The recent Battlefield 5 trailer has stoked controversy over the role of women in video games. While most of the criticism comes from misogynists I do believe there is a valid discussion to be had about the subject.
Personally, I disliked the trailer because of two things: The gameplay it portrayed seemed incoherent and lacking in any kind of narrative and second, the way the developers chose to include women didn’t do the actual women of WWII justice.
The gameplay the trailer portrayed seemed incoherent and lacking in any kind of narrative. It wasn’t sure exactly where the scene was supposed to be taking place or what time in the war.
The characters were hopping around blasting things. The weapons didn’t seem to fit any kind of specific roles or class types and I had a hard time suspending disbelief when the characters jumped out of a second story window and shot down an ME 109(?) with an MG 42. I couldn’t follow the trailer and I didn’t understand how what was presented was supposed to work inside actual gameplay.
(Also: Why are jeeps falling from the sky and crushing Nazis? Where are they coming from!?)
The gameplay I’ve seen does little to alleviate these concerns. I far as I can tell the developers have blurred the line between classes. For example, any player can now revive another instead of needing a medic which somewhat defeats the point of having a medic class in the first place.
The combat has also been shifted to focus more on infantry rather than vehicles, which seems kind of self-defeating given the setting. Why would they set a Battlefield game in the war that introduced the world to modern armored operations and then reduce the number of vehicles from the previous game?
This is not a good thing for a franchise that has distinguished itself (at least in my mind) as the more “hardcore” less “arcade-like” competitor to Call of Duty with more complex environments, gameplay mechanics, and vehicles.
The Elephant In The Room
In terms of the inclusion of women in combat, I believe what the trailer portrayed was both historically inaccurate, potentially damaging and honestly?; Lazy.
Let us be clear: Women did serve in front-line combat during WWII, but not with the Western Allies and certainly not with the fascist Axis. There was no point in which the Americans, British, Germans, Italians or French used female soldiers in the way they are portrayed in the trailer. Certainly, they would have an issue allowing any soldier missing an arm into combat.
In my opinion, If EA wanted to portray women in combat they should not have invented artificial female characters. There were thousands of female snipers and pilots that served in the Soviet Armies that would have easily fit for a game about World War II and made for a great narrative.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko, for example, had 309 kills to her name and received the Hero of the Soviet Union for her contribution to the war effort. For the sake of comparison; the legendary sniper of the Battle of Stalingrad, Vasily Zaytsev had from 242 to “over 300” confirmed kills (Russian source) and Chris Kyle tallied just 160. That’s right, Pavlichenko killed twice as many men as one of America’s most famous snipers.
The Soviets also fielded three regiments of bombers piloted by females, the most famous of which were the 588th “Night Witches.” They earned the moniker because they operated at night and would cut the engines in their Po-2 biplanes on approach to target. Without the rumble of the engines, the canvas of the wings was said to sound like a broomstick. Swedish power metal band Sabaton even wrote a song about them.
In fact, women served in a variety of combat roles. Mariya Oktyabrskaya drove a T-34 tank. Sergeant Oktyabrskaya was killed in combat in 1944 around Vitebsk and was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union and the Order of Lenin for her bravery.
There is a rich history here that has been left untouched by western media. These stories of real women could have formed the basis of a great narrative that showcased the real women who fought the Third Reich on the front lines. Given the current debates over the role of women in combat, such a tale seems to be greatly needed.
In this article, Liza Mundy gives an overview of Svetlana Alexievich’s book “The Unwomanly Face of War.” Here there is a real view of female soldiers, some as young as 13 who took up arms and fought. It details how they sniped and pulled men from burning tanks. How they starved and endured the barren conditions of the eastern front only to comes back to be called “Army Whores” and “Military Bitches.” These were the real women of the front.
What EA is doing is shoehorning in diversity unnecessarily. The inclusion of a British female sniper is in especially poor taste because it both whitewashes British sexism and erases the roles of the Soviet snipers that appear to have inspired the female sniper archetype in the first place.
Glossing over important and often uncomfortable historical realities like sexism also defeat the purpose of including females in the first place. They are creating a separate universe where these realities did not exist and failing to educate the public about them in a way that assists in creating respect and equality for the real heroes of the war.
I understand that the Second World War is heavily mythologized in the media and in popular culture and what EA is doing has, in some ways, been done before. However it was a real event, tens of millions of people died in some of the most horrible ways imaginable. This number includes roughly 400,000 Americans. It was a war so horrific that it’s aftermath set the stage for a world order that exists to this day.
But I think this really to my final point: Battlefield is not a game about World War II just like Like Battlefield 1 was not a game about WWI. These are fantasy games that use these wars as a backdrop for Dice and EA’s latest iteration of their gameplay mechanics rather than using them as the basis of a gameplay experience.
Let’s be clear: This isn’t Call of Duty 2 or World at War where the player was given a bloody introduction to a sniping lying on a pile of bodies in levels that reference famous battles and classic movies. This isn’t a narrative driven game or high art like BioShock either.
In my opinion, this is all representative of a turn towards a more generic, cut down shooter that focuses less on immersing the player in a complex historical environment and more on loot crates.
I would love a game where I got to play as Lyudmila Pavlichenko. The sheer amount kills she had and the place she fought in (Crimea) would make for amazing level designs and an even better gameplay. But EA will likely not deliver that. Battlefield 5’s single player will be like Battlefield 1’s. Short, fantastical, and with little actual relation to anything that actually happened during the Second World War.
It will not seek to inform or make the player think. It isn’t going to be a game that gets anyone interested in studying the Second World War or examining the role of women. It’s just going to be another game.