Battlefield 1 & Public History
Battlefield 1 is a First Person Shooter Video Game created by Dice Studios that places the player into the frontlines of the war between the Central Powers and the Entente & Allies. The game takes place in the waning years of the first World war and the player can participate in either singleplayer or multiplayer games. The base game features several “factions”: The British Empire, the United States, the Kingdom of Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, German Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. However, the British Empire is by far the most prevalent faction throughout the entirety of the game for it is seen fighting in the trenches along the border of France and Germany, fighting in Ottoman held Egypt, fighting the German Air Force, and at the forefront of allied offensives in the new armored warfare with Mark V tanks. This page will examine the portrayal of the British Empire in Battlefield 1 and discuss how it is represented and what we should take from its representation.
But first we must ask; What makes a Video Game a form of history? Why should we look at a form of media that is created to make a profit and ‘solely’ for entertainment? These are important questions because it is true, video games have usually been based on entirely fictional or fantastical universes or worlds where we are detached from the game because we know that it is not real. However, with modern technology and its exponential advances and realism, video games are becoming more and more realistic and when they are based on real events the game changes. In general, Historically inspired/based video games are forms of Public History and may be considered a kind of sub-category in that they can be considered forms of Popular History. Battlefield 1, I assert, is a form of Public History that combines the concepts of Reenactment and Historical Fiction in a way that no other media can and gives us a unique representation of the British Empire during a conflict that, for the first time, spanned the globe. The following sections will explain the role of Reenactment and Historical Fiction as forms of Public History. After this has been established, I will delve into why they are relevant to Video Games and how they are incorporated. Finally, I will look at Battlefield 1 in depth and explain the way the British Empire is portrayed and what we can learn from the game as a whole and explore the narrative it has created for the consumers to enjoy.
Firstly, what is Reenactment? Well, reenactment can take multiple forms but the most common is that of when men (and occasionally women) ‘reenact’ certain events from our past in full dress from the period. These events are usually historically significant battles.
This form of Public History gives us; observers and participants, something tangible to interact with. It provides a personal experience for the reenactors whilst giving the observers a visual representation of the event(s) being portrayed. For, according to Vanessa Agnew, it is “A body-based discourse in which the past is reanimated through physical and psychological experience.”
We see, read, and hear about soldiers from our past; how they fought and the brutality of the combat, but we can’t truly understand or visualize it properly without someone creating a replica of the uniforms and men donning their armor and/or uniforms and marching in formation to “do battle”. Reenactment provides examples of what events could have been like.
However, reenactment does have some problems in being a form of historical study and this is because it is mostly for the reenactor’s own personal experience, whereas the observer’s experience is more of an afterthought.
Vanessa Agnew would also state that “It tells us more about the present self than about the collective past.”. This is because we in our modern era we carry with us the baggage of our time and we can never truly understand the thoughts and feelings of the real men and women from the past because of this.
This form of reenactment is about the experience of the reenactor that only the participants can enjoy. Yet, even for the reenactors, these men will never understand what it is to charge from trenches in a hail of machine gun fire and artillery barrages, what it is to slog through the mud in Lorica Segmentata and battle against Germanic tribesmen, or line up in ranks and fire upon an enemy that is firing back in the thick of smoke and blood. These men aren’t fearing for their lives and cannot fully understand the true feeling of what soldiers of the past could have felt because their lives are not at risk like those men who fought in the past. These reenactments are surely not accurate representations of combat because they are not actually trying to kill one another and fearing for their lives but they do at least provide some insight on how certain aspects of these events may have looked.
Interestingly, this “mainstream” form of reenactment is not the only form we have of reenactment. Jonathan Hakana argues that we witness forms of reenactment in film and television through the persona of actors. I argue that this form of reenactment is far more useful to us because it is not about the personal experience of a reenactor but it is about the performance which is meant to provide the viewers a genuine personification of a character from the past (as long as the film or show is historical fiction or historically inspired). The reason for this is because the actor is taking on a past persona and acting as that person rather than the reenactor who places himself in the pact and acts according to what he believes he should act like if he was placed in that position. They are ‘acting’ the way the character they are portraying might have acted unlike the reenactor. It’s not about the actor’s personal experience but, instead, about their performance for the audience which I believe is more helpful in trying to recreate a scene or event from history since it is meant to get the audience to think about the period, understand what’s going on, and empathize with the character not the actor. This is because we don’t have to worry about the real emotions being felt by a reenactor but merely the portrayal of realistic and ‘authentic’ – looking emotions of the actor.
But why is this important? What makes the film/television form of reenactment more “true” or accurate over the classic reenactment? To answer this question we must first understand what Truth is and who determines what is truth.
The idea of Truth is a concept that humanity has wrestled with since the ancient period of the Greek City-States of the two and a half millennia ago. Even now we struggle to find a fulfilling answer but Michael Williams provides us with an answer that I believe is the closest we have gotten to understand what Truth really is,
“Truth is not merely a matter of fact. Truth is the spirit which underlies all appearances and materializes in facts and deeds; truth is a hidden and spiritual force and facts are only modes of its operations; the outward signs which express the inward life; sacramental when employed in the service of revealed truth, but often very misleading when arranged by one who is blind or hostile to the truth. A characteristic legend, or tradition, or myth concerning a city, or a man or a woman, when rightly interpreted, will often express more truth than will barrels and bales of statistical facts. Facts, I repeat, are as the bones, sinews, and veins, of the body of history, and of the fiction which derives from history; while legends and traditions mingle their influences in its blood, and in its soul, giving color and expression and bloom and beauty to its features. Only one kind of fable, I make bold to maintain, is deleterious – that which is a lie, or the child of a lie, the willful invention of malice; all slander and scandal and evil falsifications – these are the cancers of history, and when transmitted to fiction they convey their daily contagions from soul to soul.” – Michael Williams
This quote explains that facts alone cannot tell us the truth about our past but they are tools by which we create historical narratives. By looking at just the facts, we are missing everything between the historical records such as the people, emotions, and reasoning for actions. We miss all this unless it is recorded and so many of our records are incomplete and filled with vast holes that we cannot accurately recreate a picture of the past with our limited information. History as a discipline has struggled with this problem since the 19th century and has yet to find a way to properly ‘solve’ it. However, with the gaps in the historical record, it’s almost impossible to find a proper authoritative solution to the problem. So to try and fill in some of the gaps and get at a better understanding of the ‘Truth’ of a period, I believe one of the most successful way is through the usage and writing of Historical Fiction. It may not be entirely true but it gets at an essence of ‘Truth’ that facts alone cannot.
Historical Fiction is a written narrative that is used for various genres of media that takes place in a setting of the past making use of historically inspired characters and possibly events. It is a means for us to fill in the gaps in the historical records with people, emotions, and reasons for why things happened. It provides a narrative to follow and gives people the means to connect with these characters who are brought to life in novels, movies, and television series. Grant Rodwell tells us that our fact based and relatively boring approach to history is a huge problem with engaging with students and a wider lay audience. He argues that with the standard approach we are missing a huge part of history because we do not have characters we can attach to empathize with. He states,
“[There is] one vital thing missing for History teachers: people. Jacobs and Tunnell emphatically state why they believe History textbooks are inadequate: ‘The people are missing! The best one-word definition of history is, in fact, ‘people’’. Without human beings, whose emotion and actions influence the times, there is no history. And many readers will attest, one way that we remember grand historical novels from the strength of characters portrayed in them.” – Grant Rodwell
Historical Fiction is a tool that we can use to educate a lay audience with little background in history. We can give them a taste of the intrigue and drama that humans appear to be so attracted to so that they want to learn more. When we combine historical fiction with media it is a marriage of Historical Fiction and Reenactment that is appealing to a vast audience with shows like Vikings, Medici: Masters of Florence, The Borgias, and so many others.
When we watch shows such as those mentioned, we are seeing a combination of reenactment and historical fiction which only the modern technology we have now can produce. Film and television are not the only forms of entertainment and media that have arisen because of our growing technology; video games are a frontier that is just barely being explored for its vast possibilities and I argue that video games provide a unique experience that no film, television show, or book can even come close to matching.
Video Games as Public History
The topic of Video Games is vast and many subjects can be covered by the numerous genres and types of games that have been produced over the past 50 or so years. This analysis will only be examining video games that are historically inspired and are first person shooters, for the strategy and grand strategy genres are too complex to explore alongside the first person games.
Now, Battlefield 1 is a combination of Reenactment and Historical Fiction but in a unique way compared to movies, television, and other forms of media. The reason it is unique is because the player/consumer of this product is forced to interact with the narrative and setting of the game rather than mindlessly consume whatever narrative is being portrayed like in a movie, television show, or novel. Battlefield 1 places the player in the shoes of a soldier in the midst of World War I and you are forced to react to this environment you are placed in.
During multiplayer matches, players are thrown into the thick of battle with other players in objective based gameplay. If the match is taking place along the western front, the game will begin with beautiful landscapes with green rolling hills, clear skies, and well built and neet cities. By the end of the match the landscape will be littered with bodies, craters from explosions will be all over the battlefield, carcasses of destroyed tanks and vehicles will be spread throughout. The player will either be charging alongside dozens of fellow players to take an objective while getting shot at, seeing fellow players get torn apart by rifle and machine gun fire or they will be holding bunkers and trenches from wave after wave of enemy players.
Battlefield 1 and games that are historically inspired are very much like interactive movies that allow players to witness and participate in crafted narratives. “You” aren’t the hero but you are playing as the story’s hero. The multiplayer is actually story based and players are fighting in battles that are historically inspired by actual battles that occurred during the Great War. In France players will participate in the Spring Offensive of 1918, in the Ottoman Empire the players will fight in the British Offensives in Arabia and Egypt, and in Italy the players will fight the Battle of Monte Grappa. Unlike in some games, players aren’t playing as some kind of superhuman hero but are expected to fight and die, a lot. Dog fights with biplanes, early tank warfare, bayonet charges, massed machine gun and rifle fire, and the clearing of trenches and bunkers are the main parts of the game and both sides are expected to have hundreds of losses by the end of the match.
The stories that players experience in the Battlefield 1 Singleplayer are also finely crafted to not make the player the “hero” but for the player to play an established character and witness the character’s struggles and emotions during cinematic cut-scenes. A quote by Jonathan Elfving and Eric Holmes of Dice Studios about the Singleplayer provides an indepth look at what the studio intended to do with their single player experience,
“In Battlefield 1 you’ll experience a series of what we call War Stories: personal stories focusing on different protagonists with unique backgrounds and skills. While our characters are at war, the stories in Battlefield 1 are personal. They’re about people rather than history or battles….In previous Battlefield iterations we’ve experienced the story through the eyes of one main character, and it was very rare that the camera cut anywhere. But in Battlefield 1 we decided we wanted stronger characters instead of just telling players “you are the character”. One way to do this was to invoke classic cinematics that lets you see your character more than in first-person-theater. We wanted the player to see and feel what the characters are going through, rather than just experiencing it from behind their eyes. That has really payed off for us not just in storytelling ability, but in emotional engagement. ”
They set out to create this kind of experience and, I believe, achieved their goal. As they stated, the Single Player Missions are called War Stories and you, as the player, are playing as a pre-established character with their own backstory and reasons for being in the war. There are 5 War Stories in total and each is based on real people. Friends in High Places is a War Story about an American volunteer fighting in the Royal Air Force against the German Air Force. Through Mud and Blood is another War Story where the player is a British Chauffeur who has been conscripted as a Mark V tank driver. Nothing is Written is about Lawrence of Arabia’s fight in the Middle East and the player is Lawrence’s right hand, an Arabic Woman, fighting for her people’s freedom. Avanti Savoia is another where the player is an Italian Special Forces soldier fighting in Monte Grappa against the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s armies. Finally, there is The Runner where the player plays the character Frederick Bishop, a famous Australian soldier who fought on the beaches of Gallipoli and died in the battles following the initial landing.
In most cases, you are not some major hero, though, you do end up doing some pretty over the top missions to keep the game interesting. But, it’s not like you are single handedly winning the war. You are a single cog in a massive war machine, fighting alongside thousands of “fellow” soldiers. You are given specific missions to complete and most, if not all, are fairly inconsequential for the war effort. Rather, its focussed on the personal aspect of the war and the personal stories of the characters that the player interacts with or is playing as. This is totally unique because, unlike movies or television series where you read or watch characters develop, here you are watching them develop along with interacting with them as well. You are fighting alongside them, or fighting as them. You witness both from their own eyes and from a third person perspective of what they are going through and what they are doing. It provides this emotional connection to the player because you are vested in the story by your participation. However, this experience is different from reenactment because it’s not solely about your experience but it’s also about understanding the characters’ experiences in the game.
Realism vs Accuracy
Now, we must understand that Battlefield 1 is not an accurate representation of the First World War. It is fairly realistic in its appearance, the graphics, its portrayal, the weapons, and so on, but it is not totally accurate. Jonathan Casey form the National World War I Museum tells us in an interview that Battlefield 1 took numerous liberties and has made some mistakes regarding accuracy and aspects of the war. However, it is not a criticism but merely a fact that he states, for he says that he understands the reasons why such decisions were made to not include or to change certain aspects about the war.
We must remember that Battlefield 1 and all video games are made by companies to make a profit and therefore games cannot be boring or else no one would buy it. World War 1 was not the fast paced and action packed war that we see in Battlefield 1. Most of the war was a slow and gruelling slog, with night raids that were terrifying for boths sides, artillery raining down giving thousands of soldiers shellshock, sniper fire picking off careless soldiers wgo keep their head high for too long, and the long periods of inaction that were both boring and dreadful. The large scale battles were flashpoints of this war but were not reality of what the war was for most men. This slow and grinding warfare was not included because, just like in real life, its boring. You would be stuck just standing around in a trench, listening to sniper fire whistling by, a land mine occasionally going off, and artillery shells raining down for the most part with the occasional exchange of fire against or as a raiding party. The only “fast paced” combat would be the large scale assaults that are famous and are in the game already. We only get the “fun” aspects of the war. However, the team behind the production was very intent on trying to ensure the game was as close to accurate as they could make it without having to give up the fun aspect:
Battlefield 1 is a realistic but not historically accurate game. That is why it is Historical Fiction because to make a Historically Accurate game would be quite boring. It has been made to entertain and to implement guns jamming, the slow and gruelling trench combat, disease, trench foot, and the other aspects of the actual war would not only be fairly boring but also because of the limitations of our current technology.
The British Empire & Battlefield 1
Finally, how does this all shape the image of the British Empire you may ask. This is a game made to entertain and is not historically accurate, it is also not about the British Empire itself but about World War 1. Why should we care about what the British Empire is portrayed like in this game?
Well, it is true, the British Empire is not the focus of the game, World War 1 is. However, this game sheds light on what narrative that is currently persisting about the British Empire in our modern world. This is a form of media that has been produced by a group of people who view the Empire in a certain way and this game is being accessed by millions of people. Therefore, for the same reason people debate over the accuracy of movies like Dunkirk because of its wide reaching effect, we should also explore Triple A games with a similar reach as well.
The interesting thing about the British Empire in this game is that it is not portrayed as this Imperial Power that is fighting another Imperial Power in this international game of dominance between rival empires. We see a narrative of the British heroes fighting against the brutal Central and Oriental Empires. The British in this game are the heroes, just how most of the Western World would like to believe. The problem is that this war is not like World War 2 where it is clear that Hitler and Nazi Germany were an evil regime committing genocide on a scale never seen before. Rather, World War 1 was a war that was fought because of the rivalries of the various Empires of the world having gone too far to be effectively kept in check through diplomacy making war the only “proper” way to resolve the power struggles across the planet.
It is interesting because in this entire game, we never see the Central Powers’ point of view. No missions are from the German, Austro-Hungarian, or Turkish side, instead they are always the enemy. The game does not outright state how the Central Powers are the “bad guys” or how the Entente and the Allies are the “good guys” but by not allowing the players to experience stories and points of view from the Central Powers but only from the Allied (British) side is quite telling. To give us stories from the Central Powers would humanize them the way the producers set out to humanize the allied characters. It would be two human stories conflicting with one another and we would understand the tragedy of the war so much better if we experienced the game from both perspectives. Rather, by giving no voice to the Central Powers, we are missing out on half the story and the Central Powers are the defacto “bad guys” because we cannot connect with them like we have with the Allied characters.
A major thing the game leaves out is all the racist and Imperial sentiments that the British had during the war as well. It is not addressed at all. In fact, there is a clear over-representation of Colonial Troops in the game. There are instances where there should not have been any colonial troops in certain theatres of war or where there should be far less in comparison to European soldiers. Almost half of the british and German troops fighting in France are colonial troops in the game yet less than 1% of British and German troops fighting in mainland Europe during the real war were colonial troops (Indian and African). It is very strange that the developers took that route and I believe that an algorithm could have easily been made to differentiate the various battlefields and populate the “teams” with the appropriate soldier types based on the location and faction. But the same question can be asked about why the decision was made to give us this Good vs Evil narrative of the allies vs the central powers.
This is to say that games, just like crafted narratives of many states and scholars, are not perfect but have a certain agenda behind them. I am not trying to argue that games are perfect places to learn about history. Rather, I believe that videogames are perfect ways to draw in people to get interested into topics they may have absolutely no knowledge about. They can peek someone’s interest and get him to want to learn more after being exposed to it through the fun and interactive platform of a video game. Despite the inaccurate and simple narrative that the game provides, we know that Battlefield 1 has drawn attention to the events of World War 1 by the mere fact that it was such a successful game. It garnered more interest in the period by being such a popular game that millions of people have bought and played. Video Games are a “gateway” for lay audiences to learn about history and should they want more and accurate information now they have a “basis” to start from. Video Games can also act as supplements for people who already have extensive knowledge about a period. Someone who has studied about World War I extensively may find that Battlefield I provides an insight or perspective he or she has not thought of before.
Uniqueness of Video Games
When we look at various forms of media that are used as Public History such as movies and television shows, we are given a product that we are meant to enjoy in a specific way. The movie or show we are given is set and we aren’t able or meant to modify it. Video Games are not like movies or shows. Video Games offer the community a wide variety of options because of Modifications (Mods). Mods are changes made to the game by the community members, allowing for either subtle little detailed changes or huge overhauls of the game as a whole. These game modifications are used to “enhance” the product because these are creations by the community to add to the product they are given.
Battlefield 1 has numerous mods that many people play with on PC. There are mods that are purely for fun; make explosions bigger, change uniforms to funny looking costumes, make gun sounds absurd, and so on. However, there is the other side of Modding that is meant to enhance or immerse the player even more with changes to the scenery, fix mistakes to uniforms/gun/vehicles, change “difficulty”, enhance sounds, and other mods that would make the game more immersive and accurate. This also ties into the idea of how players want to play the game. These tools also allow for players to create their own “in game movies” that use assets from the game to produce short films depicting their own takes on the war. An example of this is the short film Shell Shock produced by a Youtuber and some friends of his:
In Singleplayer, the player is “forced” to participate in the narrative and play a certain way. However, in Multiplayer this is not the case. Players in multiplayer matches are capable of playing any way they want; snipers, machine gunners, assault troopers with submachine guns, grenadiers, light artillerymen, tank crews, pilots, and so on. There are many things that one can do whilst on the battlefield and you are not forced to be any one thing. But this is not the only choice players can make while playing but they are also able to choose how “hardcore” they want to play.
Players are usually divided into two groups; those who just want to have fun and those who want a more immersive experience, similar to the divide in the mods. There are numerous sites and communities for people who want to have a more immersive experience by finding like minded players and hosting their own matches on private servers. For those who just want to play and have fun, they merely need to join a hosted lobby by the Company to jump in and play a match. There are communities for all kinds of players and one is not forced to play one kind of way or another. Battlefield 1 and many other games allow for great diversity in gameplay and style, along with numerous tools for modding, though this is variable depending on Intellectual Property Rights and the Company’s willingness to cooperate and allow for players to mod their games with their tools. Not all games are as easy or allowed to be modded and it all depends on the producer.
In Conclusion, I want to reaffirm that I am not stating that Video Games are an alternative form of education. I believe that Video Games are a great way for people to be exposed to history and ideas in a way that is entertaining and willingly engaged with, not “forced” like in a high school classroom. Through the concepts of Reenactment and Historical Fiction, Video Games offer “lay” people a way to interact with our history in a fun way that may or may not be accurate. However, the accuracy isn’t the focal point of this article because it is historical fiction and therefore it is meant to be entertaining with the backdrop of a historical event or people. Battlefield 1 and video games like it are ways that millions of people are exposed to events and ideas that they might have never been exposed to before, allowing for a dialogue and interaction with actual historical documents and facts through this exposure.
In the case of the portrayal of the actual war and the British Empire in Battlefield 1, it would be easy to dismiss the “message” the game sends to the audience due to it being a videogame. However, I believe that Battlefield 1 is a great representation and example of how the First World War is remembered by people in our modern age. We see a major simplification of the conflict, one missing all the complexities and drama of the era; simplifying the conflict to be one of Good vs Evil. It misses the actual Imperial aspect of the British Empire and how the war was started because of the rivalries of competing World Empires. We also never see the war from the Central Powers’ perspective and it is completely dominated by a British view of the war. It is a view totally devoid of the Imperial and racial prejudices and characteristics of the Empire at the time. Yet, despite this skewed and improper representation, I still believe that this game is still highly important to the education and exposure of people to history. Even though the Empire appears to be glorified and romanticized in the game, it still exposes people to the Empire. It gets people interested and wanting to do their own research, engaging with scholars, scholarly works, facts, and documents about the Empire and hopefully learning the truth. This would likely not be the case if people had not been exposed to this game in the first place because history to a lay audience tends to be considered boring and dull. But, through a fun and interactive experience such as in a video game, such dialogues and interests have a greater possibility of being borne and that is why I believe we must take greater interest in the historical aspects of video games and be more conscious about their ability to reach a huge swathe of humanity in a way that no other media can.
Sources and Further Reading
- Rodwell, Grant. Whose History?. University of Adelaide Press. 2013.
- Williams, Michael. The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 8, No. 3: Opportunities in Historical Fiction. Catholic University of America Press. 1922.
- Rycik, Mary Taylor. & Rosier, Brenda. The Reading Teacher, Vol. 63, No. 2: The Return of Historical Fiction. Wiley on behalf of the International Literacy Association. 2009.
- Agnew, Vanessa. Criticism, Vol. 46, No. 3, Special Issue: Extreme and Sentimental History: Introduction: What is Reenactment?. Wayne State University Press. 2004.
- Kahana, Jonathan. Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, Vol. 50, No. ½: Introduction: What Now? Presenting Reenactment. Drake Stutesman; Wayne State University Press. 2009.
- Fenlon, Wes. We showed Battlefield 1 to a World War I historian: His verdict on the machine guns, house to house battles, and running on blimps. PC Gamer. July 20, 2016. http://www.pcgamer.com/we-showed-battlefield-1-to-a-world-war-i-historian/
- Winkie, Luke. ‘Battlefield 1’: How realistic are games’ WWI-era weapons?: Youtube’s foremost expert on vintage military hardware examines new shooter’s historical chops. Rolling Stone. October 26, 2016 http://www.rollingstone.com/glixel/news/battlefield-1-how-realistic-are-games-wwi-era-weapons-w448290
- Hardy, Julia. Battlefield 1: Recreating World War I. Interviews with lead DICE studios staff by Julia Hardy of BBC. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-FQixr-xa8