'Playing With History': the State of Historical Games

Illustration for article titled Playing With History: the State of Historical Games

We historians are a little protective of our respective domains — but a constant (and well-deserved) criticism we lob at each other in general is that through various means, we deliberately make ourselves inaccessible to the average, interest layperson. Over at Terra Nova, Nate Combs takes up the question of historical video games, referencing a great 2006 New York article by Niall Ferguson (Harvard professor and historian) on the 'state of play.' The answer? Pretty damn bad, at least when looking on from the Ivory Tower:

So why do I hate Medal of Honor? The trouble is-and the same could be said of nearly all its competitors-it's profoundly unhistorical. It's what's known in the games trade as a first-person shooter (FPS) game. As a player, you take on the role of Lieutenant Mike Powell of the U.S. Army Rangers. You see the battlefield-a Normandy beach, for instance-from his vantage point. As Lieutenant Powell, you do pretty much what you feel like-which is to bag as many Germans as you can. In reality, an officer's principal concern on Omaha Beach was somehow to maintain the cohesion of his unit in the face of a lethal storm of steel.


He does go on to have some slightly more positive things to say, but Combs' takes up the issue — the boardgames that generally do a better job of 'playing with history' frequently provide a lot more 'meat' for the historical stew:

Where I think these board games triumphed was in their ability to communicate history as a coherent model: history as a system of rules. History as an interlocking LEGO set of measured hypotheticals and realities. Players moved the pieces around to see what happens. If it was only an amateur's recollection, it was a rich one.


(This historian would offer that when you actually see history as a system of rules, you wind up with modernization theory, but for the purposes of play — it's useful. Let's just stay away from a Reischauer's Making of Modern Japan when thinking up new titles)

So where's the difference between board games and console or PC games?

... historical simulation games were never big business, not in the way mass entertainment console gaming (for example) is. Another way of saying this is, perhaps, to say that these games were largely developed for and by amateurs.

One could only suppose that if more video game product were developed by amateurs that we might see more history, more playing with history, and - to cite Niall Ferguson's claim - a greater appreciation in society of the lessons of history.

Considering the relative popularity of ahistorical FPS that use the trappings and 'hardware' of historical settings, I can't imagine 'real' history will ever be big business — but maybe someday. A historian can dream.

Playing with history [Terra Nova]; How to Win a War [New York]

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Donning my professional historian's hat: I have _zero_ interest in playing games that make some sort of pretenses toward being "historical." It's pretty clear that they're interesting not for teaching us something about "real history," but showing us how popular memory is produced and consumed. And that's exactly what films like _Saving Private Ryan_ and games like _Medal of Honor_ are— the production and reproduction of popular historical memory. Of course an officer would have never stormed the beach in the manner that "Mike Powell" does in the game; but our national memory of the Normandy moment hinges not on the sloppy, haphazard, confusing, and hellish landing, but on the heroics of "liberating" Europe. (Not included in that heroic narrative was the actual liberation of Europe carried out by the Soviets.) And our popular memory also defines heroism by the number of Nazis you can shoot in the face.

I think Maggie makes a fantastic point: games that claim to be operating under some kind of historical "system," a la Sid Meier's games, are not teaching us any kind of "real history" either. They are, in fact, replicating convenient theories that we have about historical development, nearly all of which have gone out the window in most academic communities over the last three decades. Maggie's got it right: modernization theory— worked real well in Vietnam, didn't it? And we'd probably be wise to ask Iraqis how well it's currently playing out. When games try to quantify categories like "culture," they're dancing on a slippery slope of essentialism.

So let's not do that. Let's stick to making games about stealing cars and shooting contemporary Russian immigrants in the face.