Privileging Form Over Content by Adam Chapman got a little repetitive, I think (not in a bad way, he just reiterated his main points over and over again), so I’ll try not to just go paragraph by paragraph to avoid over-repeating myself and him.
Chapman begins his article by saying that he hopes most historians are at least at the point where they can accept certain historical fiction games (He name-drops “Civilization” and “Assassin’s Creed” as examples) as being at least historical in some way. Chapman believes that video games should not be analyzed strictly by how historically accurate or inaccurate their content or narrative are, but how video games as a medium, or tool, can be used to teach. It is important, he says, that people try not to separate the “story” from the “game,” because the nature of video games make it impossible to understand each section independently from the other. Just focusing on content ignores the part the player has in the video game process, which is seeing historical problems/situations, analyzing those situations, and then choosing an action in-game based on that personal analysis. Because of this, how the game presents the narrative and allows players to interact with the narrative must also be studied.
Chapman uses past treatment of historical films as an example of the importance of joint narrative-form study. He states that when people criticized the content of historical film, they more often than not criticized it against historical documents rather than by its own standard. He argues that this is wholly problematic because it reinforces the idea that the only correct kind of history is the history written down in books, rather than the idea that books are simply one way to display history. In what I thought was a useful explanation, Chapman points out that the difference between a history book vs a history video game is “history as it can be written” vs “history as it can be played.”
I should mention that although Chapman implies that comparing historical tools is useless and limits opportunities for “collaboration,” his next sections seem much more biased in the pro-video game field than pro-teaching-medium-equality. He goes into how the “feeling” of history can often be more educationally informative than specific historical details, and having players play through historical situations helps comprehension more than simply telling people how things were. History taught through video games can also be taught without the requirement for players to already have an understanding of historical concepts, like many books and, specifically, college courses might. Chapman then goes into a little detail of how developers combine historical detail and algorithm to present a historical experience for players. He ends by saying that many of the people reading the article no doubt already agree with him, and that there should be a call to action for creating a better way to analyze games by form and not just by content.
Being Historical by Gilles Roy
Roy asks the question of where the popular historical video game theme of “creating history” fits into the common definition of “history.” More specifically, Roy wonders what happens when players take a subject like history, commonly thought of as being a record of set past events, and juxtapose themselves, or fictional representations of themselves, into it. Like Chapman, Roy name-drops Assassin’s Creed and Civilization as examples, where players get at least theoretical direct control over how the game’s world is shaped (as a side note: I say “theoretical” just because of how the game mechanics between the two titles differ, the sentiment is the same). Roy also name-drops real-life reenactment and LARP group Society for Creative Anachronism (fun fact, I have attended one of their weekend events!) as an example of the far reach and variety of historical gaming. Roy asserts that historical games allow players to “be historical” rather than just “learn history.”
Roy goes into brief detail of the history of the presentation of history. This transformation went from a want to describe the best feats by Greeks and not-Greeks, to trying to document the causes behind specific national conflicts, to more patriotic fantastical, ideal origin stories by the Romans. Roy states that this is around the time that the split between history as truth and history as political narrative popped up. “Popular history,” which Roy says games seem rely on because it focuses more on entertainment and narrative than education, falls somewhere between this split. Like Chapman, Roy also notes the importance of studying games as a medium, though while I used the words “medium” and “form” interchangeably in the summation of Chapman’s article Roy uses them definitively by saying that games are a medium and the way they communicate this “popular history” is the form they take. The specific “form” Roy then focuses on is the strategy game, which as noted comes in many different forms and has been around long before video games were invented. Roy compares two different genres of modern strategy games, the historical strategy and the space conquest, by saying that the genres share the theme of “continuity of the historical process.”
Roy then goes into an explanation of strategy game mechanics and themes, with helpful visual aids. I personally appreciate this part because although I’m familiar with different types of “progression trees” in game mechanics, they usually focused on what new powers my character would get rather than what new technology my settlement invented. Roy asserts that the game mechanics represented in the strategy games (“explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate”) are themes that have driven human progression throughout history, albeit very simplified versions of them. Therefore, these types of strategy games, which allow the player an integral part of shaping history, aren’t really rewriting our understanding of history so much as allowing players into the “historical process.”
History as it can be played by Jamie Taylor aka PastPlayer
The third of the traditional articles begins by reinforcing the idea that video games, despite (past, I think) popular belief, can be useful for other things besides quick entertainment. As Taylor states right in the first paragraph, “games allow for learning by stealth.” The versatility of video games is allowing more “serious” topics to be presented in what many used to think was an non-serious medium, which means more in-depth, less childish narratives can be produced. This also means daunting or too serious topics (like history) can be presented in more accessible ways. Taylor then actually quotes Chapman’s article from above to demonstrate how historical legitimacy of games like, again, Civilization and Assassin’s Creed.
While Chapman and Roy seem focused on making the argument that the mechanics and form of a game have to be focused on when analyzed, Taylor seems to be focused on actually analyzing (at least to some degree). Chapman and Roy brought up the argument that playing through a game helps a player gain an understanding of the historical process, but Taylor brings forward arguments that the amount of interactivity and choice a player runs the risk of making the historical back drop of the game just be a historical back drop. The reality of game development means that there will always be parameters in the game that the players cannot escape, limiting the amount of actual decision making or genuine learning about the historical process they receive. On the other hand, sometimes the parameters are so broad that players can choose to do something totally unrealistic or unhistorical, therefore entirely breaking the historical process. This is all assuming, Taylor points out as well, that the game even puts effort into historical accuracy or process.
Taylor quickly counters his own arguments, quoting Chapman once again by saying that one shouldn’t judge the historical validity of video games based on the standards of traditional history. Are video games less “history” just because a player can choose to mod the game so that they have a Steampunk empire with airships instead of reenacting the American Civil War? Taylor points out that if video games share a portion of historical narrative tropes that traditional history does, it should be considered “history.” From here, Taylor goes into the different types of historical narratives potentially available to consumers that reinforces both Chapman and Roy’s call for collaborative narrative efforts. Taylor ends by pointing out that regardless of anyone’s opinion on video games as history, video games definitely provide a way to “engage” with the past. The sheer popularity and spread of different types of digital games has literally changed the way people learn, and that in some ways games might be a more effective method of teaching history because of it.
Surviving History by Rachel N. Ponce
This seems to be a “choose your own adventure game,” so I will play through it and then comment.
(I lasted a little over two months)
It is a “choose your own,” very reminiscent of the physical books I used to read when I was younger. As opposed to more popular choice-based games such as RPGs like the Mass Effect or Dishonored series, this is able to pack a lot of historical information, such as specific dates, city and street names, people, and real-world events into each page. The trade-off of supplying so much information, besides the limited choices the player is given at the end of each page, is that the pages become dense and run the risk of losing player interest or patience. The graphics in the game were also broken on my browser, which is not typically a thing that needs to be constantly worried about in a self-contained, published game. With that being said, there were a few times I think I could feel at least a fraction of the helplessness the character did in treating others. I had no idea what proper medication in the 1700s was, or how to treat anything, or what the “right” choice was, so every time I made a decision whether or not to help another character I had a little bit of an internal battle.
While I don’t feel particularly educated by this game, I think that it would be hard to argue against the fact that this game has a realistic historical narrative that gives at least a little insight on how doctors were viewed in the 1700s, or lived their lives.
Why Mechanics Must Be Both Good and Accurate by Extra Credits
This video focuses on two questions: How accurate should historical games be, and can they be used as educational tools?
These questions were definitely touched upon in the three articles we read to some degree, but I think this video states the answer in a way more easily understood. Chapman, Roy, and Taylor all agree that video game narratives can’t be studied in a metaphorical vacuum, and that the mechanics of video games and how players interact with games have to be addressed to be able to completely analyze, I guess, the historical validity of the game. They assert that player interactivity allows for better understanding of the historical process. This video would agree to that statement, but rather than calling it an understanding of the “historical process,” it says that players are able to learn from themes of the past. Players learn that their decisions matter in how the “future” is shaped in within the game, and allows players a chance to learn from their mistakes, which is something the narrator believes is important about the study of history in general.
The narrator also points out a problem that Taylor mentioned in game development, which is that the “historical” part of the game often ends up being reduced to some arbitrary backdrop. While Taylor states that this sometimes come from giving the player too much freedom to do what they want in general (creating a kingdom in Civilization that literally only focuses on mining and nothing else, for example), the narrator of this video suggests that this problem comes from making all the tiny details of the background very historically accurate, then giving the player very historically inaccurate options to take (allowing players control over the development of every single character in a strategy game, even if those character options are realistic). This creates an inauthentic feeling, according to the narrator, because it stops the player from being forced to manage their people based on more realistic unpredictable risks and starts allowing players to just make all of their characters exactly the way that will most quickly advance them through the game. The narrator ends by asking for a call of historical games in other genres besides strategy and RPG-shooters.
1.1) Sure, games can certainly be historical and can give insight into historical themes (I know just from readings in past classes that some high school teachers are using Sid Meier’s civilization to try to explain the spread of Rome), but is it realistic to think that “traditional” history classes could be taught through video games? In other words, do you think it will be possible to teach a class on a subject as tricky and complicated as WWII, or the Cold War, or the American Civil War, etc, using games as the teaching tool as often as we use books?
1.2) Would it be more realistic to think that video games as a medium are better at broader concepts rather than more nuanced detail like dates and specific names and places? “Surviving History” was a fun little game, and I remember how I thought it was funny that marrying a doctor is considered by many to be a good thing in modern USA, but in the game it was something that gave the main character’s father in law pause. I remember that the game took place in Philadelphia and that yellow fever killed a lot of people very quickly. But I can’t actually remember the other doctor’s name, or the exact year the game took place, or the street names that the game took time to tell me.
2) Does the level of player freedom act as a legitimate advantage or disadvantage to the historical value of a game? Assuming one is making a game to be more educational than entertaining, would it be better to limit player freedom to give them a more “traditional” narrative and historical lesson, or broaden player freedom so that they can experience, as the authors have suggested, the “historical process?”
3) In all three articles, “Civilization” and “Assassin’s Creed” were referenced by name as examples of historical games. These games, specifically, were created for entertainment purposes. This makes the authors’ argument about analyzing their game mechanics as well as their story a little moot, considering the games weren’t created to be analyzed by academics at all. With the growing hype about the potential of using video games for teaching history, do you think that upcoming games should strive for historical accuracy? In other words: now that gaming developers are under the spotlight of academics as well as casual consumers, are they under obligation to deliver a more realistic product? Are they under obligation to create a product that can stand up to scrutiny in both narrative and mechanics?