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.
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 seem to always be engaged in.
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, 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.
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.
 That is, historians who work not solely in original research, but in the communication of history to the public
 Or at least, what the creators of these works thought they were thinking