“Battlefield V” eschews the American-dominated narratives of World War II (as seen in films like “Saving Private Ryan” and games like last year’s “Call of Duty: World War II”) to concentrate instead on those whose fights have gone relatively ignored by English-speaking mainstream media. In doing so, “Battlefield V” subtly challenges dominant Western perspectives on the war, reminding players that, despite the outsize influence of the United States on global pop culture, there is more to this era of history than one country’s contributions.
Video games may typically be seen only as products designed above all to generate revenue and entertain buyers, but with a total economy larger than the whole of the Hollywood box office, games are a platform with a reach that extends far more widely than historical texts. To that end, is it possible to change an audience’s view of history through work made to entertain first and inform second? How valuable is modern pop culture in influencing our views on history?
“Popular culture plays a huge role in educating the public about World War II; for better or worse,” Alex Souchen, a historian of the World War II and an assistant professor at Ontario’s Western University, wrote in an email exchange.
“American chronologies and interpretations of the war usually dominate in cinema, magazines, and other cultural outlets in English,” he wrote. “[This] can subtly educate people about the war in general, but it also socializes them to expect American participation and under represents other countries’ contributions and sacrifices.”
Souchen highlights Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” a film about the desperate evacuation of Allied forces from the northern coast of France in 1940, as “a refreshing departure from American-centric narratives.” Though the Battle of Dunkirk is hardly unknown, retelling the story in a blockbuster movie ensures, in the mold of the short stories featured in “Battlefield V,” that it endures for those who may otherwise not have known about it at all.
University of North Carolina Department of History doctoral student Anthony Rossodivito agrees with Souchen on the weight that these kind of portrayals may hold, writing that “pop culture is extremely important in how the public constructs collective images” of the past.
“Most of the general public get their history lessons from films and television, unfortunately,” he says. “Not everyone goes to university, and many of the history lessons they receive in high school lack any real depth or nuance.” Rossodivito sees obvious shortcomings in the role movies, TV and games play in communicating the past, mentioning that the generalized retellings of World War II history seen in “Saving Private Ryan” or the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” can dangerously simplify complex history into digestible “us vs. them” narratives. In games like “Call of Duty: World War II,” which, much like “Band of Brothers,” follows American troops from the D-Day landings to the defeat of Nazi Germany, there’s little that explores the nuances of the international politics that led soldiers to combat in the first place.
Similarly, while Rossodivito sees potential in the ways that a game like “Battlefield V” incorporates perspectives that “rarely get mentioned in the United States,” he’s wary about how “game designers and filmmakers who want to cater to more nationalistic audiences” fail to consider the broader implications of their subject matter.
“Battlefield V” should be recognized for bypassing familiar, American-focused World War II storylines in favor of underserved global perspectives, but its bombastic action and Cliff’s Notes summaries of historical events may be too shallow to truly make a longer term impact on audience perception.
In its Tirailleurs chapters, “Battlefield V” shows white French soldiers treating their Senegalese comrades with disdain and includes a postscript note on the absurdly belated recognition of their role in the war, but it does little to explain the wider implications of imperialism on the war’s origins and outcome — or the evils committed by Allied forces in their fight against the Axis nations. Similarly, a chapter from the perspective of a German tank commander racked with guilt as he faces defeat during the final phase of the war in Europe introduces the question of how an average person embraced Nazi ideology, but it lacks context regarding what, exactly, soldiers like this believed in or for what they should be held culpable.
“I think it is important to understand that [these stories] should also be used to discuss more than just the battles of the Second World War,” Rossodivito writes. “We need to see some of these wider implications.”
Just as it seems unlikely that the breadth of even one aspect of World War II can ever be properly addressed in a film or TV show meant primarily to entertain its viewers, the confines of a big-budget game like “Battlefield V” are similarly limiting. Introducing a historical topic to its audience for further exploration may be the most we can expect.
While, without supplying greater context, these kind of attempts at broadening representation ring fairly hollow, they’re a positive alternative to games that merely aped from past Hollywood movies depicting the same American-centric battles.
“Battlefield V” then has found a way to introduce a new kind of value to video games, but there remains much more potential for game titles to go further still.
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