22 min read

Depiction of War in Games: Can You Do Better?

War is frequently portrayed in games, but are we treating this subject responsibly? Andrew Barron (Design Director - Bohemia Interactive Simulations) discusses differences between war in games vs war in real life and in training simulations.

This blog was originally published on my websiteIt is the essay version of a talk I gave at the GDC 2018 Narrative Summit. You can view the video recording here (subscription required).

My entire career I have been in and around simulations, the military and war.

I started off as an amateur modder for Bohemia Interactive’s first game, Operation Flashpoint. I then got a job at their new Australian studio where we started making Virtual Battlespace 2 (VBS2). That product completely changed the simulations industry and established games as serious training tools for the military. I moved to Orlando when we first opened an office there.

At the time I was also in the USMC reserve. I left Bohemia and volunteered for a 7 month deployment to Afghanistan in 2011 as a Civil Affairs specialist. After that I went back to Afghanistan for a year as a civilian trainer working on a DARPA project that made smartphone apps for soldiers to use in combat. I returned to Bohemia Interactive Simulations (BISim) in 2013, now in their Prague office, and have been there ever since.

Expectation vs Reality

Over the years I’ve found a huge disconnect between the reality of war, and how it is portrayed in TV, films, and games. Here’s an example of what it can feel like talking to civilians about war:

A typical conversation about war with a civilian

In general people appreciate the military, but they have an extremely shallow understanding of what exactly it does, and what war is like.

In 2011 I was deployed to Sangin district, Afghanistan. For years this was the bloodiest battleground of the entire war, with units taking 10-20% casualties during their tours there. It was basically a low-density minefield that we were walking in every day. We would walk single file — following the footprints of the guy in front of you–because if you stepped off the path where someone else had walked you might step on an IED and get blown up. Or sometimes one guy would step over an IED, and the next guy would step a little different and get blown up. Before I got there, the insurgents would set up ambushes where they put IEDs behind good cover. Then when they shot at the Marines, the Marines would run to cover, lay down on an IED and get blown up. By the time I arrived, we were told to just squat down in place and shoot back if we took enemy fire.

So from what I just described, you might imagine a typical day looked something like this:

A typical day in Afghanistan?

In fact, a typical day usually looked more like this:

A typical day in Afghanistan

A typical day of walking around in a minefield, talking to farmers about their donkeys, or their house that got blown up. This is what modern warfare looks like today. You know what I heard one of the younger Marines say in the middle of this deployment?

“This isn’t what I expected. I thought I’d be doing hero shit like in Call of Duty.”

What you may not realize is that your work as writers and game creators really matters. It helps set society’s expectation about war and the military. That’s because humans are built to learn through stories and emotions and play. You are the best teachers. So what lessons are you teaching?

Let’s write about… relationships!

Let’s say we want to write a movie about relationships. This is something most people have first-hand experience with. We might brainstorm all the themes related to this topic, like dating, marriage, friendship, love, romance, heartbreak, etc. We have a massive canvas of narrative themes we could choose from for our writing.

Now what if some studio executive came in and said, “we did some market research, and found out what excites our audience the most. So I want you to only focus on this one theme: sex”.

What kind of movie would we end up writing?

Obviously that’s porn. It may be exciting but it’s a bit shallow. And although relationships can include sex, nobody would really say that porn is about relationships.

Let’s write about… war!

So back to war. How big is the narrative space we use to talk about it? Often it’s also very shallow. In this talk I’ll give you a few real-life examples of how to deepen it.

Narrative #1: Less killing, more war

One of the things I’ve found interesting from working on Virtual Battlespace over the years is the difference between what gamers think must be in a military FPS, vs what is actually there. In general video games are much more violent than actual military operations. Literally orders of magnitude more violent.

For example, the military generally want to attack with 3 times as many people as the defenders have. So if there are 30 defenders, you attack with 90 soldiers.

Imagine a level in a game where the player attacks an enemy base alone, and the level has 30 enemies. The player would single-handedly be doing the killing that 90 soldiers would do in real life. In effect that level would be 90 times more violent than a military simulator.

This makes sense if all your gameplay mechanics revolve around aiming and shooting. You really have no other design tool besides throwing bodies at the player to kill every few seconds.

Some games like Arma 3 are a bit more realistic. It uses simple tweaks to mechanics like “bullets can kill you easily” or “no healing, no respawn”, which force players to be more cautious about getting into fights. By letting you work with dozens of friendly troops–not just a few–its levels can look more like real life military operations. And by having massive terrain areas, part of combat becomes about positioning yourself long before you get into a fight. So the game gives you something to do in combat other than just shooting your gun.

But even in milsim games like Arma, there is still a focus on the most violent parts of war. You may be surprised to find the military often uses VBS to train less violent things, which you would never expect to find in an FPS.

For example, during the Iraq war, VBS was used for a lot of convoy training. In the picture below you can see a key feature, critical to this training. When we created VBS2 we actually forgot to port this feature from VBS1. The USMC refused to upgrade to the latest version until we added it back in, because they couldn’t do convoy training without it.

Turn signals: a key feature for military simulations

The feature: turn signals. Basically, the lead vehicle would use its turn signal to tell all the vehicles behind it that the convoy was supposed to make a turn ahead. They were training how to communicate and work together as a team. This is the kind of feature you normally find only in games like Eurotruck simulator. And it’s a critical feature a military simulator.

Below is another feature that prevented the New Zealand Army from upgrading until we patched it back in. They were training for peacekeeping operations in East Timor at the time, which was in the middle of a low-level civil war. What you see here is a checkpoint manned by Kiwi soldiers, a pretty common operation even in Iraq.

Weapons on the back: another key feature for military simulations

The feature: being able to put a weapon on your back. Why? Basically their rules of engagement at the time said: “if you see a guerrilla fighter with a rifle on their back, you leave them alone. If they have a rifle in their hand, you should shoot them.” This is basically an “emote” in an MMO, and it’s a critical feature in a military simulator.

We have literally thousands of features in VBS, to train for all kinds of things that happen in war. And many of them, like these examples, are not directly about killing people. There’s a lot more to war than just killing. It’s a really complex thing to win a war. Part of it’s because there’s just so many different things to do in a war.

Part of it’s also because it’s hard to even define what you’re trying to win. Which leads me to my next narrative.

Narrative #2: One war, many conflicts

One of the reasons I wanted to go to Afghanistan was to bring peace by helping to end the conflict there. As a Civil Affairs specialist, I had an interpreter and a bag of money for development projects. I would go talk to village elders, religious leaders, farmers, and try to win them over to support the Afghan. government. One thing I quickly discovered is that we weren’t in the middle of one simple conflict of “Taliban vs the Government”.

For example, the government troops were mostly ethnic Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks from the north, but we were in the ethnic Pashtun region in the south of the country. There were centuries old rivalries between these groups. One time an Afghan army soldier told my interpreter–who was Tajik–that all Tajiks should be killed and then there would be peace. He was serious.

The Afghan army didn’t even speak the same language as the local civilians — they had to use our interpreters. The police in the other hand were all Pashtun, but were from different districts. They were fun guys to hang out with, but boy were they corrupt. They generally knew who and where the Taliban were… but instead of going after them, they preferred to arrest random locals and demand bribes from their families to release them.

Revenge is a very important concept in Pashtun culture. It’s one part of Pashtunwali, a deep cultural honor code. We always had to be careful not to get caught up in somebody’s feud.

Locally in Sangin district, there were two different tribes of Pashtuns, who also had been rivals with each other for centuries. Their members wanted to use the Taliban, NATO, and the Afghan government to extract revenge on the other tribe. For example, guy from tribe A might tell our intelligence that guy from tribe B is working for the Taliban, hoping we’ll go kick down his door and arrest him — or worse.


Eventually I came to realize there were many different conflicts, all mixed together inside this one war. You can imagine this as a pyramid. At the top there are just a few, high-level conflicts and actors. As you go down the layers, you get more conflicts between smaller groups. And because it is all happening in the same place and time, you end up with groups taking advantage of other conflicts, with shifting alliances, with backstabbing, and intrigue.

Game of Thrones is a perfect example of this in dramatic form. As you may know, the early books were inspired by a real war from English medieval history. There are so many conflicts, it’s hard to keep track of them all in the TV series, let alone in the books. Yet audiences love this stuff. Why?

I’d argue it makes for an engaging narrative loop. You start off with this sense of discovery as you first enter the world. You start naive, like Ned Stark: unable to see the game being played in the world around you. Once you finally start to understand the game, who’s playing it, and what their goals are, something changes everything. A new player enters the game, or someone switches sides, or some intrigue like the Red Wedding is revealed. And then you have to discover the game all over again. That’s an incredibly engaging core loop.

But is there enough room in video games for it?

Take Crusader Kings 2. It’s basically a medieval politics simulator. There are thousands of nobles in the game, of different ranks, nationalities, and cultures, all vying for power against each other.

Another good example would be The Witcher 3. At the highest level you have this war between Nilfgaard and the Northern Kingdoms, and lots of quests related to that. In the middle of this you have local conflicts like racial tensions in the city of Novograd; or fighting between the clans of Skellige who are debating whether to join the war or not.

This is another example of what I mean by less killing, more war. By having less killing in your game, you can make room for these kinds of complex narratives. And mature audiences love complexity. Which leads me to my next narrative.

Narrative #3: Moral complexity

First of all, let me tell you what I don’t mean by this.

Moral complexity != moral simplicity

Moral complexity isn’t the same as moral simplicity. It sounds obvious, but we often mix up the two when talking about games. If it’s crystal clear what your choices are — and which one is morally correct — then you’re actually faced with moral simplicity. Just because you have a choice doesn’t make it complex.

Moral complexity != moral ambiguity

Moral complexity is also not the same as moral ambiguity. Ambiguous implies no choice is truly right or wrong. Complexity implies there is a definite right and wrong, but you have to work hard to figure out which is which. And in war — with lives at stake — you may only have seconds to decide.

For example, one day in Afghanistan insurgents fired a rocket at one of our guard towers, blowing the Marine out of it. By some luck, he was completely unhurt. A week later we were on patrol near that base, when the front of our patrol rounded a corner and saw a motorcycle, with two unarmed Afghans riding it, and bags full of rockets on the handlebars. Our patrol’s pointman shouted at them to stop and put their hands up. The guy pictured below surrendered. His buddy started running away, and our pointman shot him. He escaped but was hit, and later he bled to death.

How do we know if this was the right thing to do? We actually have a legal code called the Law of Land Warfare that helps us here. One thing you’ll notice this guy isn’t wearing a uniform. He’s trying to blend in with the civilian population. Technically he and his buddy are considered “unlawful combatants” and it is legal to fight them until they surrender. But how do you separate unlawful combatants from civilians, when they look the same?

According to the law: if they’re engaged in a hostile act, or displaying intent to engage in such an act, they are combatants, not civilians. Secretly transporting illegal weapons through the district would certainly count as hostile intent, because those rockets are intended to be shot at us later.

Sounds simple so far, right?

Pictured below is an insurgent tactic from Iraq. Two insurgents stand on top of a highway overpass, watching for an American convoy. One guy acts as the observer and is completely unarmed. The other guy hides on the other side of the road, out of sight from below. He doesn’t have a gun, but he has a homemade bomb. Once the observer sees the convoy go under the overpass, he signals to his buddy, who drops the bomb into the vehicles as they pass below. The bomb falls inside the vehicle, kills the soldiers inside, and the insurgents run away.

Imagine you’re a gunner on a convoy and this happens to the vehicle in front of you, killing your friends. What if a week later, you’re approaching the same overpass, and you see somebody standing on top of it–watching you–just like last week. He looks like the same observer from the last attack. What do you do? Are you witnessing hostile intent? Should you defend yourself? You only have a few seconds before your convoy goes beneath that overpass, so think quick.

Maybe you shoot him, to protect your friends. Maybe you find a bomb on him when you search his body, and it turns out he did have hostile intent. Or maybe you were mistaken, and you just shot some innocent civilian who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe you can’t be sure, so you do nothing — and then they drop a bomb into the vehicle in front of you, killing your friends. Or maybe there’s some other action you can take, like telling the driver to stop the convoy, so a team can approach the overpass on foot to search the individuals.

One of the many great books used to teach moral complexity to soldiers

21st century warfare is packed with events like this. Militaries spend a lot of time training soldiers to make fast, morally complex decisions like these. This may even be a defining theme of modern war.

But is there any way to fit this into a video game?

Telltale Games are really masters of this in all their titles. This picture is from their Walking Dead series. It forces you to make tough, meaningful decisions under pressure, when lives are at stake. Many people like me find their games emotionally compelling and impactful. The moral complexity forces me to think hard to find the right thing to do in a given situation. As a mature gamer, I find this incredibly satisfying.

You could use the exact same narrative and gameplay techniques, set it in the Iraq or Afghan war, and come up with one of the most realistic and compelling portrayals of war ever made.

In Spec Ops: The Line there is a scene where you come across an angry mob of unarmed civilians who just hanged your squad mate Lugo. You don’t know who exactly killed him, but they have you surrounded and are throwing rocks at you. Your partner is asking for permission to open fire on the crowd, afraid they’ll hang you too.

Interestingly, we have a lot of features in Virtual Battlespace so that professional soldiers can train for situations like this. The technique you’re supposed to use is called “escalation of force”. The correct procedure here — professionally and morally — is to use the lowest amount of force required to diffuse the situation and keep yourself safe. That starts with forceful language, and can proceed to warning shots, before finally ending at lethal force.

In Spec Ops, if you fire warning shots into the air, the crowd will actually disperse, diffusing the situation. But most players don’t even try this. They’re upset about Lugo’s death; their partner is yelling to kill them, and the mob is closing in and getting angrier. Under all this pressure — and without proper training — they shoot into the crowd, dispersing it but also killing innocent women and children.

These players fail to see all the options, and to unravel the moral complexity of the situation. They come out alive — which is good — but the civilians end up dead. This brings me to my last narrative.

Narrative #4: Civilians pay the highest price

This is a fairly taboo subject — not just in games but in society at large. You’d have to be pretty bold to take this on, so I don’t blame anyone for avoiding it. But let’s explore an example of how this works for a moment.

Here’s a picture of an IED in the ground, basically a homemade landmine. See that line of stones? It’s a signal put there by the Taliban, to warn civilians to stay away. They were trying to “win hearts and minds” just like we were. Accidentally killing civilians doesn’t help their cause either.

When I first got to Sangin, the civilians generally knew where these were, but they didn’t really trust us or the government to protect them. So they kept quiet. But nobody really wants to have landmines in their backyard. After months of work to earn their trust, we must have been doing something right because they started coming to our bases and telling us the locations of IEDs they knew about. We’d then send EOD to disarm it, making their neighborhood safer.

The Taliban of course didn’t like this. They stopped marking the locations of the IEDs for the civilians. They even switched to a murder & intimidation campaign against the civilians who cooperated with us.

Here’s a picture of an IED with no markers. Can you spot it?

There it is. These things are hard to spot, and they’re deadly. Let me ask another question:

Do you think these kids would be any better at spotting that IED than you?

One day we were at the base, and heard an explosion. None of our patrols that were out reported any casualties. Later we found out a local boy–not the one pictured here, but similar age — had stepped on an IED near his house and was blown to bits.

A week later, one of our squads was patrolling near that same house, when they heard another explosion. This time they saw the smoke, and rushed over to help. They found a boy — similar to the ones shown above — with both legs blown off his body. The squad leader and interpreter rushed in to apply tourniquets and to call a medevac. The boy’s parents were nearby and were screaming and crying, watching their son bleed to death. It was the same parents that had lost their other son a week earlier. This one died right in front of them.

The thing is, those bombs in the ground near his house — the ones that killed his kids — they were put there to kill me and my fellow Marines. If we hadn’t been there, walking around that village, fighting the Taliban, those mines might never have been in the ground in the first place. And those kids might still be alive today.

This is a pretty serious, dark, and emotional topic. Usually games avoid subjects like that. But because it’s so rare, games that take it on can achieve breakaway success.

One example is This War of Mine. There are thousands of games where you play as a soldier in war. In This War of Mine, you actually play as group of civilians in one. Your goal is simply to survive the war. You struggle with lack of food, medicine, and shelter, as well as other dangers inherent in having combat going on around you. The game received widespread critical acclaim, and it’s rated 10/10 on Steam. Reviewers mention that it is depressing, but at the same time one of the most meaningful and emotional games they’ve ever played. And it sold extremely well. Steamspy says it’s sold 2.5 million copies.

Another example comes from my colleagues at Bohemia Interactive. To be clear, the game studio and military simulation studios are quite separate, so I have nothing to do with Arma 3. But I find their latest DLC to be fascinating. It adds a new campaign where you actually you play the role of a humanitarian aid worker in a war zone. They even cooperated with the International Red Cross to get the details as accurate as possible.

One Steam review calls it a “walking simulator”, because most of the gameplay is just walking around, disarming landmines. By all standards of a military shooter, it should be incredibly boring. Yet people love it. The DLC received critical acclaim, and it’s rated 9/10 on Steam. Some reviewers talk about it being the most memorable FPS experience they’ve ever had.


So what have we learned?

What other narratives are there in war, other than “hero shit”? And how can they be leveraged to write compelling games?

1) Less killing, more war

  • There are hundreds of tasks in war besides shooting. Some are violent, others are not.
  • Combat should be dangerous, not a cartoon. Give the players a reason to be careful.
  • If you free up a little bit of the player’s time from repetitive killing, you allow space to experience other aspects of war.

2) One war, many conflicts

  • War is a stew of hundreds of conflicts, some global, some local, some personal.
  • This allows for endless stories with a compelling narrative loop of discovery, surprise, and rediscovery.
  • Game of Thrones provides a perfect example of how effective this loop can be.

3) Moral complexity

  • Not the same as moral simplicity or ambiguity. Complexity means you need to think hard to figure out what’s right.
  • Modern insurgencies blend in with the civilian population. This leads to morally complex situations — but you still need to defend yourself. Think fast because you may not have much time to decide.
  • Time-limited decisions and branching narratives are excellent ways for games to leverage these situations.

4) Civilians pay the highest price

  • Both sides of a conflict will always cause collateral damage on civilians. Even if both sides try to avoid it.
  • This is an emotionally dark and risky subject to portray in a game.
  • However, when done well it can lead to some of the most powerful, memorable experiences possible

Stories are powerful.

I want to finish by reminding you that stories are powerful.

Writing — good writing — is hard. Writing this essay was hard for me, and it’s not even good. That means you — as effective writers — are incredibly powerful. By telling engaging stories, you get to shape how we view the world as a people.

Your stories are powerful things.

Use them responsibly.

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