A Molotov Cocktail of Fun: Why Do We Play War Games?

6/19/2017
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None of us really like the thought of actually going to war ... unless, that is, you're the Rambo type who’s got a penchant for painting the walls red, donning a battle suit, and heading into the unknown with nothing more than a weapon and your wits.

But if that's the case, then why do we love war games so much? What is it about slipping into a strange new world and taking on an army of bad guys that turns us on?

In reality, there are a whole multitude of reasons. However, what we're interested in are the fundamental thoughts, feelings, and emotions that make us want to play. Naturally, before we delve into our psyches and have a shootout with the forces of darkness, we need to define what we mean by a war game.

The History of War Games

Games about war have been around for centuries, ever since someone picked up a deck of cards and invented the popular card game “War” (when that happened exactly 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!" - 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.

However, the first "proper" war game was developed in February 1980, and was called “Computer Bismarck”. “Computer Bismarck” was a turn-based strategy game where players acted as the British forces and fought 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”.

Spacewar! was the first war game

As you can see from the image, “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.

However, since then war games have made huge strides and became the most popular type of video game. The rise of first-person shooters in the 1990s gave birth to blockbuster franchises such as “Call of Duty”, “Battlefield”, and “Wolfenstein” and helped establish war as the “go-to” subject of video games. Today, you can find war games in every genre, from narrative-heavy adventures to explosion-filled military shooters. War is so popular in video games, there's even a game called “Darksiders” where you play the actual personification of War.

While games about war can be found in every genre, there’s one 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 strategy MMO and MMORPG, which is where a lot of modern war games find their audience.

The Three Aspects of War Games

According to a paper by the University of Virginia, all war games have the same three characteristics:

The War Aspect: Not all war games are actually about war. However, the simulation of war-like activities, environments, and the vocabulary of war defines them as games of war.

The Game Aspect: Not all war simulation scenarios should be classed as "war games", because sometimes there is no gaming element involved. For a war game to actually be a war game involves some sort of competition between two sides in pursuit of a single goal.

The Simulation Aspect: All war games prepare the player in some way for the consequences of war. From strategic considerations to the conditions a person may encounter during a war, the game replicates the situation to a greater or lesser degree.

The three aspects of war

Now, this isn't to say that every war game is trying to be like the real thing. For instance, those who enjoy “Throne: Kingdom at War” aren't really trying to learn how they can build a castle and defend it from an invading army. The three aspects we've outlined here are basically saying that a war game will recreate and exemplify the dynamics of war within a certain setting.

Let's look at our “Throne: Kingdom at War” example. In this game, the Kingdom of Amaria is in turmoil and your job is to unite the empire under one flag – your flag. The war aspect is the fact that Amaria is at war both from within and without, the game aspect is the fact that you're playing against the Plarium community, either on browser or mobile, and the simulation aspect is the ability to hear the sights and sounds of an empire in turmoil.

Relative Success Makes Us Compete

This leads us to ask the question of why people enjoy these sorts of scenarios. The reason people want to defend the kingdom of Amaria, aside from the end goal itself, is the challenge of outthinking and outmaneuvering the enemy. As humans, we love competition. But why? According to the Harvard School of Public Health study, almost 50% of participants would rather earn $50,000 in a world where the average salary was $25,000 than $100,000 in a world where the average is $200,000. Similarly, the study showed that people favored relative intelligence rather than absolute.

What this tells us is that many of us don’t care what the end result is, so long as we're better than the norm. If everyone could lift 100KG, we'd want to lift 110KG rather than lifting 200KG if the average was 300KG. Basically, we want to be better than our peers, and that's a basic human trait.

We constantly fight and compete to be better

So when you play “Throne: Kingdom at War”, 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. Put simply, you just want to be better than the person in front of you.

To put it another way, we all want to be a big fish in a small pond. Of course, as you progress in 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, Emotions, and Strategic Thoughts

Another reason we seem to enjoy war games, aside from the fact that they test our powers of logic, strategy, and forward planning, is that they appeal to our survival instinct. 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 like “Call of Duty” 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. 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 really heightened sense of stress can be fun," explains Gentile.

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

"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.

Conflict makes for a good story

Basically, violence is a stimulant that, when triggered in the right setting, can be extremely enjoyable. This is clearly the case when it comes to games such as “Call of Duty”, “Halo”, “World of Warships”, and the like. Moreover, when you combine this desire to raise your stress levels and, effectively, trick your body into facing danger with skill, you get a heady combination.

Exercising a degree of control over a situation that then results in you gaining the upper hand over someone fills you with an intoxicating sense of power. Add in your stress hormones and the resultant cocktail is one you're only too willing to drink for hours and hours.

This, in a nutshell, is why we love war games and why a few drinks at the Plarium bar of action should serve you extremely well in your gaming endeavors.