Battlefield 1: Can a video game about WW I be both entertaining and a history lesson?

Game developers have long used history as their digital playground and tweaked the facts to suit their needs - is Battlefield 1 any different?

First-person shooter could spark wider interest in the Great War

Battlefield 1 immerses players in the grit and unrelenting destruction of the First World War. (DICE/Electronic Arts)

How historically accurate should a video game be when depicting something like the First World War?

The conflict is one of the bloodiest in human history, having left 16 million dead and creating geopolitical conflicts that continue to this day.

Game developers have long used history as their digital playground and tweaked the facts to suit their needs — adding some colourful characters here or a few more explosions there. Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed series, set in periods such as the Italian Renaissance or Revolutionary France, is just one example.

The question is whether the studio DICE would do the same for Battlefield 1 (available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC), a first-person shooter set in what was (prematurely) called The War to End All Wars.

The opening prologue plunges the player into the middle of a major offensive in France in 1918, with the charred remains of buildings and trees strewn about a blasted wasteland of mud and corpses.

As a member of the Harlem Hellfighters, a real-life regiment that consisted largely of African-American soldiers, you have to defend an area from a German onslaught. Artillery rains from above and enemies with flamethrowers flood your position with fire and smoke.

What does a historian think of Battlefield 1?

5 years ago
Duration 2:49
Historian Nathan Smith examines the new video game Battlefield 1's portrayal of the First World War 2:49

After about two minutes — if you survive that long — you run out of ammo, and find yourself outnumbered. When you're inevitably gunned down, a short card with your soldier's name and lifespan appears on the screen — for example, "Matthew Collings (1884-1918)." Then you're placed in the role of another doomed recruit, in another part of the battlefield.

The point Battlefield 1 clearly wants to make is that the war took young soldiers' lives by the thousands — most of them never had the chance for a moment of glory.

Video games usually deal in fantasies of power, so this hyper-realistic, fatalistic message is unusually dour.

'Powerful' opening prologue

Florian Wittig, producer of the YouTube channel The Great War, called the opening segment "very, very powerful," and felt it was probably the game's strongest chapter.

"I think it really drove home, in a very small nutshell, what I think some of these battles must have felt like," he said. "I think it was quite poignant."

Nathan Smith, a Toronto-based historian and co-editor of a blog series about Canada's role in the First World War, was also largely positive about what he saw in the prologue.

"As a visual representation, I think it's quite accurate," he said, immediately recognizing one soldier's use of a Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifle. Other details that impressed Smith included a German soldier's powerful (but unwieldy) flamethrower and British Mark V tanks rolling over trenches and shattering barricades.​

Battlefield 1 paints a vividly desolate image of the Western Front during the First World War. (DICE/Electronic Arts (screenshot))

Smith pointed out that Battlefield 1 also visits a number of less commonly seen locales.

"If someone made a game about the First World War maybe 20 years ago, I'm not sure they would take you to the former Ottoman Empire — the present-day Middle East," Smith said. "I think that's a good thing. it's showing you more of the war, and how broad it was."

Dramatic effect

Of course, this is still a video game, and some liberties were taken to amp up the moment-by-moment excitement. For one, the set pieces are filled with hand-to-hand combat. In reality, most of the casualties on the Western Front had a "faceless nature" to them, according to Smith.

"Most of the soldiers, certainly on the Western Front, died as a result of shell fire. So they were killed by people they couldn't see, and the people doing the killing couldn't see them, either. Usually, anyway. But that wouldn't make for a very interesting game, I don't think."

One chapter in the single-player campaign stars a Bedouin woman fighting against the Ottoman Empire alongside Lawrence of Arabia. (DICE/Electronic Arts)

He also points out that you wouldn't have seen a German Zeppelin used as a bomber in the middle of a battle the way it is in the game's prologue. The giant blimps were more typically used to carry out long-distance bombings.

"I've never heard of a zeppelin being used right on the front lines," Smith said. "It looks cool, though."

Super soldier syndrome

Wittig was disappointed that other chapters focused on one individual pulling off more conventional acts of heroism. Instead of inhabiting a different soldier every time you're killed, you take the role of one character and play through his or her story for a couple of hours.

In one chapter, a charismatic pilot shoots down dozens of German planes, surviving in the face of impossible odds — this despite introductory text that stresses most pilots lasted an average of 17 days before dying.

Indeed, it's difficult to appreciate that soldiers died in such large numbers when you're playing the First World War equivalent of Han Solo.

"I would have preferred to stay with the feeling of the prologue, which was 'You're a cog in the wheel,'" Wittig says.

Boosting interest, awareness

That said, imposing documentary levels of historical accuracy on such a widely popular video game series might ignore its greatest potential: generating wider interest in the Great War.

Wittig says that since the first Battlefield 1 trailer dropped in May, his YouTube channel accumulated 5,000 new subscribers — the largest spike since it launched in 2014.

Despite taking some creative liberties to ensure an enjoyable gaming experience, Battlefield 1 might have some positive side effects.

"A game like this has the power to significantly increase the awareness and interest in this conflict," Wittig says. "That's undeniable, I think."


Jonathan Ore

Senior Writer

Jonathan Ore is the Senior Writer for CBC Radio Digital in Toronto. He's also covered arts & entertainment, technology and the video game industry for CBC News. You can find him on Twitter @Jon_Ore.