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Why I don't have the stomach for 'Battlefield 1'

Engadget Engadget 9/05/2016 Nathan Ingraham
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Battlefield is a tentpole AAA gaming franchise that has made its name by thrusting players into some of the world's most brutal and deadly combat zones. So while it was a little surprising to learn that that Battlefield 1 would be set in World War I (few historical combat games have tackled this particular conflict), it's still in keeping with the series' history. In a more general sense, plenty of movies, games and books use war as a backdrop for storytelling, and plenty of those stories are quite violent.

So why did the violence on display in Battlefield 1's trailer bother me so much?

It's something I've been thinking about since I saw the game unveiled at an EA/Dice event last Friday. I play plenty of violent games myself, and while graphic executions occasionally make me cringe, I'm not going to say no to taking control of Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 and gunning down hordes of attacking mercenaries.

But apparently, I find it easier to look the other way at the atrocities my character is committing when it's in a made-up universe, or when I'm slicing up orcs in fantasy games. Real, up-close-and-personal, human-on-human violence -- like crushing a soldier's head with a mace -- is a bit much for me. Particularly when the conflict in question remains one of the most deadly wars of all time, with 8.5 million dead combatants and 7 million civilian casualties. Not to mention, the events of WWI contributed to the rise of Nazi Germany and, by extension, the massive losses of World War II. It also helped shape a decades-long isolationist policy here in the US, something that kept America out of WWII until the Pearl Harbor attack.

It goes beyond the trailer, too. The vibe I got during a roundtable discussion with the game's developers was that the studio chose to glorify a brutal war because they knew it would make for a great video game. There was lots of talk about how the vast scope of WWI allowed for incredible amounts and varied types of destruction to be carried out by the players. Indeed, the audience at the event hooted and hollered at every close-up mace kill and bayonet stabbing.

Lots of movies have used war as a backdrop to tell human stories -- even if those stories contain plenty of violence -- but Battlefield is purely about destruction. Yes, there will be a single-player campaign that may seek to tell a story, but it's secondary to the massive multiplayer conflicts that define the series.

Part of what makes Battlefield 1 feel different is a greater emphasis on close-range, hand-to-hand combat. WWI was defined by a collision between old and new warfare tactics and techniques. Armored tanks and horses were both viable war tools, and bayonets were still in use. In fact, the game's trailer showed a number of gruesome close-up deaths. Somehow, these were harder to watch than, say, the infamous chainsaw executions in Gears of War.

When I asked Dice's multiplayer producer Andreas Morell how the studio justifies making a fun game out of a massive historical conflict that killed millions, he compared the medium to war movies. "Ultimately, we're making a game: It's an entertainment product just like any movie," he said. "If players are able to dive into this, they'll get an understanding of the horrors that were in this conflict, but the horrors are there in every war." It felt a little bit like Morell was saying he's giving the masses what they want, but Dice is hardly the first to use war as a backdrop for entertainment, and he won't be the last.

It's possible that I'm drawing too fine a distinction between violence based on real events and fantasy violence. Whether you're playing Gears of War or Battlefield, the intentions and actions of the characters generally remain the same: to commit gory acts in the name of war. And I have to admit that The Great War is a particularly compelling conflict to explore. The collision of old warfare techniques with industrial-era technology like the tank makes for varied combat options; the global scale of the war provides a huge variety of different terrain to do battle in. It's a fascinating era to use as a backdrop for a war game.

That said, I just don't think it's for me. I find little cause for celebrating war, and I can't shake the feeling that these games minimize the sacrifices made by millions of humans. In short, I feel guilty enjoying a game like this. Don't get me wrong, Battlefield 1 has the potential to be extremely fun, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't curious to see how Dice and EA manage to take advantage of this vast and varied war. But I suspect that in the back of my mind, every kill I made would make me think about the actual lives lost.

I don't judge anyone who enjoys these games -- and given Battlefield's success, that is clearly many, many people -- and I don't think that violence in video games is inherently bad. When I want to get my violent gaming fix, though, I prefer not to be reminded of actual historical atrocities. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some nameless, faceless soldiers in Quantum Break to gun down.

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