“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade”: The D-Day Landings in Video Games

The seas are rough, the landing craft crash through the waves, and the ramps lower to meet a wall of German machine gun fire that scythes through the soldiers packed into the small boats. As corpses fall into the water, dying it red, the player advances, trying to seek some sort of protection. So begins a typical level in many video games whose focus is the Second World War—the invasion of Normandy, France. D-Day: June 6, 1944.

It’s surprising how many video games follow the same pattern as above, usually taking place on Omaha Beach, one of the five landing zones for Allied forces attempting to break through the German sea fortifications. But why? Why do so many games follow the pattern of the American forces attacking the concrete bunkers heavily defended by German MG-42s and artillery? And are there negative side effects of this concentration?

The simple answer is Steven Spielberg’s 1998 Saving Private Ryan. Considered one of the best war movies ever made, the film’s brutality challenged how many people saw war. Its opening sequence is famous for its brutality, which even this small clip gives a glimpse of:

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCEFOx5Hc2Y&list=PL239712BBA6EDD3C7&feature=iv&src_vid=OqSg7WO4tT4&annotation_id=annotation_572059[/youtube]

 

After the success of the film, Spielberg looked at creating realistic and accurate World War Two video games. It made sense to follow the same mold, so many of the games also incorporated the Normandy landings. The first game to do this was Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (2002). Other games that followed the pattern included Medal of Honor: Frontline, Call of Duty, and, one of the first shooters on the new Xbox 360, Call of Duty 2. And these were just the first person shooters, not including games like Company of Heroes that let a player command whole units that attacked the beaches at Normandy.

Medal of Honor: Allied Assault
Medal of Honor: Allied Assault

So why is it important that Normandy has been so heavily portrayed in video games? Combined with Saving Private Ryan, the video games became the main exposure of this crucial battle to consumers who may not have had other avenues to understanding the battle. With so many levels centered on attacking Omaha Beach or Pointe du Hoc, D-Day became the battle of the Second World War, at least in the context of video games. If nothing else, players would know the date June 6, 1944, and would know about the boats, and the beaches, and the bloody attacks.

With the inclusion of other film projects, like Band of Brothers, and video games like the Brothers in Arms franchise, attention remained on the Normandy Campaign but moved away from the beaches. Now viewers or players could see what role paratroopers in the 101st Airborne Division had during the pre-dawn jumps on June 5-6, 1944. Medal of Honor: Airborne played a similar role with the 82nd Airborne.

 

Call of Duty 2-- The attack on Pointe du Hoc.
Call of Duty 2– The attack on Pointe du Hoc.

The games above, and many others not mentioned, have and will continue to influence consumers’ understanding of the opening stages of the Normandy Campaign, specifically D-Day. This understanding, thus, is based heavily on an American-centralized fighting force. Repeatedly through film or video games the consumer is shown Omaha and Utah Beach or Pointe du Hoc, but that comes at the expense of the British forces attacking at Gold, Sword, and Juno Beaches. American audiences risk coming away from viewing Saving Private Ryan and playing Medal of Honor with the perception that boats-laden with American G.I.s or planes filled to the tip with American paratroopers did all the fighting, and thus all the winning, at Normandy. It’s an oversight that perhaps one day will be remedied; maybe a level will someday have a Brit following “Mad Jack” Churchill into combat. Just as books, video games too are part of the historiography of the Second World War, and they too are always expanding.

 

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