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Virtual History?

By Patrick McGhee | @patricksmcg

Computer and video gaming is now firmly a part of cultural, political and economic discourse. The financial and cultural power of video games is beyond dispute. The video games market will soon be worth $100bn and video games are played together by millions of people connected around the world. Gaming is also a billion-pound industry in the UK.

Video games also have a profound influence on public debates surrounding morality, social interaction, entertainment and humour. They are used to educate and entertain, to inspire creativity and innovation, and in some cases to encourage and support those with special educational needs. Video games even seek to provide commentaries of their own on some of the most complex and important issues faced in modern society, including political discord, race relations and morality. For example, the BioShock games have explored objectivism and theocracy in dystopian narratives that question the nature of free will and causation. Meanwhile, Grand Theft Auto has explored police corruption, caricatured American political parties and satirised religious extremism. The 2004 entry in the series also depicts a version of the 1992 Los Angeles riots set in the fictional U.S. state of San Andreas.

From time to time, video games are also examples of historical fiction. A recurring trope in the Assassin’s Creed series is the appearance of famous figures from the period setting, such as Benjamin Franklin, Niccolò Machiavelli or Leonardo da Vinci, who have been recast as helpful informants, clandestine accomplices, and even a kind of early modern ‘Q’, providing you, the protagonist, with proto-gadgets and secret weapons. Meanwhile, other historical figures including Robert de Sablé, Cesare Borgia and John Pitcairn, are depicted as antagonists and potential targets for assassination. In a Call of Duty game released in 2010 and set during the Cold War, the main character is given a special mission by President John F. Kennedy and is eventually implicated in his assassination. The crime drama game L. A. Noire, in which the player assumes the role of a 1950s detective and veteran of the Second World War, involves several brushes with the notorious American gangster, Mickey Cohen. There is something recognisable and novel about these various historical cameos and references, which provide a degree of immersive authenticity, however obviously fictionalised or preposterous the scenarios often become. They can also attempt to satisfy a measure of the historian’s curiosity, providing an often unsettling and usually falsified, yet entertaining and satirical answer to that impossible question, ‘What were they like?’

These excursions into alternate history have primarily served as backdrops for action-orientated entertainment. However, the possibilities offered by graphical advancements and new ways of playing games invite historians to think seriously about the ways in which the medium can make both history and the academic study of history more accessible, more diverse and more critical. Video games already provide more than a snapshot of a particular moment in the past, and more than a single narrative of events. As the historian Dawn Spring has demonstrated in a wide-ranging article on gaming and history, clothing, objects, food, technology, transport, entire cities and landscapes can be reimagined, reconstructed and simulated based on historical records. Spring has highlighted the ways in a variety of games, including L. A. Noire and Red Dead Redemption, a western-themed adventure game, have been able to make scholarly arguments by researching the past, uncovering new information and presenting innovative historical analyses. Spring also emphasises the impressive ability of the Assassin’s Creed series to realise complex historical environments and cultures, including medieval Jerusalem, Renaissance Italy, and revolutionary America and France. She examines strategy games that allow players to build cities, command armies, and thus think critically about the religious, socio-economic and political frameworks of the past. She specifically highlights the Total War series of strategy games as ‘an outstanding example of how to develop a scholarly game about nation and empire building’. Spring points out that these games are supplemented with ‘encyclopedias’ in order to balance the entertainment value of playing the game itself with the educational value of historical research. Importantly, Spring also stresses the ways in which video games are developed and historical research produced using similar conceptual and methodological frameworks. These examples, Spring suggests, demonstrate that the immersion enabled by video games is providing new and exciting ways for students and academics not only to research and understand history but also to reinterpret the past. In light of this, historians should work more closely with game developers to contextualise the content of video games and make stronger connections between the discipline of history and its realisation in virtual form.

Scholarly engagement with film, television, social media and networking has helped demystify some of the cultures and practices of history and its writers. Similarly, video gaming and virtual reality might enable students of history as well as wider audiences to engage more directly with archival sources, material culture and the world of the period they are interested in. Historians should start to imagine ways in which virtual worlds could be used to simulate the experience of life as a medieval peasant, a French revolutionary, a Victorian mill worker or a twentieth-century suffragette. Given the range of mutually beneficial ways in which education and entertainment can be enhanced and enjoyed via video gaming and virtual reality, and given also the fruitful exchanges between culture and history in fiction, film and television, historians owe it to themselves, as much as to the public and to the next generation of students and researchers, to explore these new and exciting virtual avenues for both research and its dissemination.

Brian Rejack, ‘Toward a virtual reenactment of history: Video games and the recreation of the past’, Rethinking History, 11 (2007), pp. 411-425.

Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and Andrew B. R. Elliot (eds.), Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History (New York, 2013).

Dawn Spring, ‘Gaming history: computer and video games as historical scholarship’, Rethinking History, 19 (2015), pp. 207-221.

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