Why WWII Videogames Are Hot

It's Sept. 17, 1944. You're crouching behind a pile of rubble in the Dutch town of Nijmegen, taking cover from a German sniper in a nearby bell tower. You reload your submachine gun and hope that your three remaining grenades are enough to destroy the tank lurking up ahead. As a member of the 82nd Airborne, you're one of 34,000 Allied paratroopers dropped behind enemy lines as part of Operation Market Garden in a bold plan to bypass the stalled western front and storm into Germany through Holland and win the war by Christmas. But things aren't going so well. You've been in heavy combat from the moment you hit the ground, fighting tooth and nail with an elite German battalion and Panzer division for control of the town and nearby bridge. You haven't been resupplied, your regiment has taken heavy losses, and the British armored division that was supposed to relieve you yesterday still hasn't arrived.

If you succeed, you'll not only have pulled off one of the Allies' most daring feats of the war, you'll have beaten the third level of "Medal of Honor: Airborne," the latest installment in Electronic Arts' best-selling World War II videogame franchise. Though ultimately deemed a failure for the Allies, Operation Market Garden has been a resounding success in the virtual world. It's featured in at least 12 separate videogames, including four of the 14 "Medal of Honor" titles, and will be the sole focus of "Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway," due out early next year on the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. In the $10 billion videogame industry, war has always been marketable, especially among males aged 15-25, its biggest consumer group. But recently one war in particular has captured the imaginations of gamers more than any other: World War II. While a handful of games based on the Civil War, Vietnam and even Iraq exist, more than 100 titles are dedicated to the struggle between the Axis and Allies, at least 70 of which have been made in the last five years. While videogames have largely been portals into fantasy worlds filled with aliens, zombies and Mario, more and more games are being based on the very real battles of the Greatest Generation.

It's no surprise. The close-range infantry combat of Operation Market Garden illustrates why World War II, particularly as it was fought in Europe between 1944 and 1945, has become such popular videogame fodder. The Allies' 11-month campaign across Europe to Berlin was, "to a significant extent a rifleman's war," says historian Niall Ferguson. And though soldiers depended heavily on air and armored support, "they still had to do a lot of ditch-to-ditch, house-to-house fighting—the perfect setting for first-person shooter games." Indeed, the majority of World War II games, and certainly the most popular ones, put the player in the role of a first-person shooter. The genre accounts for about 15 percent of all game sales, thanks in part to the success of World War II titles. The "Medal of Honor" and "Call of Duty" series have sold a combined 23 million copies and make up two of the four best-selling first-person shooters of all time, according to market research firm NPD Group—the others being the futuristic space adventure "Halo" and those based on the exploits of James Bond, which means that Nazis are as much a videogame nemesis as space aliens and guys with metal teeth.

But what makes Nazis more compelling videogame enemies than, say, the Vietcong? In 2004 Electronic Arts released "Battlefield Vietnam" on the PC, but sold fewer than 500,000 copies. The Iraq war has featured some of the most intense urban combat ever, but only one game, "Kuma War," overtly uses Operation Iraqi Freedom as its setting—and it has been widely panned as inappropriate. Clearly, our desire to relive a war through a videogame depends on how we feel about its moral and political nature, particularly as videogames tend to deal in absolutes: good versus evil, win or die trying, nothing short of the end of the world at stake. And, oh yeah, the good guys have to come out on top. Sound familiar?

"More than any other conflict in history, World War II is an example of good conquering evil," says Col. John Antal, a retired Army specialist who, as a consultant for Gearbox Software on its "Brothers in Arms" series, has spent months with game developers, walking battlefield sites, training with authentic weapons and equipment, and going over after-action reports filed from the field more than 60 years ago. As a result the "Brothers in Arms" series, which Antal refers to as "first-person squad-based combat games" because of players' ability to direct members of their squads while also firing at the enemy, has been endorsed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars for its historical accuracy; it even inspired a 2005 History Channel documentary based on its depiction of the 101st Airborne in June 1944.

But even if historically accurate, should these games be viewed as educational tools? Research indicates they already are. An estimated 78 percent of kids under 18 play videogames, and a survey of national school districts by the Center on Education Policy reported that since 2002 time spent on subjects like history has fallen by nearly one-third. The National Council for History Education says it's a crisis. So might videogames be the primary source material for a lot of kids when it comes to World War II? "I'm convinced that's happening," says Ohio State history professor David Staley, head of the American Association for History and Computing. Though that's not necessarily a good thing. Staley and most other academics say that first-person shooter videogames, even ones as historically accurate as "Brothers in Arms," give kids an overly simplistic version of the war without touching on broader themes, like why it began or how it was won—though one game that does, "Making History," a strategy computer game by Muzzy Lane, is already part of the World War II curriculum in more than 150 schools. Playing as one of 11 nations instead of an individual soldier, students engage in diplomacy and must contend with economic factors as well as battlefield strategy. Since launching the game in April, Muzzy Lane has sold 15,000 copies of "Making History"—impressive, if nowhere near the numbers put up by the big World War II first-person shooters. Even if history is fun, it may not be easy to convince young people.