As a senior historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Andrew Burch spends the day wandering through the galleries to see which displays are most popular with visitors.

Amidst the dim light of World War II and Cold War exhibits, he sees a strange phenomenon: groups of schoolchildren debating, in astonishing detail, the merits of individual weapons.

“So, after seeing this habit happen a couple of times, I finally said, ‘Oh, yeah, you know about these weapons? Why are you talking about them?'” Birch said. “And they said, ‘Oh, well, we play with these weapons in the games we play, you know, first-person shooters. Call of Duty’.”

This was a shock to Birch, a gamer himself.

“I felt like people approach history in different ways,” he said.

Some have become involved in past wars through personal experience, he said — by meeting a veteran or talking to a family member who served.

Andrew Burch, senior historian at the Canadian War Museum: ‘Sports, at the end of the day, are entertainment.’ (CBC News)

“But many people have none of these personal connections and instead connect through media and, increasingly, games in particular,” he added.

It’s an intriguing idea — intriguing enough to convince the Ottawa-based museum to launch a major research project next spring with the goal of mounting a full exhibit for visitors.

The impact of war games on society — and history — is becoming a major field of study in Canada, the US and elsewhere.

Burch said he approaches the subject with caution and with the full knowledge that games, like movies, have the potential to distort or distort scenes of past events.

‘War is not fun’

“Sports are entertainment at the end of the day,” he said.

“They’re presenting a story. They’re presenting an activity that’s meant to be fun, and war is not fun. It’s challenging, it’s hard. It has a terrible human cost, and that needs to be communicated effectively through these games. No.”

That concern can be somewhat abstract. In online chat forums and in person, young gamers say they understand that when they turn on a console, they’re not walking into a history book.

Catherine Robson, 16, is an Ottawa high school student and an avid gamer. She said that she uses similar games Call of Duty: D-Day And Call of Duty: WW2 as a launching pad for her own curiosity.

Katherine Robson, 16, an Ottawa high school student and avid gamer: ‘I research why things happen the way they do.’ (Marc Robichaud/CBC News)

“I thought, ‘Oh, this is really cool.’ And so I’ve always been a big history nerd,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s very interesting because I see things there and I pay more attention to them. I do more research on battles. I research why certain things happened the way they did.”

Now in Grade 11, Robson, whose family is interested in history, said the knowledge she gained from her gaming-related research has given her an edge in her current history class, which is studying conflicts from the 20th century to the Russian Revolution. world war

She said she and her friends know the difference between the real war and the digital version.

“It’s a video game. So I think they took some liberties with that, but I’m sure they got the core ideas down,” Robson said. “I’m sure it’s not exactly what it was like in war. But you get more of a feel for the people fighting.”

And the immersive nature of some game story lines and characters gives young people a closer, more personal appreciation of loss and sacrifice in the midst of Memorial Day.

“These are real people. These people are almost like you and me,” Robson said.

“They have lives, they have loved ones, they have families, and you need to see that this is not just a fun shooter game, you have to remember that these are almost representing people who have given their lives for the world. Today know.”

Matthew Caffrey, civilian coordinator of wargaming for the US Air Force, has studied wargames for decades. (CBC News)

Matthew Caffrey, civilian coordinator of wargaming for the US Air Force, has been involved in the study and analysis of war games for decades.

The practice of gaming – both military and civilian – is now fully understood and appreciated, he said.

Wargaming, he said, is literally as old as civilization itself. Archaeological excavations in the Middle East have uncovered early games that were used to teach children.

“The first toys, they were used by hunters and gatherers to train their children how to be more effective hunter-gatherers,” Caffrey said in a recent interview with CBC News in Dayton, Ohio.

“But when cities grew, rulers didn’t need to train their children how to hunt and gather. They needed to train their children how to think of other kings or emperors or pharaoh’s sons. So they planned. Early abstract war games. “

A wall painting from Queen Nefertari’s 3,300-year-old tomb shows her playing senate against an invisible opponent. (The York Project)

For centuries, those games were the domain of the ruling elite – until they were improved and used more widely by the common people in later civilizations.

“In the Greek democracy, people used to play war games, which I think speaks volumes,” said Caffrey, who noted that Greeks believed in games made for good citizens.

One of the oldest war games is chess. It can trace its origins to 6th century India, where it was initially called Chatarang.

Rehearsal for the next big battle

Prussian Baron Georg von Reiswitz perfected the modern board game in the late 18th century to instruct European emperors who knew nothing about warfare. This was a response to the escalation of warfare on the continent after the French Revolution.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Germans—banned from maintaining large armies after World War I—secretly turned war gaming into high art at their military colleges. Eventually called the Kriegsakademie, it helped create a cadre of generals who came close to winning World War II.

The Americans credit their pre-1941 naval war games with helping them win the Pacific War against Japan.

In the 1960s and 1970s, sports became more accessible in the civilian world. The commercial industry exploded with World War II board games.

The advent of computers gave us games like Civilization, which Caffrey classifies as war games.

“It helps with critical thinking. And it helps with anticipation, you know, if you see problems ahead of time,” he said.

“One way I can put it very quickly is, war games help develop strategists and tactics. So, war games can help a person think more strategically and be more effective in developing strategies.”

He offers an important qualification, though: Gaming — whether professional or personal, military or professional — should be done in moderation.

“You need to exercise, you need to read books, you need to do a lot of other things,” Caffrey said.

“But if you, if they, play the right amount of gaming and the right kinds of games, I think you can give kids a competitive advantage for the rest of their lives.”