History as a video game
Video games are shaping what people know about the past. Should we be concerned?
I spent much of the past two weeks involved with the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, where I am a Presidential Counselor (i.e., advisory board member). I traveled to the museum for a series of meetings about the museum’s future—which due to its remarkable leadership remains on solid footing despite heavy losses during the Covid-19 pandemic and Hurricane Ida. (I put together a short highlight reel of my visit, you can watch it on Instagram). And last week, I participated in a multi-day conference on WWII memory called “Memory Wars,” moderating a panel on how WWII video games shape public memory of the Second World War.
How video games affect public understandings of history is a topic I’m still wrapping my head around. So, I thought I would take some time in this week’s newsletter to ruminate out loud, recognizing I still have much to learn.
Speaking of traveling and speaking, April will be a busy month for book talks about History, Disrupted. Ten events are scheduled, with one having already occurred (a book talk at my alma mater, The George Washington University). Other events include talks at West Chester University, University of Virginia and the University of Oklahoma; delivering the annual Hewlett Lecture for the Society for Historians in the Federal Government; and appearing on the Reddit Ask Historians podcast and the New Books Network podcast. All events are listed on my Instagram feed. Want me to speak at your institution? Book me through my website.
I’ll also be on NPR again, this time on the show Town Hall hosted by Baltimore’s NPR station WYPR. We’ll be talking about my book and how its themes manifest themselves in the media coverage of Ukraine. Catch me live on Monday, April 4th from 12:00 – 12:45 pm ET.
Also, a few weeks ago I was interviewed by the former editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine Moises Naim for his television show Efecto Naim, which broadcasts in 23 countries to over 10 million viewers. The program aired on Sunday, April 3rd, and is now available online. Watch a trailer for my episode on Twitter.
Finally, the American Association for State and Local History has launched a new podcast miniseries called “Reframing History” and I am thrilled to be one of the co-hosts. The six-part miniseries examines different ways we communicate about the past in our current media and political landscape. Listen to episode 1, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
NOW, BACK TO VIDEO GAMES…
The video game industry is the largest entertainment industry in the world. An estimated two billion people play games, making gaming larger than film, television, radio, podcasting, professional sports or museums. And just like film and television, video games regularly adapt and appropriate elements of the past.
The universe of these historical video games is large and diverse. The game Brukel is based on the memories of an elderly woman who survived WWII on a Belgian farm. Warsaw allows players to simulate taking part in the Warsaw uprising of 1944. A Holocaust video game called The Light in the Darkness is set during a round-up of French Jews in 1942. The Medal of Honor series allows players to participate in both the Allied European assault and Pacific assault. There is a Making History game series set during WWII; a WWII Bunker Simulator; a decisive battles of WWII game series, including the battle of Normandy; a Blitzkrieg series; a combat flight series; an air combat series; submarine simulators; naval simulators; tank simulators; a sniper elite series; a Brothers in Arms series; and hundreds more. There are also video games set during the Iranian Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, the Transatlantic Slave Trade, in colonial Africa, the American West, and a game that simulates working at a former slave plantation. There is even a video game developed by the tribal council of the Iñupiat peoples of Northern Alaska to perpetuate their history and culture, called Never Alone. Much like the Web and social media, the past presents a near infinite number of stories and scenarios from which to generate content.
This resonates with History, Disrupted, even if video games do not feature in it. In the book, I talk about the mass re-packaging of past events for consumption on the Web done by historians, journalists, activists, hobbyists, teachers, high school students, Russian disinformation agents and artificial intelligence. One could (and probably should) add video game designers to the list. In particular, this universe of “past-play”—a term coined by scholars Aris Politopoulos and Angus Mol—seems to fit within the chapter of my book called “The Visual Past.” In that chapter I argue that the visual past has a reality-suggesting function that is heavily curated; the visual past offers a ‘good-enough’ historical understanding wrapped in a visually arresting package. War games—like war Instagram accounts—typify this form of e-history, using sophisticated graphics and artwork to create cinematic, visually-arresting imagery that offer a “good-enough” historical depiction. And like so many Instagram e-history accounts, video game e-history relies heavily on a view of history that centers on armed conflicts. e-history presents history as being about big wars and cataclysmic moments, not the everyday life in between.
Video games also fall into the category of “The Storytelling Past,” a later chapter in the book. This form of e-history seeks to activate emotions and curiosity, relying on human interest, wonder and storytelling as opposed to rigorous scholarly argument. Indeed, as much as they rely on stunning visuals, the most compelling history video games also rely on engaging storylines. In this respect they borrow from movies, and indeed in the late 1990s, Stephen Spielberg himself, fresh off of “Saving Private Ryan,” lent his cinematic expertise to developing the Dreamworks Interactive game Medal of Honor, which was eventually sold to Electronic Arts. One of the producers on that game was Peter Hirschmann, who was a panelist for our conversation at the National WWII Museum.
During our panel (linked in the YouTube video above ☝️), Peter spoke about how the Medal of Honor series intended to introduce younger audiences to the basics of World War II, a generation of students who perhaps did not learn about the war as part of their formal history education. In Peter’s estimation, video games—along with movies—have played an important role in keeping World War II memory alive, at least in the United States. Another panelist, Nicholas Moran, an employee at WarGaming.net agreed, addressing the question of historical accuracy head-on. “Historical accuracy is something that will be accommodated, if possible,” Nicholas said, quoting a movie director he once met. “But if necessary for the success of the overall operation it must be sacrificed.” Video games first and foremost had to be fun and popular in order to be commercially viable. They were not meant to be judged on their historical accuracy or educational merits. “You don’t learn history from the game,” Nicholas said. “You learn it outside the game.” That was why video game producers partnered with museums; game companies brought users and fun, and museums brought visitors and educational content. Video games were meant to be a gateway into learning, not learning itself.
There is some evidence to back up this assertion. In one study, 93 percent of respondents to a survey reported that video games inspired them to learn more about a historical person or event. And one professor found that when he based his history course at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville around a video game his enrollments increased to 60 students from 12 students. While both anecdotes are encouraging, they’re too small a sample size to know definitively whether video games are a remedy for the declines in history enrollments, history majors and reading of history books in the U.S. For those who’ve read my book, you know that despite the promises of e-history being a gateway to further learning, I could not find convincing evidence that e-history actually improves the overall state of history education or the history profession.
In part, this is because all e-history, including gaming, has darker sides. These are aspects that the video game industry does not like to dwell upon because it is bad for business, but they were articulated during our panel by Bob Whitaker, a professor of history at Colin College who also runs a YouTube channel devoted to history gaming called History Respawned. History gaming includes a lot of heroism around the Allied cause but it does not include critical scrutiny of Allied actions, most notably the decision to use the Atomic Bomb. Video games also present opportunities to kill Nazis, but they offer no real understanding of Nazism and its pervasiveness across German society. They also perpetuate a fanciful perception of a “Clean Wehrmacht,” in Bob’s words, one that did not participate in the era’s atrocities. Games also allow players to pursue racist, alternate histories, such as Nazis winning the Second World War. Finally, more games now have outrageous elements that are completely ahistorical, such as playing World War II in zombie mode.
The video game industry itself also has issues that cannot be ignored. Employees within the industry have reported being exploited, forced to work unpaid overtime, been subjected to studio closures and layoffs, face enormous pressure to produce, have low retention, high turnover, and have experienced sexism and racism. Then there is the technology itself, which is highly addictive, with at least one study finding pathological-level addiction to games among a percentage of American players. That addictive nature has been partially responsible for the mass increase in game playing among younger generations. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, at the close of the 2010s millennials were spending more than double the amount time per day playing games than Generation X had, with men spending nearly 300% more time playing games in a given day. Should we as educators, who seek to instill media and historical literacy in our students, encourage the use of addictive technologies created by an industry that has a questionable track record of exploitation and misogyny?
Of course, there is a distinction between “video games” and the “video game industry.” Video games have a long tradition of being created by hobbyists and amateurs outside of big studios. As Olli Sotamaa and Jan Švelch write in their book Game Production Studies, “video games and video game makers existed before the video game industry and amateur game design is by and large the norm by which game development occurs.” One of the most famous history video games, in fact, was developed in the 1970s not by a major studio but by three teachers in Minnesota. Originally a board game to help students understand the passage across North America in the 1840s, the game Oregon Trail was programmed into a computer in 1971. Instructional designer Karl Kapp explains in this YouTube video that as players made choices along the Oregon Trail on how much to eat or where to stop and find shelter, different outcomes occurred. Once the game was transposed into the Apple II computer in the 1980s, it became hugely popular.
Game creators have, thus, leveraged the past for a variety of purposes for more than 50 years. They do so by placing users into simulated environments from the past wherein players have to make choices and learn about contingency. The game design allows players to have unique experiences every time, which makes the game fun, challenging and repeatable. The past offers a rich panoply of locations in which to situate such storylines. The past becomes a fungible backdrop, a place of creative expression and user-centric role play. That may be fun, and may have some instructional and pedagogical value, but it is not synonymous with the analytical and interpretive arguments about the past that we call “history.”
Whether games are positive or negative (or both), they do not appear to be going away any time soon. Gaming and e-sports are highly lucrative industries, capturing larger audiences than any other events on the planet. Firaxis, the creator of the game Civilization, reported that from 2010 to 2016 people collectively played more than 1.2 billion hours of its game, eclipsing the time spent in the world’s best-visited museums. The maker of the Assassin’s Creed series, Ubisoft, has shared that since 2007 its games have sold more than 140 million copies. The publisher Electronic Arts told its shareholders in 2017 that Battlefield 1, set during World War I, had attracted 25 million players in a little over a year. Despite any misgivings that we may have about gaming, historians and educators cannot ignore their ubiquity.
For now, the best course of action seems to be to try and understand games for all their potential benefits and drawbacks. Historical video games are a form of e-history, retaining the qualities that I write about in my book: user-centric, commercially motivated, instantly-gratifying and extrinsically valuable. Video games about the past are user-centric; they do not succeed because of the knowledge of experts, and do not depend on the expertise of historians. They succeed because they are designed with users in mind, allowing them to simulate participation in a past event and challenging them with decisions each step of the way. The most popular games are commercially-driven, meant to thrive as commercial products, not educational ones. They are instantly-gratifying, offer instant and unpredictable rewards at every turn. And they are extrinsically valuable, lucrative for their users and statistics, not because of any intrinsic moral service they offer to society. These are the values and mores of the social Web, and as I write in my book, the e-history that aligns with these values and mores is the e-history that usually comes to dominate our lives. Historical video games might be helpful to history in some ways, but they also clearly traffic in counterfactuals and ahistorical themes as much as accurate historical situations. They demonstrate how multiple factors and choices can lead to varying outcomes, but they do not teach history more effectively than a museum exhibit, history course, or even a documentary film. As we continue the dialogue about gaming and its impacts, it’s in our collective benefit to be honest about what games do well and what they do not.
Have a good week.
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