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The Problem with Counting and the Return to WW2

August 13th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 11 Comments · WW2

Given our recent discussion on TMA about WW2, I was struck by Scott Sharkey’s attempt to count the number of videogames associated with each 20th century war.

His results aren’t really surprising. WW2 wins by a billion points.

I’m not precisely clear on what he is counting. He mentions mostly shooters but he’s talking console games, I assume, because he only finds one Korean War game and MASH doesn’t sound like a shooter. He’s clearly leaving out PC games since there have been flight sims and wargames that dealt with this war. Microprose’s 1984 Mig Alley for example. A game with the same name came out ten years ago.

So while his final conclusion is certainly valid – no one much cares to make Iraq or Korean War themed games when WW2 is out there – I think that a little more clarity about where he’s getting his stats and what (besides Snoopy v the Red Baron) doesn’t count would be nice.

Note that the theories he puts forward about why the Second World War is so popular are very different from the ones that Tom, Julian and I advanced. Sharkey suggests that the clarity of the enemy, the certainty of action and the fact people hate Nazis. These are all factors you want to think about when you want to personalize the game play – make the player the soldier and not the general.

So the fact that you get big tank battles and that you are on the cutting edge of a thousand technological revolutions and that almost the entire globe gets involved and that you have to mobilize an entire nation…all those things that are big deals for strategy gamers like me are mostly irrelevant once you think about the war in the terms of pretending you are carrying a gun.


11 Comments so far ↓

  • Punning Pundit

    I’ve often been surpised at the lack of world war 1 shooters. Who _wouldn’t_ want to be part of the ppcli at vimy ridge?

    Or imagine the moment of horor the first time you come face to face with a tank. Storming machine gun nests would be intense. And flamethtowers are an upgrade I want to see on a (pixilated) battlefield…

  • Morkilus

    Gallipoli, the game? SO MUCH FUN TO BE HAD.

  • Dave

    Punning Pundit– count me as one!

    Tactical World War One shooter:

    1. Hear whistle.

    2. Stand up over parapet.

    3. Get shot.

    4. Repeat.

    They can then sell the expansion set that lets you die from wirecutting artillery, gas, or trenchfoot.

    Not a whole lotta variety in that dynamic ;-).

    (Which, incidentally, is a reason why there’s never been a successful *Civil War* shooter, despite a few awful attempts at one– the tactics of the period simply don’t lend themselves to engaging gameplay, and like Troy says, the technology dynamic isn’t there, either).

    Troy– while I think your reasons are ultimately the most important, Sharkey comes close to hitting on one point: World War II is the only unambiguously universally appreciated “Good War.” Meaning, of course, that anyone can make a World War II game and avoid nearly every political argument that would befall other wars.

    Heck, World War II games featuring the heroic Allies sell well in *Germany and Japan*. Even given all the political evolution in those two countries over the last sixty years, that’s still somewhat extraordinary.

    Now, I don’t want to oversell this, it isn’t a *huge* factor, but for companies looking to market their games internationally, it’s an unavoidable consideration.

    Which is why Call of Duty 4 is a culturally revolutionary for a shooter, at least in multiplayer. Your unknown-nationality Middle Eastern riflemen aren’t just your faceless enemies, at any time in MP you could end up playing as them, and thus taking their motivations as your own (symbolically, of course– there’s no ideology in “Dominate Point A” ;-0.

    While this stuff was commonplace in World War II shooters, it wasn’t in modern shooters. Recall the innovative but still ridiculous solution employed by America’s Army, where the MP dynamically guarantees that no matter which “side” you’re on your perspective is always as an American soldier. COD4 is the most successful game to junk that sensitivity and simply allow the players to play the game.

    Knowing friends in the Sandbox who played a lot of COD4 while bored in the rear, it’s positively surreal that they would find entertainment in playing the very people that were trying to kill them (or, at least, very close fictional approximations of them).

    Alas, it’s still baby steps out there, as the example of the cancellation of “Six Days in Fallujah” demonstrates. It’s been oft-noted that there is a tremendous lack of rousing patriotic films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, contra the World War II Hollywood experience. It’s interesting that one of the most important modern entertainments– video games– suffer the same problems when, in theory, they should have far more freedom/enthusiasm (the stereotypical casual console gamer having minimal political awareness, and the committed grognard very aware of the politics but able to ignore them in pursuit of accurate simulation).

    Weird, weird world.

  • Skyrider68

    Could there really be much to a wargame focused on the conflicts in Iraq? That conflict seems mostly rooted in urban guerilla ops. Sure, there are some shooter-type games out there, but from a strategy perspective, where is the meat & potatoes in that?

  • Sarkus

    While he doesn’t break it down, I’d note that a lot more WW2 games cover Europe then the war in the Pacific. Remember the Pacific War MoH game? Not many others do either.

    Which goes to the idea of how no one feels bad shooting Nazis.

  • Troy


    A lot of wargames have imbalanced scenarios, with the point being to “do better than history”. The first Gulf War led to quite a few wargames like this. The 2003 Iraq War could be modeled similarly or with counterfactual options.

    A couple of podcasts ago, we discussed about modeling insurgency in a wargame. It’s certainly difficult, but it can be done. And since there are squad level wargame scenarios about Mogadishu, you can certainly do Sadr City.

  • FhnuZoag

    Well, even talking shooters, I wouldn’t think that the moral angle is actually that important to why WWII is so often played. If you ask me, it’s because:

    1. Good variety of terrain/situations (Play a vietnam game, and it’s just jungle, jungle, jungle. Ditto a Iraq game.)
    2. Good variety of player options/firepower. WWI, and automatic weapons will be tough to come by. Post-WWII, and you’ll find it tough to get your hands on a respectable bolt-action. In WWII, you get both. Combat distances are also kept decently close.
    3. Built in storyline. To be honest, non-WWII wars tend to end on a whimper instead of a bang. WWII is a war with actually a decent plot. People want to play Stalingrad, or Kursk, or the Normandy Landings, or the battle for Berlin.
    4. Plenty of cultural touchstones to tap into. There’s a bit library of films and so on to draw inspiration from.

  • frags

    I wouldn’t say that the lines were clearly drawn out on who is good and who is evil all the time in WWII.

    Sure Nazis are crazy evil people that were hell bent on dominating everyone else and call themselves a superior race BUT…

    There is something to be said about games that let you play as them. And there is still a lack of WWII games(the shooty shooty bang bang types) that let you take on the role of a German machine gunner(for instance).

    CoH Opposing Fronts is a good example of this while clearly Relic took the trouble of not portraying Nazis as the good guy, I couldn’t help but feel guilty destroying Caen to rubble with Artillery.

    If films can be taken as an example Letters From Iwo Jima was quite a controversial movie in Asia(banned in many countries) yet its perspective was completely refreshing and it was a heck of a story.

  • Skyrider68

    Troy, admittedly I am an outsider-looking-in when it comes to the more hardcore wargames out there. I don’t doubt your assertion that a game with a strong element of insurgency/counter-insurgency *could* be done, but my initial thought is whether the urban element, which I feel has become the crux of the conflict there, could be done well enough to draw a solid number of dedicated gamers. On the other hand, I’m sure there have been a handful of wargames from yesteryear that have addressed conflicts like Vietnam, another struggle whose land element seems more non-conventional to me when compared with something like WW2. I’m sure that at least some of those games must have achieved some level of success, so I’m probably just being a little too cynical about the prospects of a good Iraq wargame with a focus on the land element. The air element in the intial Desert Storm…that seems like something more along the lines of what I envision as good basis for wargame design, but I’m probably in apples vs oranges territory now.

    Anyhow, just want to add I like the website, and I think you have a good group on the podcast. I look forward to the episodes. Hope you all see fit to continue making the podcast.

  • Ginger Yellow

    “COD4 is the most successful game to junk that sensitivity and simply allow the players to play the game.”

    Battlefield 2?

  • Dave

    From Wikipedia:

    Battlefield 2: 2,250,000 copies sold.

    Call of Duty 4: 13,000,000 copies sold.

    I’d say the latter is a wee bit more successful :-).