The past, according to the past: Total War: Three Kingdoms and adapting historical fiction

This blog has mostly concerned itself so far with the question of how to translate our understandings of the past into a piece of fiction to be consumed by a modern audience. We run into an entirely different problem, however, when we try to adapt a piece of fiction for modern audiences which is itself a work of historical fiction. The view of the past is, in a way, double-filtered: once by the original creator, and again by the current one. Should creators and adapters prioritise the best understanding modern historians have of the period being predicted, or should they adopt the conventions and understandings of that period held by the original author?

The example I’ll be using in this post is Total War: Three Kingdoms, Creative Assembly’s upcoming strategy game set in ancient China, adapting the 16th-century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Romance details the Three Kingdoms period of China, during which the Han Empire broke up into multiple warring states for around 100 years, and it takes multiple historical figures from the time and interprets them as heroic, villainous, admirable, or despicable according to the political mores and ideals of the Ming dynasty, when it was written.

Total War: Three Kingdoms draws on Chinese history, but also dramatic depictions of Chinese history. Does this make it less ‘historical’?

The historical gulf here is vast and bifurcated: over a thousand years of difference between the events depicted in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE and the 16th-century writing of the novel, and roughly four hundred years between the writing of the novel and the production of the video game. Creative Assembly is no stranger to large historical gulfs of this kind; their earliest-set Total War campaign is the Wrath of Sparta DLC for Rome 2, depicting the Peloponnesian War and beginning in 432 BCE.  However, there is a specific challenge in framing the game as an adaptation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, rather than simply a historical game set during the period Romance depicts.

This challenge is most easily illustrated for a western audience by considering a different adaptation of a piece of historical fiction: BBC’s The Hollow Crown, specifically that series’ Henry V. The Hollow Crown is a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Major Tetralogy, comprising Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V; this last play concerns itself greatly with the prosecution of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. The concepts of national identity in the early 15th century, when Henry V is set, were, although being defined by the conflict between England and France, still somewhat nebulous[1]. Shakespeare, however, writing in 1599 for a late-16th-century audience, confidently asserts an ‘English’ identity for the soldiers under Henry V, as well as the King and nobles.

This makes sense for a 16th-century play, as the strengthening of an ‘English’ identity was an important political project at the time[2]. The Hollow Crown, produced by the BBC for the Cultural Olympiad in 2012[3], frames itself in its mise-en-scene and costuming as a semi-accurate adaptation of a story about the Hundred Years’ War, filming in period castles, using period costumes, etc. However, being an adaptation of Shakespeare, it transmits Shakespeare’s construction of an ‘English’ identity that is somewhat anachronistic to the period it’s portraying. Further, it casts Paterson Joseph, a man of colour, as the Duke of York – injecting a modern concept of civic nationalism into Shakespeare’s interpretation of the Hundred Years’ War[4].  What we’re left with, then, is a strange mishmash: a historical event being filtered through a later gaze, which is in itself being commented upon by a modern production.

The Hollow Crown, like Shakespeare’s play, emphasises ‘English’ identity – but a 16th-century view of English identity that is far removed from the English identity intelligible in 1415. Should The Hollow Crown cleave to 15th-century attitudes, or 16th? Does this make it legitimate for the film to comment on modern changes to what constitutes ‘English’ identity? 

Is it correct to consider The Hollow Crown: Henry V, then, as a modern piece of historical fiction and assess it on that level? Or is it better to think of it as an adaptation of Shakespeare which happens to borrow the aesthetics of a historical period? Does the production’s use of a modern interpretation of medieval aesthetics mean it should be assessed as a portrayal of the medieval period? Or is it an imagination of how Shakespeare, if he lived in modern Britain and held modern British values, might have imagined the past?

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The 2012 Cultural Olympiad also included Sacrilege, a bouncy castle based on Stonehenge, reinterpreting what was likely a religious ritual site as a children’s playground. Re-evaluating and examining Britain’s history (within approved limits) was a major point of the initiative.

This conflict can be even more complicated when it comes to Romance of the Three Kingdoms. As Hyuk-Chan Kwon notes in his essay in Playing with the Past[5], many modern video game adaptations of the novel, developed by Japanese studios for a predominantly Japanese market, are heavily influenced by the 20th-century rewriting of the Romance by Yoshikawa Eiji, which recasts the narrative through the genre tropes of samurai fiction, emphasising the feudal relationship between samurai and daimyo and thus the structure of a feudal society – a structure that did not necessarily exist in the warring states period of Chinese history and is not precisely depicted by the original Romance[6]. The structure of many of these games, casting the player as a feudal lord who must recruit heroes and conquer territory, with an emphasis on the relationship between warrior and overlord, reflects that cultural understanding of the work as much as it does the original Romance.

Many adaptations of the Romance are based on Japanese retellings – to the point where series based on the Romance are often highly similar in gameplay to series based on Japanese history, despite these being two very different periods.

When we consider Total War: Three Kingdoms, then, we are examining a game, developed by an English studio, portraying China’s 2nd and 3rd centuries through the lens of a 15th-century Chinese novel, awaiting release into a landscape of video game adaptations of that novel heavily influenced by a 20th-century Japanese rewriting of that novel. To say the game’s relationship with history is complex is an understatement. Creative Assembly have bridged this massive intertextual gulf in an interesting way, however.

Total War: Three Kingdoms can be played in two modes. First is ‘Romance’ mode, which draws inspiration from the Romance and reflects the larger-than-life characters in the novel and in the contemporary culture of Romance adaptations, emphasising duels between heroes who can decimate entire units of commoners, with equipment that is more ceremonial, stylised, or later period than what would be historically accurate, and so on. Second is ‘Records’ mode, in which many anachronistic or stylised elements are removed. Individual hero units are rendered as generals with personal bodyguards, units manoeuvre more slowly, and equipment is far more period-appropriate. Both modes’ campaign sections focus heavily on the political and personal relationships between characters, with loyalties, friendships, and rivalries developing based on player orders or sandbox circumstance. However, in ‘Romance’ mode, relationships and scripted events are based on the sequence of events in the novel, whereas in ‘Records’ mode those relationships and events are based on history. The core gameplay loops are essentially the same, but one mode is an adaptation of a massively culturally-significant work of fiction, and the other is in many ways an interrogation of that work of fiction with regards to its historical accuracy[7].

All of these examples raise important questions about adapting works of fiction. When we create works of fiction about the past, are we presenting the past as it was at the time, the past as it was understood at a later date, or the past as we understand it now? Can we disentangle modern understandings and presentations of the past from the cultural baggage that has grown up through prior presentations? Should we?

Adapting and analysing works of historical fiction which are themselves historical can shed interesting new insights on the period in which they were created; Henry V emphasises patriotism and national identity in an anachronistic way to show support for English military efforts in 1599 – but that same emphasis can be co-opted to construct a different narrative of national unity during a major sporting event[8]. A novel can be written to legitimate neo-Confucian ideology by examining the Three Kingdoms period and be reinterpreted as a legitimation of a constructed image of a feudal social structure. In looking at these works as products of their times as well as representations of past periods, we can understand their times – and reinterpret their values and concerns with our own.

Ultimately, historical fiction is not just about representing the past. It’s about using the past to speak to the present. Our historical fiction will be used by future historians to understand our views of our world, as well as our views of the past, just as past historical fiction has been used by us. If this blog has made you think about one thing, let it be this: how does this representation of history reflect the context and purpose of its own production? Total War: Three Kingdoms will reflect its context. Battlefield V will reflect its context. How they use visions of the past to articulate their views of the present, and to act within the constraints of their medium and genre, is, I feel, a more interesting – and probably more relevant – question than whether or not they are strictly ‘accurate’.

[1] There is debate among medievalists whether non-noble retainers and peasantry within Henry V’s would have considered themselves ‘English’ as an identity category, rather than identifying themselves with their region of origin (like ‘Lancashire’ or ‘London’) or the noble they served.

[2] Relating to an ongoing geopolitical conflict with the Spanish Empire, anxieties over the religious sway of the Church of England as opposed to the Catholic Church, and, in the play’s earliest forms, an immediate justification for (and, in Shakespeare’s subtle way, examination of) a military campaign in Ireland.

[3] An adjunct to an Olympic Games where an ethnically-diverse Team GB competed, and part of a government-driven narrative around the Games highlighting both the United Kingdom’s history and its diversity.

[4] And dovetailing with a practice of somewhat colour-blind casting in British theatre.

[5] A series of essays analysing the presentation of history found in contemporary video games; Bloomsbury, 2013, page 123.

[6] And is itself a revisionist construction of historical Japanese social relations authorised by a nationalist government in a time of war; Eiji’s rewriting was serialised in a newspaper from 1939-1941.

[7] Adaptations of Romance of the Three Kingdoms which focus on historical accuracy and reinterrogate the novel’s casting of characters as heroes or villains based on the political and social mores of Ming China are common, so this isn’t a new thing, but it is interesting to find it in the same game as a more straightforward adaptation.

[8] Indeed, the use of sections of Henry V at English sporting events is almost as ubiquitous as the co-opting of its story beats for war movies.

Agency, Mechanics, Mindset: strategy games and imparting a historical worldview

It’s 907 AD. In Eoferwic, former stronghold of the Norsemen, the King of the Britons of Strathclyde, Run, marshals his warbands. In the twenty years since Alfred, King of Wessex, and Guðrum, King of East Anglia, agreed a temporary peace after the Battle of Eddington, Run has led the Britons from their fastness at Govan to smash the invading Norsemen of Northumbria and their English vassals, forge an alliance with the Vikings who now rule in Alba, and break the back of the Mercians. Now, he turns his gaze further south, directing his sons and brothers – for he is seventy winters old, and unable to lead a band himself – to prepare to strike at the oldest foe of the Old North, the last, strongest bastion of the English in these islands: the Kingdom of Wessex.

This never happened.

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British cavalry move forward to attack Saxon infantry – a battle that never happened, but could have.

The name of the King of Strathclyde after the sack of Dumbarton in 870 by Vikings is unknown. While there was a Kingdom of Strathclyde, it did not overcome the new settlement of Norsemen in Northumbria, or conquer its way down to York (Eoferwic). And it certainly did not engage in a long struggle for overall control of what is now called England; while that struggle did take place (although to call it a singular struggle is somewhat misleading), it was between the English of Wessex and the Danelaw.

What I described above is not history. It is a counterfactual history produced by the mechanics of a video game – in this case, Creative Assembly’s Total War: Thrones of Britannia. I’ve alluded previously to the way that historical fiction is ‘inherently inaccurate’ by its nature as fiction, but in this post I want to explore the ways in which video games’ greatest asset – the agency they can afford players – affects their presentation of history, how that can distort the picture of the past – and how designers can leverage it to produce a greater understanding of a historical worldview and the process by which history is made.

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Strathclyde (called Yr Hen Ogledd in this phase of the game) in dark red in the north of England. FOR THE OLD NORTH!

Almost all historical games present a historical counterfactual. In some, it is the idea of a fictional character influencing key figures and events of a particular place and time (a la Assassin’s Creed), in others, it’s the idea that players can refight historical battles and come to a different result (historical shooters generally, but in terms of games this blog has analysed, the Battlefield series is a good example). In the case of strategy games, though, particularly the open-ended kind, the counterfactual runs deeper, and has more possibility: not just that one can refight battles and change the result, but that a player can step into the shoes of a historical leader and radically alter the course of history by prevailing where others failed, making peace where others warred.

This is a far deeper possible counterfactual than other games produce. In a historical shooter one can refight an engagement, but the course of the historical war on which other maps are based does not change, so the counterfactual the game can present is fundamentally limited[1]. In contrast, something like Total War, in by and large abandoning historical particularity for the construction of a historical sandbox, allows a much greater array of alternate pasts to be constructed.

The series generally constructs a historical start position in which the player can take control of several different factions, gives the player objectives (sometimes simply to expand, sometimes to capture specific regions in the game map), and lets them have at it. Computer-controlled factions will follow their own logic, objectives, and long-term strategies in a dynamic fashion, resulting in a situation that is never the same twice. In a game set in the ancient Mediterranean, Sparta might forge an alliance with Athens and expunge the kingdoms of the Diadochi while Rome seized the Western Mediterranean. A crafty Daimyo might forge a Republic of Japan from the Boshin War. The Kingdom of Strathclyde might come back from the brink[2].

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Total War has reproduced its strategy sandbox in a number of historical settings, from Ancient Rome to the Boshin War in 19th-century Japan. Often mechanics are changed to reflect setting, but the core gameplay remains consistent.

This is, on the face of it, bad history. It’s inherently wrong: the past is a series of events that happened, and allowing radical change of this nature means that the game is inevitably becoming less of a history and more of a fantasy. It’s also somewhat difficult to reconcile the player’s position in a game like this with any actual historical figure. Many other historical games have the player taking control of an actual individual, and even if they’re a fictional one, this is easy to reconcile with historical reality: historical fiction imagines non-existent people all the time. In a strategy game such as Total War or Civilization, though, the player takes on the role of an almost all-seeing, all-knowing commander: immortal, untouchable, capable of exactly marshalling the resources of an entire group at once, giving orders that are conveyed instantly across thousands of miles, exactly controlling multiple characters in the game. Clearly, such an entity did not exist: it’s an abstraction of gameplay.

However, what such abstractions and counterfactual achieve is producing a greater understanding of historical contingency than might otherwise be achieved. I said in the last paragraph that the past is a series of events that happened. This is a popular theory, and one that seems sound, but I believe it obscures an important facet about the past. we can characterise things that happened – major storms, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and meteors – as events that happened, outside of any human choice and therefore without possibility for change.

But History is not about the study of things that had nothing to do with humans. History is about the study of the human past, and humans have agency. They make choices, according to their worldviews and circumstances. They are unpredictable. Every human action is taken in a web of possible actions, and in choosing one thing to do every person subtly changes the universe from one where all those other possible actions could happen into one in which they did not. History is the study of decisions humans have made. Often, these are small, or unconscious, or only visible in aggregate. It’s difficult to categorise a plague, for instance, as a result of human decisions, but without trade networks or urban centres or an appreciable laxity of pest control or hygiene, plagues would not occur – and these are all the result of human action and therefore human choices.

In this light, then, sandbox strategy games in which the player can send history careening off around a different path become a valuable tool for analysing the potentialities in historical situations. Is it likely that the Kingdom of Strathclyde would surge back and retake Britain? No. But it’s possible, given certain choices and circumstances by many different people. Total War presents a gameplay sandbox within which the player can make choices and produce these counterfactuals.

Total War: Attila allows players to hold the Western Roman Empire together against the collapse of the fifth century, something that would have drastically changed the course of history – but could have happened.

However, even in the production of historical counterfactuals there are gradations of historical plausibility and possibility. Total War, as its name suggests, is focussed mainly on conflict. Raising and commanding armies is the series’ primary mechanic. Diplomacy is often perfunctory, and there is no way for a state or faction to project ‘soft power’. There is no way to re-enact Gaius Popillius Laenas’ circle in the sand around King Antiochus[3], even if you’re playing as Rome. Thus the view of history the series projects is one where the main driver of history is force of arms. Even if one ultimately subscribes to this view, it’s clear that Total War’s view of history can seem a little myopic.

This brings us neatly onto the topic of how designers can shape the historical worldview their game imparts by carefully tuning its mechanics, and how the sandbox of tools offered to the player can help the player understand the predominant worldview of the time. Here I’m going to use two games by Paradox Interactive as examples, to contrast with Total War: Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis IV.

Like the Total War series, these two games present a historical startpoint[4] from which systemic gameplay can begin, and like Total War, both assume an ‘overseer’ player character who acts through individuals or institutions in the game world. However, both games take great care (arguably greater care than Total War does) to tailor their mechanics to the time period they depict: in the case of Crusader Kings, the middle ages, and for Europa Universalis the Early Modern period.

Crusader Kings can be quickly described as a ‘feudal politics simulator’: the player controls a historical figure and their dynasty, switching to the next heir when the avatar character dies. Rather than interface with armies or command nations, the player interacts with the world strictly as a specific individual[5]. When the player conducts diplomacy, it is with other characters. Rather than selecting ‘generals’ to command forces, players must cultivate relationships with their households and select marshals. Instead of simply pressing a button to marry, players can woo potentially spouses and educate their heirs (although arranged marriages are simpler to achieve). In this, the game eloquently communicates the fusion of the personal and political that characterised feudalism as a form of political organisation[6]: if you’re at war with the Kingdom of France, the likelihood is that it’s because of your relationship with the King, not because two arbitrary states wanted each other’s territory.

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In Crusader Kings 2, players must carefully educate their heirs – because, like real feudal lords, it’s their heirs that will carry on the dynasty.

Europa Universalis, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach. Individuals exist in Europa Universalis, but unlike Crusader Kings’ full characters with wants, needs, foibles, and virtues, they’re mostly abstractions used as tools or providing statistical bonuses to the player. What the player truly controls in Europa Universalis is the institutions of a state (again, as an ‘overseer’ rather than a specific individual). The game focusses on trade, diplomacy, networks of treaties, and the development of political structures. In Crusader Kings you might be concerned with making sure your heir doesn’t grow up a weakling or a monk, but in Europa Universalis you’re more likely to worry about balancing the flow of goods through your centres of trade or developing an institutional memory in your navy so they can more effectively hunt pirates. Where Crusader Kings centres the personal, Europa Universalis puts the institutional in the spotlight.

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This is about as much detail Europa Universalis IV goes into with individuals – a series of statistics that affect the abstracted mechanics of your state.

Both of these games use their mechanics to represent a historical worldview – indeed, to present a historical argument about what was important at the time. Should the player wish to ally with, say, Castile in both games, they will go about it in different ways: in Crusader Kings they’ll send gifts to the monarch, or support his heirs and siblings in usurping him. Power flows from individuals and their support among other individuals. In Europa Universalis, the player will propose an alliance with the Castilian state, perhaps offering territories or mutual defence against other states. Power flows from institutions and political structures: discontented nobles are a statistic to manage, not individuals to keep sweet. Both of these arguments have their flaws: politics was intensely personal throughout the Early Modern period, and Medieval states often had sophisticated institutions which could function almost divorced from the individuals operating them. Both games take their view of history from their mechanics; in defining the basic methods of interacting with the world, the designers have encoded a belief system and worldview into the game.

But what these games, and Total War, reveal is a possibility of using video games as a powerful pedagogical tool. I talked in my post on Discovery Tour about how we can use video games to show people the past as it happened, but with games like this we can help people relive the past as it was made. It’s one thing to have the personal nature of politics explained – how, say, overlords could use symbolic titles to bestow status on vassals to keep them loyal – and quite another to have to navigate the subtle politics of rival vassals by carefully distributing the positions of Royal Falconer and Cupbearer. It brings history alive by guiding the player into thinking like those in the past – and acknowledging that history was not inevitable, but was in fact the result of choices that those acting upon and within those worldviews made.

That’s extremely valuable.

[1] For example: Battlefield 1 offers a maps depicting the 1918 Spring Offensive in which the German Army pressed the British Army back to Amiens, and maps depicting the Allied counteroffensive through the Marne, Meuse, and Argonne sectors that followed the Allied victory at Amiens – but it does not offer maps depicting a counterfactual German breakthrough at Amiens. Even in a game that takes a possible counterfactual as its basis, the scope for changing history is limited.

(For good reason: making maps for every possible counterfactual would be an absurd demand on developers).

[2] Each of these examples comes from a campaign I’ve played in Rome 2, Shogun 2, and Thrones of Britannia respectively.

[3] An anecdote from the apogee of the Roman Republic’s power: a senator, Pompillius brought a decree to a foreign king demanding he end his war against Egypt, and when the King stated he would discuss this with his council, Pompillius drew a circle around the King in the sand, stating that he King would not move until he had given Pompillius a reply to give the senate. Livy and Polybius relate this as an example of the power and hegemony Rome held throughout the Mediterranean, that a Roman could issue this decree to a King in front of his army and be obeyed merely by invoking the threat of Roman displeasure.

[4] In fact, they present several: each has a series of ‘bookmarks’ from which players can start which approximate the state of the game world at a given date.

[5] Mostly. Commanding armies and levying taxes is done through ‘impossible’ means and features similar mechanical abstractions as in Total War.

[6] To what extend ‘Feudalism’ as a form of political organisation ever existed, and how far one can describe the political settlements of various medieval states as ‘feudal’, and even what the word ‘feudal’ means is an extremely contested topic among medievalists; the word is used here as a shorthand.

With their faces to the foe: the ethics of historical shooters

Every day at 8PM, a ceremony is held at the Menin Gate at Ypres in Belgium. A gathering of local residents and visitors from elsewhere wait up to an hour beforehand. Traffic is stopped. Buglers arrive – usually from the local Fire Brigade, but sometimes from the band of a Commonwealth military unit – and ready themselves. At 8 o’clock, the sound of brass fills the evening air, echoing off the gate’s vaulted stone ceiling. The Last Post is played. Silence falls. Participants gaze at the ground, into space, or at the rows and rows of names inscribed on the gate’s stonework – each one a Commonwealth soldier of the five battles of Ypres during the First World War, each one a body that has never been found or identified. There are fifty-four thousand of these names[1]. A minute passes. Then, the reveille sounds, the counterpoint to the Last Post. The sombre, almost stifling silence lifts. The ceremony ends. Sometimes, an extended ceremony takes place, with a laying of wreaths and the reading of an excerpt from Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

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The Menin Gate. Inscribed on the walls are the names of soldiers whose bodies have never been found or identified.

This ceremony will be familiar to most people who grew up in the United Kingdom, and indeed many other Commonwealth nations: it’s a similar ceremony to that which is held every Remembrance Day (11th November, the date of the signing of the Armistice that ended the fighting on the Western Front – almost a century ago at the time of writing). It commemorates the many thousands of soldiers who died fighting to defend Ypres during the First World War. It is held every day without fail; the only period it was not held was when Ypres was under Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1944, and the ceremony resumed in 1944 even as fighting to liberate the town continued in other parts of Ypres.

Battlefield 1’s Apocalypse DLC allows players to refight part of the 3rd Battle of Ypres, using guns, bayonets, grenades, gas, and mortars to kill digital facsimilies of those fallen soldiers for entertainment.

The ethical implications are… unclear, at best.

Entertainment products based on conflict are a difficult and grey area of public history. On the one hand the First World War was a devastating conflict that left millions dead, millions displaced, and caused an untold amount of suffering and individual and shared trauma; representing these things as a form of entertainment, considering this context, can feel somewhat uncomfortable. On the other hand, that same shared trauma makes the experience of conflict a powerful cultural touchstone by which societies and individuals can define themselves.

This dilemma is not restricted to the First World War; Indeed, fictionalised historical depictions of the Second World War – inarguably a larger and more devastating conflict – were produced as soon as the fighting stopped (in many cases as extensions of productions that had been ongoing during the war). The film The Longest Day, for example, was a Hollywood blockbuster telling the story of the D-Day landings – landings in which many of the billed cast took part[2]. Depictions of the First World War are rarer, and tend to take a melancholy or futile tone – but they do exist. It is relatively uncontroversial to depict historical conflicts in film, television, novels or comic books for entertainment’s sake. Does the addition of the interactivity of a video game change the nature of the depiction?

Let’s unpack this question: what is it that interactivity does to a work of fiction? While works of entertainment are inevitably a process of interpretation between author and audience to a greater or lesser extent[3], most entertainment assumes a relatively passive audience. A film audience cannot change the film, and is not capable of interacting with the film on a physical level: a Casablanca viewer cannot talk to Humphrey Bogart, cannot do anything but watch what the characters on-screen do. A novel reader must play out the character’s action in their mind, but, while they can imaginatively interpret the words of the novelist, and while a film viewer can fill in the gaps beyond the edges of the screen, a gamer is, by the very nature of the medium, invited to in some way participate in the historical construct with which they are presented. They are afforded agency, and may choose how they engage with the historical simulation the game puts before them. Thus we might say that a gamer is an author of the experience of playing a game – guided by designers, artists, and other developers, but still a knowing participant.

On the other hand, the agency of a player is, in a video game, inherently constrained by the game’s design. The player can express themselves and shape their experience, but only so far as the designer has provided options for them to so do. In a shooter, for example, it is impossible for the player to engage in any way other than via combat; while many games allow players to choose their tactics, weapons, methods, and approaches, they are still not able to engage in other ways. The ways in which designers can shape the view of history a player receives from a game will be explored in a future post, but suffice it to say that designers are ultimately responsible for shaping the ways in which players can author their own experiences in games. This means they’re also responsible for the portrayal of the past that exists in a game, and the ethical implications thereof, if there are any.

Is it unethical to present the deaths of the soldiers of the First World War as part of a gameplay loop for entertainment? The question of ethics in the presentation of the historical dead generally hinges on the idea of respect – that we should treat the dead well, not only by our own standards but by theirs. This is why, for instance, the skeleton of a roman teenage girl discovered under London’s Gherkin[4] was reburied buried in a ceremony involving both Christian priesthood and Roman libations, and why the granite monument to her bears an inscription referencing the ‘spirits of the dead’ in English and Latin. Even when we put human remains on display in museums, modern practice places a host of ethical restrictions on how those remains may be treated and displayed.

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The Tomb of the Unknown Roman Girl at 30 St. Mary’s Axe. Note how the tomb reflects Roman burial customs – mentioning the spirits of the dead, being a raised stone tomb rather than a burial plot, etc.

However, that’s the actual physical remains of specific individuals: is there such a responsibility in fictional depictions of the dead? If we’re talking about specific individuals, then most creators of fiction would say no; some would likely draw a distinction between the individual as a person who existed, and the character portrayed in fiction, even if that fiction is purporting to be a portrayal of the historical individual. With this being said, there is debate around the ethics of portraying specific individuals, even when those individuals are dead. Lindsay Ellis’ video on Mel Brooks and The Producers goes into the comparative ethics of portraying tyrants and genocidaires, and in the case of portraying individuals who caused great harm, there certainly is a school of thought that there is an ethical responsibility to not cause further harm by that portrayal. It also seems logical that there is a responsibility not to harm those who are still alive by fictional portrayals.

However, this question gets murkier when we step away from the portrayal of specific individuals or even fictionalised versions of specific individuals and move towards characters who are instead representative of broader historical groups. The soldiers in Battlefield 1 do not represent specific soldiers of the First World War – instead they are representative models that exist solely for the purpose of the game, evoking the armies portrayed rather than individuals. In this, the game inevitably sacrifices historical detail and context in the name of gameplay. Even so, the prospect of doing serious violence to representations of the war dead for fun is uncomfortable for many.

Is there a difference between these two portrayals? What is it?

It’s worth asking, at this point, whether this discomfort is a factor simply of being asked to do violence to a historical figure – a representation of someone who was once a living human – or whether it arises from historical proximity to the historical event being depicted. The First World War is an event which carries a great amount of historical significance in modern culture[5], and it holds a position in many countries as something of a sacred event[6]. Is it this sacredness that produces our ethical qualms, rather than an inherent respect for the dead? Is that sacredness a function of historical proximity?

I think it is, to some extent; certainly I felt far fewer qualms in, say, Assassin’s Creed: Origins than I did in Battlefield 1, despite the fact that Origins asked me to kill simulations of specific individuals. Is it ethically worse to produce a simulation where the player kills unnamed, anonymised soldiers of the First World War than it is to produce one where the player kills Julius Caesar? Are these two equivalent? Is there any moral quandary here, given that both are by definition fictional? I don’t have easy answers, but I suspect the reason we find one more difficult than the other has to do with the closeness of the one event and our cultural reactions to it.

[1] Fifty-four thousand is in fact not the full number of the dead whose bodies are missing; the names of another thirty-four thousand are inscribed at the nearby Tyne Cot cemetery.

[2] The standout example being Richard Todd, who played the part of Major John Howard, commanding officer of the British airborne operation to capture Pegasus Bridge. Todd himself fought in that operation, but declined filmmakers’ offer of playing himself.

[3] A novel may be defined, per Stephen King, as an act of telepathy where the author’s prose conjures an image in the reader’s mind, but television, theatre, and film all require some level of imaginative interpretation and contextualisation by the audience in order to make sense; it is easy for a movie to flash a “6th June, 1944” title card, but it takes an audience to assign meaning to that date and understand what the film is saying.

[4] 30 St. Mary’s Axe

[5] Indeed, the thesis of Battlefield 1, insofar as the game has a thesis, is that WWI was the point where the modern world – its conflicts, its divisions of power, its ideological struggles – came into being.

[6] The concept of ‘transfer of sacrality’ was first used by Mona Ozouf to describe the way French Revolutionary festivals sought to co-opt the institutional power and mystique of Catholic rituals in service of the new Republic, infusing secular institutions with sacred reverence. It is, I feel, highly applicable to the position remembrance services for the war dead hold in many nations – see the various Tombs of the Unknown in London, Paris, Arlington and elsewhere.

War as an aesthetic: Battlefield V and historical accuracy

Battlefield V’s debut trailer and pre-release coverage have been rather controversial. EA and DICE[1] revealed Battlefield V with a highly bombastic, action-packed trailer, following a squad of British soldiers (including a female sniper with a prosthetic arm,) through a series of action set-pieces: clearing a house of Germans, moving fast alongside a tank advance, holding off a German attack, and the impact of a V1 flying bomb.

This portrayal, EA’s marketing focus on customisation of player characters so soldiers look unique, and the reveal’s emphasis on high-octane action all contributed to accusations that the game was not hewing to the spirit of what it portrays: the Second World War.

Battlefield V’s Reveal Trailer

It is instantly obvious that this is not a depiction of a real engagement in WWII; the British Army did not deploy women in uniform in its frontline units, nor were V1s, Churchill tanks, or MG42s involved in the 1940 fighting around Escaut the trailer ostensibly depicts. A great deal of artistic licence has been used in order to produce a cinematic trailer and to highlight gameplay or customisation elements DICE wishes to emphasize. The trailer caused significant amounts of controversy within the series’ community, with much focus on the character models of the four soldiers. EA’s description of in-game customisation options has led to accusations that the game will lose its identity as a WWII game. These criticisms generally did not focus on the weaponry (with some exceptions – the cricket bat and katana melee weapons caused some comment) or the vehicles, but on the visual customisation. Why is it specifically these elements that caused controversy, when many other elements of the game are equally inaccurate?

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Battlefield V heavily emphasises player customisation, especially visual customisation, allowing players to create their own personalised soldiers – even when this makes them impausible in the context of WWII.

Battlefield is not an accurate depiction of historical or contemporary conflict, nor has it ever been. DICE have always been open about the fact that their aim is to create an interesting sandbox for players by drawing from their inspirations – modern war in the case of Battlefields 3 and 4, the First World War in the case of Battlefield 1, and now WWII in Battlefield V. This does not generally generate a great deal of controversy; realistic shooter games exist, but the loosened realism of the series has always let it attract gamers who are interested in fast gameplay and action rather than the slower pace of many more realistic games. When it comes to historical representation, the series has always taken inspiration from past events rather than aim for hyper-faithful depiction.

This appears to be true of Battlefield V, judging from its pre-release footage and the gameplay that was displayed in its closed Alpha[3]. DICE’s marketing line is that Battlefield V is all about World War 2 as you’ve never seen it before”, and that the game will take players to lesser-known or underexplored areas of the war. From a public history perspective, the effect appears to be two-fold: in exploring less-depicted fronts and theatres, DICE can distinguish the game from its competitors and provide fresh experiences to players, while at the same time letting players learn about a wider scope of the war, not simply highly-depicted snapshots that are frequently seen in movies, tv, and other games.

However, the gameplay itself rests upon a highly inaccurate depiction of what combat in the Second World War was like[4], with soldiers being able to take multiple bullets before being disabled, revived with a single adrenaline injection, heal and resupply themselves mid-fight, quickly repair vehicles in combat, operate machine guns single-handed, et cetera. It’s clear that DICE is prioritising fast-moving action-packed gameplay over a realistic depiction of infantry combat and tactics in the Second World War[5].

An example of Battlefield V’s gameplay

It’s in this light we must examine the inaccuracies at the heart of the controversy: female soldiers. While the British Army and Wehrmacht deploying large numbers of female combatants in uniform on the front lines is greatly implausible, it is not more implausible than those same armies deploying V1 and JB-2 flying bombs at the Battle of Narvik, as the Alpha depicts, or indeed a host of late-war weapons and equipment that postdate that engagement. As previously noted, the gameplay itself is a construct designed for fun, not one designed to reflect real historical tactics and practices. Why, then, is the presence of female soldiers at Narvik more immediately obvious as a ‘wrong element’ than the presence of a Churchill Tank (which first saw action two full years after Narvik)?

My contention is twofold: first, the precise service histories of weapons and equipment are not a subject of which most casual players or viewers have much knowledge[6], whereas the fact that most armies in the war did not deploy women to frontline combat is well-known. It’s therefore understandable that a casual viewer would understand one element as obviously wrong rather than both. However, this element also appears to have caused controversy among gamers with a passion for the Second World War, who we can presume know that the Sturmgewehr 44 entered service in 1944 and should thus not be present in 1940. It therefore seems that there is a greater reason than simple inaccuracy causing this objection[7].

The reason, I suspect, stems from the Battlefield series’ approach to depicting conflict. Earlier I said that the games do not restrict themselves to realistic depiction, but instead draw from contemporary and historical conflicts to provide a framework for gameplay. Specifically, I would argue that the Battlefield series (and many, many other shooters) draw from an aesthetic of conflict rather than necessarily the conflict itself. This is greatly obvious when one examines the previous game in the series, Battlefield 1.

Battlefield 1’s Reveal Trailer. Note the differences in style from V’s.

Like Battlefield V, Battlefield 1 is not an accurate depiction of its subject matter. Its vision of the First World War draws heavily from the period, but it favours interesting or rare weaponry or equipment in order to frame its gameplay. Rather than the mass assault principally with bolt-action rifles, combat in Battlefield 1 is very similar to the combat found in the series’ modern-day instalments, with automatic weaponry common, and most players carrying weapons that were produced in very limited numbers or in several cases only existed as prototypes. What Battlefield 1 does do, however, is reinforce a culturally-understood aesthetic of the First World War. Many maps depict the Western Front, and those that do not, import elements of it: gas is a common weapon, even in environments where it was sparsely used; Mark V Tanks battle German A7Vs on fronts neither ever saw, and early-war battles involve the use of Fokker triplanes and Gotha Bombers, despite these being late-war innovations. We must therefore view the series’ approach to history as using a historical aesthetic to frame a shooter game, rather than crafting a shooter from historical reality.

The important point here is that the ‘understood aesthetic’ of historical conflicts often only bears a passing resemblance to their reality, due to other entertainment depictions, entrenched narratives that historiography has moved past but which still are accepted by the public, and a lack of understanding of the length of periods. This is true for almost all periods of history; the image we have of the ‘Victorian era’, for instance, will inevitably sandwich together elements from the full length of the period, despite it constituting a lifetime’s length of rapid change[8].

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The female British soldier in the reveal trailer. Note the prosthetic arm.
The Second World War has a very strongly-entrenched cultural aesthetic, especially in videogame depictions. Hundreds of games have allowed players to step into the shoes of soldiers on the front lines of the war, and many have bent history to provide players interesting weapons and equipment, and to make design simpler. It is difficult from a design perspective to restrict weapons on a given map to those which were actually used in the theatre or engagement that map depicts while maintaining the game’s balance and gameplay loops, and it is frustrating for players if their favourite weapon is taken away simply because of a map’s mise-en-scene.  Thus many games reinforce the perception that certain elements were ubiquitous when they were not, and contribute to the cultural aesthetic of WWII, despite that aesthetic not matching historical reality.

Battlefield V appears to follow the same trajectory, but it makes greater departures from that understood aesthetic than many other games in terms of player customisation. While a Sturmgewehr might be a part of the war’s cultural aesthetic, female soldiers are not, so the latter element stands out as wrong despite being no more wrong than the former. Our reactions to media depicting history is governed as much by ourselves and the preconceptions we bring to that media as by the media’s actual plausibility[9]. It is worth remembering this when we discuss the accuracy of given videogames.

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A WWII prosthetic arm. Sometimes real, accurate items can violate the understood aesthetic of a period. This is sometimes called the Aluminium Christmas Tree effect.
Battlefield V’s employment of this historical aesthetic, and its cheerful preference for player options and interesting gameplay over historical plausibility, however, puts it somewhat at odds with one of the game’s stated objectives: to increase awareness of lesser-known portions of the war. In positioning themselves simultaneously as some kind of historical educators and also purveyors of interesting gameplay cadging an aesthetic, DICE have set themselves a fine tightrope to walk. They must simultaneously get details right (and they do, in many cases; the sound design and visual details of most things depicted in the game are spot-on) and disregard details in the name of fun.

DICE have historically paid great attention to small details in the Battlefield series, producing games that are rich in verisimilitude but low on realism.

The backlash over the reveal can be taken as a consequence of getting this balance wrong. Battlefield V is about World War II as you’ve never seen it before, because it depicts World War II as it never existed. Whether or not this is a problem for the game depends on the individual player. Where should players and developers draw the line? How far can a game go before it ceases to be a meaningful representation of a period? Is accuracy, ultimately, a goal worth pursuing?

[1] Publisher and Developer of the Battlefield series respectively.

[3] A limited public release to allow gamers to try the game, and allow developers to tune gameplay and test servers.

[4] This is not necessarily a problem. ‘Accuracy’ as a metric for public historians is common, and pointing out things that entertainment gets ‘wrong’ is something many public historians do (indeed, it’s something many people with a knowledge of history do for fun; nit-picking can be highly enjoyable). However, I feel it is, perhaps, an unhelpful metric. For a start, it is absolute: even the most ardent postmodernist will generally agree that there was a single progression of past events that actually happened.

Therefore, historical fiction, due to its nature as fiction, is inaccurate by definition. What we are instead discussing when we talk about ‘accuracy’ is perhaps better called plausibility. We are assessing a likelihood that a given element could have existed in the past in the way in which it is depicted in a work of fiction, and that is inherently an interpretation.

[5] Indeed, the series markets itself partially on this exaggerated version of reality; ‘only-in-Battlefield’ moments of sudden, implausible chaos have been a touchstone for developers and community for years. Battlefield V‘s trailer appears to have been designed to showcase this.

[6] I, for example, had to look up the Churchill’s history for this post.

[7] It is worth questioning whether this controversy would have existed had the trailer depicted female Soviet soldiers on the eastern front.

[8] A prime example of this ‘sandwiching’ in entertainment is the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which depicts the East India Company being a global corporate superpower in the early 18th century Caribbean, while one movie’s foray to London depicts George II as an elderly king, with port Royal being the capital of Jamaica.

[9] Literary criticism calls the melange of preconceptions, cultural understandings, and personal feelings and ideas a viewer brings to a piece of media ‘paratext’.

Pedagogy and Reflection: Assassin’s Creed: Origins’ Discovery Tour

The greatest strength of the Assassin’s Creed games has long been their detailed rendition of a historical world. The series’ open-world structure allows players to roam an intricate facsimile of past locations, whether those be 15th-century Florence, Revolutionary Paris, or, in the most recent entry, Assassin’s Creed: Origins, Egypt during the civil war between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy. While obviously not to scale, and designed to conform to the needs of gameplay as well as history, Origins’ digital Egypt garnered significant, and deserved, praise from both gamers and historians on the game’s release.

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Origins’ digital Egypt is richly detailed, from details of hieroglyphics to the process of breadmaking. Where Origins and previous Creed games used these details as set dressing, Discovery Tour puts them front and centre.

While previous games came with an in-game encyclopaedia which would pop up to provide information about specific landmarks, characters, or social norms at certain points in the world, Origins lacks this feature. Instead, several months after release, Ubisoft released Discovery Tour: Ancient Egypt, a version of Origins with its combat, missions, enemies, and most other gameplay loops disabled[1]. Rather than Origins’ extended adventure, Discovery Tour is a digital exhibition. The mode is structured around 75 ‘tours’ within the game world, which prompt the player to move through a specific part of the environment and interact with ‘stations’ which provide voiced and text commentary, often with a relevant image – a digital version of a museum’s information board, as shown below:

These provide a tour through specific locations within the game explaining their historical counterparts, or on specific topics about life in Ptolemaic Egypt. Topics range from the construction of Alexandria and the fashion and beauty standards of Egyptians to the Roman army and its fortified camps and the development of Egyptology as a discipline. This wide range gives the mode a pleasing depth – whilst most tours are light on historiographical detail, going through the mode in full does provide a sense of the breadth of scholarship consulted in making Origins. Most can be completed in five to ten minutes; this, along with Discovery Tour’s reduced price-point, makes it accessible to greater audiences than the full game. The mode was explicitly designed by Ubisoft as a pedagogical tool[2], to help teach the history of Ancient Egypt and interest young people in history. In this, it’s a classic piece of Public History outreach, adapted to the tools of the videogame industry.

 

This contrasts strongly with the previous method of disseminating historical information in the Assassin’s Creed games. The in-game encyclopaedia that existed in previous games was integrated into the series’ framing narrative as an in-universe document, written to give the modern-day protagonist context for their digital exploration of the past. While it often included a great deal of factual information, it also mostly concerned itself with physical landmarks or broad-level political trends, and was delivered entirely in text form. Discovery Tour, in situating its tours in audio within the game world and encouraging the player to explore and observe NPCs[3] going about daily life, provides a greater context for the interpretation players are given. One of the most enjoyable activities in past Creed games has always been simply exploring its worlds and observing the crowd (with my personal high-point for this being Assassin’s Creed Unity and its exquisitely detailed Paris). Leveraging this strength for education purposes means Discovery Tour works on a level the encyclopaedia did not.

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The splash screen displayed when the player first starts Discovery Tour.

The most interesting parts of Discovery Tour, however, are the parts where tours provide detail into the process of constructing the game world itself. Sometimes these detail the technical challenges of creating the game, but some address the decisions around what to represent in the game and how. Origins and Discovery Tour are not 1:1 scale depictions of Egypt; that would be unfeasible at the level of fidelity the game aims for, and would negatively impact gameplay. Therefore, Ubisoft needed to make decisions about what to depict, at what scale and level of detail, as well as decide on interpretations as to what things looked like – always difficult when dealing with the ancient world. Discovery Tour’s occasional forays into uncovering this decision-making process are fascinating from a Public History perspective, for several reasons. First, they situate Discovery Tour itself within the historiography of Ancient Egypt, showing the game not simply as an entertainment product using the past as an aesthetic, but a self-aware depiction of the human past[4]. Second, they uncover why certain decisions were made, making it possible to discuss the game’s depiction of the past in terms beyond the simplistic dichotomy of accuracy and inaccuracy. While this is not a particularly common occurrence within Discovery Tour, exposing why decisions were made allows us to discuss the game’s depiction of the past in the context of the production of a video game, and the context of the game mechanics themselves.

This sort of thing is not new in the production of historical fiction: it is commonplace for an author to include a historical note at the back of a book, explaining where history differs from their depiction. ‘Making-of’ documentaries for film and television (and, indeed, for video games) expose the process of decision-making about fictional depictions of the past. Discovery Tour’s example is interesting, though, because Discovery Tour itself is not a piece of historical fiction (beyond the fictionalised nature of its world), but a piece of public history in its own right. Discovery Tour’s insights into production do not just shed light on the process of producing Origins, but the process and decisions that went into Discovery Tour’s own production. This is not necessarily an innovation, but it is somewhat uncommon in the context of educational and heritage products. The authority behind educational material is often invisible; interpretation is simply presented, without discussion of whose interpretation it is and the process of constructing it. While Discovery Tour does this as well, the glimpses of self-reflection and self-discussion are both unexpected and exciting.

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The brief glimpses Discovery Tour provides into both Origins and Discovery Tour‘s production are fascinating and unusual.

More insight into the decisions going into Origins itself are an interesting possibility that Discovery Tour does not greatly leverage. Interactive reflection on the construction of a game is possible; notably, Valve’s Portal contains an interactive ‘developer’s commentary’ mode which dots interaction points similar to Discovery Tour’s stations via a playthrough of the game. This is a neat way to provide commentary on an interactive experience, and could be used to provide commentary (rather than simple historical information) on specific parts of the game world, aspects of the story, and on game mechanics. In a series that has previously generated controversy due to its depiction of the past (notably being criticised by a member of the French National Assembly for Unity’s depiction of the French Revolution), this could be a useful insight into the interpretation the game takes and the reasons for it. However, it is difficult to fault Discovery Tour for this: it is not, after all, a commentary on Origins.

What does all this mean for public history? If looked at simply as a game, then Discovery Tour is an interesting extension of an existing product. If looked at as a public history product, however, Discovery Tour hints at new and exciting possibilities. The series’ historical advisor has stated that “We want the Discovery Tour to be accessible for anyone”, but the mode does more than that: it widens the possibilities of participation in heritage more generally. Visiting Egypt is not an easy thing for most people to do due to geographical, political, and financial restrictions; neither is visiting many Egyptian artefacts not currently in Egypt. While heritage institutions are beginning to experiment with digital reconstruction and interactive exhibitions, these are generally restricted to on-site experiences.

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Discovery Tour not only provides information about ancient Egypt, but also elaborates on the process of archaeology and research that provided its information.

At most museums or heritage sites, an online catalogue of artefacts or a Google Maps tour of the site is the best one can expect, meaning that those who can’t get to these places are effectively locked out of participation. Discovery Tour lowers that bar: whilst it requires specific hardware and an entry point, it is a detailed, carefully-crafted experience that the public can experience in their own home. Rather than being built to enhance a museum, it is built to stand on its own: not necessarily to replace the museum, but to serve those museums cannot.

In addition, the mode can reach places heritage institutions cannot. While museums and other institutions can offer outreach programmes to classrooms and educators, Discovery Tour can be used by teachers at any time, can be folded into a broader curriculum without requiring outside trips or organising visits. The interactive nature of the mode brings the past to life in a way that is especially crucial for young students – and the breadth of topics can help engage the entire classroom. Using historical fiction and documentaries are already a useful tool for teachers; in marrying the immersive qualities of video games and the informational rigour of the museum, Discovery Tour reveals a whole new world of pedagogical aid.

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This year’s Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey has no Discovery Tour announced. Hopefully, Ubisoft will continue and expand the format.

What Discovery Tour uncovers is the possibility of doing interactive public history at a scale much larger than most attempts, and that approaching the problem from the side of the games industry rather than the heritage industry has significant benefits: Discovery Tour would not be able to have its level of fidelity and detail had it been a project divorced from Assassin’s Creed. For the video game industry (and indeed for historical fiction more generally), it reveals the possibilities of detailed self-reflection and the way interpretation can be communicated. I hope that Ubisoft continues producing these modes, and that the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is followed by its own Discovery Tour.

[1] This was a free update for existing players and cost £15 if bought as a standalone

[2] Discovery Tour is described in Ubisoft’s statements as “a way to make the game more accessible to teachers and students”.

[3] Non-Player Characters

[4] More on this topic in future posts

Playgrounds in the past?

Last month, the video game industry threw its annual announcement party: E3. Most major publishers streamed reveal events across the internet, showing gameplay, trailers, and announcements for the games they’re releasing in the near future, ranging from family-friendly party games to immersive open-world experiences to multiplayer-drive shooters. One subject matter, however, appeared at nearly every conference, in a diverse array of games: history.

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Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, one of many historical games announced recently. The use of the past as a gameplay sandbox is a series staple.

The human past has always been a deep and compelling well from which to draw inspiration for entertainment, and video games are no exception. From Battlefield V’s customisable WWII to Ghost of Tsushima’s Kurosawa-inspired Samurai tale to Total War: Three Kingdoms’ vision of ancient Chinese heroic epic, E3 showed very clearly that the video game industry, like all other entertainment media, is invested in providing historical narrative – and in using history to drive its own.

Historical fiction – as we must categorise all these games, even if they do not necessarily always conform to traditional ideas of what ‘historical fiction’ is – is always a controversial topic among historians and historical enthusiasts. Arguments over accuracy, slip-ups, misrepresentation, or disagreements with the interpretation of historical evidence, follow every hit piece of historical fiction. What good historical fiction should be and do – whether it should strive for accuracy over storytelling, whether it should cleave to the world it’s portraying or ‘translate’ for a modern audience, whether it damages the integrity of the historical profession – is a debate that public historians[1] seem to always be engaged in.

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Battlefield V has caused controversy over its depiction of the Second World War – but is it striving for accuracy, and does that matter?

In the case of video games, however, there exists another dimension that I believe changes the conversation around historical fiction in a number of interesting ways: interactivity. A historical film allows us to see the past, and a novel allows us to see what people were thinking[2], but video games allow us to interact with the past, or at least a modern construction of it. It is possible to walk Cleopatra’s Alexandria, to wander the Old West, to not simply understand how historical figures thought but place ourselves in their situation and make those decisions ourselves.

Of course, these are constructions, as I’ve previously noted. Like all historical fiction (and indeed all history itself), video games are a constructive interpretation of the past – but one that influences a skyrocketing number of people. That means public historians need to grapple with the questions that the portrayal of history in video games raises – and so do developers.

I’m a public historian; this blog is a final project for my MA. I’m not the first historian to talk about this topic: Kapell and Elliott’s Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, and Chapman’s Digital Games as History both provide a platform for academics and public historians to analyse the particular issues and difficulties of historical representation in video games, including interactivity, simulation, remembrance, and narrative. My purpose here is twofold: one, I hope to help spread this discussion to a wider audience within developers and the gaming community, using contemporary examples; two, I hope to make my own contribution to these discussions and move them forward.

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Total War: Three Kingdoms allows players to strategise and remake history – but how can it walk the line between history and romanticism, given its fictionalised inspiration?

E3 2018 was in many ways a microcosm of these discussions: ongoing debate over the levels of customisation in historical shooters exemplified by Battlefield V; the question of whether to emphasise history or narrative in Total War: Three Kingdoms; the translating of a complex period into a multiplayer sandbox in Skull & Bones. How we respond to these topics, both as public historians and/or as gamers, will influence the future of both disciplines.

[1] That is, historians who work not solely in original research, but in the communication of history to the public

[2] Or at least, what the creators of these works thought they were thinking