Digitalising History: The Vietnam War as Represented through Video Games

The Vietnam War was one of the most turbulent events of the 1960s-70s, and one which has heavily shaped our understanding of those decades. However, for such a pivotal event, there are few video games which portray the event, and when they do, they rely exclusively on certain tropes and common understandings of the period. These games all rely on certain key factors in order to represent the conflict. Violence, Americanism and music are some of the main factors which drive their portrayals.

Violence plays a large role in video game representations of the Vietnam War. Given the genre of Vietnam War video games falls within the first-person shooter, they obviously rely fairly heavily on direct representation of the battles which were fought. For example, in Battlefield Vietnam, the player is immersed into a world in which the conflict as a whole is simplified into a series of disconnected battles. The choice of these conflicts, chosen as flash points of American military success or as popular culture references, reflects a very pro-American view of the war. They focus specifically on the battles fought, with a complete exclusion on the other aspects of the war.
Vietcong breaks slightly from the rest of the genre in regards to their portrayal. While Vietcong does rely on promoting violence to entertain, it does attend to other details of the conflict that are ignored in other games.

Vietcong is a mission based game in which the player is required to make forays into the jungle to hunt down members of the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese army. The game play is not however, just simply point and shoot like other games in its genre. The player also gets to engage with life away from the front, with the ability to explore an American army base as the main staging area for the game.

Playing to their predominately American audience, the conflict is couched by terms of reference which focus on American values and understanding of the war. For example, Battlefield Vietnam utilises conflict zones which were predominately fought between American forces and the Vietcong. Such battles as Operation Game Warden, Operation Flaming Dart and the Siege of Khe Sahn are put forward as indicative of the Vietnam War as a whole. The video games are being produced by American companies and are predominately for an American audience. This will obviously reflect in the content which is produced. For example, capturing checkpoints as the South Vietnamese forces raises an American flag rather than their own emblem. Such a change reflects the overall view of the war in Vietnam. While it was overtly for the protection of South Vietnam, it has been viewed largely as a solely American conflict. A further example of Americanisation in the genre can be seen through the game Nam. Signs of American culture are visible in most levels. As an example, the player is able to discover discarded Playboy magazines throughout each level in dugouts and buildings occupied by the Vietcong. Also of note is that there are only American flags flying in the game, even in areas held by the Vietcong or North Vietnamese.

Another interesting point to note is the music of protest being used to represent the conflict, alongside often positive representations of the Vietnam War. Music is a very powerful tool for memory and evocation of particular ideas and knowledge. As such, it is incredibly useful for video game producers when attempting to represent the conflict to their players. In Battlefield Vietnam, the player is constantly bombarded with songs about the Vietnam War. The opening credits for the game display scenes from the game to the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival. In Shellshock: Nam ’67, the soundtrack included artists such as Country Joe and the Fish, John Lee Hooker and The Monkees. Country Joe and the Fish are well known for their strident anti-war music.

Their focus on violence and a lack of emphasis on factual accuracy or balanced viewpoints means that their representations of the war tend towards active and violent entertainment, away from passive and informative media such as books and film.

Interesting further reading:

Beattie, Keith, The Scar That Binds (NYU Press), 1998

Burton, Orville Vernon, American Digital History in Social Science Computer Review, Vol. 23 No. 2, Summer 2005. PP 206-220.

Fogu, Claudio, Digitalizing Historical Consciousness in History and Theory Vol. 48, No. 2, May, 2009. PP 103-121.

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One comment on “Digitalising History: The Vietnam War as Represented through Video Games

  1. sean9802 says:

    A very interesting read, Cameron. I’ve personally played a couple of Vietnam war video games, though have never really considered the subjective interpretation of the war that is almost unequivocally linked to them. The producers choice of music (and what that means) is particularly intriguing.

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