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

4 thoughts on “Playgrounds in the past?”

  1. Can we actually ‘understand how historical figures thought but place ourselves in their situation and make those decisions ourselves.’ given that our decisions will be informed by hindsight and modern mores and thinking? I can’t for a minute begin to understand how a Tudor woman thought for example, as my education, expectations and experience are so different.

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    1. From my experience you’re not going to get someone directly into the head of a Tudor woman for the reasons you describe. But historical games (especially strategy games, management games, or board games) are most instructive when they ask their players how -they- would behave and then demonstrating the consequences of that decision. It’s education by counterfactuals.

      “John Company” is a recent board game that doubles as a historical editorial. The game depicts the rise and fall of the East India Company, with the players assuming the roles of family dynasties within the company. The designer chose to tie victory to each family’s “honor” which is mostly gained when individual members retire. In addition, the players and the company have independent treasuries, so the game experience is embezzling money to raise your social standing, or sabotaging the company to prevent other families from catching up.

      So while I might not be experiencing the sum of life decisions that made Larkins the Elder the man he was, I’m presented with similar dilemmas and rewards and being asked to make decisions- hopefully making the past a little better than it was.

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      1. Indeed! My treatment of strategy games will engage with this topic, and I think education by counterfactuals, as you cogently name it, is a powerful tool for communicating historical thought processes. This is especially true when designers tailor the methods of player engagement to the worldview of the character the player is ostensibly portraying, as in, say, Crusader Kings 2, where the hierarchies of medieval feudalism are hard-coded into the way you interact with other characters.

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  2. This is a fascinating subject. Playing a game set entirely in a fictional world where there are no rules or boundaries has been a successful strategy, however, it is hardly surprising that it has been an equally successful formula to bound the gaming experience in an historical setting and allow gamers to play with historical what ifs. This of course is not new, historical, board games have attracted those with an interest in history and exploring alternative outcomes for decades, if not longer. Video games can allow those with an interest in history to take this exploration further. Being offered the opportunity to put one self in the place of a historical figure can be very enticing and has proved a successful strategy for selling games. it will be very interesting to follow how you develop some of the themes surrounding this interesting area.

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