the (sometimes) difficult task of war games

As the distinguished historian of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Andrew Birch strolled through the galleries during the day to see which exhibits piqued visitors’ interest.

Amid the lowly departures from World War II and Cold War exhibits, he noticed a strange phenomenon: groups of students were discussing, in surprising detail, the merits of individual weapons.

So after seeing this behavior many times, I ended up saying, ‘Yeah, you know these guns? Why are you talking? And they said, “Oh, well, we play with these guns in the games we play, you know, first-person shooters. Call of Duty. »

It was incredible for Burch, the player himself.

“I thought that people approach history in so many different ways,” he said.

He said some became involved in past wars through personal experience — by meeting a veteran or talking to a family member who served.

Andrew Burch, Senior Historian at the Canadian War Museum: “Games are entertainment par excellence. (Radio-Canada News)

“But many people don’t have any of those personal relationships and instead deal with them through the media, and especially, in ways, through games,” he added.

It’s an intriguing idea, interesting enough to convince the Ottawa museum to undertake a major research project with a focus on a full exhibit for visitors next spring.

The impact of war games on society – and history – has become a major area of ​​study in Canada, the United States and elsewhere.

Birch said he approaches the subject with caution and is well aware that games, like movies, have the potential to distort or misrepresent perceptions of past events.

“War is not always fun”

“Games are the ultimate in entertainment,” he said.

“They tell stories. They offer an activity that should be fun, and war is not always fun. It’s hard, it’s hard. This has a huge human cost, and one that is not necessarily effectively conveyed through these games. »

This concern may be correct to a certain extent. In online discussion forums and on a personal level, young gamers say they understand that when they turn on the console, they are not browsing their history.

Katherine Robson, 16, is an Ottawa high school student and avid gamer. He said he uses games like Call of Duty: D-Day And the Call of Duty: WW2 as a launching pad for his curiosity.

Kathryn Robson, 16, Ottawa high school student and avid gamer: “I was looking for why certain things happened the way they did. » (Mark Rubishaud/CBC News)

“I was like, ‘Hey, that’s really cool. “I’ve always been kind of a big date geek,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s so fun because I see something there, and I don’t watch it anymore. of battles. I was looking for why certain things happened the way they did. »

Now in 11th grade, Robson, whose family loves history, said the knowledge he gained from researching the games gave him an edge in today’s history class, which examines the conflict in the -20 century. century, from the Russian Revolution to the second. . The world war.

He said that he and his friends understood the difference between the real war and the digital version.

“It’s a video game,” Robson said. So I feel like they took some liberties with that, but I’m sure they got the basic ideas. “I’m sure war isn’t like that. But you have an idea of ​​people fighting back. »

The immersive nature of some of the game’s scenarios and characters gives young people a more intimate and personal appreciation of loss and sacrifice in the midst of Memorial Day.

“They’re real people,” Robson said. These people are just like you and me. »

“They’ve got lives, they’ve got loved ones, they’ve got families, and you have to see that this isn’t just a fun shooter, you have to remember that these mostly represent people who lost and gave their lives for in the world we live in. as you know now.

Matthew Caffrey, Civilian War Games Coordinator of the US Air Force, has studied war games for decades. (Radio-Canada News)

Matthew Caffrey, the US Air Force Civilian Wargaming Coordinator, has been immersed in the study and analysis of wargaming for decades.

Gaming – both military and civilian – is now fully understood and enjoyed, he said.

He says that the game of war is as old as civilization. Archaeological excavations in the Middle East have revealed the earliest toys used to teach children.

“Early game, the hunters and gatherers trained their children to be better at hunting and gathering,” Caffrey said in a recent interview with CBC News from Dayton, Ohio.

“But as cities grew, rulers no longer needed to train their children to hunt and gather. They have to train their children in the way of thinking of the son of a king or another emperor, or a pharaoh. So they designed the first abstract war games. .”

A 3,300-year-old fresco from Queen Nefertari’s tomb shows her playing Senet against an unseen opponent. (York Project)

For centuries, these games were the prerogative of the ruling elite – until they were modified and used more widely by ordinary people in later civilizations.

“In the Greek democracies, people played war games, which I think says a lot,” Caffrey said, noting that the Greeks believed the games were designed for the greater good. who are citizens.

Chess is one of the oldest war games. Its origins date back to 6th century India, where it was first called Chatarung.

Training for the next big war

Prussian Baron Georg von Reiswitz created modern board games in the late 18th century to guide European monarchs who knew nothing about wars. It was a reaction to the growth of warfare on the Continent after the French Revolution.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Germans – forbidden to maintain a large army after World War I – secretly turned maneuvers into a higher art in their military college. Ultimately, it was called the Kriegsaka Academy and helped create a group of generals that almost won WWII.

The Americans credit the pre-1941 naval war games with helping them win the Pacific War against Japan.

In the 1960s and 1970s, games became more accessible in the urban world. The commercial board game industry exploded during World War II.

The advent of computers gave us games like Civilization, which Caffrey classifies as a war game.

“It helps with critical thinking. It helps to be ahead, you know, if you see problems early,” he said.

“One of the ways I want to summarize very quickly is that war games help develop strategists and strategies. So, war games help to think more strategically and be more effective at strategizing. »

However, it offers an important condition: games, whether professional or personal, military or commercial, must be played in moderation.

“You have to exercise, you also have to read books, and you have to do a lot of other things,” Caffrey said.

“But if you play the right amount of games and the right kind of games, I think you can really give kids a competitive edge for the rest of their lives. »

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