Over a month ago I wrote a piece for Arcade Attack that discussed history and video games. I realise, now, that I might have started off my series of blogs with a pessimistic view of how history is represented in gaming (the idea of teaching people “wrong” history). However, I want to reassure readers that I do genuinely like historical video games and believe they are an important tool for teaching and exposing people to history. In my personal opinion, historical video games do two things:
Firstly, games can never really teach “wrong” history (within reason). History itself can never really be “wrong”. As I noted in my last blog, historians selectively pick and choose evidence to create their own perceptions of the past (this is what History is), we miss important evidence or discover long lost documents that cause us to rethink history. As historians, moreover, we are consistently questioning and analysing established history. Although it can take years to teach would be historians to question history, historical video games already imbed subjects in their games that cause players to constantly question established high school history books – most controversial is the discussions surrounding women occupying established male history in gaming. In addition, video games help teach the theory that history is not a linear line of destiny. Video Games allow players to interact with the historical worlds, change the fate of historical characters and completely change the ending of the game. Players are always doing history (in a way you are creating history) rather than simply watching it or reading it. A player, unlike many historians, understands that history didn’t just happen because of fate, but because of the different effects people had on history. “What if” scenarios are rampant in video games – from games questioning “what if Sweden conquered the entire world?” to “What if Hitler never rose to power and a Russian Tim Curry helps you fight Japanese mecha robots?” – and are great examples (no matter how silly) of how games really do cause players to subconsciously understand that history has no set path and that anything could have been possible.
Let me start my second argument with an anecdote of my own experience with gaming. I’m unsure what modern pre-secondary school education in like, or what education is like outside of Britain, but much of the history I now study, and love, is history I was never taught in school. The medieval fantasy worlds in Simon the Sorcerer and King’s Quest or the pirates in Monkey Island all had me investing hours into historical worlds, all while ignoring my homework on Florence Nightingale. This is not to say that Florence Nightingale is boring or should not be a subject in schools – my personal opinions on this vary – but my first real exposure to the history that I love came through video gaming. Now, considering the majority of households in the Western World have a gaming PC, smartphone or gaming console, I cannot help but feel that many children (and adults) are having the same experience I had. Many children probably fell asleep after an hour of their teachers droning on about children being sent to farms during WW1. Yet, they spend hours charging a Viking head-on into brutal early medieval battles. Thus, historical video games are important because they allow people to interact and engage with a variety of historical settings they would have never have otherwise known about. This, in turn, encourages interest in a variety of histories, and could possibly lead to academic interest in these historical settings, like it did with me. Hell, I’d consider it a win if the player looked up some extra information on Wikipedia or went to Reddit to discuss and question the history (leading back into the first argument).
To conclude on a high note, compared to my last blog post, historical video games are an amazing tool for the new and enthusiastic wave of historians. They teach us complicated historical analysis, without even knowing it, they allow us to interact with a variety of historical worlds we might possibly have never heard of, and they likely have other positive effects I didn’t discuss. I really do mean it this time when I say “just have fun with your older games” because you’re probably getting a little more than just fun out of them.
Sources of interest:
Brown, H. J. (2008). Videogames and education. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe.
Chapman, A. (2016). Digital games as history: How videogames represent the past and offer access to historical practice. New York: Routledge.
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 M. Kapell, & A.B.R Elliott (eds.), Playing with the past: Digital games and the simulation of history (1st ed.) (Pp.1-30). London: Bloomsbury Academic.
McCall, J. (2016). Teaching history with digital historical games: An introduction to the field and best practices. Simulation & Gaming, 47(4), Pp. 517-542.
Schut, K. (2007). Strategic simulations and our past: The bias of computer games in the presentation of history. Games and Culture, 2(3), Pp. 213-235.