Class 3/29, The Place of Video Games in Digital History

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 He states that when people criticized the content of historical film, they more often than not criticized it against historical documents rather than by its own standard.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?

14 thoughts on “Class 3/29, The Place of Video Games in Digital History

  • March 28, 2016 at 7:25 pm

    In response to question 3, I did not understand why games like Assasisn’s Creed were being evaluated so closely for historical accuracy. When the game came out, I remember being told that I would like the game because there were Revolutionary War characters in it. I never thought to critique it in the same way that I would even a period film because its purpose was not to be educational, especially when gamers with perhaps no historical background were the ones making choices in the game. I do not see any value in using a game like that for educational purposes. To create a game that included both historical accuracy and good mechanics would be a difficult collaborative effort between game designers, educators, and historians.The game that made more sense to me as a teaching tool was the “Surviving History game.” Limiting the choices the player could make perhaps allows for more historical accuracy.

    A lot of the points Taylor made in his article bothered me, especially about games as teaching tools. I believe he made the argument that young minds work differently these days and games are better for educating them. I understand the value of “learning by stealth,” but I entered elementary school just as laptops were beginning to be used in classrooms. I do not remember a single thing we did with those laptops, but do remember the hands-on activities vividly. My post is getting a bit off track, but I disagree that young minds work differently. I think school children today have better access or understanding of newer technologies, but do not see learning through games as more beneficial than learning in traditional ways. I can not think of a game that would convey history better than just reading a book. (and get off my lawn, kids)

    • March 29, 2016 at 2:10 am


      I was in the last wave of Computer Lab Class, I think, and I remember all of the subject things we were supposed to get out computer time very painfully, because it was all so gimmicky. I think part of that is you have to know why you’re using a tool for teaching, otherwise it’s not going to make a difference no matter what, but computer for computer’s sake does play over much into the digital native false binary.

      That said, there’s also quite a bit of push from university administration, government funders and other funding orgs to show how technology is being used to teach more/better/differently. That’s sort of why I’m the Pizza of this department and why there’s a bit of evangelism in workshops like the one last week–how can Boring Ol History show that we’re not just dusty old books and reaching out to The Kids Today in a way that funders will understand. That’s part of the reason I assigned some of the interactive maps last semester and the Surviving History game–I’d be interested to know how that all went in discussion section if you don’t mind talking about it tomorrow.

  • March 29, 2016 at 2:21 am

    1.1) What’s the argument in favor of using historical games for teaching, though? What purpose could they serve that you couldn’t get from a text or lecture? (ie, did you get anything out of Never Alone’s mechanics that you didn’t get from reading about Inupiaq cultural values)?

    2) What’s the value of teleologies? Is it more important for a player to understand the end point and exact historical cause/effect, or the process that allowed things like the collapse of governments or revolutions to happen?

    3) This is an interesting parallel with film criticism, as Elana points out. So the question might be, has academic film studies changed how history is portrayed in film, or has the existence of English departments and litcrit scholars changed popular novels like the DaVinci Code?

    • March 29, 2016 at 4:57 am

      1.1) That’s a fair point, and actually one I didn’t think of (which, like, how did that comparison not occur to me?). I think in this case I would argue that it would depend on the student’s strength in subject matter in general, and the intent of the game. The intent of Never Alone is to give insight into Inupiaq culture and folklore, not give specific dates or policies that have effected Canadian Native groups. I would say that it’s the difference between a survey class, which I guess one could call the Native history class from last semester, and a single lesson on folklore and themes. Never Alone gave us a broad idea, and because I happen to be particularly interested in folklore I remember the main villains and character types in the game and a little bit of their associated legends. In that way, I think games probably are better suited at teaching broad trends and ideas. That being said, however, if the game was about the general military or political history of the Inupiaq people, I don’t know that I would remember that much about it, simply because military and political history isn’t as interesting to me as cultural history.

      2) I think that’s definitely up for debate. Like I said, culture (and by extension cultural anthropology, I would say) interests me personally, so in my opinion games should focus more on the “historical process” side of things than the “historical accuracy.” I’m very much the person who says “sure, let’s have a fictional country of steampunk sky cities, who cares as long as we learn the driving forces behind imperialism through them?” That’s actually what I like about the video more than the articles. The articles seem to focus on making the phrase “historical process” seem as important and serious a possible, whereas the video pretty much just outright holds the opinion “who cares about theoretical situations as long as we learn?” Though that might just be me preferring casual speak to fancy academic purple prose.

      3) As we said, games like Assassin’s Creed were created first and foremost to entertain. It’s a game that proposes that the biggest events of history were put in motion by a secret gang of assassins working for, like, a destiny alien cult, or something. They weren’t meant to be taken seriously or put on pedestals, and yet all three of these articles hail them as being historical games. I don’t think it should be seen as an insult if academics criticize them for being “bad” history because, well, even if we accept the “historical process” theme, there’s not much about learning the best ways to parkour-murder a fictional character can teach us about what actual ancient Jerusalem was like. Yes, the development team went out of their way to give us some context of how characters lived their lives, but it seems to me that that’s like saying I know all about Inupiaq history because the devs of Never Alone made the game snowy. I know a bit about Inupiaq relationship with the Alaskan environment, but I don’t know if that makes me any more informed than if someone just walked up to me on the street and said “hey, Alaska’s cold.” The fantastical elements of a game like Assassin’s Creed might make any potential legitimate political history we might learn from it just a little overshadowed. All that being said, it doesn’t mean I necessarily think game developers shouldn’t try to balance out the accuracy vs story. Historical movies don’t have a legal obligation to be factual (looking at you, Exodus), but don’t they have an ethical one? Shouldn’t games strive to be more factual just because it might lead to a more interesting story, if a less aesthetically pleasing one?

      • March 29, 2016 at 5:05 am

        Oh, though I guess this is also a class that we, history nerds, are having. I think games with more realistic history would be awesome because I think history is awesome. But I’m sure “medieval fantasy” games that focused more on the “medieval” side of things would probably get a little tedious.

        Then again, Skyrim is a medieval fantasy with a huge amount of simulated medieval things (I have literally spent hours at a time running around the countryside, collecting plants and herbs for my medicine chest), and that turned out pretty okay.

  • March 29, 2016 at 11:57 am

    In response to question 1, I really don’t think that it is possible to teach a history course relying on video games as heavily as we rely on texts. This is especially true for concepts that involve theory or high levels of abstraction, such as a course on race or gender. It can, however, be used to show concrete examples of abstract ideas by putting the student in a certain role. Games can potentially be especially useful when one is trying to get twenty first century white student to understand the harsh realities of slavery or Jim Crow laws or if one is trying to get a cis gendered twenty year old guy to understand what the world is like for a woman of color. A major potential problem with this, however comes up in your second question. If students are given too much agency to do whatever they please in an online game, it can potentially become a farce that they do not take seriously. Even when students are given limited options, such as a game like Oregon Trail, they can very easily lose track of the historical aspect of the game and instead get off track. This is why context is key. If one is to use online games, one should use a game where students’ options are limited, but the causes of these limits are explained to them. For example if you are playing the role of a woman of color in 1960s Alabama, there might be limits on where one can or cannot go. Of course, this also might cause issues for students who have experienced discrimination or harassment in real life, so these experiences should be kept in mind when choosing or designing a game. I would argue that games absolutely have a place in the classroom, or at least as homework, but they should be viewed as supplementary to the texts, which allow for much more depth, at least at this point.

    • March 29, 2016 at 2:11 pm

      To add a bit more to my response referencing the form over content article: I understand that historical environments are important, but agents working within that environment are what make history significant. This why I would say that content still needs to be privileged over form, even if form is very important. Therefore games should supplement content in courses, not be the center of it.

  • March 29, 2016 at 3:57 pm

    I don’t think any of the pieces is making the argument that games should be used as a teaching tool instead of books, though–think of it as teaching a novel and two monographs, or a fictional film and a set of scholarly articles. What’s the pedagogical use of having students engage with different kinds of materials? You’ve got some good points on the drawbacks, but rather than taking it to the extremes, what does using interactivity via games offer as a tool in the toolbox?

    Lectures are great as a pedagogical tool for quickly delivering a concise argument to a group all at once, and monographs are good for modeling argumentation and writing, but you wouldn’t have a course that was totally and only lectures with no reading or writing, or all reading monographs with no engagement with faculty or other students–why do most courses use pedagogical tools like lecture, discussion, writing and reading different kinds of material in combination? What do students get by engaging with a range of materials and what goals are we serving by using particular tools?

  • March 29, 2016 at 5:30 pm

    I think it is completely realistic for teachers to use games as a tool to teach history. It is a way for the students to interact with the information in a way that might not be possible through plain text. That being said, the game developers and educators need to be clear on what questions are being asked and answered through the game. As discussed in the YouTube video the history learned from the game won’t be memorizing names and dates, but rather giving a larger sense of problems and solutions. If an educator uses any game they should be providing context through other methods and filling in the any gaps in information. Some of the popular games discussed in these readings may not work in the classroom, and in picking a game the needs of the students come first. In my personal experience, the students I work with will tune out if I lecture which means that every single teaching activity needs to have an interactive component. Creating hands-on lessons can be difficult for some topics, so I personally welcome the use of games as a supplemental piece to a larger lesson. As discussed regularly in our class, why not use every tool in the box?

  • March 29, 2016 at 6:31 pm

    In response to question 1.1, which appears to be popular today, I think that video games might be useful in some contexts for teaching purposes. Should they be used exclusively? No, definitely not, but some do have value. A game like Assassin’s Creed I or II, might have value for the cultural history you could learn from the Middle East during the Crusades, or Italy during the Renaissance, but it’s important to realize that these stories follow fictional characters who interact with the developers representations of historical figures and events. While these representations are accurate to some extent, a student could learn the same information by reading a text. Maybe it would be possible to use certain games to introduce students to time periods, and get them interested in the material, but as a tool, I’m still a little wary. Also, I don’t think this has been touched upon, but buying these games and the systems they run on would probably be cost prohibitive in the long run.

    • March 29, 2016 at 6:40 pm

      Your point re: cost is actually something I’d like to discuss in class. I thought about assigning one of these games for our class, but the logistics seemed like too much of a headache. Even a $40 game isn’t that expensive in the bigger scheme of books for a grad class, but it does quickly run into problems if you have to figure out how to make it doable for people who have older PCs/etc.

      • March 29, 2016 at 7:06 pm

        I know others have gone over this point it I think that the potential for games in relation to history is the ability of the interactive medium to experience rather than recreate events. What I mean by this is that a game can present the player decisions that historical actors faced but on the other hand the interactivity prevents the narrative from following the exact path of events so when discussing accuracy in games I think a wise course is recreating mindsets of the past rather than events.

    • March 29, 2016 at 7:08 pm

      Also, in response to the second question, I agree with Extra Credits with regards to game mechanics. Limiting what a person can do may seem like a bad choice, but you’re jeopardizing historical accuracy by allowing a person to change things to suit their preferences. Surviving History: The Fever!, is a good example of this, because it limits what you can and cannot do, but the format can be a little boring, and the text can be longwinded. If anyone is familiar with games by Telltale Games, this might be a good platform for something like this because these games usually involve in depth stories with a point-and-click mechanic where the player’s choices affect the outcome of the particular character. I think this format might be useful in some contexts because it allows the player some degree of freedom, while in reality, the outcome might already have been decided.

  • March 29, 2016 at 6:56 pm

    In regards to Ques 1.1, I don’t believe that videogames could fit into the the traditional methods of learning history, per se, but I do believe that they can be perhaps used in classroom setting to introduce a topic and garner interest in a particular period or subject. So I would agree with 2.2 that historical video games could be use to study broader contexts rather than narrower ones.

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