Battlefield 1 is a Fantasy
Gareth Damian Martin
When I was a kid, learning the names for military hardware was just something you did. Among diagrams and pictures, guns, planes and tanks were there to be pored over in school textbooks, and when you got home they popped up in washed out afternoon war movies. On weekends they appeared in the pages of Commando Comics, tempting you to spend your pocket money on something other than pick and mix. And they were there in the attic of the toy shop, a place reserved only for balding men with thin-rimmed spectacles and eager young war scholars, like myself. Once there, I would regularly pick through stacks of Airfix and Hummel model kits, trying to come up with the collection of models that would most effectively fit my limited budget. Could I construct a Stalingrad diorama with a Russian infantry troop and some gothic Warhammer cathedral pieces? Or the Somme with a field gun, a tank, and some rolls of barbed wire? I don't often think about those days. But playing Battlefield 1 recently has brought them back. More than evoking war movies, history classes, or poppy-filled Remembrance Sundays, Battlefield 1 reminds me of those many solvent-tinged afternoons spent diligently putting models together. Beyond its overly worthy soundtrack, its charade of “respectfulness,” and its occasional spouting of facts, it feels like a game about modern war not as a machine for slaughter, but as a space for leaps of imagination. It is a game packed full of ridiculous weapon prototypes, fantasy versions of tanks and diorama-like multiplayer maps that look like they could be miniaturised and displayed in a child’s bedroom. This is why the criticism regarding Battlefield 1’s depiction of the First World War has occasionally rung hollow. Many people calling the game seem under the impression that World War 1 is the direct reference point for Battlefield 1, an idea which, while backed up by some of EA’s brash PR talk, doesn’t seem—to me—very believable. Since the war ended almost a century ago it has been transformed from a real conflict into a cultural landmark. 100 years of films, models, TV shows, comics, toys, and board games mean that it is no longer possible to think of a World War 1 game as being a direct depiction of the original event. Instead, Battlefield 1 is part of a history of war fiction older than any of its creators. To single them out as uniquely “disrespectful” is to ignore a history of culturally specific fantasies. To understand how it plays off such a history, you only have to look at Battlefield 1’s chapters , called war stories. The mission list reads like a Commando Comics catalogue, jumping from theatre to theatre, each time picking a broad stereotype to riff on, from Italian Arditi hard men to plain-speaking salt-of-the-earth Australians. Battlefield didn’t create these clichés. They are all parts of the history and longstanding cultural fantasy of World War 1. Just look at these Airfix boxes for British and Australian infantry, and how they reinforce our lasting, simplistic images of national identity both in the First and indeed Second World Wars. Of course, this doesn’t excuse Battlefield 1’s occasional laziness, but it does explain it. And in its most cleverly conceived war story,Friends in High Places”, the game demonstrates a distinct self-awareness when it comes to fantasies of war. Following an American pilot who steals a prototype fighter and ends up embroiled in the British campaign in Europe, it is notable for featuring a protagonist who isn’t a soldier. Most war games have an exclusively militaristic viewpoint, one that floods their scripts with dull callsigns and a rumbling tone of masculine violence. This leads to an often myopic view of war, where soldiers are the only paradigm through which the fighting can be discussed. “Friends in High Places,” and its central figure Clyde Blackburn, is notable for demonstrating that war is not an exclusively military activity. It is instead a wider cultural event, one which takes place in a world full of other simultaneous events, other lives and experiences. Blackburn, a career criminal whose involvement in the war is opportunistic, is a perfect example of that. But on top of this, “Friends in High Places” is notable because it is in itself a war fantasy. It is Blackburn’s fantasy, a story he tells the player to try to convince her that he is a good guy, when in fact he is an antihero. At the end of the story he admits to an alternate series of events, one that brands him a criminal and a betrayer of his friend's trust, but it's the spectacular, heroic tall tale we end up remembering. It's a conceit that is clearly in place to give DICE some leeway in the story, letting them place vast blimps above London in an air raid that never happened, and have the player fight atop them like a superhero. Yet it also means that Blackburn mirrors the player, seeing the war as a chance to let his fantasies roam free, to imagine himself a hero, and to paint a simple story of spectacular violence and against-all-odds victory. As a child who constructed those fantasies, piece-by-piece with glue and paint, Battlefield 1 is warmly nostalgic. The way the camera focuses on battleships and tanks, panning across them as if they were luxury products, suggests a love of war machines not unlike that of a model-making pre-teen. And its multiplayer, which permits one to man field guns and slam each shining shell into the chamber via a lovingly detailed animation, has all the hallmarks of a school kid's pantomime fantasy. There may be blood, but there are no wounded here, only the floppy, silly rag-doll dead, and the voraciously violent, comically athletic living. They wield Lewis guns, a weapon only found on a handful of armoured cars in WWI, as if they were water pistols, and drive bouncing, high velocity tanks as if they were toys pushed down a set of stairs. To pretend this absurd spectacle could tell anyone about the horrors of war is as silly as pretending that it disrespects them. In fact, hand-wringing over accuracy and respect conceals the bigger problem with Battlefield 1 and the fantastic depictions of war from which it so clearly stems. It all comes down to that word, “cultural.” It's a word I use because fantasies of war are so often tied, in insipid and unpleasant ways, to fantasies of nationalism. My own childhood war fantasies, dioramas and models, originate not from a generalised idea of war, but a specific cultural mythology. That culture was 1990s Britain, and specifically the grubby towns on the edge of England’s Lake District. While, for my own part, my interest in war fantasies was innocent (or at least ignorant) enough, the same could not be said about the prevalence of World War fetishism in the world around me. School curricula, documentaries, films, comics, even those models so eagerly bought for me by my parents— all were part of a wider cultural fantasy that was far from innocent, and instead functioned through nationalism, pining for the glory days of the British Empire, and a perverse respect, misplaced for the act of war. It is no coincidence that I spent a spell in the Air Cadets as a child, eager to learn how to strip and fire a bolt-action rifle just like I had seen in the movies. Or that I played with the idea of joining the Royal Marines after a recruitment team came to my school two years in a row. My brother, whose model-making skills I'd always admired (his delicately dappled Messerschmidts and chromed B24 “Liberator” were both far beyond my own abilities) eventually joined the Marines, though an injury would force him to leave before he saw combat. Even with overtly liberal, atheist parents,I grew up with a positive view of the military. But such is the power and presence of the British fetish for the Great Wars. I was in Ipswich last month for a festival, and sitting with my daughter in a cafe I overheard a conversation between a father and son. The father, in pointed language, was explaining how he hoped that none of the refugees from the recently demolished camp in Calais would be “let in” to the country, adding “for your sake” to his oblivious son. Absent-mindedly the son changed topic, explaining how next term at school he would be studying the First World War, specifically the Battle of Amiens. His father beamed in response. “A decisive battle in English history,” he said. After a pause, he repeated it once more, grinning ever wider. The proximity of these two subjects—the casual racism and the smug pride—fused in my head somehow, and I have been considering the conversation ever since. It seemed to me to be an image of negative English identity, a twinning of isolationism with blind arrogance, all tied up in a cultural fantasy of war. For that man there was no irony in refusing and denying European unity and Humanism, while simultaneously projecting a fantasy of a European War as a marker of national identity. In what might be a coincidence, or might not, Ipswich voted strongly in favor of Brexit. It, along with a hundred other English towns and cities, rejected a union that was forged on the same continent where for the majority of the past 100 years, war raged, slaughtering millions in the name of Empire and nation. When cultural fantasies, especially those that reinforce unthinking national pride, replace the true histories of war, we are susceptible to forgetting, to losing a sense of how the world really was. When we remember war as a cultural fantasy, a leap of imagination filled with great heroes and golden victories, we forget its cost. And when we imagine the good old days as simpler, without refugees, immigration, or moral dilemmas, we are prone to repeat their mistakes. I refuse to charge Battlefield 1 with disrespect or tastelessness, but I can’t help but also see it as just a single chapter in a cultural fantasy that has important implications. When you look for it, this fetish for war is unavoidably present in Battlefield 1. Introducing the war story set in the Italian Alps, the game's narrator, in an oddly wonder-hued voice, says the following: “The human spirit drove us to fight where no one had dared to go before. Whether it was the Alps or the skies above. They said this would be the war to end all wars. But I wonder if there will ever be an end to human ambition and our will to destroy.” It's the kind of muddled philosophy that would typically slide right by me as a child, the kind of thing that might bookend a documentary on the Allies' secret technology, or as a narration panel in a comic book. And yet, as an adult it took me aback. Here was the direct equation of ambition with violence, the idea that the “human spirit” was the laudable quality that drove us to invent increasingly more efficient ways to kill each other. And herein lies the dark underside to Battlefield 1's fantasy. If you fetishise military hardware, if you teach children the names of weapons more efficiently than you teach their effects, and the motivations of those who use them, then you justify their existence and support their creation.


Gareth Damian Martin is a writer and artist. His obsessions include: architecture (virtual), literature (procedural), and memory (fictional). Follow him on Twitter @JumpOvertheAge.