How to simulate what has never happened before: Nuclear weapons and their video game simulation.

by Florian Galleri

One specific characteristic of video games compared to other media lies in the singularity of gameplay [1]. For many games the main part of the pleasure of playing is not found in the narrative or the aesthetics but in the enoyment of the gameplay itself, which is probably the case for many game licences such as Super Mario [2] or Doom [3] . However, very early on, video games also tried to give a feeling of realism through their gameplay [4]. This was found in sports simulation games such as BMX Simulator [5] or other driving games. The pursuit of realism went as far as the desire to simulate life experiences, that could be described as unexceptional with series such as Eurotruck Simulator [6] or Farming Simulator [7]. But as Eugen Pfister’s has shown in his essay ‚This (Historical Authenticity) means war!‘, realism in video games often concerns a warlike pseudo-realism [8]. Some companies have specialised in this field. One can mention Bohemia Interactive, which has produced the ARMA game series [9]. These games are characterised by a particularly rigorous and complex gameplay, giving players a great freedom of action, but not pleasure by itself. Thus, the game mechanics are designed more to serve a sense of realism that would itself provide pleasure than to create immediate and instantaneous fun. Other games like Red Orchestra [10] make their „realism“ an asset. Indeed, the player’s avatar dies with a single shot, tanks are slow, and the aim is deliberately imprecise. Here, the rigour of the gameplay, unlike a game like Battlefield [11] , is meant to make us „feel like we’re there“. The extremely deadly infantry charges take us back to films like Stalingrad [12] and the memory of what the Eastern Front might have been like. Far from the overpowered hero of an FPS, the player is cast here in the role of a man whose goal is to stay on the ground, alive, rather than to accumulate military feats. Of course, these games are only as realistic as they can and want to be. 

Some studios have specialised in the field of realism adapted to strategy, such as Paradox Interactive. This studio works on strategy/management games with mainly historical themes. Despite an intended realism, these games want to offer players the libertx to change history. One of these anachronistic liberties freedoms can be the use of nuclear weapons outside of their historical context.

But how do you simulate a weapon that was at the same time extraordinarily powerful and complex and almost never used in history. For most games it is not a question of simulating nuclear deterrence, but rather the actual use of nuclear weapons to destroy an opponent. The paradox between games that want to put a certain historical verisimilitude and the opportunity for the player to use nuclear weapons raises the question of the function  of nuclear weapons in games. In order to better understand videogames use of nuclear weapons in a „realistic“ or „plausible“ context, it is necessary to differentiate between games in which the nuclear weapon is one element of the gameplay among many others and those in which it is at the heart of the gameplay.

The nuclear weapon as a gameplay element

 Games with a certain propensity for realism often allow the use of atomic weapon during the Second World War for the first time. The game that most closely attempts to implement this use of the atomic bomb while maintaining a certain amount of freedom for the player is Heart of Iron IV [13] from the Paradox studio. Indeed, the use of the atomic weapon here is not only for a purely tactical function, but its strategic role is crucial. The explosion of a bomb disorganises the troops attacked, destroys the infrastructure and buildings and damages the structures of the surrounding regions. On the other hand, it seems to have a political role, as it decreases the support of the affected nation for the war, which can have many implications in the game. Furthemore, the atomic weapon is a difficult weapon to access and can only be used under certain conditions (such as having air superiority in the area you decide to strike). The launch of the atomic bomb (which is signalled by a message when first used) is shown by the iconic mushroom cloud, graphically explaining the seriousness of the use. The specificity of the atomic weapon in Heart of Iron IV is its global and complex dimension, both in its use and in its construction. This original vision allows the atomic weapon to be both a weapon of rupture, which helps to break the enemy’s lines, but also to directly impact the opponent’s will to wage war. 

Contrary to its historical model the impact of the atomic weapon in the game is however limited. The virtual atomic weapon does not kill civilians in its detonation zone, it has no diplomatic impact, and it only exists in the game through the image that we have of the atomic bombs launched during the Second World War. Indeed, it does not incorporate in the game that the production process of Fat Man and Little Boy were quite different, there is only one type of bomb. This is all the more surprising in a game that allows the production of ballistic missiles and jet planes. The use of the atomic bomb in this game is therefore limited to its simple military utility. While this may be consistent with the idea of a military simulation it reduces the scope of the use of the atomic bomb and its historicity. In the end, the atomic weapon is reduced to a gameplay element among many others and refers to the image perpetuated in the Memory.

If there is a period in our collective memory linked to the atomic bomb, it is the Cold War. Video games have taken up this period to stage the use of nuclear weapons in more or less realistic ways. The Wargame series developed by the Eugen Systems studio attempts to reconcile historical rigour with the most realistic simulation of the battle. In the games European Escalation [14] and Airland Battle [15], which take place in uchronies where the Warsaw Pact and NATO clash, nuclear weapons are strongly present in the game’s narrative. However, only one use of nuclear weapons can be found in the game Airland Battle [16], where the player can use a tactical nuclear bomb on Danish positions as a special ability. This action is not optional and takes place before the actual battle. Its impact is not graphically visible on the battlefield. The use of the nuclear weapon is therefore an element that serves to increase the credibility of the environment rather than to serve the gameplay. Thus, the nuclear weapon was voluntarily excluded from the game mechanics, probably in order not to unbalance the gameplay. The nuclear weapon is only present in the gameplay to increase the immersion of the player. It is interesting to note that this games of French origin do not meet the criterion of a „cultural“ conflict as observed by Eugen Pfister for games developed during the war in his article on the Cold War [17]. It must be said that many of his games are produced by European studios and therefore do not have the same cultural context of production as many Cold War games of American origin.   Massive Entertainment’s World in Conflict [18] on the other hand is an American production that corresponds to the value system as shown by Eugen Pfister [19]. However, it is observed that in the game’s narrative, the nuclear weapon has been integrated to subvert this same value system by forcing the US forces to use a nuclear weapon on their own soil. In the battles, where the player is free to launch support strikes depending on the points collected during the game. These range from artillery bombardment to the use of nuclear weapons. The explosion of the tactical nuclear weapon is shown in the game in a very stylized and realistic way with the flash of light at the time of the explosion, then the rise of a mushroom cloud at the location of the link hit by the nuclear weapon which is itself devastated on a rather large perimeter. The use of the bomb here is restricted to a battlefield. Indeed, the game is presented as a strategy game on a tactical scale. Unlike Wargame [20] , the game does not take into account ammunition, supplies and fuel in the battlefield. The vision of the battlefield is also less important, the game is less rigorous and less strict in its mechanics. It is therefore difficult to call it a simulation. However, the nuclear weapon in its mechanical effects is well represented. There is the typical flash of light, followed by the rise of a mushroom cloud of fire and dust. If the nuclear weapon seems realistic, this image reminds us more of the images of nuclear tests that we know. Secondly, its range of use, although impressive, seems rather small. Once again, the use of nuclear weapons in a video game is only within the restricted limits of a particular gameplay. The political, diplomatic and other impacts are absent in the game.

In other games inspired by history, but not having a limited time frame, we also find nuclear weapons that have a more global impact through their use. One example is the game series Civilization [21] . Nuclear weapons cause devastating damage to enemy troops and defences but reduce the infrastructure and population. On the other hand, the user of the bomb suffers a great diplomatic penalty. In Civilization VI [22],there is also a risk to the planet due to the radioactivity of nuclear explosions. In Civilization VI, the explosion of a nuclear weapon provokes an international concertation to ban nuclear weapons and impose sanctions on the aggressor. Although it is difficult to consider Civilization [23] as a ‚realistic‘ civilization or even diplomacy simulator, the game has the ambition to imitate history in its own way. While the game does not attempt to feel like one, it does attempt to be truly consistent. However, the way it deals with nuclear weapons is not without a certain morale. The use of this weapon must obviously be moderated by many limits (diplomatic, economic and ecological mainly.) In this respect, it seems that the use of the weapon cannot be purely positive, because that would be immoral. However, historically the allies of the Americans have not expressed their disapproval of the use of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, nuclear weapons are far more expensive in this game than they could have been in reality. Deterrence, for example, is non-existent in the game. Having weapons does not deter conventionally superior enemies from attacking. And if the aggressor receives a nuclear strike, it is the defender who will be ostracized by the international community. Thus, the use of nuclear weapons does not appear in the potential subtlety that it might have in reality. Indeed, the power of the bomb is only counterbalanced by diplomatic, ecological and economic consequences. This can be explained by a moral condemnation and a desire to balance the game. The nuclear weapon is probably too powerful compared to conventional weapons to be integrated into a game without creating a certain imbalance. Nevertheless, it can be observed that nuclear weapons in such a game are only practical for waging war and not for trying to keep the peace.

The nuclear weapon, when it is only a gameplay element, is therefore very much restricted to the spirit of the gameplay of the game. The nuclear weapon, which is so global in nature, largely because of its power, is only integrated into video games through a single dimension. Nevertheless, it must be noted that its main characteristic, in all gameplays, is its power. It remains a devastating weapon whose main goal is to sweep away the enemy.

Nuclear power at the heart of the gameplay

Some games emphasise in their gameplay the simulation of the use of nuclear weapons. These games are here to implement atomic warfare. One such game is Defcon [24] , released in 2007. Its gameplay is simple, you have a limited number of nuclear-powered submarines, nuclear armed bombers and fighters. These aircraft can strike from fixed airports or aircraft carriers. Finally, there are nuclear missiles silos that can also act as ABM defences [25]. The aim of the game is to use our ABM defences and fighter planes to protect your country from nuclear attacks on urban centres and nuclear capabilities. These nuclear capabilities (silos for ICBMs, nuclear missile submarines and bombers) can destroy enemy capabilities, but also do the most damage if we want to score points. The game tries to make nuclear weaponry consistent with its gameplay. It uses ‚realistic‘ and diverse terminology, but the nuclear capabilities present in the game bear little to no relation to their real world counterparts. Perhaps the most extravagant case of this is the intercontinental missile silo that can be transformed into a missile defence! There is no historical reality to this [26]. The aim here is to give the player a choice between defending against enemy capabilities, trying to cause the most damage with a first strike to score the most points, or wiping out the enemy’s defensive capabilities. The atmosphere of the game nevertheless tries to make us feel the weight of the use of nuclear weapons. Indeed, the music is absent, the graphic is minimalist, and the scoreboard is implacable after the nuclear confrontation takes place. Everything is done to give us a pessimistic view of nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapon is a weapon of massacre, and it is almost impossible to stop all the weapons that could hit us, there will be hundreds of thousands of deaths at best here remninding us of the Arcade game Missile Command. This is particularly ironic as the nuclear weapons in the game are far fewer in number than in reality and their delivery systems are far more fragile and have a much shorter range than those that exist today. Ballistic missile defences are also much more effective in the game than in our reality. By condemning nuclear weapons, this game presents a much lower perception of danger than it might truly be.

 Another game with a nuclear weapon as its main mechanic was released in 2020: ICBM [27] features the attack/defence mechanics of Defcon in a more detailed and diverse way. The main innovation of ICBM is the balance you have to keep between technological improvements to diversify your arsenal or improve your defences, and the production of nuclear weapons. In addition to having to choose a strategy in nuclear war, the player must prepare effectively by making choices. It should be noted that nuclear weapons are also more „realistic“. The nuclear missiles projected by the SNLE have a range closer to reality. The graphic and sound atmosphere are also much less heavy. The game borrows, and even reinforces, the effectiveness of anti-nuclear defences and perhaps gives a more optimistic view of nuclear weapons through its gameplay. It is possible in this game to escape attacks by a very effective defence with the development of a radar system, interceptor missiles and satellites that can also intercept missiles.  The game however is still focused on annihilating your enemy with weapons of mass destruction. Another game with similar mechanics is First strike: classic [28] with a real time defence/attack gameplay. The game is much simpler in its mechanics which questions its nature as a „simulation“. The only dimension that could resemble a „simulation“ is his real time characteristic. This forces the player to choose his actions quickly. Apart from that, it is impossible to consider First strike: classic [29] as a simulation, compared to ICBM due to his very simple gameplay and his cartoon design.

It is interesting to observe that even in games where nuclear weapons are central to the gameplay, they are only useful for the purpose of mass destruction. The developers of these two games show this very well by allowing players to compete against AIs that will systematically decide to strike first with their nuclear weapons, even if the player has not committed any provocation. Only one nuclear weapon strategy is finally offered to the player: the mass destruction, in retaliation or not. Here we will not find, for example, the strategy of the ultimate French „nuclear warning“ (frappe de semonce), a launch on an uninhabited enemy zone in order to dissuade him from attacking. Nor will we be able to do the very risky strategy of de-escalation strikes that may have existed in Russia in the 2000s by striking an adversary first in nuclear ways to prove the seriousness of our will, despite weaker capabilities. Moreover, despite their ambitions of serious representation of the weapon, perhaps the greatest breach of reality is not in the representation of the weapon itself but rather in the representation of its holders. Both games are multiplayer. For this to be possible, the player’s various factional choices must be balanced against each other. Thus, just as chess cannot be a valid representation of war because the two players are always equal, so can these games. The interest for many countries in acquiring nuclear weapons is, among other things, to be able to rebalance a balance of power that has become precarious, and this at a lower cost. How can nuclear weapons make sense if everyone is equal in power?

To conclude, if the nuclear weapon can take on a „plausible“ aspect, its realism necessarily remains limited by the gameplay of a video game. Indeed, as free and realistic as a game wants to be, it is obliged to make coherent choices in order to remain fun for the player. These are the limits of realism as a developer project but also as a selling point. Thus, even games that aim to simulate nuclear war cannot be realistic. This is due to the very nature of the upheaval that nuclear weapons have caused in history, which is to have radically unbalanced the scale of power of weapons and to have had consequences in all areas of politics and military affairs. It is this globality that is so difficult to grasp in video games and this imbalance of power that is so contradictory to the very notion of gameplay. There is still the idea of a devastating nuclear weapon, which recurs in all the games and is often linked to a critical message about nuclear weapons.

Recomended Citation: Florian Galleri,  „ How to simulate what has never happened before: Nuclear weapons and video simulation.“ in:  Spiel-Kultur-Wissenschaften, <http://spielkult.hypotheses.org/3082> 27.08.2021


[1] Kurt Squire and Sasha Barab, ‚Replaying History: Engaging Urban Underserved Students in Learning World History Through Computer Simulation Games‘, inProceedings of the 6th International Conference on Learning Sciences, ICLS ’04 (International Society of the Learning Sciences, 2004), pp. 505-12 <http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1149126.1149188> [accessed 2 July 2019]

[2]  Shigeru Miyamoto, Super Mario Bros, Nintendo, September 13, 1985

[3]  John Romero, Tom Hall and Sandy Petersen, id Software, December 10, 1993

[4] Bernard P. PERRON and J.P WOLF , ‚The Video Game Theory 2‘, CHAPTER 8 Z-axis Development in the Video Game, ROUTLEDGE, 2009, https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwjbyPX1ssXxAhXNAGMBHbeLAt4QFjABegQIAhAD&url=https%3A%2F%2Fciteseerx.ist.psu.edu%2Fviewdoc%2Fdownload%3Fdoi%3D10.1.1.470.8469%26rep%3Drep1%26type%3Dpdf&usg=AOvVaw2Cs9LO_aXbicmRuN2FJZFN.
[5] David Whittaker, BMX Simulator, Codemaster, 1986
[6]  SCS Software, Eurotruck Simulator, 6 August 2008
[7]  Giants Software, Farming Simulator 2009, 2009
[8] Eugen Pfister, ‚This (Historical Authenticity) means war!‘,Spiel-Kultur-Wissenschaft<https://spielkult.hypotheses.org/2719> [accessed 28 March 2021]
[9] Bohemia Interactive, ARMA: Armed Assault, November 10, 2006
[10]  Tripwire Interactive, Red orchestra: Ostfront 41-45, March 14, 2006
[11]  DICE, Battlefield V, 2018
[12] ANNAUD Jean-jacques, Stalingrad, 2001
[13] Paradox Development Studio, Hearts of Iron IV, 6 June 2016
[14] Eugen Systems, Wargame: European Escalation, February 23, 2012
[15] Eugen Systems, Wargame: AirLand Battle, May 29, 2013
[16] Ibid
[17] Eugen Pfister, ‚Cold War GamesTMTMDer Kalte-Krieg-Diskurs im digitalen Spiel‘,Portal Militärgeschichte, 2017 <https://doi.org/10.15500/AKM.10.4.2017>.
[18] Massive Entertainment, World in Conflict, September 18, 2007
[19]Pfister, ‚Cold War GamesTMTM. Der Kalte-Krieg-Diskurs im digitalen Spiel‘.
[20] Eugen Systems, Wargame: AirLand Battle, May 29, 2013
[21] Firaxis Games, Civilization VI, October 21, 2016
[22] Ibid
[23] Ibid
[24] Introversion Software Limited, DEFCON, 2007.
[25] Anti ballistic missile
[26] Maybe is it a reference to the Moscow ABM defence.
[27] SoftWarware/ K-Project, ICBM, November 17 2020.
[28] Blindflug Studios AG, First strike: classic, March 10, 2021.
[29] ibd


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