Niall Ferguson: What's wrong with the computerized war games kids play

Roundup: Historians' Take

"All my life I have played va banque [go for broke],” said Hitler. Churchill too was a gambler, once literally deluging his wife with his casino winnings. Eisenhower preferred the bridge table. For Homo ludens (“playing man,” a phrase coined by the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga in 1938), war is the great game and World War II was the greatest game of them all.

My sons, ages 7 and 12, play these games compulsively. For a while, their GameCube favorite was Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. Then they discovered Call of Duty. The latest fad is Soldiers: Heroes of World War II, which they play online on their PCs.

To say that I’m interested in World War II would be an understatement. For the past few years, I have been toiling to write its history, skulking in my study and neglecting my children in the process. In theory, games like Medal of Honor ought to have helped our family to reconnect when I finally emerged from my books. But no. Unfortunately—and to the disappointment of my sons—I hate them. And that’s despite the fact that I sincerely believe computer games have a potentially revolutionary role to play in the teaching of history.

I’ll go further. There’s never been a more important time for people to play World War II games. For the last five years, politicians from the president down have been recycling the rhetoric of that conflict. September 11 was “a day of infamy.” Saddam/Ahmadinejad/Kim Jong Il is the new Hitler. And yet few of these politicians seem to have any real understanding of the strategic risks involved in global conflict.

So why do I hate Medal of Honor? The trouble is—and the same could be said of nearly all its competitors—it’s profoundly unhistorical. It’s what’s known in the games trade as a first-person shooter (FPS) game. As a player, you take on the role of Lieutenant Mike Powell of the U.S. Army Rangers. You see the battlefield—a Normandy beach, for instance—from his vantage point. As Lieutenant Powell, you do pretty much what you feel like—which is to bag as many Germans as you can. In reality, an officer’s principal concern on Omaha Beach was somehow to maintain the cohesion of his unit in the face of a lethal storm of steel.

Second, the cost of a miscalculation is low. Wounds merely deduct points from your “health.” Death—usually and rather grotesquely signaled by a grunt and the descent of a red mist over the screen—simply means the end of one game and the start of the next.

In fairness, games like Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Soldiers have taught my sons an amazing amount about World War II hardware. But at root, they’re just playing Space Invaders—make that Beach Invaders—with fancy graphics.

Part of the problem may be the games’ unconscious anachronism—many of them are inspired, if not directly based, on software recently developed by the U.S. military for training purposes....

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