Playing with History
Plato would have had a field day with video games like Conflict: Desert Storm II: Back to Baghdad. Notorious for banning poets from his utopian republic for their dangerous distortions of truth in the name of art, the Greek philosopher would probably have advised that designers of history-based war games should just be executed on sight.
While creators of war simulations often strive for painstaking realism and historical accuracy, their earnest efforts inevitably (Plato would say, necessarily) come up short. Conflict: Desert Storm II is no different.
The game is set during the Gulf War of 1991 and allows the player(s) to control a squad of four men as they complete various stealth and combat missions ostensibly aimed at forcing Iraq’s army out of Kuwait. Your team—described in the instruction manual as “a fighting man’s fighting men”—engages in operations such as stopping the Iraqi army’s sabotage of Kuwait’s oilfields, rescuing downed comrades trapped in an Iraqi city, and disarming Iraqi missiles equipped with sarin gas. Players can choose whether their soldiers are American or British, which affects very little aside from the accents you hear from the in-game dialogue.
To boost realism and credibility, a British SAS agent named Cameron Spence served as the military consultant for Conflict: Desert Storm II, as well as its predecessor. There’s even a mission based on one actually carried out by Spence’s SAS unit where your squad must destroy the Iraqi Victor-2 communications site. With details like this, the game’s designers are purposefully attempting to blur the line between fiction and reality. A dangerous endeavour, Plato would say, for reality cannot be fully captured by any artistic representation. To even attempt such a feat is to knowingly mislead one’s audience.
Like most war games, Conflict: Desert Storm II‘s historical realism is limited to pedantic details like the names and differing performance of the weapons that your team members use. Reality and history are consistently betrayed by the game’s inability to engage in any of the complexities of what the real Desert Storm operation entailed. Far from being realistic and accurate, the game seems more like a soldier’s fantasy of what the conflict should have been like.
The Gulf War cost a substantial amount of Iraqi civilians their lives, as well as their homes, schools, churches, hospitals, and public utilities. The US bombing of the Amiriyeh civilian bomb shelter, which incinerated hundreds, is perhaps the worst example of the damage done to innocent Iraqis. But there is no mention of any incidents like this in Conflict: Desert Storm II. The instructions advise players to “Try to avoid killing civilians,” but that is all the mention they get.
In some of the game’s loading screens, historical background information is provided. One such screen tells of how US General Schwarzkopf offered “safe passage to Iraqis for withdrawal from Kuwait.” The game doesn’t tell us that this offer was followed up by the massive carpet-bombing of retreating Iraqi military units along a road soon to be called the “highway of death” by Iraqis and disgusted US veterans alike.
Far from reality, Conflict: Desert Storm II reflects only a sanitized version of the Gulf War in which US and UK soldiers can do no wrong. With a follow-up game based on the Vietnam conflict in the works, I can only cringe along with Plato at how much history will be revised and reality distorted to make the Vietnam experience palatable for gamers in the way the designers have done with this war.
Problems inevitably arise from trying to fit an historical event such as the Gulf War into the genre of an action video game. The medium utilizes certain clichés and conventions and these oversimplify and misrepresent the real events upon which the game is based. For example, it’s standard practice in video games for the player’s character to be much harder to kill than her or his enemies. When those enemies are supposed to represent real people, however, this convention seems horribly misrepresentative to the point of being offensive.
In Conflict: Desert Storm II, your US or UK squad members can take scores of bullets and one or two tank rounds before going down. And even then, they can always be revived by another soldier through the magic of the “medkits” that they carry. The Iraqi characters, on the other hand, suffer from a major case of “Stormtrooper syndrome”: they take only a bullet or two to kill and are visually indistinct, voiceless, and lacking in any characterization other than as the “bad guys.”
This last characteristic is the most troubling. Action games call for heroes and villains, categories that do not always fit the shades of grey found on the battlefield of war. It’s one thing to cast orcs or some other imaginary monsters as being evil. It’s quite another to have Iraqi soldiers filling the role of villain and the US or UK soldiers naively presented as the heroes. Quite unrealistic, such categorization shows a blatant disregard for historical accuracy. Wars have never been so neatly black and white.
It should be possible to make a good game out of historical events, but it will require an eye for complexity and subtlety that the designers of Conflict: Desert Storm II do not have. As it stands, their game is simply an exercise in genre gaming that robs history for its setting and disfigures it dangerously in the process. There are heavy philosophical questions to be asked about translating real events into video games. This game asks none of them.