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The United Kingdom’s Imperial War Museum in London is launching an exhibit on Friday that explores what video games can tell us about war.

The exhibit is called War Games: Real Conflicts | Virtual Worlds | Extreme Entertainment and it will delve into the medium of games. It seeks to challenge perceptions of how video games interpret stories about war and conflict through a series of titles which, over the last 40 years, have reflected events from the First World War to the present.

You might wonder if it’s all about patriotic games used as propaganda. But one of the titles featured is This War of Mine, which depicts war from the point of view of civilians trying to find food and survive in a war-torn city. It was published by Polish game studio 11bit studios in 2014.

The exhibit has immersive installations, never-before-displayed objects and perspectives from industry experts. It also has a playable retro gaming zone and a program of supporting events.

The titles on display include Sniper Elite 5, recently released by lead exhibition sponsor Rebellion and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The exhibit will present 12 unique titles including video games and a military training simulator alongside new acquisitions and objects from the war museum’s collection.

While some view the museum as a tribute to Britain’s military colonialism, I’ve been to the place and it has moving stories about war and the sacrifices made by soldiers over the centuries.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Captain Price leads the way in the “Townhouse” scene.

The exhibit raises questions about how different developers have portrayed conflict and highlighting real-life stories which many have drawn similar inspiration from. From first-person shooters to real-time strategy campaigns, modern games often depict thoroughly researched historical events. Others use distinctive graphic styles and techniques which reveal contemporary societal attitudes.

Featured in the exhibition, Six Days in Fallujah is an upcoming video game. The developers created a documentary with the real testimonies of marines, soldiers and Iraqi civilians affected by the Second Battle of Fallujah, a crucial operation in the Iraq War. That’s pretty realistic.

Meanwhile, Worms, a 2D artillery game, portrays its protagonists as an elite army of cartoon worms, tapping into a de-humanizing mechanism that artists, such as Beatrice Fergusson in her sketchbook from 1938, have used to process the traumas and anxieties of conflict. Other titles include 11-11: Memories Retold and Bury Me, My Love.

Bury Me, My Love is a game about war refugees.

Using these diverse case studies, War Games will invite visitors to interrogate the tension that exists between the thrill and tragedy of warfare in a game and its repercussions in the real world. Common gameplay tropes such as explosive barrels and sniper rifles will feature next to collection items like facial prosthetics, developed in the First World War to disguise injuries caused by modern combat.

Similarly, items belonging to real individuals — such as the blanket of Lore Engels-Meyer, evacuated from her home in Berlin when the Second World War broke out — will display alongside case studies like Bury Me, My Love and This War of Mine, the museum said. Together these titles challenge visitors’ expectations of traditional war games by going beyond heroic depictions of conflict to explore civilian and refugee experiences.

11-11 Memories Retold features two soldiers, a pigeon, and a cat.
11-11 Memories Retold features two soldiers, a pigeon, and a cat.

Interrogating the blurring of the virtual and the real, the exhibition will also explore how video game technology can be used, and is used, to help shape real wars, the museum said. Alongside software used to train militaries, War Games will feature brand new acquisitions including an Xbox 360 controller once used to operate the camera of an unmanned aerial vehicle in Afghanistan and Iraq, the museum said.

Chris Cooper (head of Second World War and Mid-20th Century Conflict) and Ian Kikuchi (senior curator historian, Second World War and Mid-20th Century), curated war games. It was developed in close collaboration with an advisory panel of gaming experts, enthusiasts and historians whose voices feature throughout the exhibition to give a variety of unique perspectives.

Cooper and Kikuchi said in a statement, “The drama and tragedy of war has fascinated us for millennia. Paintings, books, plays, films and tv shows have all told gripping stories about conflict. Video games have continued this tradition in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, becoming today’s largest and fastest growing entertainment industry. We hope this exhibition prompts visitors to consider the influence this media might have on our perceptions and understanding of war and conflict.”

From September 30, 2022 to January 2, 2023, War Games will be accompanied by the retro game zone
where visitors can play 13 iconic titles including Battlezone, Medal of Honour and Top Gun on consoles ranging from the Atari 2600 to the Sega Dreamcast. Further expanding the themes of the exhibition, a series of public events, to be announced at a later date, will consider how video games can shape our understanding of conflict.

War Games: Real Conflicts | Virtual Worlds | Extreme Entertainment is supported by lead sponsor Rebellion.

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