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It's Not a War Crime If They're Toys

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Thursday, Mar 11, 2010
But they're just toys. They fall to pieces, not into rotting corpses. It's all okay.

I have no problem with violence in video games. None. I know it’s pretend, I think it’s a ton of fun, and I shoot the hell out of digital human analogs on a pretty much daily basis. This post isn’t about that. It’s also not about hating on Toy Soldiers. In fact, I love the game and heartily recommend it to one an all. I like it more because it made me think about some kind of disturbing issues. I’m talking about using chemical weapons to kill masses of people. I’m also talking about gunning down hundreds of soldiers with concentrated machine-gun fire as they bravely charge out from the trenches. I’m talking about the worst horrors of World War I, only played out with virtual lead soldiers instead of virtual humans.


The Great War, or the War to End All Wars as it was once known, doesn’t get much attention in pop culture. There was those episodes of Young Indiana Jones that handled it pretty well and, of course, Gallipoli and All’s Quiet on the Western Front, but compared to World War II, it’s almost like a side show to history, the prequel to the big war story yet to come. I think that the reason for this is pretty clear: the trench warfare that typified the war just doesn’t have as many stories to tell. It’s always grim and static, with hopeless charges into enemy fire and clouds of poison gas choking the life out of our of helpless young men. It’s as grim as war gets, and while the horrors of WWII no doubt match them tragedy for tragedy, it was a war of movement and strategy. Or at least we see it that way. Plus, the Nazis were so damn evil that they have become undeniable, pure villains worth fighting. Most people don’t even really know what the hell World War I was all about.


Toy Soldiers captures much of this horror quite well. It is a game about chewing through wave after wave of enemy soldiers. The brief intros to each battle state only the basics: defend this, stop them, kill those. There’s no indication of why, nor does there need to be. The clockwork miniature men charge your position and die in droves. The game does the only thing that it can to make this fun to play, putting you, the player, in the role of building and operating the massive meat grinder. Your machine-gun nests, mortar positions, artillery pieces, and, yes, chemical weapons are all that stand between those metal bastards and your toy box.


The perversity of those poison gas attacks is what got me thinking a little more deeply about Toy Soldiers. It’s a weapon system with a very bad rep, the kind of thing that’s seen as the pinnacle of criminal warfare. It’s probably no worse for the victim than any number of things that a bullet can do to the body, but it seems much more indiscriminate and somehow cruel. It’s also not something that you see very often in games and not something that I’ve ever seen used as much as it is here, where you can see the toy men choking and gasping before expiring within the cloud of yellow-green death. But they’re just toys. They fall to pieces, not into rotting corpses. It’s all okay.


That, I think, is the brilliance of Toy Soldiers. They’ve managed to take the classic Tower Defense style gameplay and apply it to the only modern era war that makes sense to portray through this play style. World War I was all about static defense positions from which the boys fought off endless waves of enemies. However, a straight-forward simulation of the actual historical slaughterhouse would probably have had limited appeal. Even a jaded gamer like me might have gotten sickened just a little bit if the virtual doughboys dying on screen had been “real.” But they’re not real, they’re toys! So it’s cute fun, not horrible at all!


This is a perfect example of why game violence shouldn’t be mistaken for real violence. The Toy Soldiers version of war adds an extra layer of metaphor to disguise the real world horrors, but the fact is that all games are just toys. Thus, Toy Soldiers works as a lovely example of how players perceive violence in all types of games. We know it’s an abstraction of a type present in games like Risk, Stratego, and chess. The difference between Toy Soldiers and Modern Warfare 2 really just comes down to the difference between G.I. Joe and Playmobil. One is more “realistic” than the other, but in the end, they’re both just toys and it’s all a game that we’re playing.

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