Playing History – Videogames and the historical experience

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.

A scene from 'Brothers in Arms - Hell's Highway'

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.

A scene from Assassin's Creed II

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.


5 comments on “Playing History – Videogames and the historical experience

  1. Kezia says:

    Hi Mike,

    Your post was really, very interesting. I certainly do agree that video / pc games offer individuals a way to get a more ‘hands on understanding and experience’ of history, and without a doubt there is more academic articles being published in this area. But my question in relation to your topic is, do these interactive games like Call of Duty, Age of Empire, Civilisations, Band of Brothers act to de-sensitise their followers to these historic events, as for the most part they position the individual behind the scope of their gun, thus limiting their vision and perception of these events and also of their actions – i.e. killing enemy soldiers or civilians.

    Much like other ways of learning about history as you have sited in the beginning of your blog I don’t think that video games can be solely relied upon to provide a rounded factual account of historical events – however I think that can defiantly act as a point of interest that encourages others to delve and inquire into historic events like WW1 or WW2.

    Another question that your topic has raised in my mind (sort of off-topic) that I think is interesting – a sort of semi-inversion of your question is how has video gaming effected the development of military weapons, like unmanned aerial vehicles. Did you explore this sort of possibility in your essay?

    Sorry I didn’t mean to write an essay… Just such an interesting topic!

  2. mvirata says:

    Kezia, glad you found it so interesting!

    To address some of the questions:

    In terms of desensitisation this really depends on which side of the media-effects fence you sit on, the two main ones being that exposure to such violence equates to a desensitisation of the person, or worse even promotes violent tendencies and imitation of the portrayed violence. This typically presupposes that audiences are passive and that tendencies are administered via some sort of hypodermic needle and that they have no ability to resist or counter this.

    The other side of course is the opposite, it supposes that audiences are active participants that are constantly administering their own perceptions and actions upon the information coming in. This is what they refer to as the active audience view. This is of course overly simplifying things but personally I believe it lies somewhere in the middle, yes somewhere down the line things like violent videogames and perspectives will lead to some sort of ‘normalisation’ of the event but at the same time there remains a reason why the world has not descended into mass anarchy with children ripping each other’s spines out in the school playground, and that is due to human agency.

    NOW, the reason I needed to put that in was to point to the next aspect of the question, if we were to think of a soldiers’ experience or perspective on a war, it does not take into account many of the perspectives available to those who aren’t partaking in the war, for many soldiers orders are the law and as such it is not that big of a leap to imagine that they were as blinkered as the players playing these games. Band of Brothers, and other newer productions of war games that have been raised in this age of increased awareness (post-Vietnam) of wars, the media and social consciousness raise this aspect quite well. In the game you aren’t portrayed as some superhuman super soldier, on the contrary it explores a character suffering from the traumas of being the only survivor of a squad and the tenuous psychological state of the soldier as they battle through what was ultimately a failed Allied campaign (another interesting take as they usually portray battles that are often glorious or ‘world changing’). This I think points to the medium slowly maturing, beyond the gratuitous violence and meaningless death found in older (and other newer games) and the more reflexive and socially conscious games that are now springing forth. I would even argue that games such as the Total War series where you are capable of exploring other avenues of ‘victory’ outside of military conquest presents opportunities for players to question the very role of war as a simply about the violent conflict that results.

    As for not being a holistic approach, I agree, and I don’t think videogame developers are in any way trying to replace academic literature or disciplines, but the technology and their uses as entertainment have opened up an avenue for use by academics to experiment and present their academic histories outside of written works. Claudio Fogu’s article ( is a good example of where the genre of an MMO (think World of Warcraft) can have the potential to present an event such as life on a concentration camp during the Second World War through a variety of perspectives, not just of the prisoner’s perspective. In this way, it has the availability to incorporate a multitude of perspectives that is very difficult to get across via written works or more traditional mediums.

    And as for videogames’ development of military weapons, its a little like the chicken and the egg, and I don’t think videogames could be seen as the single predominant factor. The realm of science fiction has been inspiring more technologies and for the most part the videogame and its developers are in a sense authors in that sense (but also designers and musicians etc). Yes it can be seen as promoting its use but most of the technologies present in videogames is already based off existing designs or weapons. In this way they actually use history and current designs and events to predict where the next step of ‘innovation’ may follow. And this is another interesting topic that I probably cannot do justice, just how much does history and science fiction influence future developments or predictions of the paths of innovation/evolution.


  3. alfredjohnson1707 says:

    Hi Michael,
    I must admit I don’t know an awful lot about computer games (“Somme 1916” would not make the best…), so I found your article really interesting. Part of the thing about computer-game-history and “experiencing” history is that it appears to use history as a starting point and goes into the subjunctives. As in, historical evidence indicates Napoleon lost at Waterloo. However, if you play a computer game version of Waterloo as Napoleon you could win instead of lose, or you could lose more successfully than what the historical record suggests. A few questions arise from that. Have historians got a say in what the possibilities might be (directly or indirectly, as in one of the scriptwriters getting ideas from reading the books)? This obviously reflects a postmodernist sort of historical attitude, but does it increase the public’s historical interest (sales of popular histories, school electives and university intakes)? With documentaries you can get a fuller picture with a tie-in website; is there something similar with computer games?
    Of course, the alternative is we all get haircuts, join re-enactment societies and spend the rest of our lives falling over in muddy fields, but that would involve exercise…
    Any thoughts?

    • mvirata says:

      Haha yes, the ability to ‘play’ history does have its problematic aspects if we think of it in a purely factual and historic sense. Taking your example, yes it would be problematic for people to think that Napoleon won at Waterloo and that would be their conceptualisation of this, but does this discount the historical value of the game or the scenario? That depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If it were that history in itself is simply about learning the facts, then I think other mediums, particularly academic written histories are a much better resource. However, what most of these games do institute is a fairly sound military history framework, that is the battle engine and rules governing it. Using the historical reality as a basis, they typically operate with the advantages/disadvantages of the real outcome of the historical conflict or event and make it quite difficult to succeed using alternative pathways. This is of course only true with more traditional military/conquest games as opposed to the more overarching civilisation games which are more concerned about build the civilisation rather than individual military conflicts.

      Additionally, these situations/scenarios that challenge historical reality can give the player perhaps a more nuanced understanding as to why certain tactics weren’t effective/why Napoleon was defeated the way he was/why he undertook the decisions he did, etc. Think of them as a historian testing potential theories out before reaching a conclusion.

      As for the tie-in, a lot of video games, particularly those with a focus or major historical underpinning are quite detailed in the information they give. Age of Empires for example uses a docu-narrative approach to tell its stories, as the player moves from battlefield to battlefield, and each troop has a varied range of information attached to it, from the very basic to a more in-depth look at civilisatons/races/troops. More recent games like Assassin’s Creed II even have a detailed write up on each key building that includes when it was built, who built it and treats it like a virtual world encyclopedia (think Encarta meets a virtual museum). Of course these are secondary to the gaming and entertainment aspects but for those interested in the history, they are available.

      I’ve included a couple of other links for perusing if you are more interested in the topic 🙂

  4. Hey Mike,

    I love your willingness to explore new territories in historical techniques that would normally make historians quiver. I enjoyed your considerations of how videogames can be used, and your recognition of them as contributing to a broader historical dialogue, not attempting to replace any other history.

    Most of all however, I love that you have justified all the years of my life that I have spent playing historical based videogames.

    Have a great one!

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