About 10 years ago, Andrew Burtch, a historian who works at Ottawa’s Canadian War Museum had an idea about how to offer something that directly appealed to young people.
“After observing and approaching groups of youth in our galleries discussing arms cases, it occurred to me their point of entry was because of video games like Call of Duty,” said Burtch.
Burtch is the post-1945 historian at the Canadian War Museum, and an adjunct research professor in Carleton University’s history department. He’s done a number of commemorative exhibitions, including one about the anniversary of the Korean War armistice.
Burtch simmered on the idea for a few years.
Finally, after lots of development – and pandemic-related delays – Burtch and co-author Marie-Louise Deruaz saw the War Games exhibit open on June 9, 2023.
“People can play video games at home,” said Burtch. “What we wanted to do was produce an experience where you couldn’t get on the couch.”
Why should you visit?
The War Games exhibit offers five zones of history and play made possible by dozens of contributions from the CWM and Canadian Museum of History.
The CWM also received a lot of interesting responses on the exhibit.
They had a sizable amount of visitors and it is one of the more popular exhibits in recent years. Approximately 100,000 people came through between the summer and early fall. A fair number of those lie under the young age demographic.
In these zones you’ll see five sets of history that all have forms of interactive games. From small tactic games to first-person simulators, the exhibit offers a wide range of learning. Here are five highlights:
1. Some old games live alongside new ones
Since the dawn of civilization, games and toys found their way into the homes of many. Board games and figures were made to show the urgency of conflict in all areas of war.
“We wanted to have examples of some very old games,” said Burtch. “Some of which have been lost versus widespread games like chess.”
One of the most distinguishable is the Elder Brothers Chess Set by artist Angel Doxtater from Six Nations of the Grand River. It features traditional corn-husk doll game pieces. They represent the elder brothers of the Hodinohso:ni Confederacy.
The exhibit also showcases Little Wars by author H.G. Wells. Little Wars is a war game using tin soldiers which was published in 1913.
2. The Cold War era, which lasted between 1947 and 1991, offers familiar games to check out and play
As this era saw many games developed, the exhibit highlights many of the games that were swiftly games developed.
For instance, the 1970s, role-playing board games had started to become mainstream. Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) was created and is still one of the most popular games today. It is based on medieval warfare.
The era also saw development of Atari’s game Missile Command. Museum visitors can play it in the zone.
3. Although an abundance of violent games have been created, the exhibit reminds us that war is not a game
War is a terrible human activity. The exhibits zone four explores the war on terrorism and how world security has been threatened.
The game Killbox is the highlight of the zone. It is about drone warfare where you simulate both ends of the experience inspired by American drone strikes documented.
4. Humans have new wars to fight today
Present-day games feature scenarios where players focus on climate change, pandemics and world powers, can be more important than fighting wars.
“A lot of our attention to preparation turned towards NATO reassurance, great power competition and a changing global climate,” Burtch said.
5. The exhibit will leave you asking a big question.
Game over – play again?
“People may walk away from it and say, ‘Oh, I’d like to try this or maybe I’ll bring this game out for tonight,'” Burtch said. “You’ll ask yourself: do I enjoy playing this game when it’s dealing with such a terrible thing?”
The CWM’s war games exhibit is open to the public until Dec. 31.