The Virtual Coffeeshop

The Virtual Coffeeshop
History Through Games

Dana Massey | 24 Jan 2006 11:03
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Books seem to have become a thing of the past. As a society, we have become more reliant on the internet, television and movies to bring us information, entertainment and to pass time. Over the last few years, videogames have weaseled their way into the same breath as other major entertainment mediums. Like the others, games span times, settings and themes of all varieties. One thing games have not done, though, is alter humanity's fascination with its past.

Historical games - or perhaps I should say games set in the past - are among the most popular. In the last year, we saw blockbusters like Civilization IV, Call of Duty 2 and Brothers in Arms. This fascination also played out on TV, where HBO's Rome fascinated us. At the box-office, people lined up to see new films like Munich and Good Night and Good Luck. While history finds a frequent home in modern entertainment, and games grab more and more of society's attention, do those who develop games bear some responsibility to educate consumers on their past?

Personally, I studied History in university, but it was not until I actually traveled to the one of the places I studied - in this case, the volcanically preserved city of Pompeii - that the significance of it all sunk in. In Pompeii, I was able to walk around a true Roman city, perfectly preserved in a single snapshot of Roman life some 2,000 years ago. Sound familiar? Videogame technology offers exactly the same opportunity and more. We know, roughly, what most major historical cities looked like, and could - admittedly painstakingly - recreate them in 3-D. It would be a mammoth project, but it would also offer people the chance to explore their past as realistically as we can hope to allow, short of time-travel. Unfortunately, this plan sounds more like a graduate project than a money-making enterprise.

And let's be honest; the primary function of a videogame is to make money. Any studio that seeks to make a product they feel will not make money, but serve some higher ideal, best be a cooperative or charitable foundation. Otherwise, it's not fair to the people whose livelihoods depend on the success or failure of the product. Unless there is a market for purely educational history games - which I don't believe there is, at least among the mainstream of gamers - fun is the number one priority.

However, that doesn't mean developers can simply change whatever they want about history. With every major "period-piece" Hollywood released, there is inevitably a team of historians complaining about the alteration of fact in the name of drama. For example, I wouldn't be shocked if most people believed the Roman Emperor Commodus - played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator - is either a fictional construct like most of the rest of the film, or truly an accurate depiction of the man himself. Commodus was by no means a good emperor and he truly was killed by a gladiator, but the similarities between fact and fantasy end there. At times like that, some complain and some are undisturbed, but of far more concern is some never stop to question it.

Accuracy is one key that maintains the suspension of disbelief in an audience. Hollywood learned this and now routinely hires historians to ensure that their picture is as authentic as the integrity of the tale will allow. The game industry has largely not yet made that leap. A careful blend of actual history and a compelling game set in the past makes for a fierce combination. But some videogames have done this.

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