History Through Games

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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Battlefield 1942 is a good example. It is arcadey, but the weapons they use – at least until the Secret Weapons expansion – were really used on the battlefields of WWII. The maps, while scaled down dramatically, do bear a great resemblance to real WWII battlefields. The game is fun, and people play it for fun, but at the same time – whether they realize it or not – they’ve also learned a little bit about their past. Call of Duty 2 again drew on actual historical WWII accounts and made a very fun game. Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 takes it a step further. Like the cult-hit television series Band of Brothers, it is based on the actual exploits of the 101st Airborn. UbiSoft produced a blockbuster WWII fighting game and dared to promote it as “one of the World’s Most Authentic World War II Videogames.” Unfortunately, it seems, right now, the only area where we see some thought given to history is in the WWII shooter crowd.

Perhaps this hails a sad trend – it seems as if history is being lost. I’ve talked to high-school students who didn’t know what a Nazi was. Rome is a foreign concept to too many people. It is the responsibility of society as a whole to make sure future generations, not just stuffy historians at the local college, remember the past. Yet, doing so requires they want to learn, and that is why I look to the entertainment industry to pass along this knowledge to the masses.

So far, games are extremely behind the other major mediums in relating history. In television, we routinely see period-piece dramas, documentaries and even have The History Channel. In movies, bio-pics are all the rage, and we can look to smash hits like Braveheart, blending fact and fiction, and credit them with at least getting people interested. Besides WWII, it just does not seem games have held up their end of the bargain, which is a shame, as games are the medium best equipped to do it.

I challenge developers to consider the past when they create their next project. Our society has been dreaming of time-travel for centuries. Videogames offer us the best opportunity to metaphysically explore that past. In books, TV and movies, we’re taken there, but through the eyes of others. In a game, the eyes of the character – if done well – are your eyes. You cannot lose sight of the main focus of a game: fun. However, I am not so jaded to believe people do not want to learn and explore their past if they can have fun doing it. As games grab more of our society’s attention, they take it away from areas that had previously preserved history in the minds of the average person. In doing so, game developers take on part of the responsibility, and not only give a generally accurate portrayal of the past, but also make sure people can learn a thing or two from their game.

Dana “Lepidus” Massey is the Lead Content Editor for MMORPG.com and former Co-Lead Game Designer for Wish.

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