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Battlefield 1 is no history lesson — but there’s a lot to learn from it

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It’s like a playable World War I special on the History Channel

While its biggest competitors head further into the future, the Battlefield franchise is stepping back into the past — and that’s purely by coincidence, EA DICE design director Lars Gustavsson told Polygon at Gamescom 2016.

"[Battlefield 1] was pitched in 2008 or 2009," he said. "We had too much to do at that time. These people who were kind of strong ambassadors have constantly been going at it."

At that time, EA DICE was working on Battlefield 4, a game set several years in the future. After development wrapped, however, the idea of tackling World War I — something no Electronic Arts game had done since 1994 — came back up.

"The perception of slow trench warfare, it isn’t really true," Gustavsson said. "It was a war that spanned the world. There were naval battles outside of South America … really big perspectives that I, to start with, hadn’t really heard of."

These preconceived notions of what World War I was served as both the strongest barrier of entry as well as the most compelling reason for the team to focus on the era. Although Battlefield 1, first and foremost, is an evolution of the sandbox-style gameplay that the series has iterated on over the years, it could also prove to be more educational than players expect.

"I almost wondered if I was asleep in school"

That’s due to EA DICE’s commitment to historical accuracy, with operations in the campaign mode portraying legitimate historical moments from the war. A demo we checked out had us playing as soldiers from the Ottoman Empire, defending their territory against the British troops; our weapons ranged from zeppelins to bayonets, in keeping with the period.

More interestingly, though, are the less well known elements from the period that surface in Battlefield 1. The Harlem Hellfighters, an important if little known troop of African-American soldiers who fought in France, are a major part of the game’s marketing. For some, it’s the first time they’ve even heard of the group — and it’s thanks to Battlefield, a series that has previously faced controversy for how it’s made use of social events for its promotional efforts.

"They surfaced quite early in discussions," Gustavsson told us. "The fact that they actually fought with the French troops, [and] they weren’t allowed to fight with the American troops. The more we dug into it, the more we learned.

"I almost wondered whether I was asleep in school because I know so much about the Second World War and nothing about the First," he added.

To rectify that, EA Dice has been watching the History Channel and reading about the era. Just as they’ve gained interest in it, the goal is to get others excited about the First World War in the same way that they are about World War II or futuristic warfare.

"[World War I] changed our world more than I have ever known," Gustavsson said. "There’s so many things, all the inventions — trenchcoats to zippers. All of the things we take for granted, from females actually going in to factories and being allowed to work. It shaped the world many times more than other events that I thought were more important to history. Maybe I’m naive, but if it was interesting to me, hopefully it will be the others."