Historical accuracy in video games

The first trailer for Battlefield 5 (or V) released yesterday. In case you're not familiar with the series, it's considered to be the somewhat more complex, "realistic" counterpart to the Call of Duty games, emphasizing team and squad-based tactics over personal glory. The last installment in the series, Battlefield 1, went back to WWI. The sequel (Battlefield 5, are you confused yet?) is set in WWII, that conflict which is famously under-represented in video-game shooters.

Cue the trailer, which features four outlandishly-dressed super-soldiers leaping through windows, getting shot multiple times without apparent injury, blowing up a plane with an enemy grenade, and other ludicrous acts of cartoon violence. At the end, a British women with a Furiosa-style prosthetic arm clubs a Nazi to death with a cricket bat wrapped in barbed wire.

Can you guess which part of that has The Gamers all riled up?

Admittedly, not all the vitriol is due to the presence of a woman in the frontline (or a black soldier fighting in an un-segregated unit, which is also popping up as a complaint among the people who apparently play videogames instead of joining a historical re-enactment society). Battlefield die-hards seem to be put off by the bombastic tone of the video and the character customization, which can evidently result in soldiers who look distinctly un-soldierish. Both are in contrast to Battlefield 1, which leaned a bit more towards a somber, quasi-realistic tone.

These complaints will surely fizzle out for the most part as more footage of the game rolls out and we see that the entire thing isn't wall-to-wall explosions and over the top heroics (actual Battlefield gameplay tends to involve a lot more slowly crawling through undergrowth before getting shot by a sniper halfway across the map). The reactions I really want to focus on are coming from the misogynists and racists, since they're the ones who'll likely still be grumbling three years from now, especially since developer DICE had the unmitigated gall to put a woman on the cover of the game's box.

Inevitably, these people cloak their whining in complaints about "historical accuracy" and--for the truly ambitious--respect for the fallen soldiers of WWII. This is a pattern that's played out over and over in the videogame world, even when discussing fantasy games that are only loosely inspired by real-life historical periods and locations. But once you start pulling on that particular thread, the games in question unravel entirely.

Battlefield 1, now being propped up by the realism crowd as a shining example of how to make a historical shooter, took experimental WWI era weapons that never saw combat or were only deployed in limited quantities and made them mainstays of the player's arsenal. Multiplayer matches as well as the story campaign heavily involve soldiers fighting in close quarters with automatic weapons, even though the vast majority of infantry in WWI used cumbersome manual rifles (semi-automatic rifles only saw widespread use in the last year of the war). DICE discarded historical realism because fighting with period-realistic weapons and tactics simply wouldn't be very enjoyable.

I've failed to get a compelling reason why taking the tiny number of portable automatic weapons used during that war and making them ubiquitous is acceptable, but taking the relatively small number of women who saw frontline combat in WWII and making them ubiquitous is not.

I mean, I know what the actual reason is. We all do. 

As has often been stated in these situations, a truly realistic war game would have the player slog through mud and rubble for hours, then get shot in the head from afar or incapacitated by an explosion. You would probably never kill a single enemy soldier (a huge number of soldiers in WWII, on all sides, deliberately avoided hitting enemy combatants with direct fire; modern military indoctrination and conditioning has largely eliminated this surprisingly human side to warfare). So developers fudge the details. They let you effortlessly mow down hundreds of enemy soldiers. You can get shot in the chest five times and keep fighting. First aid kits immediately bring a soldier from the brink of death to full fighting capability.

Ah, but the Realists might say, those things affect the gameplay. They directly contribute to the player's enjoyment. Gender and race are just unimportant cosmetic trappings, and thus should be sacrificed on the altar of historical realism.

Firstly, gender and race apparently aren't unimportant, or gamers wouldn't keep going into conniptions every time a developer strays outside the white dude paradigm. But more importantly, this speaks to simple ignorance. Most of the people making these complaints don't consider representation important because they've never been without it; deriding it as irrelevant when you've spent your whole life being treated as the norm is like saying oxygen isn't important because you've never been unable to breath. 

Many people are responding to these complaints by pointing out the absurd bullshit present in the supposedly realistic Battlefield 1 (my favourite being this triple-soldier flamethrower horse) or arguing (correctly, in my opinion) that turning real-life wars into fun multiplayer shooters is inherently disrespectful, regardless of how realistic they are. But I prefer not to engage with such arguments to begin with, because that's accepting that the issue here really is realism, when it's patently not.

The truth is, what constitutes an acceptable break from realism always ends at minority representation, without fail. Gamers will put up with anything in their historical fiction, up to and including actual supernatural elements, but give them an out of place woman or person of colour (or the presence of a gay or trans person at all) and they cry foul. The problem isn't historical accuracy, it's a segment of the population used to seeing themselves as the only normal laying claim to history as their exclusive domain.

The only way out of this circular argument is to simply smash through it, and I'm glad to see DICE doing that. Western culture is already drowning in historically-accurate depictions of WWII. We don't need yet another one.