Way back when, the second Call of Duty doubled down on the visceral, immersive, traumatic opening of Saving Private Ryan and brought the slaughter of the Battle of Normandy to digital life. The key intent was to immerse the player in the world of WWII and get them to fully experience what it was like to fight in such a battle. Of course, it’s a given that no video game can ever capture the feeling of being in the midst of a battle, fighting for your life, no matter how hard it tries.

Flash forward to Battlefield 1, a technically brilliant game that dragged players back to WWI and forced them into skirmishes which involved all manner of brutal ways of dying. To the developers, DICE, credit, they certainly tried their hardest to reinforce the reality of war by implementing a single player campaign titled ‘War Stories’. These motifs were designed to inform players about the realities of WWI, and getting a mild history lesson of what went on at the time. On the multiplayer front, there was a mode called ‘Operations’, which allowed players to take on allied or enemy forces, and wage war in a recreation of a notable battle. These rounds were long, drawn out affairs, with a voiceover at the end explaining what the true outcome was in the battle. If the enemy won, when in fact it was the allied forces who triumphed, then the voice over would explain what would have happened if the enemy won.

It’s a nice, cute addition but, it’s an entirely forgettable one. Come the end of the round, most players are looking to see what their kill/death ratio is while they wait for the next round to begin. While I initially applauded the addition of actual history to the Battlefield series, I realised pretty quickly that it was flimsy set dressing that did little to hide the fact that it was the same game, just a different skin. There were times where I’d be sucked into the ‘just one more’ vortex, only to find myself looking bleary eyed at a screen at 2am thinking, what have I just done for the past five hours? All those stories about battles long past blended in to one, and I was left with the only logical conclusion – we won, they lost.

It’s worthwhile noting that narrative focused games like Valiant Hearts have made a concerted effort to educate and entertain equally. Valiant Hearts is a pitch perfect game that aims to inform about the struggles that people from around the world went through when it came to World War One. Years after having played it, I can easily recall the game explaining the value of a dry pair of socks, and how they helped soldiers be protected against ‘trench foot’. The game is littered with simple, useful historical facts that are memorable in the way they inform players of what war was like, rather than attempting to digitally recreate the violent battles of war.

Video games are, right now, at a cross roads. The argument about them being art has long dissipated. It’s undeniable that games can be works of art, especially when games like Journey, Monument Valley, and Celeste exist. But, for those games that don’t ever aim to be a work of art, how do they manage to break the mould and elevate themselves above being a milquetoast affair that is no different than what has come before? For the shooter genre, it’s no longer enough to simply have a character mow down faceless goons, they need to provide context for the wanton murder that the player is engaging in.

For Wolfenstein, the anti-Nazi narrative was given a modern spin with The New Order, and in turn, the ‘hero’ William J. Blazkowicz became a fully realised resistance fighter. The violence was as gory as ever, and the thrill of executing Nazi’s was, well, thrilling. For Grand Theft Auto V, the idea of capitalism was writ-large in an acidic satire of modern America. Some may argue that the game is not smart enough to grapple with the themes it’s intending to explore, especially given the fact that it still offers up everything that the player base it’s satirising wants to eat up. Regardless of how you feel about the game, it’s clear that Rockstar at least tried to add some kind of context to the fictional world of Los Santos.

In turn, with Red Dead Redemption 2, they’ve attempted to infuse the world with as much historical significance as possible. So, while your horses testicles will shrink in the cold, you’re also likely to stumble upon a group of parading KKK members, all dressed up in their white garb and marching through the forest with burning crosses and torches. Now, in a bid to ridicule this caustic group, Rockstar have opted to show the KKK members trip, and set themselves on fire. It’s slapstick comedy only once removed from the absurd eye hole comedy that Quentin Tarantino applied to the KKK in Django Unchained.  

While it appears easy enough to ridicule a horrific, racist group that changed America now, the harsh reality is that the KKK were no small joke back in the 1890’s. Under those white cloaks were people of influence – politicians, people of power. The truth is, the KKK still exists, and it’s still a weapon of influence in America alongside the spectre of Nazi’s under the banner of the ‘alt-right’.

Stumbling upon a group of KKK members in the dark is startling. As a player, you simply don’t expect that a game would present such a thing. However, as occurred with Mafia III, racism is something that demands to be explored within video games. Mafia III explores racism through the viewpoint of a black character in America, and in turn, the impact of racism was partially realised by the player. Red Dead Redemption 2 presents a world that would have had slavery and lynching’s, and instead presents the cause of this hatred as a joke.