What did you focus on exactly in your research?

“My dissertation deals with how games enable people to learn about the Second World War: how is the conflict represented in games, and how do people reflect on their engagement with these games? Over the past few decades, there has been a lot of research into how we think about the Second World War, and public perception of this period. The debate often centres on things like monuments and remembrance days. Recently, there has been a growing interest in popular culture – which my own research also ties into. Gaming is one of the most prominent forms of cultural expression around today – and even more so during the current pandemic.”

Which approach did you take?

“I focused on three distinct aspects: the marketing that has been set up around these games, the games themselves and how people assign meaning to the activity of playing them. For the latter aspect, I interviewed gamers at LAN parties – large-scale events where people get together to play video games. I asked them what it meant for them to play games set during WW2. In the case of the games and the marketing, I performed interpretative research. The research into the gamers was more qualitative in nature: social-scientific research that made use of focus group interviews.”

Do you feel a personal fascination for these subjects?

“Yes, it’s a combination of two things that I enjoy a great deal. History has always been a passion of mine, as have games. As a historian, I wanted to continue as a researcher and I was an enthusiastic player of video games, including war games. I ran into this specific combination when I was doing my master degree. I continued exploring the theme in my thesis – and now my dissertation.”

What were your key findings?

“As far as marketing is concerned, you can see the industry increasingly switching to a model where people keep playing a particular game. In this context, companies put a lot of work into ‘community engagement’ – via social media platforms, among other things – where game developers also share short documentaries and interviews with experts. This includes a lot of historical discourses. In many cases, they have strong technical focus: how a particular gun works exactly, or a tank.

“Games tend to heavily perpetuate old myths about the Second World War. For example, in the game The Saboteur you play a member of the French resistance. Over the course of the game, you gradually inspire the French population to join you in your fight. This is a spin on the myth of France as a centre of resistance – a story that was propagated in the post-war period by Charles de Gaulle, among other people.

“What was interesting in the gamers’ case is that they can have a ‘positive negative experience’. In Call of Duty: WWII, for example, you play an American GI. At the end you discover a concentration camp, which you can also walk around in. This means that you’re confronted with the horrors of war within the setting of a game. During the game, players may feel overwhelmed by this. But afterwards they feel it has enriched their perception of the Second World War.”

Promotie Pieter van den Heede 0221-011 – Levien Willemse
Image credit: Levien Willemse

How can your research be considered relevant to society?

“Based on my conclusions, you could say that while games perpetuate myths about the war, they also communicate historical content. We should therefore take this medium more seriously. You could do more with games in the context of education, for instance, or focus your efforts on designing games that promote a more meaningful engagement with the Second World War. Then games can help to develop a more nuanced and critical view of the war.”

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What was it like to obtain a doctorate?

“For four years, you both handle education responsibilities and simultaneously have room to pursue your own research. It takes a lot of shifting around and improvising to get the results you want. Generally speaking, I enjoyed the experience. Whether I still like games? Certainly. This project has left me with a better understanding of games, which I find an enriching experience.”

“This past year, I had to combine the final stages of my dissertation with a greater workload as educator. This could get pretty gruelling – particularly with covid going on. For me, the solution ultimately lay in temporising: giving myself a bit more time so I could dial back the stress level a few notches. But I realise that a lot of people don’t have this luxury. And it’s important to be generous, because that always pays off some way or another.”


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