War Games exhibition

In 2014 het Nieuwe Instituut remembered the start of the first world war in 1914. I curated a small exhibit about the changing relation between games, war and ethics.

War Games showcased the work of independent (‘indie’) game designers who create games with more complex ethical choices for the players. It also explored how at the same time some consumers of these games have develop new tactics that subvert the violent nature of some of these games, for example through ‘pacifist runs’ in which they try to avoid killing any enemies. Both designers and players show how the medium of games is slowly maturing beyond simplistic notions of good and evil.

Games that could be played:

  • Verdun. In this wargame, that takes place in the first world war, the designers have also recreated the famous christmas cease-fire: if you try to play Verdun on christmas day, you can’t fire guns, you can only throw snowballs. For this exhibit the makers were kind enough to create a special version in which it’s always christmas.
  • Papers Please. In this game you play as a border control agent. Your employers demands that you detect fraudulent passports (and this allows you to feed your starving family). But as the refugees share their stories you are confronted with complex moral dilemma’s.
  • Luftrausers. At the time of this exhibit this game had created a small controversy, as you play as a nazi airplane pilot. Why are violent games only accepted if you play as the ‘good’ guys?
  • Fable 2. A game by Peter Molyneux was inevitable, as this french game designer has been exploring moral complexity in his games since Black and White. The moral choices the player makes influence the game world and the progression of the story.

Video and other materials on show:

  • The practice of pacifist play. Not all games can be finished without murder, as sometimes this is the main objective. But this play style has become so popular that many game designers now take pacifist play into account in their design proces.
  • The practice of modding, where consumers modify games to their own ends. An example is Gary’s Mod, where the violent game Half Life 2 has been reworked into a sort of virtual lego where the fun is now derived from playing with the virtual physics of the game world, or using it as a virtual TV studio.
  • A teaser trailer for This War of Mine, a game that wasn’t available yet at the time. Instead of playing a soldier, you play a civilian in a city during a violent occupation. The goal is to avoid death, famine and other horrors of war.

The exhibit was created in just one month with a tiny budget.

More details can be found on the website of Het Nieuwe Instituut.


The cardboard arcade cabinets were partially sponsored by the Dutch Game Garden. The artists at Mr Beam created a projection mapping on a wooden arcade cabinet. The creators of Verdun, M2H and Blackmill, were kind enough to create a special version of their game for this exhibit in which it’s always christmas, and only snowballs can be thrown.