Can Games Handle History?

Human history is the greatest story ever told. It's also, courtesy of the attached social, political and religious significance, the most dangerous. So what happens when games try and tell it?

All kinds of things.

See, games do history a little differently. Other mediums, such as film, books and even comics, are re-telling a story. They add drama and embellish the facts to varying degree (see: Braveheart), yes, but in essence, they're historical, as they're re-counting actual events.

Games, though, are interactive. You're not being told a story. You're the one telling it, acting it out. Every man you kill, every city you conquer and every nation you destroy isn't a case of retreading history. It's rewriting it.

Can Games Handle History?

Which, in many ways, is exciting! It's a blast seeing Babylon become an atomic power in Civilization, or to see Sweden become a global superpower in a game of Total War. But in many ways, it's also a challenge for developers. How do they balance the need for some degree of historical accuracy with the need to create an entertaining video game?

Some don't. There are developers – and these can often be found creating games in which action is the primary focus – who use historical events as a bullet point on the back of the box. The glut of Second World War games over the past decade are probably the best example, using the 20th century's most brutal conflict as nothing more than window dressing for a fast-twitch action experience.

Which is disappointing. Like any other medium telling a historical tale, there is always a danger that the audience, presented with a product that is claiming to be "historical", takes the action at face value, which can colour and distort their impressions of a particular period or sequence of events.

"There is potentially great hazard in attempting to reduce the nature of conflict to a simple matter of button-bashing" says Dr Cliff Williamson. Cliff is the senior lecturer in Modern British and American history at Bath Spa University, nestled in (and named after the key attraction of) the ancient Roman city.

Cliff is also, handily, a keen gamer.

"The most serious issue for me is the separation of the protagonists from the nature of the regime they represent", he says. In reducing history's protagonists to characters and factions, Nazis are reduced to targets, crusaders to a selectable faction. You don't, for example, perform missions in Company of Heroes rounding up a town's Jewish population. You just do the "fun" stuff.

Can Games Handle History?

But while some games do a poor job, there are many others that do not. And the ones that get it "right", in Dr. Williamson's opinion, may surprise you. Because while open-ended games like Civilization – which let you completely rewrite the history books – may seem the least historically responsible, in many ways, they can be not only incredibly historical, but educational as well.

How? It's all in their structure. Their building blocks. Civilization, for example, may sound ridiculous by allowing you to convert Britain to Islam and build a fleet of Zulu fighter bombers, but scratch the surface and the game design that got you to that stage in the first place has been teaching you some very important lessons about history.

"I think that the games like Civilisation and Total War series are less of a problem to historians", Dr. Williamson believes, "as they do offer an insight into the forces that shape history via technology trees and an appreciation of the subtleties of diplomacy".

So while you may not be learning the true history of Britain's religions over the millennia, you're learning something potentially even more valuable: an understanding of the dynamics of history; of the forces that have shaped, and will continue to shape, human society.

While Dr. Williamson mentions Civilization and Total War, other similar games that instruct you in the "dynamics of change" are Pirates!, Colonization (yes, there's a Sid Meier theme here), Paradox Interactive's strategy titles (Hearts of Iron, Europa Universalis & Victoria) the Age of Empires series and Railroad Tycoon.

Can Games Handle History?

That's a historian's take on matters, then, but how do the developers of probably the year's biggest "historical" game feel about portraying history in their games? And how do they reconcile the need for accuracy with the need to make a game fun?

"Whilst we pride ourselves on historical accuracy in our games, we only take it as far as it's entertaining." Says Kieran Brigden, from Total War developers The Creative Assembly. "We could, for instance, represent the coffee or spice trade more fully in Empire, but we chose to keep it included but not as a full market system. "

Why? "Because although it would have been more accurate, it wouldn't have been as fun for the majority of players."

This challenge of balancing history with fun when developing a historical game is hard enough. But then, developers making history games are often faced with an even tougher challenge: balancing their own take on history.

Can Games Handle History?

The field isn't science. Outside of simple facts – there's no disputing the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066, for example – much of history is subjective. How it's told depends on who is telling it.

"History is always contentious, one man's hero is another's villain", Brigden says. "Everything down to national flags can be disputed." So include one nation in a game and you could insult another. Make one nation stronger than a rival and you'll upset customers.

The Creative Assembly face this challenge the same way they do the accuracy vs fun debate: fun has to come first. "We try and treat these issues with respect, but always with an eye to entertainment as our ultimate goal", says Brigden.

Which explains why, for example, Empire: Total War only depicts a handful of the 18th century states that made up what we now know as Germany, while Dr. Williamson says that, if it were accurate, there should have been around 300. Including all of them may have been more accurate, sure, but Empire: Total War just couldn't handle that many "postage stamp principalities" clogging up the map.

So The Creative Assembly struck a balance. And that balance goes back to what Dr. Williamson says about the "dynamics of change". Yes, the final game shipped about 296 Germanic states short of 300, but in playing the game you still get a sense that Germany as we now know it was, in the time period, fragmented and surrounded by hostile states.

Can Games Handle History?

So as far as this "balance" goes, in the end, we're split. For every shoddy shooter set in the Second World War or Vietnam, which outside of uniforms and gun effects has done little to really deal with the people or events underpinning the game, there has been a game like Civilization, Colonization, Total War or Railroad Tycoon (a personal favourite of Dr. Williamson's) able to show us how history actually works.

But as we move forward, and games grow not only more realistic-looking but are pitched at larger and more "accessible audiences", the challenges facing developers in treating history with respect will only grow sterner. Something that, in a surprise for an industry that in many other ways is often labelled as juvenile, Dr. Williamson reckons it might just be able to handle.

"There is the potential for games to mess it up as badly as the film industry has at times, because for every Das Boot made there is a U-571 just around the corner", he says. "The tension is always there".

"But I feel that the gaming industry - with young, involved and devoted developers - is still very respectful to the need to be faithful to the past."