War is not a Game

August 2, 2023

Have you ever watched people play chess — noticed the concentration, focus and strategy involved in every move? The give, the take, and the earnest frustration and exhilaration can be read on participants’ faces. Many games are like that, whether played on a board or a screen. Strategy is involved and there are inevitable winners and losers — there are no prizes for participation!

Historian Andrew Burtch, who is featured in this edition of Kudos!, has long been fascinated with games that require strategy and planning. Over the years, he witnessed groups of middle- and high-school-age youth surrounding some of the small arms displays at the Canadian War Museum, debating the merits of one weapon over another. After seeing this many times, he asked why they were debating this. Unsurprisingly, the answer was that their first exposure to these weapons — and to military history in general — was through video games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor.

Image of cadets playing chess

Cadets compete in a chess championship at the Royal Military College on November 16, 2019 – Courtesy of the RMC Photography Club

From there, the idea to explore the historic connections between war, games and play germinated, and he and a team at the Museum decided to investigate this phenomenon. Their work reveals the ways in which military professionals have used games to recruit, plan, and train for operations, as well as the ways in which wars past and present have shaped the games the public plays. Together with feedback from donors and members who participated in focus groups, the Museum has created a one-of-a-kind exhibition that explores the games we play — War Games.

“This is one of the Museum’s most important and timely ‘war and society’ exhibitions. It has a grim but fascinating professional side: on war planning by military organizations, and a lively popular side: on games of chance, modelling and computer simulation. It explores the dense connections between real conflicts and imagined ones, between commercial industries and geopolitics, now and in history. There are surprises here for visitors of all ages and interests in one of the most beautiful, varied and accessible environments we have ever produced,” said Dean Oliver, Acting Vice-President and Director General, Canadian War Museum.

War Games is on view in the War Museum’s Lieutenant–Colonel John McCrae Gallery until December 31, 2023.