What Computer Games Get “Wrong” about War

There are many videos out there that talk about how realistic certain aspects of computer games are. Well I want to take a different approach and talk more about broad concepts. Now what is very important: by “wrong” I mean in which way computer games might give a wrong impression about certain aspects due to the limits of the genre and or goals of game design and not in a way of “wrong” in the literal sense. So this won’t be about historical accuracy in games nor any details on weapons or other stuff. First off it is important to remind us of the inherent values of computer games which i think are fun and challenge. This is in complete contrast to war which is usually one of two things: deadly or extremely boring. Something we don’t want if we play games. So in this video I want to give us some perspective on the elements that are often overlooked but not necessarily bad game design decisions. For now I will take a look at four principles: all or nothing, only warriors allowed, total information and total control. Let’s not with the all or nothing principle. This extends to many different errors and makes a lot of sense in terms of gameplay and human psychology. Namely to get a proper and often immediate feedback and thus speed up learning. There are many examples of this but to name a few: nearly no game portrays wounded let alone soldiers missing in action in terms of gameplay. There are few exceptions like the close combat series but most of the other games only deal with dead or living, not much in between. The same goes with damaged vehicles. Usually a total loss or no loss at all. Of course in some more arcade-like games their healthbars that to a certain degree portray wounded or damaged elements but the principle is more encompassing in many other areas. But I think the most misleading display is that you often have to completely wipe out an enemy to win. There are almost no battles in history where everyone was killed. In computer games often every combat situation, no matter if its tactical, operational or strategic usually ends with one side not decisively beating the other side but eliminating it. Even the bloodiest battles in history the casualties are often below 50 or thirty percent. In computer games those numbers are often far higher. This is to a certain degree also linked to the next principle: only warriors allowed. So what do I mean with only warriors allowed? Well basically the most games, especially military games often only portray combat units. But let’s take a look at the composition of the german field army in 1939. As you can clearly see there’s a large number of construction troops and many other non combat troops. Of course there are games that often portray non combat units like stronghold and other realtime strategy games but ironically most military games that are often far more realistic than those games from the RTS genre don’t portray them at all. Now why is this important? Even for the informed wargamers one factor that can get lost is the losses given in historical statistics are thus often underestimated. For instance if you take the losses during Operation Barbarossa people won’t notice that a significant portion of the more than 3 million axis troops were not combat troops. But the losses that are given the statistics were mainly combat troops thus the overall effectiveness drops far more than the simple number might suggest. Because most of the losses were sustained by crack combat units and not some construction units behind the front. Thus in game terms the percentage with our context would be manageable whereas with correct historical proportions probably not. As always context is important when it comes to numbers. Speaking of numbers let’s move to the total information principle. Computer games provide often an amount of information that is almost total in comparison to the real world. Like hit chances for guns, the moral value of your unit in percentage, the exact number of the man in your 3rd panzer division at 3pm during Operation Barbarossa and hearts of iron three and many more data. Of course this is important and to a certain degree not that unrealistic because although as a commander you or your subordinates actually wouldn’t notice values, yet well trained and experienced officers and NCOs have a clear grasp on their capabilities and table of organizations and equipment were kept. So this information would be available but not in the way it’s presented in the game. But in reality not everyone is well trained and experienced thus the omnipresent certainty and precision can give an impression that is totally off to what is happening on the battlefield, even with the best staff. Probably someone will say “But many games have a mechanic like fog of war!” Yes, you’re right, but fog of war in games usually is a joke compared to real life. Because in real life you often lose contact to your own troops and don’t know what is going on there nor you get an excellent and accurate information on the capabilities of units in a matter of milliseconds in a readable form. Maybe there’s a game out there that portrays this situation. If you know it please let me know in the comment section. Now total information in vehicle based games is also a common feature that gives a wrong portrayal, like the internal fusing tank games. If you sit in a tank you see very little what is going on. This is the reason why tanks without infantry support are extremely vulnerable. Another aspect are damage indicators. You often know exactly which elements are damaged or broken, whereas in real life you probably wouldn’t know or you needed at least in mechanic to take a closer look. Also if you select repair in a game you often be instantly informed how long it will take or in games that feature production of any kind you know exactly when those planes ships or spearmen will be ready for action. This is the certain agree strong related to the principle of total control so let’s look at it. The total control principle is of course a central and very convenient element of computer games. You order your troops and in most games they will blindly and willingly follow your orders. The same goes with vehicles you control or the construction and repair orders you give to your virtual men, Empire or State. Whearas in the real world there’s a lot of delegation ongoing. In games you have a total command usually with almost no delegation at all. Of course this is often due to the limited artificial intelligence. Yet this is probably the reason why some people think that a dictatorship would be efficient wheras in reality they are usually not. Because in reality you still have a lot of actors you need to please. Don’t believe me? Ask Hitler! This is the reason why there were several very powerful people around that balanced each other out in the Third Reich. This was a scheme for not getting sacked but not very effective for getting an efficient economy. But I digress. Another aspect is the level and impact of controls. Take for instance hearts of iron three. At the start of the game you often can make your country about ten to twenty percent more effective in various areas by changing your cabinet. More often than not such changes are also immediate, so your troops, industry and commanders often get an immediate buff. To a certain degree this was limited in hearts of iron three where the upgrades of equipment for your divisions could take quite some time. Yet the heart of iron series is one of the games that gets more right than wrong. The reason I mention it here so often is because I prefer pointing out errors in games that I like. In short computer games provide usually a level of command and control it is beyond the wildest dreams of any real commander out there. Now some final remarks: I think that realistic aspects in computer games are only useful if they make the game better. Which usually means more enjoyable. Or improve on another aspect like providing a form of education, but only if this is a dedicated goal by the game creators, not from some external Authority no matter if political, religious or even academic. Now some thoughts on the roles of computer games. I think computer games are mostly about psychology. And there’s one aspect probably every person tries to avoid as much as possible and that is uncertainty. Another related aspect is loss of control. Nearly everyone has experienced loss of control at one point in his or her life. In contrast computer games often provide a large amount of control. It’s still providing a decent challenge, thus games enable learning and the ability to reach mastery without the risk of despair. And learning in its natural form is often fun, although many of us have forgotten this due to visiting the wrong schools for too long. So have fun, thank you for watching and see you next time! [metal music]


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