Why Play the Past?

This week we discussed gaming in history scholarship. This is not the “history of videogames”, but using gaming to teach and explain history. But why we are having this discussion in the first place? If all the readings argue that games can play a role in historical scholarship, why use games instead of traditional forms of narrative?

Trevor Owens argues that games have a large audience. This is certainly true. Video games are a multi-billion dollar industry that continues to aggressively grow. Owen’s most read blog posts (by a large margin) are on Colonization and Fallout 3. Yet, I wonder if the scores of users are the board game and mod focused players that historians could speak to or if they were interested in playing a “fun” game. This necessarily limits the potential topics that a historical game could address (“playing” slavery would not be appropriate).

Owens, Adam Chapman, and the other authors also focus on video games “potential to make explicit and operationalize the models of change over time.” These are the “rules” which guide historical agents and events. Chapman argues that the rule-making nature of videogames allows users to internalize the “rules” of the fictional process, while simultaneously understanding how the imaginary world of Civilization relates to a real historical world as described in Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. The synergy between the virtual world (and its algorithmic rules based on real world civilization interactions) and the historical world as explained by Kennedy’s monograph is successful in this instance. But only if the user privileges the “Form” (algorithms) over the “content” (video games outcomes).

The game’s rules must not be too rigid as to limit natural exploration of “the world”, nor too loose to allow ahistorical interpretations or events to reign. If Hitler wins World War II in Call of Duty, but the gamer learns something about the realities of Modern Mechanized warfare, does the educator consider it a success? On a most basic level- no. The historical game must follow a fine line of not being ahistoric or being too pre-determined, a problem for the Lost Museum, whose users just rotely figured out “the rules” without exploring why these were so based on historic realities.

There is definitely a place for videogames in historical education if only as a way to reach students and adults and provide a unique immersive presence in the historical world. i primarily attribute my early passion for history to a string a fantastic teachers in eighth through twelfth grade. But I would be remiss not to mention the long hours playing Caesar, Civilization, and Colonization on my desktop computer during middle school and high school. The immersive experiences with Dutch colonies, Praetorians, and the impact of gunpowder on society certainly impacted my historical imagination.

The problem is that these games are huge commercially directed enterprises with large staffs of developers, designers, artists, and big bankrolls. To achieve that level of immersion is orders of magnitude more difficult than the levels which The Lost Museum and Pox and the City attempted and achieved. So I think Chapman, Owens, and Joshua Brown, and the Pox creators are correct that great historical scholarship can be created. Historical gaming just needs the proper topic and its “Valley of the Shadows” massive project to prove the concept.

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