This autumn, Imperial War Museums (IWM) will delve into one of today’s most popular storytelling mediums with an exhibition that seeks to challenge perceptions of how video games interpret stories about war and conflict.

Opening at IWM London, War Games: Real Conflicts | Virtual Worlds | Extreme Entertainment (30 September 2022 – 28 May 2023) will explore the relationship between video games and conflict through a series of titles which, over the last forty years, have reflected events from the First World War to the present. Showcasing immersive installations, never-before-displayed objects and perspectives from industry experts, this free exhibition – accompanied by a playable retro gaming zone and a programme of supporting events – will be the UK’s first at a major museum to ask how the reality of war is represented in the virtual world of a video game.

Featuring blockbusters like Sniper Elite 5, recently released by lead exhibition sponsor Rebellion, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, War Games will present 12 titles including video games and a military training simulator alongside new acquisitions and objects from IWM’s collection, raising questions about how different developers have portrayed conflict and highlighting real-life stories which many have drawn similar inspiration from.

From first-person shooters to real-time strategy campaigns, modern games often depict thoroughly researched historical events. Using these diverse case studies, War Games will invite visitors to interrogate the tension that exists between the thrill and tragedy of warfare in a game and its repercussions in the real world. Common gameplay tropes such as explosive barrels and sniper rifles will be presented next to collection items like facial prosthetics which were developed in the First World War to disguise injuries caused by modern combat. Similarly, items belonging to real individuals – such as the blanket of Lore Engels-Meyer who was evacuated from her home in Berlin when the Second World War broke out – will be displayed alongside case studies like Bury Me, My Love and This War of Mine. Together these titles challenge visitors’ expectations of traditional war games by going beyond heroic depictions of conflict to explore civilian and refugee experiences.

The exhibition will also explore how video game technology can be used, and is used, to help shape real wars. Alongside software used to train militaries, War Games will feature new acquisitions including an Xbox 360 controller once used to operate the camera of an unmanned aerial vehicle in Afghanistan and Iraq.

War Games is curated by Chris Cooper (Head of Second World War and Mid-20th Century Conflict) and Ian Kikuchi (Senior Curator Historian, Second World War and Mid-20th Century) and has been developed in close collaboration with an advisory panel of gaming experts, enthusiasts and historians whose voices feature throughout the exhibition to give a variety of unique perspectives.

War Games will be accompanied by a retro gaming zone where visitors will be able to play 13 iconic titles including Battlezone, Medal of Honour and Top Gun on consoles ranging from the Atari 2600 to the Sega Saturn. Further expanding the themes of the exhibition, a series of public events, to be announced at a later date, will consider how video games can shape our understanding of conflict.