An exhibition that looks at war games goes beyond the classic shot-em-ups, to look at how games are both an aid to war-making, but also educating people about the human suffering caused by wars.

Split, in computer games style, into levels, the exhibition opens with some of the earliest war games, and white Battleships may be obvious, but it’s a reminder that Chess is a war game, in this case of strategy.

In the 1970s though, the rise of early computer arcades put war-themed games into the hands of millions of people, and there’s long been a debate as to whether the rudimentary graphics meant the games were less realistic war games, or if the human imagination filled in the gaps to create vivid war simulations in the mind.

However, as computer games get ever more realistic, there’s the ongoing tabloid scares about the harm from war-themed games, and more nuanced academic studies.

The exhibition plants common gameplay tropes such as explosive barrels and sniper rifles feature next to collection items like facial prosthetics developed during WWI to highlight the tensions between realistic games and the reality they digitally portray.

The exhibition also explores how video game technology can be used, and is used, to help shape real wars, showing objects such as the Xbox 360 controller once used to operate the camera of an unmanned aerial vehicle in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A clever contrast in one room flips between the 1980s Atari game Battlezone, which show a green line landscape dotted with enemies from the perspective of someone in a tank, with its 2019 equivalent — which is not a game, but a military training simulator.

Somehow, for me, the older game is more exciting, maybe because it feels more computer than real, whereas a simulator can be uncomfortably real at times.

There’s also a look at the flipside of war games, the newly emerging market for games that look at war from the civilian perspective. This is probably something that would have struggled to exist before the combination of modern computers but also modern media tracking wars in ways that were not done in the past — with their focus on the military machine and not the people affected.

As a space, they’ve managed to combine the excitement of the shoot-em-up, with some probing questions about why we seem to like playing soldiers.

What the exhibition is asking at the end is where once games tried, in their limited way, to replicate shooting games, are they now driving the development of actual warfare as the tools of the digital world bleeds into the real world.

The exhibition, War Games is at the Imperial War Museum until the end of May 2023 and is free to visit. You can find it on the upper floors at the rear of the museum.


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  1. Brian Butterworth says:

    This has to be the worst exhibition I’ve ever been to.

    Apart from the totally obvious missing element from computer gaming: the internet the exhibition is sparse and all from the POV of Cultural Historian rather than either gamer or programmers.

    Most of the equipment in the final room wasn’t actually working.

    Also the staff were deeply unpleasant.

  2. Philip says:

    Non-gaming me took gaming son. Neither of us were very impressed. Good visual ideas but content was lacking. Needed more pre-history of interactive games – board games, models etc. – and also needed more about early years. Big video screens had brief accounts of the thought and challenges behind modern games but felt like ads for the games themselves.

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