In war, not everyone is a soldier

Just because I can successfully run virtual hospitals, pizzerias, amusement parks or soccer clubs doesn’t mean I’m a gifted top manager in real life. Just because I can set virtual best times in a racing car or perform stunning slam dunks on a virtual basketball court doesn’t mean I’m a gifted sports icon in real life. And just because I’ve fought the wars of past and future decades on countless virtual battlefields, I have no idea what war actually means in real life. Digital fear, is actually not fear. It is not omnipresent or immediate. It can be turned off at the push of a button. I have no idea what war means – hundreds of movies, documentaries, books or video games won’t change that.

Game + war works: Among the most commercially successful video games have always been war games set in authentic and real environments. Marketed as authentic representations, however, they often offer only a highly selective form of realism while omitting key aspects of war. In contrast to the numerous games that focus on the military perspective, Polish developer studio 11 bit studios dared to put the civilian perspective of war at the center of the narrative a few years ago with This War of Mine. “In war, not everyone is a soldier” was the subtitle to the game.

Instead of elite soldiers, you control a group of civilians: resource scarcity, disorientation, overwhelm, struggle for survival. As the game progresses, the players are increasingly driven into moral dilemmas, and the virtual narrative forces them to make one contradictory decision after another. It forces the players to self-reflect, makes them question their own (supposedly irrefutable) moral standards, and lets egoism and altruism collide in the best Thomas Hobbes manner.

Critical anti-war and peace games, such as This War of Mine, Papers, Please, Valiant Hearts: The Great War or Spec Ops: The Line offer an alternative to commercial mainstream titles with an underlying military theme. They make it possible to touch and deal with history, conflicts and war in an active way – compared to the merely passively consumed representations and images from films, series or books. The knowledge of what war actually means, how it feels, what it does to oneself, however, has not been acquired afterwards, despite all immersion and interactivity. Nevertheless, such video games can play a special role in forming cultural memory of past wars. And they can help to promote empathy and create an awareness of war. Even for a Russian war of aggression on Ukraine, which is contrary to international law and in which freedom- and peace-loving civilians must fear for their lives and those of their family and friends. In war, not everyone is a soldier.

11 bit studios team statement (February 25, 2022): “Today Russian military forces attacked the free country of Ukraine – our neighbours. As a Polish game studio and creators of the globally recognised anti-war game, This War of Mine – one that directly speaks about the suffering and misery of civilians who are affected by war – we’d like to hereby announce our company statement: we stand against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Just words would be empty without a meaningful act though, and the timing is crucial, so the act is as follows: for the next seven days, all profits from This War of Mine, all its DLCs, on all stores and all platforms will go to a special fund. A week from now, this money will be donated to the Ukrainian Red Cross to directly support victims of war in Ukraine.” – The fundraising campaign has now ended, raising $850,000 that has already been transferred to the Ukrainian Red Cross.

This post is also available in: German