World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history. In terms of the lives lost, the devastation goes beyond comprehension.
What began in the late 1930s as a series of conflicts involving fighting between mounted troops, infantry with long rifles and bi-planes, managed to escalate into a global conflict involving fighters in reaction, machine guns, tanks and atomic weapons. And it all happened in less than a decade.
At no time in human history have so many people faced the horrors of war simultaneously between the years 1939 and 1945.
It’s easy to see why gamers would turn to WWII games. No matter where you come from, we can all trace our history back to its effects on our ancestors and our homelands. It’s a framework that we all know in one way or another.
But that doesn’t explain its enduring popularity. WW2 is one of the most common game settings for Strategy, Simulation, and first person shooter games. It’s also found in RPGs, collectible card games, MMOs, two-stick shooters, and pretty much every other genre.
While it’s now been over 75 years since the war ended, we still see dozens of WWII-based games launching every year.
I spoke with Marco Minoli, the Marketing Director at Slitherine, to find out why developers and gamers are coming back to war to end all wars over and over again. Don’t be fooled by the title, Minoli is the person you often see on camera during many Slitherine / Matrix Twitch streams. He’s a passionate industry veteran who also enjoys WWII games.
Minoli explained that WWII lends itself to the game format in a number of ways:
World War II saw a very rapid technological advance over a very short period of time… it went from horses to nuclear weapons.
There are many types of WWII games… encompassing all levels of command ie operational, strategic and tactical.
This tells me that a big part of the reason WWII remains so popular as a game setting is that you can do a lot of it. The technological progression of warfare lends itself well to a paradigm where, as you learn the game and gain experience, you can unlock new, more powerful weapons and gear. It’s a concept that works just as well in an FPS like Call of Duty WWII or a wargame like Steel Division 2.
If you ask me, the best thing about WWII as a setting is technology. Factions representing nearly every nation on Earth have come together to create weapons of destruction, medical technology, new forms of transportation, and gadgets that were little more than science fiction a few years ago.
Modern games give me the opportunity to digitally interact with these toys the same way I would if I was building and painting hobby models. Only, with one game, I can play with hundreds or thousands at a time in an immersive and gamified format.
This does not mean that video games are best than, say, analog tabletop wargames. But game developers can have a lot more maps and units on my screen than in my garage.
World War II was fought between nations, but ultimately the participants were distilled into Allies or Axis. This makes the conflict easy to play.
The two distinctly different factions represented opposing polar ideologies in a winner-take-all competition for Earth. The stakes were as high as they could be. The fascists were determined to dominate, and the Allied forces believed they had no choice but to push them back.
As Minoli told me, “the two factions, the Axis and the Allies, play very differently”. In one example, he explained that how the Reich invaded Poland during the early days of WWII plays out as “the perfect tutorial” for many WWII games.
This way you have the overpowered Germans with their tanks, with almost no one to oppose them, kicking off against an unprepared target. With the allies, on the other hand, you start the war behind but with everything you need to eventually achieve victory.
Most wars are won before they begin, but the outcome of WWII remained in flux until the last days of the conflict.
Perhaps the biggest reason for WWII’s enduring popularity in the gaming world is its reach. Billions of hours have been spent playing FPS games where players experience warfare from a soldier’s perspective. They have to worry about aiming, running out of bullets, and avoiding enemy fire. On an individual human scale, there are countless game stories to tell about WWII.
But then, if you want to zoom out on squad, platoon, battalion, nation or even the theater, the details never end. There is always more to do, a bigger game to play, another prospect to win.
As Minoli explained to me:
Everyone had a WWII game, but there is always more to do. Some games try to model only certain things… and then there’s Gary Grigsby trying to model everything.
Ultimately, I think WWII remains so popular in games because it reminds us that aliens, orcs, killer robots, and dragons aren’t the worst things we can imagine. Getting into a soldier’s boots or taking command of a fleet during the greatest conflict in history comes with a sense of reality that makes it far more compelling, in my opinion, than any narrative. fictitious conflict.
Stay tuned, next time we get into modern combat and how the only difference between some of today’s games and what real military strategic commands use is the exclusion of classified data.
In the meantime, here are my favorite WWII games for those who want to experience the bloodiest conflict in history from the comfort of their chairs (in no particular order):
Gary Grigsby’s War in the East 2*
WWII Strategic Command: World at War
Iron Hearts IV
Steel Division 2
Close combat: the bloody first
Call of Duty World at War**
*War in the East 2 will launch tomorrow, March 25. Stay tuned for our review.
** There is a more recent Call of Duty title defined during World War II, rightly called “the Second World War“, But I prefer the old one.