Can games help us understand D-Day?


It was an afternoon some time in about 2004, and I was playing Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (MOHAA) a couple of years after it came out. I’d just reached Omaha Beach.


The level opens in a transport ship makings its way towards the shore – it feels like an eternity as we just stand there waiting for the ramp to go down. Just before we go, an identical ship to the left is blown up by a German cannon… and then all hell breaks loose.

With explosions all around, and constant damage being taken from a barrage of ammunition, it took a few attempts to even just reach the sand.

Today is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day Landings, the event on which the MOHAA level was based – and as a radically different world tries to look back and imagine what it was actually like on that day, I’m wondering how games fit into remembrance. Did Medal of Honor help me understand what happened on June 6th 1944, or was it just a facile insult to genuine sacrifice? I don’t know about you, but even as an avid gamer, I can’t help but feel a little uneasy suggesting that we can learn from games.

Ultimately, this probably falls into the “are games art?” debate.

Humans have long used art, literature and film to understand events. We all think Richard III was an evil hunchback because of Shakespeare, and it only took a few years for films about 9/11 to be made, to help us understand that terrible day. World War II’s legacy has been defined by the likes of Dad’s Army, Dambusters and The Great Escape. Heck – there’s even a direct comparison that can be made with the dramatic opening scene of Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg apparently had a hand in MOHAA, in addition to directing Private Ryan).

So should games be any different? The stumbling block could be that game are supposed to be ‘fun’ – whereas we can watch films and have a more profound emotional engagement than just giggling at explosions, games are still – ultimately – about ‘fun’. Whilst in-game story telling is improving, would trying to draw a meaningful emotional experience from Medal of Honor be like trying to make Schindler’s List using the technology of late 19th century cinema, complete with plinky-plonk piano accompaniment?

On the flip side, playing MOHAA did do something that film can’t do. Rather than just watch the Normandy Landings unfold on screen, I was instead a participant, I ‘felt’ the tension and suspense as bullets whooshed past my (virtual helmet), and my heart raced as I fought my way to the trenches. Was this experience more visceral than film can provide? Do I have a (marginally) better idea of what it was like than someone who would only have an ‘academic’ understanding of the events in Normandy?

I’m not sure. Let me know what you think in the comments.

James O’Malley
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