Adam Chapman

Adam Chapman is a research fellow at the University of Gothenburg. His research focuses on historical games, i.e. those games that in some way represent, or relate to discourses about the past. He is author of Digital Games as History: How Videogames Represent the Past and Offer Access to Historical Practice (Routledge, 2016), alongside a number of other publications on the topic of historical games. He is also founder of the Historical Game Studies Network.

It’s Hard to Play in the Trenches: World War I, Collective Memory and Videogames

by Adam Chapman


This article explores the relation of WWI popular collective memory to historical videogames. The article provides an overview of WWI games, organising them by genre and determining their engagement with the imagery that typically sustains and constitutes WWI popular memory. This reveals that -- unusually for popular history -- the majority of these games (40/58) do not significantly engage this memory. The article attempts to explain this lack of engagement by examining the issues that face videogames in trying to engage WWI popular memory (tonal incompatibility; fear of trivialisation through ludification; uncertainty about playable positions) given its relatively sensitive and contested nature. Accordingly, the analysis suggests that the nature of the depictions of WWI that players are exposed to in this new popular form is partly shaped by the particular limitations that the videogame form and its perceived cultural role entail. In doing so, the article also examines the nature of the videogame as a form for historical representation.


history, games, historical games, World War I, collective memory, popular memory, frame analysis


Recent centenary events mark both the beginning of World War I (WWI) and the end of living recollection of it. However, these events also show that in many places WWI remains a strong presence in collective memory. Indeed, this memory seems to have become “postmemory”, a term Hirsch (2008, p. 103) uses to describe second generations’ relation to particularly powerful traumatic historical events that occurred before their birth. Unsurprisingly then, WWI is still represented in a variety of media. If we accept that videogames can function as history (Chapman, 2013a, 2016), then many historical videogames are amongst the most successful contemporary popular historical products. This potentially significant influence, the obvious importance of WWI memory, and the notion that “cultural understandings of war require critical analysis of a diversity of media texts, and the contexts of their production” (Balabanova & Parry, 2014, p. 1), warrants the examination of WWI videogames [1].

This article provides an overview of WWI games, determines their engagement with the imagery that typically sustains and constitutes WWI popular memory and reveals that -- unusually for popular history -- the majority (40/58) do not significantly engage this memory. I suggest that this can be explained by the relatively sensitive and contested nature of WWI memory, which makes the perceived morality of playing with the topic and as WWI historical characters unclear. By using WWI games as a case study, the article details and reinforces previous arguments (Chapman & Linderoth, 2015) about the perceived limitations of historical games. Though the videogame has significant possibilities as a historical form (Chapman 2012, 2016; Kapell & Elliott, 2013; Pötzsch & Šisler, 2016), it is also important to understand the formal and cultural limits that exert pressure upon, determine and structure historical content.


Unlike in, for instance, literature studies, where a sample of the focus of study must generally be selected, in the field of games it is still possible to consider an entire thematic area by looking at most examples of the issue. Accordingly, using online community-generated lists alongside personal online research (e.g. using search engines, forums, message boards and industry/commercial resources), the most comprehensive list possible of all videogames that include depictions of WWI was produced (58 games). Mobile games were excluded from this selection in order to keep the sample manageable and in order not to skew the results (given that the nature of mobile technology restricts which of the conventional genres of games are commonly developed for these platforms). This said, even given a cursory perusal, it does seem that the WWI games for Apple’s App Store are also overwhelmingly flying or strategy games, in line with the findings below.

Using an understanding of the typical imagery of WWI popular memory drawn from existing research as an interpretative framework (see next section for further details), an analysis of each of the 58 games was performed in order to determine whether they contained such imagery and thus engaged with WWI popular memory. This analysis, and the organization of these games by genre, was achieved by playing the games or watching online videos of others doing so.

Goffman’s “frame analysis” (1986 [1974]) has also been used as a theoretical lens. This approach has been chosen because, as Wilson notes, “frame analysis constitutes a valuable tool for studies of heritage as it enables scholars to assess both the ‘construction of perception’ as well as the ‘object of perception’” (2013, p. 193). Accordingly, frame analysis comfortably conceptualises across many forms of social interaction, including memory, games and the discourses that surround them. Furthermore, it provides a framework, categories and a common theoretical language to identify and consider components of this discourse and the strategies deployed by agents within it. It therefore seems that, as Wilson argues, frame analysis is suitable to “assist in the development of interpretations as to how views on the past are mobilised and activated in and for the present” (2013, p. 194). There is also a strong tradition of utilizing Goffman’s work in game studies (Fine, 1983; Hendricks, 2006; Waskul, 2006; Copier, 2007; Calleja, 2007; Consalvo, 2009; Deterding, 2013), as well as a precedent for using frame analysis specifically to examine historical videogames (Chapman & Linderoth, 2015).

WWI Popular Memory

Collective memory can be understood as a shared understanding and collection of information between members of a group; a collective framework that organises and constructs memory (Halbwachs, 1992). This is at least partially supported by shared cultural tools and thus constituted from, and sustained in relation to, textual resources such as images and narratives (Wertsch, 2002). Popular memory, as I use it here, refers to the dominant strand of this collective memory in the consciousness of the populations of some of the countries involved in WWI, one that is commonly supported and reproduced in popular (as well as often official) cultural discourses.

As recent international centenary events imply, WWI seems to be relatively prominent in popular consciousness in many countries. It can be argued that the memory of the war, what Fussell refers to as its ‘myth’, has affected, and is therefore a part, of our everyday lives, whether in a political, rhetorical or artistic sense (Fussell, 2013 [1975], p. xv). Importantly, the most common and evocative image of WWI seems to be the Western Front trenches (Espley, 2008; Michail, 2008; Fussell, 2013 [1975]). “In novels and film, and in both the classroom and the museum, the trench is called upon to encapsulate the conflict” (Espley, 2008, p. 325), generally ignoring the home front and other combat experiences. The “mud, blood, gas and rats of the trench system…has become a literary topos” (Wilson, 2013, p. 59). WWI popular memory then is sustained and constituted by these images of the suffering of ordinary infantrymen on the frontline, the “extreme material and psychological pressures in the trenches” (Michail, 2008, p. 244), and therefore focuses on personal experience -- something evident in the popularity and widespread dissemination of war poetry, diaries, letters and memoirs. Indeed, Wilson (2013, pp. 59--71) demonstrates in detail both the political utility and pervasiveness of this image of the soldier in the trenches in both contemporary and past popular and official discourse in Britain. This image, he argues, is usually combined with two others. Firstly, “the desolate and devastated battlefields and no-man’s land” (Wilson, 2013, p. 58) -- characterised by heavily cratered desolate landscapes filled with barbed wire, wreckage, seas of mud and human remains alongside the living (Wilson, 2013; Corrigan, 2003; Dyer, 1994). And secondly, “the post-war memorial landscape, the cemeteries and memorials” (Wilson, 2013, p. 58).

This means that WWI is largely perceived through two distinct modes, the idea of contemporary society as “witness” to the war, and secondly “that of the participant; the soldier/victim of the trenches” (Wilson, 2013, p. 101). Whilst both modes are important to WWI games, it is the latter, alongside the importance and pervasiveness of visual imagery in itself (Wilson, 2013, p. 57), that forms the central element of my criteria for determining which games can be seen to include the main components of WWI popular memory. Accordingly, those WWI games that visually represent the experience of frontline infantry soldiers, so central to the popular memory of WWI and to which the other important imagery (no-man’s land, trenches, barbed wire, gas, mud, rats, remains etc.) is inextricably tied, have been categorised as engaging this memory.

It is also significant that within popular culture WWI is often viewed as “a futile endeavour, wrought by national self-interest and perpetuated by an incompetent political and military elite that resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds and thousands of people” (Wilson, 2013, p. 187). Popular collective memory is dominated by the idea of “lions led by donkeys” (Thompson, 1927) -- the understanding that the brave soldiers (lions) of the frontline were sent to their deaths by uncaring and incompetent generals (donkeys). Though the focus here is on British popular memory, much of this seems to be shared with other countries such as France, Germany, the United States and Canada). Much of this memory probably emerges from the works of WWI writers such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves (Renard, 2008, p. 285), who were part of a wider literary movement also comprising such names as Erich Maria Remarque, Edlef Köppen, or Henri Barbusse, among many others. However, it is also probably drawn from, and influences, a variety of other media. Whether through direct visual or textual representation, the kind of images described above pervade a large variety of popular engagements with the past and are drawn upon by historical societies, newspapers, family history networks, heritage sites, online communities, film, television and novels (Wilson, 2013, p. 57). This is now also somewhat true in the case of videogames. However, here the relationship is also a little more complicated.

List of WWI Games

58 videogames containing representations of WWI were found at the time of writing (see reference section for full list). These results are comparable to Wackerfuss’s (2013, p. 234) smaller list, though grouped more consistently by gameplay genre [2]. Wackerfuss argues that there are no ground combat/FPS WWI games. However, this is a potentially problematic claim. Wackerfuss does not class tower defence, strategy or supernatural games as “ground combat” games, despite their depictions of land-based WWI combat. Partly this springs from his focus on “simulation”, which he seems to use to divide games on the basis of accuracy. However, such distinctions are often difficult to make in newer forms such as games (Chapman, 2012, 2016). Even first-person games, which Wackerfuss indicates could constitute ground combat simulators, are extreme abstractions of original historical experiences [3]. Furthermore, as he implies in the latter part of his chapter, even other genres can simulate aspects of ground combat. Thus, whilst by Wackerfuss’s definition it might be true that “ground combat simulators do not exist” (2013, p. 240), it is not at all the case that games that represent WWI ground combat do not exist. A wish to avoid such issues has led to the clear distinction used here between games that directly engage with dominant popular memory and those that do not.



Findings (total)





Wackerfuss’ findings (total)




Air combat





Air combat simulation




Naval combat





Naval combat simulation




Grand Strategy/turn-based strategy





Grand Strategy/turn-based strategy




Real-time strategy (RTS)





Real-time strategy




First-person Shooter (FPS)





Ground combat/FPS




Tower Defence/Castle Attack





Tower Defence









Science fiction or supernatural combat





Games that engage with typical popular memory (total)





Turn-based strategy





Real-time strategy





First-person shooter





Tower Defence/Castle Attack










Of the 58 games analysed, only 18 depicted soldiers on the frontline -- the central focus and imagery of WWI popular memory. In most popular historical media, imagery, foci and themes drawn from popular memory are strongly and frequently invoked. By comparison, less than a third of WWI games engage directly with these elements. Though the findings here differ somewhat from Wackerfuss’s, it is clear from both analyses that there is definitely a preference for genres that avoid engaging with the trenches and thus with WWI popular memory.


Explanations: Potential Problems of WWI Memory

1. Mechanical/Tonal

Wackerfuss argues that


[t]he true difference between air and ground games therefore would come when combat begins: in the air, a contest of skill and chivalric valor, but on the ground a meaningless death unavoidable by any display of skill. It is this element -- the lack of skill and control -- that makes trench warfare such an unsuitable subject for games prizing simulated first person reality (2013, p. 241).


This unsuitability, Wackerfuss continues to argue, accounts for the prevalence of WWI flying games. The random violence of WWI, as it is understood in popular memory, certainly does seem to stand in tension with some conventional game design patterns. These problems do not simply affect first-person games but any game whereby the player’s progress is dependent on the survival of a single character. Gameplay often relies on these kinds of win-loss binary actions that can be problematic for serious themes (Frasca, 2001). In a WWI game of this type, wherein the player controls only a single historical character, the death of this character means that the player must either be able to reload -- potentially disturbing the serious historical narrative (Frasca, 2001), in this case WWI -- or be denied the opportunity to reload and replay, disturbing the typical videogame experience.

However, this problem only speaks to the tensions of particular design patterns, rather than to the overall nature of games as a historical form and their situated cultural role. Games that use different patterns (e.g. real-time strategy and tower defence games, where we command armies rather than single characters) can easily overcome this problem whilst still representing ground combat (and thus the experience of frontline soldiers). Furthermore, as noted above, even some FPS do in fact engage WWI popular memory. And yet, even in genres that easily overcome the seeming mechanical restrictions of trench warfare, there still seems to be a reluctance to engage with WWI in comparison to other settings, such as World War II (WWII), and other genres, e.g. flying. As such, this mechanical critique doesn’t seem to fully explain why the soldier on the frontline, the central image of WWI popular memory, is generally so curiously absent in WWI games. This could also be attributed to the lack of interesting WWI technology/practices for gameplay. Yet, as Fussell (himself a WWII veteran) argues, the infantry experience, the foxholes/trenches, tactics and even weapons, did not change dramatically between the wars (2013 [1975], p. 368).

Given this, Wackerfuss’s implied argument, that the popular understanding of WWI ground combat could be considered tonally incompatible with the expected experience of playing games, seems to be more potentially useful. Frasca agrees, “it seems that game logic cannot be used to simulate tragic events since tragic agents do not have real choices” (Frasca, 2001, p. 177). Frasca is perhaps too strong in this statement and later work has suggested that it is indeed possible for games to represent tragedy (albeit a new kind of tragedy) (Juul, 2013) and to meaningfully utilise ‘rhetorics of failure’ (Bogost, 2007). In such games, it is often precisely the disruption of the expected game experience that is used as a rhetorical device. However, these kinds of mechanics and themes are currently rarely found in mainstream games -- generally made by developers and publishers who are notoriously averse to risking the ire of players by disrupting their expectations of gameplay. Certainly, winning at a game is often more akin to a romance (adventure) emplotment, increasingly so as more games use the ‘improved abilities’ (Björk & Holopainen, 2004) mechanic that grants players further advantages and/or possibilities for action throughout a game’s course. Unsurprisingly, such games have a predisposition towards narratives of empowerment (Linderoth, 2013). These aspects of contemporary mainstream games do seem to have the potential to present some tensions with popular depictions of WWI, which generally utilise tragic emplotments in which the protagonist is disempowered. By comparison, the perception of air combat as chivalric and sporting resonates easily with these aspects (Wackerfuss, 2013). If we were concerned solely with accuracy rather than popular memory, this potential for perceived disharmony would perhaps be irrelevant, as “while it is typically the horror of the trench that is portrayed in recent texts, in wartime journalism and popular writing the dominant tone was frequently of redemptive heroism” (Espley, 2008, p. 325). Even those involved in ground combat sometimes characterised their experience as an adventure analogous to sport (Espley, 2008, pp. 344--345). Despite this, games dealing with WWI popular memory are undoubtedly faced with the problem of negotiating aspects of this memory that do not seem to naturally resonate with the (at the very least, typical mainstream) form of games. More importantly, not only does this memory not easily resonate, it also has the potential to actually be considered offensive or inappropriate if included in a game without careful framing. And it is this that may be the main problem that faces WWI games.

2. The Limits of Play: Contested WWI Memory and Games

Goffman argues that “although individuals can playfully engage in an extremely broad range of activity, limits of playfulness are established in various groups -- limits being a factor to be attended to throughout frame analysis” (1986 [1974], p. 49). This argument and focus is supported in previous research that found that games are often seen as an unsuitable form for dealing with contentious and/or serious themes, often running the risk of generating controversy by being perceived as tasteless (Chapman & Linderoth, 2015).

In this previous research, it was found that these controversies seemed to generally revolve around two issues. Firstly, by placing serious thematic elements (for example, the Holocaust, sweatshops or slavery) into a ludic frame, i.e. placing them in a structure whereby they are likely to be understood as part of a game, these elements gain a double meaning and therefore run the risk of being perceived as being trivialised (Chapman & Linderoth, 2015). For example, an elephant-shaped board-game piece functions as both a representation and a board game-piece. In this case we could say that the elephant theme/representation has undergone a process of ludification (Chapman & Linderoth, 2015). By being included in the game/ludic frame, the piece has gained a double meaning because it is both a representation of an elephant and a game piece that gains properties from the rules of the game that apply to it. When the representation is of something much more serious than an elephant, controversy seems to be generated by the fear that the player will only pay attention to the new properties the game introduces and treat the representation as only a game piece -- therefore less respectfully than the theme is commonly perceived to demand.

The second interrelated fear revolves around particular playable positions, i.e. instances where a game “casts at least some of the players in the role of the generally perceived historical antagonist and thus allows the players to re-enact historical episodes of exploitation, cruelty and abuse through their in-game actions” (Chapman & Linderoth, 2015, p. 140). In these cases, controversy can be fuelled by the notion that it is considered inappropriate for players to be seen to reenact historical crimes as play actions. Such a perception might be partly based on what Frasca calls the “fear of ergodics”, namely that “acting in violent simulated environments is violent behavior” (Frasca, 2001).

Both these fears seem to influence the history that is included in games. For instance, though WWII is a frequent theme for videogames, the Holocaust is never mentioned or included unless couched in extremely strong negotiating frames (Chapman & Linderoth, 2015). Indeed, even elements associated with the Holocaust (Nazi ideology, units, organisations, symbols and leaders) are frequently excluded in WWII games, particularly when Nazi forces are a playable position (Chapman & Linderoth, 2015).

These issues are also relevant to WWI games. Firstly, WWI is clearly treated as a serious issue, is emotive in its functioning as “postmemory” (Hirsch, 2008) and has a rare significance in both popular and official memory. Even conservative estimates of the national budgets for centenary commemorations -- UK €60m; France €60m; Australia €50m; New Zealand €10m (Oltermann, 2014) -- seem to demonstrate the seriousness with which this memory is treated. There are therefore aspects of WWI memory that would probably be considered inappropriate for play. This is further compounded by the fact that WWI is a controversial and contested memory. For example, historian Niall Ferguson recently argued that WWI “was the biggest error in modern history” (2014, p. 22), criticised the “appalling slaughter” (p. 26) and also the simple morality of blaming German aggression and endorsing British involvement when “those who lined up on the side of Serbia were essentially backing terrorism” (p. 25). Within the same issue of BBC History Magazine, other historians argued “Why Britain was right to go to war in 1914” (Elton et al., 2014). These disagreements about the meaning of WWI are typical both inside and outside academia and the centenary also saw an explosion of different opinions from politicians, historians and journalists (e.g. Beevor, 2014; Evans, 2013; Glenton, 2013; Hunt, 2014; Hastings, 2013; Milne, 2014). This has also been exacerbated by a number of controversial clashes between politicians and other public figures (e.g. BBC, 2013, 2014; Saul, 2013). Again, “elements of both the left and right of the political agenda within Britain utilise the heritage of the conflict to forward their viewpoint and to critique present modes of governance” (Wilson, 2013, p. 188). Particularly contested are the popular notions of the incompetent and uncaring elite -- ‘lions led by donkeys’ (Thompson, 1927; Clark, 1961) -- and the greedy senselessness and futility of the War -- the “futility paradigm” (Sternberg, 2008, p. 310). Indeed, academia often occupies a position against popular memory in these regards (Hynes, 1990; Corrigan, 2003; Badsey, 2002; Bond, 2002; Renard, 2008). The ongoing memorial contestation is also evident in the criticism that Germany’s choice to allocate only €4m for centenary commemorations (Oltermann, 2014) engendered.

WWI history clearly emerges as an emotionally charged “area of contest” (Renard, 2008, p. 299), leaving frequent ruptures both within and between official and popular memory and professional historiography. This makes the fear of placing such a serious subject -- particularly the most emotive aspect of WWI popular memory, the soldier in the trenches -- in a ludic frame even more difficult to negotiate, as the limits of tastefulness are often unclear and related to a series of different stakeholder groups. However, this controversy and contestation is also problematic in regard to the second fear, that of playable positions. WWI games that attempt to engage popular memory run the risk of being perceived as allowing players to occupy inappropriate or unsettling playable positions and re-enact historical episodes of exploitation, cruelty and abuse through their in-game actions. This is because the contested nature of WWI memory means that there is popular uncertainty about who the ‘good guys’ were and, as such, the perceived morality of playing/acting as particular historical characters is often very unclear. No matter whom the developers allow the players to play as, there is no clearly ‘good’ historical role in WWI combat for the player to occupy. Even if popular memory were not so contested, the pervasiveness of the idea that all soldiers (regardless of nationality) were the victims of a greedy, uncaring and incompetent upper class has a similar problematic effect. From the perspective of such an understanding, the violent represented actions of the player-character are not interpretable as a fight of good versus evil, but only a tragic and pointless slaughter of victim versus victim, something seemingly dissonant with the typical mainstream game experience/emplotment. Even in less problematic forms, “Deviations from this sacrosanct myth are…regarded…as offensive and in poor taste” (MacCallum-Stewart, 2003, p. 7).

In the immediate years after 9/11, identifying the morality of war and the ‘good guys’ became even more difficult and this resulted in Hollywood being extremely cautious in depicting war, even simply staying away from war movies entirely (MacCallum-Stewart, 2009). It seems that something similar is happening in WWI games. In WWII games, by comparison, the ‘Nazi’ enemy, supported by popular memory and “the conflict’s political and ideological unassailability” (Smicker, 2010, p. 112), marks the player’s violence as righteous (according to popular perception). This avoids controversy and requires careful negotiations only when the ‘Nazi’ is actually a playable position (Chapman & Linderoth, 2015). However, because WWI memory does not feature the same perceived moral clarity, any combative playable position has the potential to be perceived as distasteful or unsettling without extremely careful framing.

Even when not generating outright controversy, developers must be careful because game representations that sit badly with players may affect sales. As MacCallum-Stewart notes of war games, “designers are conscious of the fact that players engage directly with these scenarios and…they are also relatively responsible in presenting morally loaded situations” (2009, p. 279). However, none of the design patterns that she describes as negotiating these issues (e.g. moral revelations, rewards or choices) work simply in the morally unclear landscape of WWI memory. What these problems make apparent is that WWI games, particularly those that engage with popular memory and allow players a role in the trenches, have to tread carefully. There is frequently an “intense anxiety with depictions of trench warfare” (MacCallum-Stewart, 2003, p. 10) in any form. However, these problems seem to be particularly exacerbated in games. Indeed, developers seem to be quite aware of these problems. For example, in an interview with the website Play the Past, one developer of Verdun (one of the few WWI FPS) states about the lack of WWI games:


All the studios were mainly driven by a commercial agenda. [You] just take the biggest subject, like World War 2, with a clear narrative of Good versus Evil, which doesn’t exist in World War 1. There are reasons why there have not been World War 1 games made, especially from a first person perspective, which at bottom is the lack of Good versus Evil narrative, which is better for selling games to a broader audience (Roy, 2015, n. p.).


Two recent examples of controversy serve as a final note to highlight the tensions and potential pitfalls of entering serious and controversial collective memories into a ludic frame. Firstly, the BBC’s enormously popular motoring show, Top Gear (2002 onwards) -- according to Guinness World Records, the world’s most widely watched factual TV programme -- recently provoked controversy after photographs were taken during filming for a new episode that appeared to show one of the presenters performing car stunts near the Cenotaph war memorial in Whitehall, London (BBC, 2016; The Guardian, 2016). A spokesperson for Westminster City Council stated, “At no time had the BBC producers made Westminster City Council aware that the car was going to be doing anything but drive down Whitehall. There was no discussion about wheel spins and a doughnut and permission would not have been given to do so” (BBC, 2016, para. 14). In response to the controversy, Top Gear presenter Chris Evans said that he wished to “apologise unreservedly for what these images seem to portray”, as “They look entirely disrespectful, which of course was not and would never be the intention of the Top Gear team” (BBC, 2016, para. 19--20). The BBC added, “We would like to make it absolutely clear that the Top Gear team has the utmost respect for the Cenotaph, what it stands for, and those heroic individuals whose memory it serves so fittingly” (BBC, 2016, para. 10). As these quotes imply, the underlying concern of the critique did not seem to be that the memorial risked damage by being close to these stunts or that cars were driven near it (the cenotaph is in the middle of a busy central London road) but that the stunts were disrespectful. The unspoken and unrecognised root of this sense of disrespect seems to be that by engaging in a playful driving activity near the memorial (and thereby entering it into a ludic frame as a part of the ‘game environment’) the primary, memorial function of the Cenotaph was not being attended to and it was therefore being treated with less respect than it is perceived to demand.

The limits of play discourse can also be seen in the reaction to the recent announcement of Battlefield 1 -- a game in developer EA DICE’s long-running military FPS series that uses a WWI setting in this newest iteration. The announcement trailer immediately triggered discussion through a variety of social, online and traditional media outlets as to whether the game (which, tellingly, as a FPS focuses on the frontline soldier -- the core image of WWI popular memory) would treat its subject matter respectfully or was indeed an appropriate way to represent the war. For instance, technology reporter Alex Hern published an article in The Guardian titled “Battlefield 1: is it wrong to set a war game in the trenches of the first world war?” (Hern, 2016), meanwhile Wired ran with the similarly themed “A First-Person Shooter Set in WWI Is Maaaybe Not the Best Idea” (Muncy, 2016). Indeed the game’s announcement triggered a significant amount of discussion, both online and seemingly offline: as one journalist writing for Eurogamer put it, “I’m pretty sure people have been having the Battlefield 1 appropriateness argument a lot this week -- we’ve certainly had it in the Eurogamer offices” (Donlan, 2016, para. 5). Again, the debate was clearly characterised by concerns over the uncertainty of the playable positions offered by this WWI FPS game -- “no handy narrative of heroism to layer gameplay atop…no clear-cut narrative of heroism or villainy, just squabbling dynasties vying for their own interests” (Hern, 2016, para. 2--5) -- and the potentially trivialising effect of ludification. For instance, journalist Edward Smith writes in the International Business Times (in an article titled “EA’s Battlefield 1 presentation at E3 2016 was a masterclass in poor taste”), “It seems backwards that Battlefield 1 is translating World War 1 into a virtual sport, and that its makers are apparently proud of it...I don’t trust that World War One is anything more to this game than an aesthetic” (Smith, 2016, para. 6--7). Similarly, in a preview article that opens by asking “Can Battlefield 1 do WWI justice?”, gaming magazine EDGE states,


…as the first major studio to tackle the period in years, DICE has an opportunity, perhaps even a duty, to set an intelligent example for its peers. The Great War was unprecedented in terms of more than sheer bodycount or destruction. The emerging technologies of cinema and war photography exposed civilians to scenes of carnage hitherto cloaked in propaganda…The phenomenon of shellshock, meanwhile, forced an important re-examination of attitudes to psychological wellbeing. We’ll find out in October if it’s all being reduced to a matter of vehicle classes and capture points (2016, p. 49). 


In both the above quotes, we again get the sense that the underlying concern here is one of the potential for trivialisation -- that WWI will function only as a veneer for gameplay and therefore only the gameplay properties of the ludified theme will be attended to, thereby treating it less respectfully than it is commonly perceived to demand. How Battlefield 1 is ultimately received remains, at the time of writing, to be seen. However, this kind of initial reaction is not something that seems to have been faced by those WWI games that exclude the core imagery of WWI popular memory, such as grand strategy or flying games, or indeed by those games utilising the less contested popular memory of WW2 combat. These examples indicate the potential tensions between certain aspects of WWI memory and gameplay and thus the kind of discourses that developers must both risk and negotiate if they wish to engage the popular memory of the war.

Excluding Popular Memory

It appears then that most WWI games negotiate popular memory the same way that WWII games deal with the Holocaust: by simply taking story/content decisions that omit images and historical elements associated with it. Flying and naval games have a naturally narrow historical focus, are free to easily empower players through technology and are easily emplotted as narratives of romance -- adventures that emphasise “skill and chivalric valor” (Wackerfuss, 2013, p. 241).  Such games are spatially, thematically and mechanically distanced from the trenches and thus WWI popular memory. Similarly, many strategy games avoid the problems of popular memory by engaging with history at a massive (generally European or global) scale. These “conceptual simulations” relinquish the concern with audio-visual realism that characterises “realist simulations” and instead have abstract visual aspects comprising no more than simple playing pieces or markers and menus, tables, text and maps (Chapman, 2016, pp. 59--89). Such games operate closer to the historian’s diegetic level rather than the historical agent’s/character’s and generally make their arguments through rules and action rather than graphics. This allows them to easily engage with large historical systems and deal in collective action. Thus, whilst players of these games do engage with domestic, economic, industrial, political and military themed systems, they are also very much distanced from the visceral individual experiences of trench warfare in which the tragic and horror-infused popular memory of WWI is very much grounded through the imagery of photographs, film, personal accounts and war poetry [4].

Design patterns such as flying games, naval combat games and conceptual simulation grand strategy games allow game developers to engage with WWI history while excluding the elements of the conflict that, even today, fuel its political, moral and memorial uncertainty. This accounts for the prevalence of these kinds of WWI games. This stands in direct contrast to the representation of WWII in games, which instead sees a much higher concentration on RTS and first-person/third-person action game design patterns.


This article has provided an account of one of the many ways in which WWI is remembered and represented in popular culture. This has been done by providing an overview of WWI digital games, determining these games’ engagement with WWI popular memory and organising these games by genre. This has revealed that, in comparison to the approach taken by most popular histories, which usually overwhelmingly seek to reproduce representations familiar to popular memory in order to create a resonance with implied audiences, WWI games generally tend to exclude key components of this memory. Instead, these games favour other aspects of WWI. This has been explained by suggesting that (alongside other problems) WWI popular memory is avoided because it is considered possibly sensitive to include in the game form. The contested and controversial nature of WWI memory means that the morality of playing with the topic and also as WWI historical characters (i.e. adopting particular playable positions) is often unclear and is thus potentially problematic. If we are to understand the game as a historical form we must understand its particular language of representation, which is at least partially determined in relation to formal and cultural limits. These “ludic aesthetics of historical description” (Chapman, 2016, p. 18) must therefore be understood in relation to those of other forms and the larger historical discourse.

As such, the fact that the majority of WWI games do not engage with popular memory is as potentially important as it is comparatively unusual. This exclusion undoubtedly has some benefits. For example, the popular memory of WWI is typically open to accusations of ignoring “events in Mesopotamia, Turkey, Africa, and Ireland, and largely ignoring air and naval warfare” (Fussell, 2013 [1975], p. xvi). However, this is clearly not the case in WWI videogames with their typical concentration on either large-scale events or on naval and air warfare. Furthermore, by distancing themselves from the trenches and the individual frontline experience of WWI, grand strategy games are also free to concentrate on national or global economic, industrial, political and diplomatic systems. As a teacher argued recently in The Guardian, normally in popular culture “the war is not envisaged as a point where international tensions peaked, of the rivalries of European powers, or the building of alliances; it is only seen through the prisms of suffering” (Lisher, 2014). Clearly in games this pattern is somewhat reversed. In this sense at least, Balabnova and Parry’s argument that shifting empirical focus to popular culture “can investigate how alternative media forms and actors are able to challenge preconceptions of legitimate voices in the ‘storytelling’ of war experiences” (2014, p. 1) seems to be credible.

This said, it is also possible that excluding facets of memory in the way that WWI games clearly seem to be doing might also have negative consequences and it is important to be aware that the contested memory of an important historical event is being told in a very specific way through a new and very popular medium. Though one of the results of this engagement may be an exploration of aspects of the conflict often left unexplored in popular culture, this does not however seem to generally be the reason for this exclusion. Instead it appears that aspects of WWI memory are being excluded at least partially because of their potentially controversial nature and the potential problems that games are perceived to face in engaging these issues. Some aspects of this popular memory do undoubtedly in themselves regularly obfuscate important issues about the war in any form. However, it is also clear that some of the most sensitive aspects of WWI popular memory that WWI games therefore exclude are typically considered important to contemporary discourses about the legacy and lessons of the conflict, as well as to wider questions about nationalism, imperialism, war and, of course, memory.

In much of Europe (as well as, for instance, Canada, the USA, New Zealand, and Australia), these important questions often both infuse and are anchored within WWI memory. As the recent centenary of The Great War makes them once again resonate in everyday life, there is a rare opportunity for widespread public discourse on WWI. It is of course these moments that not only reshape this memory, but also potentially our perspective, and even policy, on present day conflicts and issues of identity. Given the increase in nationalism, far-right movements and anti European Union sentiment throughout Europe in the present political climate, these discourses seem even more pertinent. In this light, the fact that many WWI games currently exclude aspects of WWI related to these issues could then possibly be problematic given their potential influence. Such games, in their exclusion of the tragic and humanistic aspects of WWI memory, might leave players unprepared for such discussions. Worse, these exclusions may even contribute to the eradication of aspects of WWI memory that are generally considered important in their role as a warning against the dangers of jingoism and thus, further European conflict. This analysis suggests that the nature of depictions of WWI that players are exposed to in this new popular form is shaped in particular ways by the particular limitations that the videogame form and its perceived cultural role entail. It seems that, as is the case with certain aspects of WWII memory (Chapman & Linderoth, 2015), games could be seen as whitewashing aspects of history that many of us generally consider to be deeply important.

This analysis also emphasises the importance of working to determine the rules of engagement of the videogame, and indeed any form, “with the traces of the past, rules of engagement that come out of the possibilities and practices of the medium in which they work” (Rosenstone, 2006, p. 159). Whilst these rules are dependent on both formal limitations and cultural expectations, this means that the game form, like all historical forms, is (or is at least considered to be) more or less suitable for dealing with certain themes and topics in particular ways. In opposition to the metanarrative of technological progress which can sometimes dominate wider discourse on games and seek to position them as superior to all other forms of representation, it seems that the game form “doesn’t do away with the old forms of history -- it adds to the language in which the past can speak” (Rosenstone, 2006, p. 6) [5]. Games present new limitations and issues alongside new possibilities and thus do not supersede or replace other forms but, like them, must exist alongside a range of differing historiography to be most effective. The game medium has positive possibilities for the representation of, and engagement with, history (Chapman, 2012, 2013b, 2016). However, it also clearly has formal and cultural limits and it is just as important to understand these. It is clear that these limitations can present problems for representing important aspects of memory drawn from other historical forms and discourses and that this issue could prove to be significant given the growing popularity and significance of historical games. Taking this topic forward, further research could aim to examine the precise framings used by the smaller number of WWI games that do engage WWI popular memory in order to better understand the representational techniques used to negotiate difficult historical topics in digital historical games. Finally, this analysis emphasises once again that alongside formal pressures, “‘heritage’ possesses an active agenda which constrains and challenges the present” (Wilson, 2013, p. 192). With recent centenary events it has become even more apparent that WWI history/memory is an excellent topic to highlight some of the hidden discourses about, and ways of engaging with, the past. Perhaps this is because WWI memory still has so much contemporary political and ideological utility and value, as indicated by the conflict’s relative prevalence in popular memory and the controversial and contested nature of this memory. This use, Wilson argues, means that each generation will continue to have the opportunity “to return to ‘the trenches’, to locate meaning, relevance and understanding for its contemporary fears and desires.  In this respect, the Great War is not over” (2013, p. 195). In video games, WWI memory is clearly in play, played with and played within. This newest of historical forms best emphasises that memory is an active process which is constantly redefined and negotiated and that we have an obligation to regularly examine memory to see how it is engaged and deployed in new ways and new cultural contexts. Games emphasise more starkly than any other form the fact that, like all those events painfully seared into mass cultural memory, in a sense The Great War is not yet over.


The research presented here was funded by the Swedish Science Council [Vetenskapsrådet] through the project Rules of Fiction. The research was part of the Linnaeus Centre for research on Learning, Interaction and Mediated Communication in Contemporary Society. The author gratefully acknowledges the financial support and productive collaboration.



[1] Other scholars have also highlighted WWI games as worthy of examination. In particular, for those interested in a broad range of themes relating to the representation of WWI in games, see Kempshall (2015).


[2] By comparison, Wackerfuss’ results are divided on a number of different bases, including theme (e.g. supernatural), gameplay genre (e.g. tower defence) and WWI aspect represented (e.g. ground combat).


[3] For example, in FPS we generally control our character using a mouse and keyboard/control-pad, a different degree of abstraction than using a joystick to fly a virtual plane despite similarities in visual fidelity. Distinguishing on the basis of simulation would require much more clarity about which game design patterns and interfaces are considered simulative and which are not and whether the basis of accuracy should be judged according to the interaction or the visual representation.


[4] Some of the games also narrow their temporal scale somewhat and avoid having to engage the later stages of the war on which much of popular memory concentrates. For example, Imperialism finishes before the end of the war in 1917.


[5] Rosenstone actually talks of historical film here, but the sentiment and argumentation is much the same and therefore applicable to games as well.



List of Analysed World-War-I Games (58)

Flying (19)

Atari. (1980). Red Baron [Xbox 360]. Sunnyvale, CA: Atari.


BMB Compuscience. (1984). Sopwith [PC]. Milton: BMB Compuscience.


Cinemaware. (1990). Wings [Amiga]. Burlingame: Cinemaware.


Dynamix. (1997). Red Baron II [PC]. Fresno, CA: Sierra.


Dynamix. (1998). Red Baron 3D [PC]. Fresno, CA: Sierra.


Malibu Interactive. (1993). Blazing Skies [SNES]. Tokyo: Namco.


MicroProse. (1990). Knights of the Sky [Amiga]. Hunt Valley: MicroProse.


Namco. (1985). Sky Kid [NES]. Tokyo: Namco.


Neoqb, 777 Studios. (2009). Rise of Flight: The First Great Air War [PC]. Büren: Aerosoft.


Old Brown Dog Software. (2013). Wings: Over Flanders Fields [PC]. N.p.: Old Brown Dog Software.


Origin Systems. (1994). Wings of Glory [x86]. Redwood: Electronic Arts.


Rowan Software. (1996). Flying Corps [PC]. London: Empire Interactive.


Rowan Software. (1994). Dawn Patrol [Amiga]. London: Empire Interactive.


Silver Wish Games. (2004). Wings of War [Xbox]. Austin: Gathering of Developers.


Smart Bomb Interactive. (2010). Snoopy Flying Ace [Xbox 360]. Redmond: Microsoft Studios.


Smart Bomb Interactive. (2006). Snoopy vs. the Red Baron [PS2]. Shinagawa: Namco Bandai Games America.


subLOGIC. (1982). Microsoft Flight Simulator [PC]. Redmond: Microsoft Game Studios.


Synapse Software. (1983). Blue Max [Commodore 64]. Richmond: Synapse Software.


Third Wire Productions. (2006). First Eagles: The Great War 1918 [PS2]. London: G2 Games.




Naval (4)

Divide By Zero. (1996). Great Naval Battles V: Demise of the Dreadnoughts; 1914--18 [PC]. Mountain View: Strategic Simulations.


Rondomedia. (2007). 1914 Shells of Fury [PC]. Montreal: Strategy First.


Storm Eagle Studios. (2008). Jutland [PC]. Free Union: Storm Eagle Studios.


Turcan Research Systems Limited. (1992). Dreadnoughts [DOS]. N.p.:Turcan Research Systems Limited.


RTS (3)

GameTek. (1995). The War College: Universal Military Simulation 3 [DOS]. Davenport: Intergalactic Development.


Lesta Studio. (2008). Aggression: Reign Over Europe [PC]. Moscow: Buka Entertainment.


Lesta Studio. (2004). The Entente: Battlefields of World War I [PC]. Moscow: Buka Entertainment.


Grand Strategy (10)

Adanac Command Studies. (2007). Guns of August: 1914--1918 [PC]. Epsom: Matrix Games.


AGEOD. (2008). World War One [PC]. Gütersloh: Ascaron Entertainment.


BevelStone Production. (1995). Fields of Battle [PC]. Aarhus: BevelStone Production.


Darkest Hour Team. (2011). Darkest Hour: A Hearts of Iron Game [PC]. Stockholm: Paradox Interactive.


The Lordz Game Studio. (2012). Commander: The Great War [PC]. Luxembourg: The Lordz Game Studio.


Muzzy Lane. (2015). Making History: The Great War [PC]. Newsburyport: Muzzy Lane.


Paradox Development Studio. (2010). Victoria II [PC]. Stockholm: Paradox Interactive.

Paradox Interactive. (2006). Victoria: Revolutions [PC]. Stockholm: Paradox Interactive.


Paradox Interactive. (2005). Diplomacy [PC]. Stockholm: Paradox Interactive.


Paradox Development Studio. (2003). Victoria: Empire Under the Sun [PC]. Stockholm: Paradox Interactive.


Turn Based Strategy (4)

Blue Byte Software. (1992). History Line: 1914--1918 [Amiga]. Mountain View: Strategic Simulations.


Damon, R. (1994). Wargame Construction Set II: Tanks! [Amiga]. Mountain View: Strategic Simulations.


Frog City Software. (1996). Imperialism [PC]. Mountain View: Strategic Simulations.


Red Wasp Design. (2012). Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land [PC]. Bristol: Red Wasp Design.


FPS (9)

8monkey Labs. (2009). Darkest of Days [PC]. Cedar Falls: Phantom EFX.


Gallica Game Studio. (2013). The Trench: 1916 [PC]. Seine et Marne: Gallica Game Studio.


Kriegsgraben und Stormvogel. (2011). 1916: Der Unbekannte Krieg [PC]. Aalborg: Kriegsgraben und Stormvogel.


M2H and BlackMill Games. (2013). Verdun [PC]. Alkmaar: M2H and BlackMill Games.


Refraction Games. (1999). Codename Eagle [PC]. New York: Take-Two Interactive.


Starbreeze Studios. (2007). The Darkness [PC]. Novato: 2K Games.


The Farm 51. (2010). Necrovision: Lost Company [PC]. Austin: Aspyr Media.


The Farm 51. (2009). Necrovision [PC]. Austin: Aspyr Media.


TopHat Game Studios. (2012). The Somme: Lest We Forget [PC]. Cary: Epic Games.


Towerdefence/Castle Attack (3)

ConArtist. (2008). Warfare 1917 [PC]. Irvine: Armor Games.


Gameslab, BBC Scotland New Media. (n.d.). Trench Warfare. In BBC Schools (Ed.), Curriculum Bites World War One [PC]. Salford: BBC. Retrieved on March 29, 2014:



Signal Studios. (2012). Toy Soldiers [PC]. Redmond: Microsoft Game Studios.


Miscellaneous (6)

Bay 12 Games. (2004). WWI Medic [PC]. Silverdale: Bay 12 Games.


Infogrames Entertainment, SA. (2000). Hogs of War [PC]. Paris: Infogrames Entertainment, SA.


Porter, D. & Williams, H. (2014). Trench Mission. In The National Archives (Ed.), Trench Experience [PC]. London: The National Archives. Retrieved on March 29, 2014:


Retro Army. (2013). Super Trench Attack [PC]. Edinburgh: Retro Army.


Smoking Cars Productions. (1997). The Last Express [PC]. Beverly Hills: Interplay Entertainment.


Ubisoft Montpellier. (2014). Valiant Hearts: The Great War [PC]. Montreuil: Ubisoft.



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