Historical video games, we’ve all played them, we all love them. But how accurate are they and what is lying beneath the surface? Our friend Dos Gaming starts to unravel it all in this lovely guest post. And if you like this why not check out the Dos Gaming YouTube channel.
E.H. Carr, in his work What Is History?, compares history to fish on a fishmonger’s slab. Moreover, every type of fish – cod, haddock, that suspicious looking “deep sea delight”, etc… – represents different pieces of historical evidence left behind for us to use when creating history. The historian, then, takes the fish home and prepares them in whatever style appeals to their tastes. In other words, when a historian produces history, they can only work with the material presented to them – with the added implication that not every fish suited the taste buds of that historian. What, however, does this have to do with video games (I say to myself knowing a few of you probably thought you accidentally clicked on your homework)? Well, if a historian picks and chooses what they want for their seafood salad, we can probably compare the role of a video game designers to that of a flee on a mouse (the mouse being the other popular media – books, movies, television shows – eating up the left-over scraps from the historian).
When a game designer produces a historically themed game they are often forced to pick and choose evidence handed down to them through history books and, more likely, popular media. The historical evidence, therefore, has been filtered down through a variety of sources and, as you so often find, altered to suit the tastes of modern consumers (both popular media and historians are guilty of selecting and choosing history for their own needs). For instance, you rarely find a game designer scrounging through medieval chronicles to be inspired by Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122 – 1204) demanding that she be killed if the enemy successfully takes the city. Scenes of medieval women demanding death as the enemy breaks down the doors, furthermore, have become cliché and repeated so many times – a few scenes from Game of Thrones come to mind – that there is no reason for game designers to examine the primary evidence. Yet, we take these scenes for granted, because they have been repeated so often. When, moreover, we see a woman in a game begging for death (with the added dimension that we are often more immersed in these game worlds than we do movies/books) we don’t question the historical accuracy, and neither do the developers. We personally, without being told or doing the historical research ourselves, believe that women begging for death were a gruesome reality of the medieval period – did we just presume it’s accurate because the popular media told us so?
However, what happens when the popular media twist the truth and give us a fabricated reality? A great, and popular, example would be the movie Braveheart. Andrew Elliot talks about the historical accuracy (and authenticity) of Braveheart in more depth but as a sample of the inaccuracies seen in the movies, we only have to go so far as to look at the iconic tartan style worn by William Wallace (played by Mel Gibson) in the movie. The iconic tartan look, likewise, is something repeated in many video games inspired by the movie Braveheart. Moreover, I personally remember it from the Team Fortress 2 Demoman Braveheart cosplayers who wield ‘Eyelander’ swords while wearing the ‘Cool Breeze’ tartan cosmetic and screaming Braveheart quotes. Yet, tartan, as a style, was not invented until 300 years after William Wallace and you would probably be surprised to learn that Wallace would have been indistinguishable from any other medieval knight in armour. Nevertheless, we see an iconic Scottish figure fabricated and repeated by the popular media. After years of exposure from multiple sources, it is no wonder that we start to accept a reality that never was (it helps that he looks stereotypically Scottish, but this is an argument for another time). Thus, you cannot help but wonder what else has been changed, adapted and completely fabricated by the popular media that we take for granted as real.
When you grew up on and spent hours immersed in the medieval worlds of games like Kings Quest, Crusader Kings, and Stronghold, how much misinformation was fed to you that you now have a definitive idea of a medieval world that never existed? Did people use swords all the time? Were daughters nothing more than bargaining chips? Did falling over cats in the middle ages lead to death? Is any world fed to us, even by historians, an accurate representation of any historical setting? What is accuracy? These are all things I will expand upon in further articles but for now, I want you to replay your old games and think: “Am I playing in a shadow of reality?”. But, also, don’t get too consumed by it all and just have fun with your older games.
Carr, E.H. What Is History?, p.9. As cited in Elliott, A.B.R & Kapell, M.W. (2013). ‘Introduction: To Build a Past That Will “Stand the Test of Time” – Discovering Historical Facts, Assembling Historical Narratives. In Kapell, M. & Elliott, A. B. R. (eds.). Playing with the past: Digital games and the simulation of history (1st ed.) (Pp.1-30). London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Elliot, A.B.R. (2012). Historical Spaces as Narrative Mapping Collective Memory onto Cinematic Space. Media Fields Journal no. 5. Pp. 1-15.
Joinville. & Shaw, M. R. B (Trans.). (1985). Joinville & Villehardouin Chronicles of the Crusade. New York: Dorset Press.