It looks just like a normal Xbox 360 controller, which I must have held during long gaming sessions in my teenage years. Yet the gadget in a glass case at London’s Imperial War Museum had another purpose entirely – it controlled the camera of the Desert Hawk, an unmanned aerial vehicle used for military surveillance in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer, realized that Xbox controllers were cheaper than military-grade alternatives, and they made it work. Many of the new recruits had already used gaming controllers to engage in ideas of war; Now they can use them for the real thing.

A new exhibition from IWM London explores this malaise between war and entertainment, War games. War drama has long proved irresistible to storytellers, but technological innovations regularly provide new angles. In the case of games, war stories can be experienced as if you are the protagonist of the story, not just a spectator. Surveying 40 years of gaming history, the exhibition asks: What can games teach us about conflict?

“There’s always tension in playing war because war is primarily about violence and destruction, while the defining feature of games is fun,” says co-curator Ian Kikuchi. Fans of the first-person shooter genre know that the easiest way to resolve this tension is to make violence seem fun. We see the team behind the stealth shooter Sniper Elite 5 Discussing how they fine-tune each rifle to make it satisfying to fire and how much care goes into programming each terrific headshot. There’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying it — entertainment media has given viewers a safe space to explore their darkest impulses and ideas. Gore can be a thrilling spectacle as long as we know it’s not real.

Yet war games are constantly moving towards greater realism. The exhibit includes a rifle on which the Sniper Elite 5 The team created their digital version. And in a video, the makers of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Cultivating graphical fidelity is a goal of major concern to a large portion of the gaming community. It is interesting to note that players of modern shooters demand extreme realism in terms of weapon design and blood spatter physics but at the same time want a depiction of war that is realistic, a fantasy retelling that removes all the boredom, trauma — in other words, humanity.

Gamers enjoy the graphical fidelity of ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’

While the main theme of most shooters is complicated heroism, many indie games have tried to explore the emotional reality of war and create more empathy. presents the exhibition Through the Darkest of Timesin which you directly opposed the Nazi Party in 1930s Berlin and This war is mine, where you control citizens struggling to survive in a city under siege. There is the most movement Goodbye, my love, an innovative game casting players as a man communicating with his wife via text message as she tries to escape Syria. The messages you send determine whether she reaches Europe safely, ends up in a refugee camp, or drowns at sea.

Alongside the games are items from the museum’s collection that resonate with these humanitarian retellings of war stories: a blanket carried across Europe by a World War II refugee and a burnt instrument by an Iraqi man who fled his home in Mosul to escape Isis.

Here’s an interesting observation about the trends in the way various wars are portrayed in popular culture. “World War II has always felt like a setting where it was worth having an adventure,” says Kikuchi, like the film That’s a great escape Also Call of Duty Sports “Meanwhile, World War I is remembered primarily as a tragedy that shocked an entire generation.” It tracks with artistic World War I games 11-11: Memories Retold, whose engagement with history is soulful and poignant rather than hingistic. Meanwhile, modern wars in the Middle East often depend on the clumsy behavior of Arabs.

We also see controversial demos Six days in Fallujah, which has drawn criticism from gamers concerned about whether it could sensitively portray the plight of Iraqi civilians while praising the heroism of US Marines. That raises questions about whether games can provide a sensitive enough canvas to portray the recent conflict — there are no games yet about the war in Ukraine, although the industry has rallied in support of Ukrainian developers.

In a darkened exhibition room, two people watch a video exhibition featuring a fighting game

This exhibition explores the tension between gaming fantasy and the reality of war © Kathleen Arundel

“More than anything, games tell us about the stories we want to tell about conflict,” says Kikuchi. “They overemphasize the difference that individuals can make. Conflicts are rarely solved by a surgical strike or a special forces team.” To walk through the main gallery of IWM London is to understand that war is beyond the control of any one person. It is a colossal event that tears through history like a force of nature, something to be endured, not enjoyed.

Games may take the subject for a fun look or to explore its darker undercurrents, but they mostly pedal a fantasy. “They reveal our desire to control our destiny,” says Kikuchi, “in a way that real war always denies us.”

‘War Games’ will run till 28 May 2023, iwm.org.uk