I’ve been reading some fabulous commentary on the near-total failure of war games to actually deal with the real experience of war, the way a good war movie does – among my picks:

Who Cheers For War?

Both are nuanced enough to recognise that war and other forms of conflict have a long history in games, and both offer intelligent thought as to why this might be so. But neither offers the most obvious explanation:

Real-time interaction with another human is the simplest source of intellectual challenge (and flow) around.

As for why they are drawn to metaphors of war, or at very least conflict:

Challenge and flow are both enhanced by surprises (and the need to adapt to them), which strongly suggest participants are not completely sharing information. In any human relationship, if information is being systematically withheld, common ground will tend to be eroded. And whenever admiration is available – which is always the case in witnessed challenges – it is very easy for one-upmanship to creep in and create competition where there was none. (Although, countervailingly, a long-standing relationship of competition can in fact form a surprisingly solid common ground itself, and generate mutual admiration.)

And of course the idea that the rules themselves might be something players must join forces to overcome, and win or lose together rather than separately, is a relatively recent realisation – and had to evolve through the pseudo-combat of the RPG, which sort-of-but-not-necessarily-really pitted players against the game master. This is somewhat similar to the idea that humanity might have more important threats in common (disease, the laws of nature in the context of our own ecological recklessness, et cetera… oh and eldritch horrors from beyond time) than each other, a notion which still doesn’t seem to have penetrated to the minds of our leaders (who, to be fair, have had to spend a lot of effort and attention on human enemies to get to that position, so you can see how the habit formed).

So that’s my take on why war is so commonly a theme of games. As for the current trend towards celebrating gore and violence, the previous post gives my thoughts on that.