Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Gears of War: 90 years since Armistice

"But it's not 'Lest We Forget', it's 'Lest We Remember.'"
--Alan Bennett, The History Boys

I'm a big fan of Alan Bennett's The History Boys, though sadly I have yet to see a stage production of it. For me, one of the most intriguing scenes in the movie deals with Irwin, the teacher, attempting to teach the boys about how the first and second World Wars fit into their views of history. The quotation above sticks in my mind for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that I am currently very interested in how we choose to commemorate and remember our dead.

My maternal great-grandfather fought in WWI; my paternal grandfather participated in WWII as a Royal Engineer, and saw action in both the European and Pacific theatres. Both were fortunate enough to survive. I do not take war lightly; I do not take lightly the sacrifices made, nor the people who are overseas right now--no matter how much I disagree with our role in Afghanistan. That said, I'm really unimpressed with a commercial put together by the Royal Canadian Mint to commemorate this year's Remembrance Day. The commercial in question is below:

This commercial bothers me because it approaches war from the perspective of a first person shooter video game, like Wolfenstein or Halo. War video games have always made me uncomfortable: I feel that they trivialize the sacrifices made by those fought and those who died. They simplify history into the lowest common denominator of GOOD (us) vs. BAD (them), and remove the humanity from history. Battles that real people fought in become simply obstacles to be defeated; levels to be conquered. There is no humanity in it anymore: it is simply entertainment and cinematics.

(I am aware of the various counterarguments here--movies as entertainment/glorification of war/propaganda; no real difference from non-war first person shooters; etc., but I will simply remind you that when watching a movie, or playing Halo, there is an additional level of fiction built in. You don't have to kill anyone simply watching Saving Private Ryan, and you don't have to kill anyone human in an FPS, which makes it much easier to disassociate yourself.)

Obviously, the Mint has chosen to portray this ad in this way for a particualr reason: they think it will appeal to a different audience. And to an extent, I think they're right--I was sure this was an ad for a video game, since it apes the conventions of video game trailers most expertly. The implied message, though, is what makes me so uncomfortable. In the video game world, war is a finite series of combats that have an infinite number of 'do overs' and 'save points'. If you die, well, just start over! If you stick to it long enough, by Geroge, you'll eventually beat the whole thing! And then you can put the CD back in its case, and leave it on a shelf, and forget all about it. There is no real sacrifice--not by the soldiers, not by those living in the war zone, not by those left at home. The actions of the gamer have no real consequences--unlike the soldier's. Even more than that, there is no aftermath. The war simply ends when you take out the game. There are no war reparations, no post traumatic stress disorder, and no real cost involved.

What a sad statement it is on us, that we have to interest people in remembrance in this way.

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