Princesses, knights, magic weapons and adventures, empires to build, civilizations to conquer or kingdoms to administer. These are just some of the characters, events and actions in which you can immerse yourself when playing historical games. With a global franchise that produced over $115 billion in revenue in 2018, video games represent a powerful media, which has long attracted the attention of historians because of their educational potential. As Serge Gruzinski (2016) noted, cultural products designed for entertainment can also reflect a vision of a specific historical period. For example, some episodes of the famous TV series Game of Thrones follow the socio-political dynamics typical of 15th century struggle between the Lancaster and York royal houses in England. In the same way, some video games can also become bearers of the representation of a certain period of the past: not only those with a predominantly historical setting, such as the series of Assassin’s Creed or Civilisation, but also fantasy games such as Dante’s Inferno. Their impact cannot be ignored. The graph below shows the global number of gamers per year in millions: the pervasiveness of this medium requires us to consider the ways in which it affects our relationship with the past and the possibility that it can be used to help spread historical knowledge.
In an interesting essay, Claudio Fogu (2009) distinguishes two ways in which video games are linked to history. The first is what we can define as “representation”, the direct reference to things, people or events which are historically verifiable. In video games it’s possible to interact with an environment that reflects historical situations which greatly differ from the current ones: the high degree of identification and the feeling of immersion caused by these products can be exploited to offer the player the possibility to be virtually introduced to several elements of another world. This is the principle behind the Fort Ross Virtual Warehouse project, which saw Duke University and the University of California Merced collaborate with California State Park. This video game, explicitly designed for teaching purposes, reconstructs life in a Russian outpost in the 1820s. It is a tool that has been primarily used by school teachers before and after the actual visit to the park, to allow pupils to experience firsthand the use of buildings, objects and territory actually visited (Forte, Lercari, Mortara 2014).
This characteristic, however, is not common only to purely educational games. Valiant Hearts: The Great War, a video game based on the First World War developed by Ubisoft Montpellier, shares the same attention for a realistic representation of history. In fact, Valiant Hearts was designed with a constant relationship to sources, both in the graphic and spatial representation of people and things, and in the creation of a variety of plausible situations taking place in several different locations, ranging from the second lines of the front to the factories and military hospitals (Bizzocchi 2017).
In both video games the link to sources is realized through the presence of an in-game digital archive. In the case of Fort Ross, the creators developed a database inside the game called Fort Ross Journal, based on the digitization and laser scanning of various kinds of documents (Forte, Lercari, Mortara 2014), which – through gimmicks included in the dynamics of the game – offer information on the life of the outpost, such as the trade routes to which it was connected or the consistent presence of people of different ethnicities and cultures within it. This information, combined with that obtained through dialogue with the NPCs, is used by the player to complete certain objectives and win the game. This allows the gamer to retain historically accurate notions whilst playing, facilitating learning through the involvement in the game and its objectives. Similarly, Valiant Hearts includes information sheets that give the player the possibility to view original documents – thanks to the collaboration with the audiovisual archive Apocalypse: World War I – and to insert events, characters and objects in their historical context (Bizzocchi 2016). The reference to the sources is essential to make the situations and the game environment plausible and to provide a reliable view of the past. Products that meet this requirement are therefore of great interest to historians and teachers, who could experience their use in the classroom.
Valiant Hearts aims to represent historical aspects of life in the trenches, such as the hygienic-sanitary situation.
A second dimension of the relationship between history and video games is that of the simulation of historical dynamics typical of a certain era. The simulation goes beyond the accuracy of the setting, to focus on the religious, cultural, power, class and gender relations that existed between the characters or institutions represented. In a recent speech during the Twitter conference The Middle Ages in Modern Games 2020 organized by the University of Winchester and The Public Medievalist, Victoria Cooper highlighted how the description of religious relationships in products like video games often boils down to a stereotypical image of a centralized, corrupt and dogmatic religious organization that focuses only on obtaining political power. This representation is particularly evident in strategy games, such as Civilisation or Crusader Kings II, where religion is only an alternative way of obtaining political power. In this sense, the game modes communicate a precise historical message, albeit crude and not very elaborate, about the role of religious institutions, especially the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages.
In this sense, therefore, it is interesting to analyze the game mechanics and the objectives that the player is led/asked/meant to achieve. Through video games, users have the possibility to dress in the clothes (or rags) of people who lived in different periods and contexts, but in order for this identification to have historical value it is necessary that the objectives of the game reflect at least in part the actual horizon of possibilities that opened up to the various protagonists of the past. In this way, simulation can have a positive effect, for instance by demonstrating how individuals could influence their cultural context of the period they were living in. However, it is clear that at the same time limits must be set as to the agency of the characters, in order to identify a plausible range of aims and aspirations. As noted by Robert Houghton (https://www.publicmedievalist.com/game-objectives/), often the objectives of these types of products reflect an internal logic, focused on gaming rather than on the simulation of historical dynamics. This is particularly noticeable in strategy games where war seems to be the only interest of sovereigns and the conquest of the earthly globe the only goal worthy of a king, while we know that in the reality of a medieval kingdom not only was this not desirable, given a whole series of other tasks that were the sovereign’s responsibility, but it was also economically and demographically unsustainable: «A winning strategy in Medieval: Total War would produce a largely ineffectual king in the Middle Ages» (Houghton 2019).
In his MAMG20 discussion, Houghton also notes how the complexity of the strategies adopted by the historical characters very often goes beyond the winning/losing logic that characterizes most video games: the scholar highlights in particular the variability of the relations between the factions involved in the struggle between the Papacy and the Empire to underline how the socio-political relations are always more complex than the relationship between two monolithic blocks of opposing players. However, according to the medievalist, it is possible to limit and personalize the rules and objectives of a game in order to better render the complexity of the story through products that can also be used for educational purposes. Similarly, Bizzocchi (Bizzocchi 2017) also stated that it is possible to represent the variety of positions and points of view of individuals of different extraction, genre and origin, differentiating characters and objectives of the avatars.
The relationship between history and video games is a complex field which has only partly been explored. As things stand today, however, it can be said with certainty that scholars have identified features that could become useful educational tools. Realism in the factual representation and simulation of historical dynamics can help to create reliable cultural products. However, some perplexities remain. Firstly, video games present a “full” narrative, which cannot leave empty spaces due to lack of sources; nor can they propose a discussion between different reconstructions or reflect on one’s own method: all of which are issues that are instead pivotal to the historical field. Moreover, even the most reliable videogames can only enhance the information-based cognitive dimension of learning. In fact, to date even historically reliable video games such as Fort Ross focus on the acquisition of knowledge, overlooking the metacognitive dimension of the interpretation of historiographic reconstructions or the operative-agent dimension of research and use of sources. It is hoped, therefore, that in the future we will be able to use these tools in didactics, without prejudice, but with the necessary awareness.
To learn more
- Bizzocchi, Marco (2017). «La Prima guerra mondiale nei videogiochi». org – Rivista dell’Istituto Nazionale Ferruccio Parri, n. 7. DOI 10.12977/nov166.
- Fogu, Claudio (2009). «Digitalizing Historical Consciousness». History and Theory, Vol. 48, No. 2, May 2009, 103-121. DOI 10.1111/j.1468-2303.2009.00500.x
- Forte, Maurizio; Lercari, Nicola; Mortara, Michela (2014). «Unveiling California history through serious games: Fort Ross Virtual Warehouse». Lecture Notes in Computer Science 8605 – Proceedings of GALA Conference 2013, 236-251.
- Gruzinski, Serge (2016). Abbiamo ancora bisogno della storia? Il senso del passato nel mondo globalizzato. Milano: Raffaello Cortina.
- Houghton, Robert (2019). «Why are Objectives Important in Historical Video Games?». The Public Medievalist, 30 May. URL https://www.publicmedievalist.com/game-objectives/