PC gamers are no strangers to the idea of war-based entertainment. And while there's nothing wrong with playing and enjoying “war games” of all shapes and sizes, the Russian Federation's recent reaction to games featuring their nation's military – and Company of Heroes 2 in particular – has led many gamers to question the importance of accuracy in games depicting past and present military conflicts.
Should PC gamers make more conscious choices as to which war games they buy based on that game's historical accuracy? Should videogame developers and publishers take more responsibility when selecting the nations represented, and often vilified, in their games?
Company of Heroes 2 was released for Windows worldwide on June 25, 2013 to fairly positive reviews, including our own. Yet one month later, developer Relic Entertainment would receive its harshest criticism when Russian videogame distributor 1C-SoftClub announced that it would no longer sell the game.
1C-SoftClub's decision was made following a slew of complaints accusing Company of Heroes 2 of downplaying Soviet military efforts during World War II, as well as unfairly portraying Soviet forces as ruthless butchers willing to murder surrendered German forces and civilians, and for exaggerating Stalin's Order No. 227 by depicting numerous conscript executions. Some complaints even go as far as to suggest that Relic Entertainment attempted to generate Nazi sympathy in Company of Heroes 2 by making the German forces out to be the lesser of two evils.
It may seem like a storm in a teacup to most Westerners, but it's a teacup that boiled over in October of this year when the Russian government officially announced plans to offer grants to developers willing to create games that offer “realistic and historically truthful representations of events” regarding Russia's past military activities.
The quote above came from Arseny Mironov, aide to Russian culture minister Vladmir Medinsky, who stated the importance of historically accurate videogames, and the possibility of banning those that aren't, to Russian paper Izvestiya – which was translated by The Hollywood Reporter.
Vladmir Medinsky is also the head of the Russian Military History Society – the organisation that will be awarding the aforementioned grants – and has already started work with an undisclosed developer on a videogame project focussing on the inception of Russian military aviation during the First World War.
Again, Russia's reaction to a single game may seem exaggerated to Westerners, but Company of Heroes 2 is hardly the only Western videogame to portray Russia as the enemy. So just why do so many developers and publishers target Russia and its peoples?
The Rise of the Modern War Game:
Videogames, like every entertainment medium, influence, and are influenced by, the cultures they're intrinsically linked to i.e. the content within a videogame reflects the needs and wants of the people it is sold to. For example, the early 80's saw the beginning of the end of The Cold War, and as such, a great deal of Western videogames released during that period has military or espionage themes and shamelessly featured Russia as the enemy.
The cultural fallout of The Cold War could be felt right through the 80's, yet quickly fizzled out in the early 90's as a result of the First Gulf War – hence the rise and popularity of games such as Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf and Super Battletank on home consoles. However, the quick conclusion of The Gulf War brought a brief period of relative peace during the later half of the 90's. Thus, the gap left in then-current warfare was filled by the videogame industry with World War II titles – that is, until September 11th, 2001.
For the vast majority of PC gamers, the “War on terror” was their first experience with the devastating ramifications of real life war and terrorism. And as America and its allied forces became preoccupied with war in the Middle East, so did the Western videogame industry.
No game epitomises the shift of Western culture's eyes over to the Middle East as much as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – one of the most monumental videogame releases of all time. The game's success can be attributed to numerous factors, but it stands to reason that one of them was developer Infinity Ward's choice to build the game around a fictitious Middle Eastern conflict orchestrated by Russian ultranationalists.
It's entirely plausible that an unquantifiable proportion of Westerners – many of which being Americans – purchased Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare as a means to vent their emotional distress over the events of 9/11. Regardless, many other publishers attempted to follow in Activision and Infinity Ward's footsteps with the likes of Battlefield 3, the Medal of Honor reboot, Spec Ops: The Line and Army of Two for home consoles, to name but a few.
It may see unfair to target Call of Duty specifically, but the series' phenomenal success was felt worldwide, within and outside of the videogame industry, and as mentioned above, the series was now a trend setter. With all eyes on Infinity Ward and Activision, the pair had the opportunity to highlight the current political unrest of their choosing in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
They chose to vilify the Russians.
The Videogame Vilification of Russia:
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's infamous “No Russian” single player mission is one of many – and for the purpose of this article, the best – examples of a recent videogame actively and negatively painting the Russian military and/ or the Russian peoples.
The mission in question puts players in the role of an undercover American agent who is ordered by Russian terrorists to open fire on unarmed Russian civilians in a Russian airport. The game offers two choices: watch the massacre unfurl, or join in. However, attempting to save the civilians by killing or incapacitating the Russian terrorists results in the failure of the mission, implying that the American agent's undercover status is of higher value than the lives of hundreds of Russian civilians. The rest of the game is, of course, spent pushing back a Russian invasion on American soil.
With this single example in mind, it's not difficult to see how the Russian people and their elected governmental representatives would be upset, especially considering that, at the time of its release, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was the second best selling game of all time in the UK and USA.
But The Cold War is over, so what real advantage is there to Western videogame developers and publishers attempting to highlight, or even reignite, such a bitter East vs. West rivalry? It's important to note that despite the threats of Arseny Mironov, no videogames have ever been banned for sale within Russia. It is only now, as a result of what are essentially “anti-Russia” Western videogames, that the Russian government is having to re-evaluate their policies.
Perhaps it was Company of Heroes 2 and its downplaying of the millions of Russian lives lost during the Soviet Union's successful efforts to end World War II that has pushed the current Russian government over the edge. After all, while the content in the Modern Warfare games is fictional, Company of Heroes 2 prided itself on historical accuracy.
It seems somewhat obscene that at a time where the communicative power of the internet and social media is dissolving the boundaries between nations, cultures and peoples, that gamers the world over are still indulging themselves in videogames that directly or indirectly enforce those boundaries.
It's the opinion of this writer that PC gamers should continue to enjoy playing “war games”, but should consider the gameplay scenarios presented within those titles and openly critique their historical accuracy and their possible cultural and political ramifications. Because when all is said and done, adding to political tensions has and can continue to result in conflict – and real life war is never entertaining.