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Memorial Day and Strategy Games: No Sacrifice At All

May 30th, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · 3 Comments · Uncategorized

Memorial Day is your typical American holiday. Though officially devoted to honor the sacrifices made by those citizens who have died in battle, it is mostly devoted to barbecues and beer drinking. It is the unofficial start of summer.

In a twisted game-framed idea, this is a lot like strategy and war games. Even though they often deal with the most serious issues that face mankind (war, peace, imperialism) they never ask the player to connect with those digital people “dying” for the cause.

In short, the soldiers who die for us in our games are expendable; a series of red-shirts who make no difference to us so long as the game ends in a victory. Whether the game is a long hard slog that is a war of attrition or a quick zerg-rush strike that ends the war in a moment, the casualties mean nothing to the player.

This, of course, means nothing in the short run. Digital dudes are digital dudes. But I wonder if it does give strategy gamers and wargamers a peculiar idea of what it is like to send men into battle. In a game, no cost is too large and the best strategy is the one that works.

I think that there is room for a strategy game that makes the gamer think seriously before committing men to battle. In this imperfect world, wars sometimes must be fought and many men and women obey orders and die for what they are told is a worthy cause. Strategy and wargames have none of this sense of sacrifice. There is never any onus on the player to minimize casualties or weigh the propriety of a war. Armed conflict is not only a legitimate option, but often the most efficient option. For all the grognard complaints about realism in games, there is rarely any critique about how realistic the cost of war is.

I hope you had a nice Memorial Day and took some time to move beyond the burgers and beer that have come to typify this holiday.


3 Comments so far ↓

  • Anonymous

    Bravo, Troy-

    I’ve thought about this issue myself, and I do think it would bring something new and important to the gaming hobby if it were done in a realistic and non-preachy manner.

    At a minimum, games like democracy (which I haven’t played) could make unpopular wars costly for the player’s character.

  • Jim9137

    Now, while I love the idea and it’s actually been done in some degree or another (squaddie TBS games’ driving force IS exactly make gamers have connection with their units), I really don’t see how you could make it work in any larger scale.

    And this I base on the whole CPU’s don’t have enough power to induvidualize, personalize or similar that many soldiers. And even if it’d been possible, there’d be just too many soldiers for the player to feel connected to, resulting in just the exact opposite.

    101st: Airborne Over Normandy had this problem, there are too many guys around, and they don’t even give any interaction. Jagged Alliance on the other hand, are prime example of it. But both games are squaddies!

    Hm, wasn’t there a game which tried to do this in larger scale? Or was it just me daydreaming?

  • Tim

    I’d love to see something like this, but it’d be difficult to pull off. As was just discussed elsewhere, the X-Com games managed quite admirably to make you care about your individual soldiers. They grew from mission to mission and perhaps only gained personalities in your head, but I found that I started to use the same soldiers for the same tasks in each mission simply because that was what they were geared for, stats-wise. When one of them died, it was a loss to *your* unit. They were replacable, certainly, but they were still individual within the game, particularly once promoted and once you had a track record with them. And yet, they weren’t a victory condition. You could go on without them, and replace them.

    I dunno. To me, I think the effect would have been lessened if they were a victory condition; if you *had* to keep them alive and nurse them. But in a way it was your choice whether they lived or died, and you had to live with your choice (unless you reloaded the mission, of course, but that’s perhaps proof that you liked that soldier).

    It’s a difficult thing to pull off, but it’s been achieved before. I’d like to see it on a much bigger scale, though.