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Black Ops: the death of Second World War gaming

On its first day alone, Call of Duty: Black Ops sold more than 5.6 million copies and logged more than 5.9 million multiplayer hours online. That’s almost 675 years of time spent worldwide on one game in one day.

On its first day alone, Call of Duty: Black Ops sold more than 5.6 million copies and logged more than 5.9 million multiplayer hours online. That’s almost 675 years of time spent worldwide on one game in one day. Gamers have, once again, answered the call of Call of Duty.

But before Black Ops and its record-smashing predecessors .Modern Warfare 1 and 2, the Call of Duty franchise, like many war-based video games, had the Second World War as its exclusive setting. The success of the evolution towards more modern conflicts begs the question: with Black Ops potentially putting the nail in the coffin of Second World War gaming, what are we losing?

Not that one can say the Second World War hasn’t had its time in the spotlight. From Wolfenstein to Medal of Honour to the Brothers in Arms series, this generation of gaming alone has seen dozens of shooters, simulators and strategy games all based on the last Great War, and for good reason.

At no other time in history has humanity rallied on such a large scale to defeat a common evil. Battle after battle, stage after fateful stage, with ordinary men and women becoming heroes and martyrs, all the elements exist in an amazingly intense gaming experience.

If this is indeed the end of Second World War games, a certain opportunity is being lost —education. Video games provide a wondrous way to open history for many gamers who otherwise would know little about key events in humanity’s modern history. Subconscious exposure to key sides of the conflict, roles of evolving technologies within it and dates all bring history to life.

Is it as effective or as accurate as watching a BBC documentary? Absolutely not, especially considering the barrage of historical inaccuracies that riddle these games. As well, for teen gamers, no amount of online multiplayer games with historical venues will be as effective as the higher order connections resulting from discussions within the Social Studies curriculum. Games like Call of Duty simply opened doors to the themes of the Second World War in a way that would not exist for some.

On the flip side, it is reassuring that Black Ops brings another important historical venue to life for gamers, that of the Cold War. If the Second World War was mankind’s descent into a nightmare, then the Cold War was man standing on the precipice of Hell itself. Never before — nor since, thankfully — has mankind stood so close to its own potential annihilation. Words like deterrence became terrifyingly real. And more than 40 years later, a video game brings it to life for gamers in a way never before possible.

Tragically, Black Ops, like most other war games, is by no means historically accurate. It is a fictional story based very loosely on historical events. For example, the conflict surrounding the Vorkuta Gulag in Russia occurred in the 1950s, not the late 60s as indicated in the game. The camp itself was actually closed a year before a playable character from Black Ops is supposed to be imprisoned there. And certainly, the addition of zombies to the game doesn’t hold with the history books.

The good news is that with the death of the Second World War genre and the success of Black Ops, game developers have a precedent of success with which to explore other key conflicts that have shaped the world we know today, though not always as accurately as this columnist would like. As long as the battle between good and evil continues to rage on a global scale, there will always be opportunities to bring history to life through video games.

When he’s not teaching junior high, St. Albert Catholic High School alumnus Derek Mitchell spends his free time connected to a gaming console.