When talking about history, the traditional image that pops into most people’s heads is that of textbooks, lectures, and documentaries by some renowned (and often British) historian. Few would imagine that history could be communicated through the actions of a dagger wielding, parkour moving and extremely classy and effective assassin moving and jumping off the rooftops during the Crusades and Renaissance Italy or at the front lines of the unsuccessful Operation Market Garden during the Second World War. Videogames have brought the sexy-back for history and are changing the way that we interact and imagine history.
How we consume or engage with history has traditionally been through passive mediums and means; we read about, look at, watch footage from, and talk about events and history. But what if we could engage with history in another way, instead of watching a documentary or movie about it, actually control, play, and experience those historical moments and events through an avatar or character?
The challenge of videogames to the historical experience is in its ability to recreate or simulate a virtual world and give the player an experience of that world through the eyes of their avatar or character. History isn’t simply an intangible or abstract idea, the cities of Rome, the battles of war, the daily lives of the average peasants, the great personalities scattered through history can all become tangible, given personality, context and life through a virtual simulation. A greater degree of empathy and attachment towards a historical context or event can be achieved, as players move through as if they were participating in a version of history itself.
With videogames now entrenched as a form of popular, mainstream entertainment, the developers of videogames are becoming more aware of history as a significant narrative device in the creation of storylines and characters. While previous ideas of incorporating history may have stopped at simply recreating notable landscapes or landmarks to provide identifiable locations, now there is much more awareness of creating characters into a period where historical events and happenings were taking place.
But what about the authenticity, some will cry. Aren’t these virtual simulations and worlds just a singular perspective or idea of the event? Are they even reliable enough to be considered ‘real’ or are they simply fantastical and overdramatised simulations designed to entertain rather than educate?
These are fair questions, as videogames ARE predominantly concerned with entertainment rather than any academic or historical impetus. They are still limited by the ludic (or gaming) rules and conventions that govern these virtual worlds and simulations, and that has to discount certain actions that may “break the game”. In this sense, they are not replacements for the more rigorous disciplines of historical academia but they don’t try to be. They look at history in a similar way that historical novels and docu-dramas do, partly with a sense of entertainment, partly as an exploration of the human condition in these contexts, to try and understand the individual within the greater historical span.
The convergence of traditional mediums in digital technologies and media means that videogames also have the advantage of using similar tropes found in other genres to build a more holistic experience that is not limited to a passive or active participation. Instead it jumps from one to the other seamlessly, offering cut scenes to provide a cinematic overview or context before placing the player into the world. Textual communication, music and sound effects, cinematic camera angles and even episodic pacing can be found in most videogames these days, and this helps to provide an overall experience that draws upon immersing the player into the world, whether it is a truly factual representation or not.
The most important aspect of videogames and their representation of history is the idea of experiencing, as close as the world will allow, what it may have been like during or throughout a certain historical era, period or event and how these events came about as a cause of human choices, acts and movements. It is the process of understanding history not as a predetermined event but rather as a result of a multitude different factors, perspectives, motivations and actions. History is no longer just things that happened, they can be relived, re-enacted and even changed if the game allows. It is a far more direct interaction with history that videogames present and this has the capacity to fundamentally change the way we can understand, teach, and experience history in this digital age.