The Detour Room

before the finished thought

This (Anti-)War of Mine: An Essay

[This was written for school, hence the very academic tone!]

Much like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), This War of Mine (11 bit studios, 2014) is intelligible only within a wider context. Where Fountain challenges the standards of early-twentieth century art, This War of Mine sits in conversation with the real-world wars it draws inspiration from. Both pieces primarily produce meaning by prompting affect in the viewer/player: outrage, confusion, scepticism for Fountain, sadness, frustration, distress for This War of Mine. Their artistic merit lies in the space they produce for their viewers to respond and reflect. Specifically, This War of Mine foregrounds the civilian experience of war as a day-to-day struggle for survival. This is a valuable recentering of war narratives in video games, many of which concern themselves primarily with bombastic acts of player-driven heroism. In of itself, however, this does not constitute an anti-war statement. This War of Mine asks a question: is war ever worth this much suffering? The answer – and the game’s ultimate meaning – is entirely up to the player.

Through a series of artistic decisions, 11 bit studios highlights This War of Mine’s relationship to real-world conflict. Many of its visuals are overlaid by a ‘pencil effect’ which highlights the game’s status as constructed object, standing in opposition to a more naturalistic approach. Likewise, its original launch trailer intercuts game footage with shots of Emir Cerimovic, a survivor of the 1992-1996 siege of Sarajevo, speaking about his experiences. The constructed game and its real-world inspirations are drawn into close dialogue with each other, actively encouraging comparison. The simplistic crafting mechanics add to this effect: while playing, I often found myself reflecting on how much more difficult each action would be in real life. Creating any kind of pills from garden herbs, for instance, would require a wealth of expertise and specialist equipment. In-game, it happens at the click of a mouse. With a certain amount of ‘dead time’ for the player built into each process, contemplation along these lines is all but inevitable.

This War of Mine, however, is not remotely concerned with the causes of its fictional conflict. The player may find a flyer in one of the Construction Site scenarios: a short, fragmented piece of text issuing a proclamation of independence and freedom from oppression. The quotation ends mid-sentence, and is followed by “Fuck all your treaties and proclamations.” Detached from the scene, with no distinct origin point, this statement appears as a direct appeal from game to player. It asserts that, to the survivors at least, it does not matter why the war began. It instructs the player, in no uncertain terms, that it should not matter to them either.

The opening quotation from Ernest Hemingway - “In modern war… you will die like a dog for no good reason.” - could be taken as a universal indictment of armed conflict. However, ‘you will die… for no good reason’ takes on different meaning when positioned at the start of a video game. It has specific instructional value, informing the player that they are likely to fail. With this in mind, ‘no good reason’ more frequently finds expression in smaller decisions, such as not stocking up on bandages when they had the chance or failing to leave a building fast enough. This is part of This War of Mine’s larger shift of attention toward the granular and everyday. The characters’ suffering is overwhelming, but it is also strikingly mundane: lack of food, lack of warmth, lack of medicine. With no context for why the war is taking place, the player has no means of judging whether or not the cost is worth it.

According to Just War theorists, there are four conditions under which a war might be considered justified. John F. Coverdale (2004) outlines them as follows: “A) There must be a just cause; B) The war must be declared by a lawful authority; C) There must be an appropriate proportion between the goals sought and the costs, both physical and moral; and D) War must be the last resort.” As has been established, This War of Mine does not supply enough information about its fictional conflict for the player to make a judgement on any of these fronts. It could be argued that by disregarding these factors, the game makes an anti-war statement on pacifist grounds. However, this is an implicit rather than explicit point, and not one that all players will take from the game. One might feasibly agree that the suffering depicted by This War of Mine is awful, but deem it necessary when it comes to the specific political causes of a real-life war.

Rather than making an explicitly anti-war statement, therefore, This War of Mine seeks to highlight “the costs, both physical and moral” of armed conflict. It provides the player with a vital piece of information, encouraging them to set it against their knowledge of real-world wars. The game issues a profound ethical challenge to the idea of justified war, but ultimate judgement lies beyond its scope. As with Duchamp’s Fountain, one must look outside the art gallery for that.


  • 11 bit studios, This War of Mine: Final Cut. V. 6.0.0. 11 bit studios. Steam, 2014.
  • 11 bit studios. “This War of Mine Launch Trailer – The Survivor.” YouTube, November 14, 2014.
  • Coverdale, John F. “An Introduction to the Just War Tradition.” Pace International Law Review 16, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 221-277.

A Note

If you play This War of Mine off the back of this post, please be aware that it contains some potentially triggering content that is - in my opinion - not adequately warned for. This includes: suicide, sexual assault, self-harm.