You are running out of options. To the right, there is a house where one of your friends lies wounded; He is seen in the shadows created by the harsh sun streaming through the empty window frame. To the left is a small hut with two, maybe three heavily armed enemy insurgents. The broken door in front of you is your only way out, and you only have two bullets. Two chances to save yourself and your friend. The adrenaline is off the charts.

Although most people have mercifully never been on a battlefield or been held, let alone shoot a gun, war-themed videogames such as Call of Duty, Halo, and Sniper Elite have plunged millions of people around the world into virtual conflict.

These games have become cultural mainstays for decades, encouraging players to take up arms and defeat ever-changing bad guys, from Cold War-era Russians to space invaders. And they’re very lucrative – the Call of Duty franchise alone has grossed more than $30 billion since its launch in 2003.

But why do so many people actively enjoy war stories? That’s a question the Imperial War Museum is trying to answer in its upcoming exhibition, War Games, which aims to explore the complex, and often complicated, relationship of this virtual realm to its real-life counterparts. According to psychologist Pete Etchells, rather than being about teenagers scarred by the latest war simulator, these games are incredibly complex – and incredibly effective at helping us process conflict.

A stable from the war simulator Arma 3

/ Arma / Imperial War Museum

“They’re very important things to say,” Etchells says. “They are very emotionally involved; They resonate with us. They are often about loss; About the most significant social upheavals and how we can deal with them. And people are interested in those kinds of stories.”

The idea that gaming only appeals to teenagers is no longer relevant, if it ever was – Etchells, who has written several books on the subject, dismisses the cliché as a result of “bad marketing decisions” made in the mid-Nineties. Today, rather than being a niche business, gaming is a huge industry, expected to generate £10bn in the UK this year alone.

Action and war games form an important part of that industry, and as the IWM exhibition aims to demonstrate, they have been around for a long time and have always been more closely related to real-life war events than expected.

In the early 1900s, Edwardian revelers could play games that allowed them to “shoot” lions on the savannah against a paper background. This brand new technology took a quantum leap as the world entered the Cold War and scientists raced to develop high-end weapons systems. William Higginbotham, a scientist who worked on the atomic bomb, developed an early version of Pong using technology originally designed to predict the trajectory of ballistic missiles; A decade later, Asaki continues to power its video game consoles with chips designed for US military simulators.

The entanglement doesn’t end there. “Gaming is the most familiar technology, the most widely available technology that soldiers understand intuitively, so it will find its way into weapons systems,” says exhibit curator Ian Kikuchi. Battlefield simulators such as Virtual Battlefield Four, which visitors will have the opportunity to see on display, have been in use for years by militaries around the world; Today, the US military uses Xbox consoles to operate its drones.

However, it is more complicated than a simple cross-pollination of technologies. According to Kikuchi, the widespread appeal of war games actually lies in the fact that they provide a safe space in which to experience the unimaginable – and have also been used by soldiers with PTSD as a means to distract from reality and distance themselves. war

“They allow us to experience things that we don’t actually want to experience,” but that we’re excited about, Etchells explains, appreciating the “sense of agency” video games give their players. Instead of passively watching a video game, players become “active agents” driving the story forward.

As a result, players become more immersed in both the game and the emotions of its characters. This makes games like Six Days in Fallujah — which follow the real-life stories of civilians in Fallujah and the soldiers who experienced them — more emotionally powerful.

Virtual Warfare: The exhibit will feature an Xbox controller used by the US military

/ Imperial War Museum

“It’s a powerful thing to let people do, especially with a war story,” Etchells says. “You’re not going to get the full intensity of emotion or the experience of real war… but you’re going to get a kind of replica of it. And what that allows you to do is try and relate to people; Try and relate to the situation; Consider your own moral code.

Indeed, far from encouraging players to act out their most violent desires (as many past newspaper headlines have exasperated), war games allow players to operate in a “fairly clear moral universe” in which the good guys always win and the villains always end up dead.

“If you’re an Allied soldier and you find yourself in World War II, you know which side you’re on and you know the Nazis are the enemy,” says Kikuchi. “So shooting them is entirely within the moral context in which you find yourself as a player.

“It’s telling that in a game like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, its environments are usually devoid of civilians, so the game doesn’t give you the option or opportunity to simply shoot civilians or do anything that might be traditionally considered immoral.”

Relievingly, modern war games are not all about action. More recently, they have begun to explore another aspect of the conflict: the civilian lives it affects and the serious ethical questions it poses for athletes.

Games like Leave Me, My Love (in which players take on the role of Majd, a Syrian man counseling his wife Noor via messaging apps as she flees to Europe; the game has 30 possible endings) and This War of Mine set the broader emotional context of war. Example of thoughtful games examining trauma.

My War, featured prominently in the exhibition, is based on the Siege of Sarajevo and casts the player as a civilian trying to survive in a fictional besieged city engulfed in battle.

It’s dark territory – and indeed, Konrad Adamzewski, who works for the game’s Warsaw-based developer 11-Bit Studios, says that for some of the team, the experience was so “morally exhausting” that they refused to make a sequel.

However, he is adamant that My War was a success (not hard to argue – it cost development two days after it went on sale) – and that the developers’ effort to make the game realistic and nuanced paid off.

A constant in this battle of mine

/ This War of Mine/Imperial War Museum

He says, “The game never judges a player’s decision. “You’re not going to read a message telling you what’s wrong and what’s right, which is likely to make players regret what they’ve done.” Critics praised the game’s “heartfelt human touch”, and it was even added to recommended reading lists in Polish high schools – the first videogame to be included on such a list anywhere in the world.

Adamzewski also notes that the game has had an effect on some of its players, including a girl from Ukraine who wrote to the developers from a real-life bomb shelter, played it during peacetime — and now uses it as a kind of manual. For what to expect.

“She knows what to expect, and sometimes she still feels like she’s still in the game,” says Adamzewski, adding that this sense of distance from reality helps her “not lose hope.”

For Kikuchi, games – and the way they encompass both new and old conflicts – are a valuable way in which we can come to terms with our “contemporary anxieties” about war, imposing chaos and exploring potentially thorny subjects. safe place

“The medium has matured,” says Kikuchi. “In a game like This War of Mine, focusing only on civilian survival and super-soldier heroics is incredibly subversive, because we’re used to having a powerful one – a commander; soldiers; the pilot; hero character. To find yourself in a situation where you’re just struggling to survive turns some rules on their head.

As the indie game scene continues to grow, and the developer guys who cut their teeth playing Call of Duty start working on new games, it seems like the war game scene is only getting bigger and more diverse.

“The appetite for more is growing,” agrees Etchells. “The plurality of voices and therefore perspectives, you will definitely see more of that in the coming years. And I think that’s just a good thing. “

The War Games are at the Imperial War Museum from 30 September to 28 May. iwm.org.uk