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.

menin_gate
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.

girl201
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?

28547200188_a580ec0d66_b
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].

maxresdefault[1]
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.

9aa734f997e3a56aa4132666b3b3fdf7[1]
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.

39168908302_626a581a19_b

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.

36810579_1779042612172245_3191324339181977600_o
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.

37293801_1795384677204705_4440140940111249408_o

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.

36718444_1779042632172243_7428601707476549632_o

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.

5afda5f788a7e34d25b5012f-1
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.

5afda5f788a7e34d25b5012f-1
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.

28547200188_a580ec0d66_b
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.

sc03_0020_v002_1515583103_copy
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