War Games, Imperial War Museum, review: a video-game show with a hole the size of a bomb crater at its core

An installation at IWM's War Games exhibition - Kathleen Arundell
An installation at IWM's War Games exhibition - Kathleen Arundell

Let’s start with a confession: I was a gamer. In my formative years, when I could have been scaling Middlemarch, or developing an ardent enthusiasm for the films of, say, Ken Loach, I was a snarling, square-eyed monster. Video games were my bread and meat; what I thought about when I woke up, and what I dreamt about at night, fingers twitching in a console claw.

So I ought to be the ideal audience for the Imperial War Museum’s War Games, billed as the first British exhibition to explore the links between video games and real-world conflicts. But I’m not sure its opening rooms work. They attempt to unpick the enduring draw of war, and ask what makes gamig unique as a storytelling medium. They suggest, too, that we’ve always gamified conflict: the line between chess and Call of Duty is shorter than we think.

It’s a provocative thought, but the execution lacks snap. In one room, viewers are encouraged to mash buttons to ask questions like “Why are we fascinated by war?”. Various talking heads, rendered in unlovely, blocky polygons, then chunter away on a nearby screen. It’s the opposite of gaming’s juddering tactility, its immersion, its sense of flow. The Twitch generation will find it a drag.

Likewise, the exhibition looks at the primaeval appeal of shooting games by way of a rudimentary firing range where civilians or terrorists alternately wander into the sights. Viewers can choose to take the shot or not. But it fails to replicate - or engage with - the troubling thrill of, for example, Call of Duty's notorious “No Russian” mission where players took part in a simulated airport massacre.

One display contrasts the early tank simulator Battlezone with the simulator used today by the US tank corps; nearby, a case shows an Xbox controller similar to those retrofitted to pilot actual drones in Iraq: the gamification of real war.

But what does it mean to fight an enemy that consists of jittery, grey blobs on a screen? Instances of post-traumatic stress disorder are higher among drone operators than their counterparts on the ground. They are broken not by what they have seen, but because their experience of conflict is displaced, disembodied: game-like, in other words.

Yet War Games’s saving grace is its excellent final room, which examines how games have tackled the emotional toll of war on soldiers, civilians and refugees. The 2019 game Bury Me, My Love, for instance, developed for the Nintendo Switch console, puts players in the shoes of a husband coordinating his wife’s escape from Syria via WhatsApp messages.

This, and other games, are displayed alongside extraordinary objects from the museum’s collection, including miniature coffin replicas, personalised with names, which French resistance fighters posted to collaborators as warnings. But the most affecting is a letter to nine-year-old Beryl Myatt, sent by her family to Canada, to welcome her as she fled the Blitz. The letter arrived. Beryll didn’t. Her ship was sunk by U-boats.

But if that all sounds too sobering, the exhibition concludes, a little jarringly, with a room of retro video-game consoles. I couldn’t get Medal of Honor to work, but I fired up GoldenEye and the familiar reflexes began to jump. Reader, I wasted those noobs.

War Games opens on Sep 30 and runs until May 28, 2023