IN MY free time I play video games. For a pacifist in a medium that frequently depicts, if not outright celebrates, war and violence, this can sometimes be a complicated statement. It means I don’t play some games and I try (as far as my single voice can) to encourage others not to purchase war games. But war is ubiquitous in the world of video games. From strategic games where players are happy to reenact the Second World War, trying to win (as either side) the conflict without any moral reflection on strategic bombing, genocide or the comparative morality of either side, down to the scale of individual soldiers fighting wars past, present and sometimes startlingly realistic projections of future wars, the player is nearly always a soldier, and the “Action” is always killing.
So war games don’t find a place in my gaming hours. Except, just recently, one has. “This War of Mine” is a game that focuses on a different experience of war - the civilian one. Most games featuring war don’t show civilians, or if they do, they’ll be a fleeting presence, background refugees or sprawling corpses. Usually, if you’re playing as a soldier, the civilians are there to protect and, after mowing down a legion of digital Taliban/Russians/Germans/delete as appropriate, they will be thankful, and disappear.
“This War of Mine” asks the question what happens to civilians in war? It tasks you with the job of simply surviving through the siege of a modern city - ostensibly in a fictional Balkan republic, but a clear stand in for Sarajevo, but also speaking to the civilian experience in Vukovar, Beirut, Gaza, Baghdad. Your band of survivors have personalities and histories, reasons for being in the city as it is fought over by “Rebel” and “Government” forces. By day you try to survive in your bombed-out refuge, cooking meals and scraping together material for beds, fuel for the fire, and desperately hoping for good news on the radio. At night you scavenge for supplies, trade whatever you can find for food or materials and, at least when I’ve been playing, hope that the hospital survived the day’s shelling.
The purpose of the game is to survive. But the designers of the game 11bit Studios, preface the opening with Hemingway’s quote “in modern war you die like a dog for no reason”, and you do. In my most recent play through of the game, Pavle, the sportsman and brilliant scavenger was killed at random by a sniper’s bullet. His backpack of food and medicine was lost. In the refuge, the loss of the food was minor compared to the loss of the man - his friends fell into a black depression, and the choice of using my survivors to comfort each other or search for food left not enough time to go around. Bruno, devastated by the loss of Pavle, hung himself that night.
The fact that this statement can even be written about a computer game is staggering. This War of Mine shows the reality of the impact of war on civilian populations and does not, at any stage, pull punches. War is a dirty, squalid and amoral thing, and you feel it with every day in the 40 day siege you play through in a “normal” run of the game. The characters you play are not soldiers, either volunteer or conscript, but normal people, just like those playing the game. You cannot “superman” your way to victory through skill or knowledge of the game’s systems. As in real war, luck above anything is the only reason anyone survives. This in itself makes it work well as a game - and upset the usual rhythms and expectations of the players.
Playing This War of Mine is sometimes like a kick in the teeth. It’s unpleasant, unflinchingly honest in it’s depiction of war, whether from the islands of humanity lingering among the survivors or the paramilitary-run brothel, sniper’s alley or the groups of desperate starving people you encounter who you may help, if you can spare the aid.
It’s not just honest but provocative. It’s advertising is led by Bertrand Russell quotes and it raises money for War Child with every purchase. It asks questions about why we go to war, and what it does to everyone caught up in it. It states that “War is not a choice” for those civilians it touches. War is not a choice for my survivors hiding in their refuge. It is a choice for those who declare it, work for it and orchestrate it. This War of Mine provides one of the most powerful and persuasive arguments against war and for a productive and active pacifism that I have ever encountered. It should be better known.