World of Tanks: the dark side of realism

, | Game diaries

That large chunk of Detroit steel above you is a M103. It was designed in the 1950s to destroy Soviet armor in a general European war that thankfully never happened. Prior to playing World of Tanks, I had never heard of the M103. Then, when I first heard of it in the upcoming patch notes, I didn’t like it. Now I love it.

After the jump: How I learned to love the M103.

The M103 was introduced to World of Tanks in the 7.2 patch as a Tier IX heavy tank, a substitute for the T34 which was demoted down to a Tier VIII premium. Its introduction was part of a larger trend of including more post-World War II designs in the game’s higher tiers. At the time, this struck me as an undersireable change. World War II may be overplayed in gaming, but I have come to appreciate that the huge breadth of information available about the war can make it a very interesting setting. Meanwhile, the M103 never fired a shot in anger. Its battlefield performance is as fictional as that of a Space Marine!

The first inclination I had that I might like the M103 came from getting to see one in person, at Operation Think Tank, a sponsored trip to the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation. I had never really considered myself much of a tank admirer, but at the event I discovered that it’s hard not to be impressed by these massive metal monstrosities.

The people behind World of Tanks may be clever enough to abandon realism whenever it suits their purpose, but they are clearly tread-heads and they are eager to communicate their love of armor to their players. On the battlefields of World of Tanks, German, American, and Russian armor fights on the same team, and tanks which never saw combat are a frequent sight. World of Tanks is not a game about World War II. It is a game about tanks.

This is probably for the best. Playing World of Tanks, I am too frequently reminded of the worst aspect of modern gaming’s obsession with the Second World War: Games that include Nazis tend to attract gamers who want to role-play Nazis. They’re fortunately a small minority, and the developers are pretty good at punishing players for crossing the line and posting truly abhorrent materials. (Speaking about how great Hitler was is a good way to lose your account.) However, the developers have inexplicably decided that naming your account after Nazi generals is acceptable, provided that the Nazi in question isn’t a convicted war criminal.

I’m not sure why this bothers me so much. Years of online gaming has given me a very thick skin, and it’s not like this is my first encounter with wannabe fascists on the internet. But it does bother me. Having come to appreciate that World of Tanks is a game about appreciating tanks, I have reached the point where I want to disassociate these tanks from the wars they were built for.

Perhaps dissociation is impossible. But unlike your Calls of Duty or Medals of Honor, World of Tanks makes no effort to set their tank battles in historically accurate maps that lovingly recreate the fall of Berlin. World of Tanks uses complex mechanics and statistics to build a fantasy where tanks of all nations fight across colorful, slightly-cartoonish, landscapes. There’s a lot of bloom, and absolutely no blood. It’s mimicry of the “World of Warcraft” name is entirely appropriate; this is every bit as much a fantasy game as Blizzard’s tale of Orcs and Men.

This brings us back to the M103. There’s an extent to which a tread-head wants to be able to imagine the battlefield performance of a favorite tank. It’s why some people claim that the IS-3 saw combat in the closing days of the Soviet intervention against Japan. (It didn’t.) But the history of combat is a history of terrible bloodshed. Right now I’m digging the M103: It has an excellent gun and some good slopes on its armor. I don’t really need it to have engaged Soviet armor in the Fulda Gap for me to consider it a “real” tank.

Made-up wars are much better than real wars.

David Lydon has been playing games since he was very young, and hopes to still be playing games when he is very old. This is his first attempt to write about games, unless annoying e-mails to his friends count. David posts on the Quarter to Three forums as Dave47.