the barrel of a shareholder’s gun. It should surprise exactly no one that Call of Duty: WWII is a Call of Duty game first and foremost, and World War II is little more than a bloody patina.

Call of Duty: WWII’s multiplayer mode confronts the player with a rush of historical signifiers—Pointe du Hoc, M1 Garand, Northern Gothic architecture, P51 Mustangs, Panzerschreck, olive drabs, and period-accurate bronze stars—all modeled with exacting care, likely from surviving artifacts or other kinds of primary evidence. And why not? It’s a chance for Sledgehammer to vaunt their respect for history inside their fetishistic attention to detail. After all, it’s these very things, and not its familiar blitz of design loops, that make Call of Duty: WWII meaningfully different from its predecessors, or into a World War II game at all.

But here’s the thing (and permit me a bit of polemic): none of these things mean anything historically when you’re actually playing. The frenetic pace of modern shooters disrupts the relationship between signifier and signified. Or, more accurately, substitutes a regime of tactical signification for a historical one. If you’re going to play Call of Duty: WWII (or at least play it well), you’re never going going to see an M4 Sherman (or whatever)—you’re going to see a set of strategic possibilities. You look straight through one system of signification (history) and into another (tactics). The very act of play obliterates the historical work these objects might do, evacuating the game-as-played of any historical significance it might have had for the player.

Just because a bloodthirsty image of history is speaking, it doesn’t mean anyone is listening. In this case, they’re too busy playing. So maybe it’s inconsistent to suggest that it’s playing that should worry us most about memory, media, and war. Games are a tangle of representations, and while each form of representation (simulation, imagery, sound, etc.) work in concert, the relations between them are never fixed or final. Each should be considered on its own, in addition to together; we need to disentangle games before we can study their components’ entanglement. In contrast to the moralizing that accompanies any attempt to make war fun, the most distinctive element of the videogame—a particular simulation of a particular system in a particular way—may in fact be at least to blame for the medium’s (very real) glorification of war. Oddly enough, the danger might be watching, when the sediment of history appears not as utility but as history itself.

That’s no excuse for Sledgehammer Games, of course. World War III, if and when it comes, overdetermined, oversold, may well be the fault of Call of Duty: WWII, along with a dying narcissist’s late-night Tweets, the ecstasies of Brian Williams, the toxic ideology of American liberalism, the psychosexual joy of imagining an apocalypse, a century of blockbuster war films, a $1 trillion overhaul of the nuclear arsenal, the idiocy of our pundit class, the securitization of society, and the militarization of fucking everything. As C. Wright Mills surmised back in 1962, “the immediate cause of World War III is the preparation for it,” which is true of both people and machines: There are no civilians in the 21st century (or, as the tagline for Modern Warfare 3 put it, “there’s a soldier in all of us”). But if Call of Duty: WWII is to bear any blame for ushering in a war that did not have to have been, it won’t have anything to do with play.

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Will Partin is a two-legged featherless animal with broad nails and access to the internet. He’s on Twitter.