War Games: Why Do We Love Playing at War

8 minutes read

War is horrible. No one wants to go to war, or live through one.

So what is it about slipping into the muddy boots of a WWII soldier, tightly grasping the plasma cannon of a space marine, or sending your troops to a bloody adventure that we love so much?

Why do we play war games?

The fact is, there is a whole multitude of reasons. However, what we're interested in are the most basic thoughts, feelings, and emotions that make us want to play war games.

Naturally, before we delve into our psyches and have ourselves a shootout with the forces of darkness, we need first to define what is a war game.


What are War Games?

It is a common belief that all war games have the same three characteristics:

  • The War Aspect
  • The Game Aspect
  • The Simulation Aspect

The War Aspect

Not all games are actually about war.

Part of what makes a game a war game is simulating the “the activity of war” and the right vocabulary and jargon.

Only games that depict the act of war, not necessarily realistically, can be called war games. The concept doesn’t have to be front and center, but an online war game can’t be one without war.

The Game Aspect

Not all war simulation can, or should be classed as war games.

For example, military maneuvers may be a simulation of war, but they don’t have a lot to do with gaming.

If the previous aspect enforced the idea that a war game needs to deal with war, this one emphasizes that a war game needs to be an actual game.

Games usually compel participants to compete against each other or cooperate against a common enemy. This in turn, “forces” players to think creatively and come up with new strategies to complete their goal.

If a simulation provides opportunities for strategic thinking, then you can call it a war game.

The Simulation Aspect

Good war games simulate actual war in some way.

They do so in various levels of realism, but by definition, playing them should provide some insight into the world of warfare (without the actual death part). From strategic planning to the conditions a person may encounter, these games replicate a situation of war to a greater or lesser degree.

Most games do not focus on educating their players about what’s it like to fight a war or lead an army, but that is a byproduct of any good war game.

The three aspects of war games

The United States military, as well as other armies around the world, have historically valued the simulation army games can provide.; so much so, that the US Army has developed its own army game as a training and recruitment tool.

Now, this isn't to say that every war game is trying to be like the real thing.

Every war game exhibits some level of the three aspects we've outlined here. However, that doesn’t mean they all exist in equal measure. Usually, promoting one aspect will most likely result in diminishing the other two. The more game-like your game is, the less of a simulation it becomes, and vice-versa.

For example, fantasy MMO war games work great as games, and they do deal with the subject matter of war, but they aren’t very good war simulations. Nevertheless, they are still war games.

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The History of War Games

Games about war have been around for centuries.

We’ve been playing at war ever since someone picked up a deck of cards and invented the popular card game “War” (when that happened precisely is lost to history). Ever since, we have been pretending to be at war in every medium imaginable, from cards to board games to video games.

The first video game about war was "Spacewar!". It was a space combat game developed in 1962 on the PDP-1 minicomputer. Incidentally, “Spacewar!” is also one of the first video games ever made, which tells us a little bit about human nature and the games we like to play.

The First War Game

However, the first war game was developed in February 1980, and was called “Computer Bismarck.” It was a turn-based strategy game where players acted as the British forces, fighting against the battleship Bismarck and other German units. The German side was controlled by another player or by a computer AI, called “Otto Von Computer.”

As you can see below, “Computer Bismarck” wasn’t much to look at. You can barely make out Great Britain (on the right) or Iceland (at the top) against the purple Atlantic Ocean.

Computer Bismarck was the first war game

Since then, war games have made tremendous strides and became the most popular type of video game. The rise of the first-person shooter in the 1990s gave birth to blockbuster franchises such as Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Wolfenstein. They helped establish war as the “go-to” subject of video games. It is so popular; there's even a game called Darksiders where you play the actual personification of War.

Today, you can find war games in every genre and on every device, from narrative-heavy adventures to explosion-filled military shooters on mobile. But there’s one genre that’s almost entirely focused on the concept of warfare, and that’s strategy. Both turn-based strategy and real-time strategy games from across the years have brought wargaming to PCs around the world with franchises like Command & Conquer, Total War, and WarCraft.

These eventually led to the rise of the MMO strategy games, where a lot of modern war games find their audience.

Online War Games Make Us Better People

Why do we love going to war in video games? For the challenge and satisfaction of outthinking and outmaneuvering our (virtual) enemies.

Us humans love competing, usually caring about being better, and improving in certain fields.

According to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health, almost half of the participants said they would rather earn $50,000 in a world where the average salary is $25,000 than make $100,000 in a world where the average is $200,000.

Similarly, the study shows that people preferred to have a relative advantage and not an absolute one. In other words, people want to be smarter and better looking than their friends and coworkers, not necessarily the most intelligent and attractive person in the world.

Playing at War Games as a Sense of Accomplishment

We want to be better than our peers, and that is a fundamental human trait.

So when you play war games - where the aim is to outsmart other players through a combination of strategy, logic, and foresight - you don't really care how good you are overall. You just want to be better than the person on the other side of the screen.

Competition is a major incentive in war games

To put it another way, we all want to be a big fish in a small pond.

Of course, as you progress through the game, your pond will gradually increase in size. However, truly skilled players will grow at the same rate to ensure they remain the proverbial shark.

A Cocktail of Hormones and Emotions

Another reason we seem to enjoy army games, aside from the fact that they test our powers of logic, strategy, and planning, is that they appeal to our most basic instincts.

As suggested in this piece from NPR, two things are guaranteed to make a situation or narrative more appealing: sex and violence.

According to Iowa State University professor Douglas Gentile, war games and shooters cause a cocktail of stress hormones, such as cortisol, noradrenaline, and testosterone, to be released into our bloodstream – the same hormones would have been released were we in actual combat.

Real-life vs Playing at War

In a real-life situation, these hormones would be used by the body to create a fight-or-flight response. However, as Gentile points out, they also turn us on and make us find a game more engaging.

"When you know you're safe, having that heightened sense of stress can be fun," explains Gentile.

This theory is confirmed by iStrategyLabs' Megan Zlock, a self-confessed gamer. Zlock claims that a storyline is instantly made more impressive and immersive if there's an element of danger added to the mix.

Adding a Storyline to Complete the Creation of a War Game

"If you want to create a good narrative, you need to create conflict, and violence is a really easy way to create conflict," said Zlock.

Violence is a stimulant that, when triggered in the right setting, can be extremely enjoyable. Clearly, this is the case when it comes to immersive online war games. You’re in a war-like scenario; your body is tense from the stress of competition and the desire to win, so your brain reacts appropriately.

Exercising a degree of control over such a situation can fill you with an intoxicating sense of power; especially if that control resulted in besting another player. Add in your stress hormones, and the resultant cocktail is one you're only too willing to drink for hours and hours.

Conflict is a great motivator

Why We Play War Games

Playing war games helps us show the world, and more specifically our enemies, that we are better than them: our strategy smarter, our reflexes sharper, and our skills superior.

The thrill of competition, combined with the sense of power and accomplishment we derive from taking back control over seemingly chaotic situations are the reason war is such a prevalent theme in video games.

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