Video games, History and Narrative

This project started with my original blog post.I was so inspired with I saw the digital narrative told on the “Captains Log” in the so that got me thinking, What have video games of today done to put themselves in a hole? Next to movie and film video games personally can be the most immersive vehicles for conveying narrative.

My aim is to look at three Video Game genres that portray historic events, my issues in their portrayals and tropes usually associated with them. Then using a case study of three other titles within the game genres that address these tropes and move video games from pure just games to teaching tools that effectively get users thinking more histrionically. The genres are:

Strategy video games (Such as Civilization)

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Tropes associated: User disconnect. As a ruler you may have no connection to the culture you are playing as. Your empire is merely colors and bits of data. These kinds of strategy games run on the basis “conquer and win”. Once you have all the map splotches you win.

Another issue these kinds of games promote is this propagating of  “imperialist” or “orientalism” mindset or letting some “have” start off great giving an unfair disadvantage to non-western cultures who are seen as the other.

Political Science Professor Ed Webb has a very informative Blog post about how he’s attempted to implement Civilization 5 into his curriculum for teaching Spanish Conquest of the 16th century. In his post he mentions some of the above problems.

3rd person action adventure games depicting historical eras (Such as the Assassin’s Creed series)

Tropes associated: Using historical figures as “cardboard cutouts” and set pieces rather than writing them in the narrative in a way that shows why they became the figures we know them as today. And trust me I am not alone with my issues of the series depiction figures.

From a perspective of tackling hard hitting issues like slavery the vision I look for from my blog post might never come into fruition because popular games like to give a romanticized version of history. Rather than take a hard stand like a History Textbook. For example Assassin’s Creed Black Flag you play a pirate from the early 18th century praying upon unsuspecting British and Spanish Ships in the Caribbean. Slavery was a major industry during this period and slavery is mentioned in the game twice (three times if you count your first mate who is an escaped slave who works to free slaves in the Caribbean). Until popular video games over come this major hurtle of trying not to offend then video games will never be taken seriously in a historical context. So certain aspects of history like slavery the series likes to sanitize and down play them.

To continue this topic if one were to take an 18th century history class you might find the actual motivating factors for Revolution are actually more interesting then popular media portrays. I’ve asked our 18th century History Professor Dr. Bouton after our recent History Club’s movie night which we screened Mel Gibson’s The Patriot if there are any movies that accurately depict the American Revolution and he said, “None.”

As I learned in his class it comes from a tradition from the founding fathers in which they wanted to reshape our nation’s identity post Revolution and create a culture in which promoted Americans as “Egalitarian Farmers who pulled themselves up from their bootstraps and shook off the yoke of British oppression.” Which the The Patriot stresses. In reality it was founded on the ideas of scared gentry doing everything within their power to keep it. The vision the founding fathers created was carried over and expanded by Whiggish Historians in the 19th century who loved the founding fathers and started ascending them to deification rank. This became our nation’s popular narrative and carries over to all media as well as our American visual culture with video games being no exception.

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In 1832 the U.S. Congress commissioned sculptor Horatio Greenough to create a statue of George Washington on the occasion of the centennial of the first president’s birthday. This is located in the American History museum.

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The Apotheosis of Washington in our capital dome

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Promotional art of your character in AC3 with Washington Crossing the Delaware. The painting itself is painted in 1853 is full of inaccuracies and steeped in the 19th Century founding father propaganda.

In recent news Assassin’s Creed Unity the newest entry to the franchise made the headlines in The Atlantic because members of the French government were up in arms about the portrayal of the French people and Revolutionary leader Maximilien de Robespierre who along with the people is seen in the game as blood thirsty monsters. The Article mentions this quote “”In his novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Milan Kundera reflects on what the passage of time does to history:

“If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolution have turned into mere words, theories, and discussions, have become lighter than feathers, frightening no-one. There is an infinite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in history and Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off French heads.”

What I like about this quote is it could apply to any media forms portrayal of important historical figure. The same I guess can be said about the founding fathers.

But don’t get me wrong , there are elements the series does right. There is no question the developers of Assassin’s Creed go into great detail to capture the aesthetic detail of the eras they take place:

(Your arrival in Colonial Boston. This is an amazing way for a user to become immersed in an era they will never depicted that often and on a personal note this was my first jump into the AC series. I was not disappointed by the environment.)

My Introduction to the Study of history professor Dr. Ritschel points out “Historical Films” have no bibliography. The more the set designer and the costume crew captures the “back in the day feeling” that is a selling factor in historic accuracy.

War based games and First person shooters (such as Call of Duty series)

Tropes associated: First off and blatantly “Glorification of War”.


(A History Channel produced Civil War based game that gives you the user an encounter with one of the most famous Confederate Generals, Thomas Jonathan Stonewall Jackson. Look at the language and how it reinforces what David Russy of Play the Past calls, “heroism and sacrifice with no deeper meaning.” Another element I dislike about this is game bodies disappear both downplaying the horrors of war aside from laziness on the part of the developers)

(Although this is just a parody I feel it pretty accurately sums up most war based first person shooters especially those in the Call of Duty Series)

The second trope: history being told from the perspective with a gun in your hand turns you into a “mindless” killing machine solider. From this portrayal of narrative there is no way the user could be thinking historically let alone thinking. All the user wants to do is rack up a high score or kill points.

So again, Strategy game’s disconnect, 3rd person action adventure’s inaccurate portrayals along with sanitation of themes, and War games/First Person shooter’s first glorification of war and second the idea of practicing history with a gun in your hand.  These issues lead to most in academia to see video games as nothing more than trivial or something to be dismissed. Video games could never effectively tell historic narrative. I feel With tweaks video games in these genres could be an effective teaching tool in late high school and college level classrooms. I have a case study of three games of the same genres that are aiming to fix these the a fore mentioned tropes along with getting the users “thinking more historically”.

Crusader Kings 2 (Strategy)

(Play Music Before Reading)

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Crusader Kings 2 aside from being a standard civilization type conquering game with your standard troop management/resource gathering top down god game the game has an interesting role playing element with the player character who shares a game world with other rulers with their own ambitions.

I’ll tell you about the game through a character a friend of mine, John Parker (a much more experienced Crusader King than I) John was giving me a tutorial on how to play the game. We decided to go in and custom create a ruler. King Tyke of Norway. This is a simple scenario of a small Viking tribal leader who works his way up becoming Viking King in the 9th century and conquers the smaller tribes bending the knee and swearing fealty to King Tyke by the sword.

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(This area in the Gray is what we conquered and after the conquering and to honor my friend I named our first child and our successor who after our guidance will inherit King Tyke traits after John. Notice my large family from the concubines. A practice the Vikings actually utilized and only available to them an advantage the Norse cultures have over Christians who look down upon the practice of royal children outside the queen. All children of my family will be looked upon as equals even if not from my wife.)

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(This is your court. They are royal advisers who can do a number of things like convert people to your religion which is a major element in the game or train prepare your troops for battle. One must be careful because if you piss them off they can turn on you, disrupt operations of the kingdom, revolt, and even plot to kill you as well as your kids end your royal line.)

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(I’m going to hold a feast or Viking “Blot” with a human sacrifice to improve relations with my Vassals)

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(One of the Christian Kingdoms attempted to send a missionary over to convert my strong Norse people. HOW DARE HE?! So, let’s bring him up from the dungeons and kill some birds with some stones. Empty the dungeons, have a great feast, and make Odin happy!)

Ah! What a great Blot. The Gods are pleased.

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(The game does not end. It’s about establishing your family legacy through royal politics as well as diplomacy, doing great deeds and maintaining your family’s control. History does not end, but is continuous. This adds an amazing immersion factor by adding heavy character investment. The game also chronicles your family deeds. If your line ends or you can see what they’ve done so far. The Chronicle or even game state can then be exported and shared with others allowing others to pick up where you have left off or make their own choices.)

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To address Ed Webbs concern about games promoting looking at other other cultures as “the other” or what is called “orientalism” a lot of research on detail was done for picking the starting class for a player. The game’s developer paradox went to great lengths to make sure all the cultures are represented equally regardless of how prominent they are in western History. Someone can choose very obscure cultures upgrade them and watch them flourish, but  it provides a little more of a challenge. It’s nice the option for the player is there. Making it a great “Sandbox” for history seeing alternate realities playing out in great detail such as my King Tyke.

Fallout 3 (First Person Shooter)

Fallout 3 is a first person shooter set in a post apocalyptic Washington D.C. in the year 2022. Of course it’s purely fictional. Scattered throughout the game world are transcripts and audio logs for the player to find.

Your in game document organizer. What it would look like in real life.

Your in game document organizer, the “Pipboy”. What it would look like in real life.

The player must use a device connected to their arm that like a big wrist watch called a “Pipboy”. This acts as the menus and user interface throughout the game. The device is how the player collects the logs and transcripts. The player can play them back and read them at their leisure or use them to keep track of what number they have in the collection or show they may have to continue to look for them.

(Examples of the audio Logs)

The audio logs are from people experiences before the War that destroyed the United States takes place. This is immersing the player in the pre-war lore. Trevor Owens of “Playing with the Past” calls this audio log hunting aspect of Fall Out 3 “the world’s best archeology simulator”. The puzzle of the war is filled in as each transcript and audio log is uncovered. On the surface this game is about shooting super mutants in and surviving a post apocalyptic wasteland, but this layer of the game can get the user “thinking historically” in a what some would deem, The first person shooter a mindless game genre.

Valiant Hearts (War based)

Valiant Hearts trailer is not a first person shooter game as most War Games tend to be. It is told from an interesting 3rd person almost cartoonish story book perspective. I find this interesting because a major theme of my digital history class is choosing the right medium for your message. It’s a World War One game switching between narratives for characters one is following a French prisoner of war who is forced to cook and clean for German Troops. Although it has certain tropes of War of film and games the player faces tough choices such as escaping from the Germans when the British bomb their base with another German soldier. Once out the British ask the player’s character to bomb the German base with the German who helped you escape still inside. The player is forced to live with the consequences of his actions during the war. With its choice of setting, presentation of style, playing down tropes, and portrayal of themes throughout the First World War I would not be surprised to see playing this game on the lesson plan of some experimental WWI history teachers already.

In Conclusion:

I will say I understand video games are not for everyone:

Where do you fall on the chart?

Where do you fall on the chart?

I sat down with Japanese art History Professor Dr. Oakes. I asked her opinion on gaming because I know many kids in the United States become interested in Japanese History through anime and video games. (Such as kids knowing the Japansese Sun Goddess from the Capcom Video game Okami.):

“Of course your going to have a problem when kids are saying all they know from History comes from Call of Duty and AC”, but regardless, the aspect of why you become interested in a topic doesn’t matter. What matters is then taking that topic then, taking the time to look into it more in-depth and presenting it well. That is important!”

Amaterasu

Amaterasu from Capcom’s Okami

The Sun Goddess Amaterasu who the Japanese are said to be descended

The Sun Goddess Amaterasu who the Japanese are said to be descended

This project would not have been possible without the support of my professors, Dr. Oakes, Dr. Ritschel, and Dr. Rubin. A lot of thanks go out to her for letting me read some great books. Also her use of historical fiction and how that is an effective teaching tool. Of course thanks to Dr. Sibaja (great picture on the school site) who let me change my project subject last minute and actually let me do a project on a subject on my hobby. Also for pointing me in the direction of the Digital Humanities Now page where I found the website “Play the Past” who had tons of articles on exactly my subject. With contributors who spoke my language. The language of gaming.

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