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How to Win a War

With a nuclear North Korea and Iran on the way, the geopolitical situation is evolving in unpredictable ways. Can a hypersophisticated World War II simulation teach us 21st-century global strategy? An eminent historian rates the state of play.


Hitler and his generals planning the Russian campaign in 1941.  

All my life I have played va banque [go for broke],” said Hitler. Churchill too was a gambler, once literally deluging his wife with his casino winnings. Eisenhower preferred the bridge table. For Homo ludens (“playing man,” a phrase coined by the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga in 1938), war is the great game and World War II was the greatest game of them all.

My sons, ages 7 and 12, play these games compulsively. For a while, their GameCube favorite was Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. Then they discovered Call of Duty. The latest fad is Soldiers: Heroes of World War II, which they play online on their PCs.

To say that I’m interested in World War II would be an understatement. For the past few years, I have been toiling to write its history, skulking in my study and neglecting my children in the process. In theory, games like Medal of Honor ought to have helped our family to reconnect when I finally emerged from my books. But no. Unfortunately—and to the disappointment of my sons—I hate them. And that’s despite the fact that I sincerely believe computer games have a potentially revolutionary role to play in the teaching of history.

I’ll go further. There’s never been a more important time for people to play World War II games. For the last five years, politicians from the president down have been recycling the rhetoric of that conflict. September 11 was “a day of infamy.” Saddam/Ahmadinejad/Kim Jong Il is the new Hitler. And yet few of these politicians seem to have any real understanding of the strategic risks involved in global conflict.

So why do I hate Medal of Honor? The trouble is—and the same could be said of nearly all its competitors—it’s profoundly unhistorical. It’s what’s known in the games trade as a first-person shooter (FPS) game. As a player, you take on the role of Lieutenant Mike Powell of the U.S. Army Rangers. You see the battlefield—a Normandy beach, for instance—from his vantage point. As Lieutenant Powell, you do pretty much what you feel like—which is to bag as many Germans as you can. In reality, an officer’s principal concern on Omaha Beach was somehow to maintain the cohesion of his unit in the face of a lethal storm of steel.

Second, the cost of a miscalculation is low. Wounds merely deduct points from your “health.” Death—usually and rather grotesquely signaled by a grunt and the descent of a red mist over the screen—simply means the end of one game and the start of the next.

In fairness, games like Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Soldiers have taught my sons an amazing amount about World War II hardware. But at root, they’re just playing Space Invaders—make that Beach Invaders—with fancy graphics.

Part of the problem may be the games’ unconscious anachronism—many of them are inspired, if not directly based, on software recently developed by the U.S. military for training purposes.

If you want to see the future of the war-games industry, it’s a good idea to check out the annual conference of darpa (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) or to monitor the latest output of the Army’s Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation. The problem is that the situations the Army wants to simulate today are very different from the ones experienced by soldiers in the early forties.

To the historian, in any case, tactics and the individual soldier’s battlefield experience are only some of the war’s many facets. Of more importance by far is the question of strategy. D-day was a decisive Allied victory, but not a preordained one. On the eve of the operation, Eisenhower was sufficiently conscious of the risks involved to draft the statement he would issue in the event of its failure.

“What if D-day had gone wrong?” is only one of scores of counterfactual questions historians have asked about the war. What if the Nazis had invaded Britain in 1940? What if Hitler had captured Moscow in 1941? What if the Japanese had won the Battle of Midway in 1942? These are questions that computer games ought, in theory, to be able to help answer. And yet no military historian, to my knowledge, has made use of them. This is doubly surprising. Not only is there a long and respectable tradition of war games within the military academy, but games also played a central role in Cold War strategy, advancing an entire branch of mathematics—game theory—in the process.

But Cold War games are now obsolete. Then, there were just two players, each armed to the teeth with nukes. Today we live in a multipolar, multiplayer world. Some players are much better armed than others. In that sense, today’s strategic problems are more like those of the World War II era. Sure, the U.S. can invade Iraq. But what will the French do? The Russians? The Chinese? What if invading Iraq ends up benefiting Iran? The question is, where to learn this kind of stuff? Sure, there are already some games that offer World War II scenarios. But Civilization and Empire Earth, to take perhaps the best-known examples, are not what the historian needs, since what they provide is such a crude caricature of the historical process. In both games, the player quickly learns that it is prudent to build up one’s economic capabilities before embarking on a war. But this is a universal truth, as valid for Julius Caesar as for Benito Mussolini. Behind the graphics, neither game tells you much about the specifics of 1939 to 1945. The warring sides therefore might as well be hobbits and orcs or teenage wizards and dementors.


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