Commentary: Is it ethical to make – and play – war games?

LONDON: I killed a man last night. I shot him three times. I aimed for the head but hit his shoulder. He staggered. I aimed again. I shot him in the chest. He fell backwards, I shot him again, this time in the stomach.

Of course, I didn’t do any of this in real life. I did it in the 2022 third-person shooter Sniper Elite 5. (As you may have guessed, I am not very good at it.) Video games are big business. The sector’s revenues dwarfed those of the movie industry even before the pandemic.

And war games are a big part of that business. The 1962 game Spacewar!, devised and created at MIT, and which has a good claim to be the world’s first video game, was, as the title suggests, about war, as are many of today’s biggest-selling games.

For many years, the UK games industry has complained that its economic, cultural and commercial heft has not brought with it greater respect. But things are changing: Video game soundtracks are the topic of devoted programming on both BBC Radio 3 and Classic FM, while the medium is regularly discussed on the nation’s flagship cultural programmes.

And now video games are the subject of a new exhibition, War Games, at the Imperial War Museum in London.

But as panellists at an IWM event I chaired recently asked: Is it ethical to spend one’s evenings or weekends pretending to shoot people?


The gaming industry itself has always had an uneasy relationship with these questions, preferring either to invent fictional alien races for players to shoot at or, failing that, to set their games during the second world war, because it’s generally understood that any complex ethical concerns about violence can be put to one side if the people you’re shooting work for the Third Reich.

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