“Thousands of History students are interested in it through war video games. » This observation is delivered by a history professor. Nicolas Patin is a specialist in world wars and teaches at the University of Bordeaux. He is also scientific curator of the exhibition War games. Playing with History which is held until May 19, 2024, at the historic center of the 14-18 Memorial, in Souchez, in Pas-de-Calais.
Located in the heart of the former battlefield of the First World War, this museum usually retraces the memory of the conflict which saw more than 18 million people perish, almost half of them civilians. So, at first glance, the idea of looking at war video games might seem iconoclastic.
The exhibition War games. Playing with History is, however, above all pragmatic, according to Nicolas Patin: “Like cinema or literature yesterday, video games have become part of everyday life and guide today’s young people towards the discovery of the past, for whom the memory of the 20th century is ‘go away’.
Potential vector of memory of the 14-18 War
For the first time in France, this exhibition addresses the world of war games by comparing archive images and objects with visual extracts dealing with the war of 14-18. A conflict which is rarely mentioned: out of more than 1,000 games identified in the world, only 90 deal with the Great War. There are several reasons for this under-representation, compared to the Second World War: “the main one is that the clashes take place at a distance via artillery and hand-to-hand combat is rare,” underlines Nicolas Patin. It’s difficult to produce a gaming experience that is both realistic and captivating. »
In the historic center of the 14-18 Memorial, throughout the scenography, testimonies from historians, game developers and even players fuel this reflection around the playful representation of this conflict.
“We don’t hear any screams at all”
With constant reminders of historical veracity, sometimes a bit truncated… Obedience to orders, although the cardinal virtue of the soldier, is always forgotten; leaving room for individual exploits. A big departure from reality, as Emmanuelle Cronier, lecturer in history at the University of Amiens, explains about the game Verdun from the Dutch video game company Blackmill Games: “the specificity of this war is the significant number of wounded while on the screen, they are absent visually but also in the soundscape. We don’t hear any cries at all even though it’s an important reality of no man’s land which was widely commented on by veterans. »
The creators also give their point of view. “When we embark on a project like Unknown Soldiers, specifies Paul Tumelaire, creative director at Ubisoft, we call on the archives and we discover letters from poilus, photos. I tell myself that it would be a shame not to give the possibility of having this knowledge that we managed to have by making this game. » Because Unknown Soldiers, which avoids the shooting game in favor of progression by searching for clues, is one of the games offered for testing in this exhibition. With Battlefield 1a must-have for the general public shooter, Verdun 14-18 where the creators tried to painstakingly recreate the atmosphere of the trenches, and Toy Soldierswhose toy soldiers symbolically recall the realities of war.