Privileging Form Over Content: Analysing Historical Videogames

Jan 19, 12 Privileging Form Over Content: Analysing Historical Videogames

This is a guest article from Adam Chapman, a PhD Candidate at the University of Hull in the Media, Culture and Society department.  He received a History BA (Hons) from Leeds Metropolitan University and a Cultural History MA at the University of Liverpool before continuing on to study at Hull.  Adam’s research focuses on the videogame as an historical form and seeks to weave existing (mainly postmodernist) historical theory and analysis, with game-focused research that emphasizes the unique qualities of games and play as well as, more recently, Gibsonian psychology.  Accordingly, he is attempting to develop an analytical framework for historical videogames that includes both action/agency and narrative/representation.   Unsurprisingly, Adam is also an avid gamer and when he is not studying he is normally to be found playing some kind of videogame as his digital alter-ego ‘Woodlandstar’.  Like most academics that study games, Adam has found he has to restrict the amount of time he spends doing ‘research’ of this kind.’

Few could now deny that contemporary game series like Civilization or Assassin’s Creed constitute history.  However, such a broad term does not suffice to infer the approach that analysis of these new historical texts requires.  Any apprehension of these hugely-popular historical videogames must be grounded in an approach that privileges understanding of the videogame form (and the varying structures this entails) and its integral role in the production and reception of historical meaning, rather than solely, or even primarily, the content of specific products as historical narratives. This is especially pertinent given the relatively early nature of the serious consideration of historical videogames.  Examining the content of particular histories according to what we believe to be accurate is of course a natural part of analysis. However, in terms of modern videogames (at the least), such a focus often really only serves to re-inform us about popular history rather than increasing our understanding of the opportunities for engaging with discourse about the past (and the nature of this discourse) that this new historical form can offer.

Proper analysis of content cannot even occur without consideration of the structures that create and represent it.  Content cannot be seen to stand independent of form, history cannot be understood as a category separate from the modes in which it is written, coded, filmed, played, read or viewed.  Whilst analysing the historical content of particular videogames can give us some basic information this tells us nothing of how content is created in terms of its stylistic and epistemological approach and nothing of how (or even if) players experience this content.  Similarly, such a focus tells us nothing about the opportunities for exploring discourse about the past through play: what actions players can perform and do perform (and the necessity of these actions), when they play. This last concern is integral to understanding games, because, unlike the majority of historical forms, videogames, as well as creating ‘traditional’ opportunities for negotiation of meaning, are actively configured by their audiences. In essence, this means when we play we may well be ‘reading’ (i.e. interpreting and negotiating historical signifiers and narrative) but we are also ‘doing’ (i.e. playing). It is only by focusing on form that we can properly include this latter category of action and create an analytical approach that fuses Salen and Zimmerman’s three schemas of games: play, rules and culture (2004, 102), whilst allowing the consideration of the player’s role in the negotiation and fusion, of this triad.  The overt focus on content in some of the scholarly analyses of existing historical videogames is troubling for this very reason.

With these concerns in mind, this article is a call for a refocusing of academic work on historical videogames.  A call for an approach that does not get detained by primarily examining the particular historical content of each game (i.e. historical accuracy or what a game ‘says’ about a particular period it depicts) but instead tries to establish an analytical framework that privileges analysis of form (i.e. how the particular audio-visual-ludic structures of the game operate to produce meaning and allow the player to explore/configure discourse about the past). The benefit of this is that we do not just gain knowledge of a particular historical representation but instead, conclusions about form (a particular game-structure’s operations) are then transferable to an understanding of games made up of similar ludic (and audio-visual) elements.

If a cautionary tale about the problems with privileging content over form is needed, then we can turn to the example of historical film, a form that has often been rejected on the basis of individual texts historical content.  Critiques of particular historical films were assumed to be indicative of some kind of structural inability of film as a mode of historical expression.  Many scholars concluded that film could not constitute ‘proper history’.  It took a number of theorists (particularly the seminal work of Robert A. Rosenstone) to outline that accusations of ‘poor information loads’ or ‘discursive weakness’, were not only often unjustified and selective, but based on unfair comparisons.  Not, as it might first seem, to the elusive past itself, but to the history found in books.  This is an, often unconscious, ontological discrepancy whereby the notion of ‘accuracy’ or ‘truth’ is collapsed with and thus, taken to mean ‘in alignment with the narratives of book-history’.

Obviously the aim of the developers of historical videogames like Civilization or Brother’s in Arms (as well as to create entertaining games), is not to create history as it can be represented in a book but as it can be represented in a videogame.  Analysis on the basis of content alone, almost invariably involves comparisons with historical narratives constructed and received in book form, which is often troublingly understood as the only form capable of producing ‘proper’ history.  Most often these narratives are used as the benchmark for establishing truth or accuracy and thus, the examination of content.  Such comparisons are also based on a confusion between the evidence of the past and the history that is written about it.    The evidence of the past is often unavailable for reconsideration and rarely stands independent of (most often, narrative) interpretation and as such, these written interpretations are taken to be history (or more accurately, the past) itself, rather than history as it can be written, which naturally cannot be bluntly compared to history as it can be played.    As Rosenstone (2006) repeatedly outlines, expecting history on film to be that of the book, merely transposed to an inferior form, is intensely problematic.  Instead, history on film must be considered on its own terms.  Aware of this type of flawed analysis, we are now presented with an opportunity to avoid the same mistakes that were made in the consideration of historical film.  We can only do this by approaching historical videogames on their own terms and this can only be achieved by beginning to build an understanding that privileges transferable understandings of form over fixed analysis of individual historical content.

Games will likely never produce the same opportunities for discourse as a book, but then why should they?  Analysis on the basis of content usually involve uncomfortable comparisons of this kind and can result in mistaken conclusions about the representational capability of the videogame as an historical form, rather than the limitations of and concerns surrounding, histories which can be interpreted as ‘popular’ or ‘commercial’.  Each form utilizes different structures that, considered alongside one another as part of a larger trans-media meta-discourse, create much more interesting collaborative opportunities for establishing historical understanding than one or the other alone.

Examining only content also necessarily involves asking questions about what is included or left out of a particular videogames representation.  This is rarely a useful question beyond the basis of a general common sense.  Historical videogames are, like all histories, mimetic cultural products.  Naturally, this involves a productive and often creative, process of evidence selection and emplotment.  Thus, as Carr notes, ‘criticising a simulation for being reductive is nonsensical… [endnote]… That would be like disparaging a map for not being life-size’ (Carr 2007, 234 & endnote 6).  Selectivity and reductionism is a natural ‘flaw’ of history (and all representation).  This is no different in those histories that are written in books.  This point becomes even more explicit when we consider ‘simulation…is perhaps the best translation of the Greek mimesis’ (Genette 1983, 15).

Analysis on the basis of content using a comparative method such as this often does not even produce particularly useful results.  We can of course sometimes confidently highlight obvious anachronisms and misplaced objects but historical videogames mostly relinquish the telling of the experiences of specific historical agents and, favour instead typical historical environments, scenarios and experiences

.  Given this, in the majority of cases (particularly given the implied audience), how much is to be actually gained by knowing, for instance, that certain shoes were not genuinely available until the 1490’s rather than the 1470’s, or that a particular character, though historically typical, did not truly exist?  Relatively little, compared to the ‘feel’ of a period, the life, colour, action and processes (with which the book can struggle) and which can be easily communicated in games.  More than this, in games we can wilfully discover these things, often as an (inter)active part of them, configuring our experience.  It is only by focusing on form that we can understand how the game can produce meaning in these, arguably, new ways, that neither book nor cinema can effectively utilize.  Examination of a particular history has to involve an understanding of the form through which it operates as these aspects can never be seen to truly stand apart.  History is not a ‘thing’ that can be understood as separate from the forms in which it is produced, received and argued.


Historical videogames must be understood on their own terms, yet, still without relinquishing our understanding of the basic tenets of historical theory as they universally apply to history as a practice within any form (e.g. history is referential and representational).  Admittedly, striking the balance between these concerns can be challenging.  Accepting this challenge means considering historical videogames on a quite different basis, that does not completely exclude analysis of content and yet seeks to understand how the nature and the meanings produced by this are wholly dependent on the form of the text in both production and reception.  Such an approach is more trying in the sense that content cannot be evaluated on only its own terms.  Returning to Salen and Zimmerman’s schemas, historical content in games is a concern that balances unnervingly between rules, play and culture

and as such can only be understood by understanding the structures of the game through which it is created and disseminated.  It is only by understanding the interplays between form and content that we can really gain any comprehension of the (often troubling) category we know as history, which is always anchored within the mediums in which it is created and received.

Understanding this requires a new approach to historical videogames, one that involves analyzing the structures that produce meaning.  Structures which create opportunities for players to negotiate meaning in the ways that we are familiar with from other more ‘passive’ media but also to actively configure their own historical experience.  In short, this means continually returning to and refocusing on, the agency which the player wields and which allows a somewhat unique form of engagement with historical discourse.  This also means understanding the aesthetics of historical description that are utilized in historical videogames.  This almost always includes audio-visual design, semiotic structures with which we are (hopefully) somewhat familiar with from historical film.  However, in the videogame, even this element largely depends on the rules of the game and the opportunities for player action that these create.  A large part of the aesthetics of games such as Assassin’s Creed are actually algorithms, that though written logically are still subjective aesthetics that attempt to represent historical experience through producing signs to be read and responses to be acted upon.  In short, in any historical videogame, the aesthetics of historical description also function at a ludic level, producing a form of ‘procedural rhetoric’ (Bogost 2007) that, depending on a particular games (or genres) structures can influence virtually all of the other historical signifiers through which the game produces meaning.  Understanding of this can only be approached through a focus that privileges form rather than individual content.

Having identified combinations of these audio-visual-ludic structures, we can then approach other games that operate similarly with an understanding of what opportunities for historical meaning-making they are likely to offer.  This is transferable knowledge that is likely to remain so, even when faced with the historical games of the near-future.

It is defining and understanding these structures and how they operate in games, including the whole raft of new aesthetics that this implies, which is the most important task facing historians or other scholars interested in historical videogames.  When we look at one game’s content, we understand no more than that.  If analysis of content is necessary, then surely it is better left to those scholars that specialize in the historical period that the game tries to represent?  However, as scholars that wish to study historical videogames then our first concern must be the form that exerts influence over virtually every aspect of production and reception.  And which, in its relation to the historian/developer’s choices, decides the content.  When we look at the videogame form in this way we can, I hope, begin to create a cohesive understanding of how games represent the past and what structures create particular opportunities for players to explore, understand and interact with these representations.

Of course advocating an approach and demonstrating it are different matters and as such my next post will be an analysis of the Assassin’s Creed series that I hope displays that this focus on different concerns can take us back to the basics of what the game achieves or offers and accordingly, help us to think about the game in new ways.

This approach is far from complete and I make this call in a collaborative spirit.  If taken up, this will no doubt become a complex analytical approach to construct but one which will benefit our understanding of this new form of historical expression. I also realise that this post is probably in many regards ‘preaching to the converted’ and many of the excellent pieces on this site display an understanding of the importance of analysing the structures at play within videogames if we are to understand the medium as a historical form and therefore, games as history at all.  In a sense, this call to privilege form over content is also a simple point.  However, I do believe that it is one worth making explicitly if we are to further develop a cohesive approach to historical videogames.  Here at the relatively early point in the mediums life we are well placed to together offer the beginnings of an understanding of how and what, videogames enable in terms of playfully engaging, configuring and experiencing, discourse about the past.


Bogost, I. 2007. Persuasive games. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Carr, D. 2007. The Trouble with Civilization. In Videogame//player/text, ed. T. Krzywinska and B. Atkins. 222-236. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Firaxis Games. 2010. Sid Meier’s Civilization V. 2K Games.

Gearbox Software. 2008. Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. Ubisoft.

Genette, G. 1990 [1983]. Narrative discourse revisited, trans. J.E. Lewin. New York: Cornell University Press.

Rosenstone, R. 2006. History on Film/ Film on History. London: Pearson.

Salen, K & Zimmerman, E. 2004. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Massachusetts:  MIT Press.

Ubisoft Montreal. 2011. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Ubisoft.

[Flickr Image courtesy of Man of Wax / Creative Commons Licensed]


  1. Haha, I think on this particular blog you are preaching to the choir. But this is a special place. The next step would be to explore the benefits of the “a-historical/allegorical” nature of games like Civilization (according to Galloway, anyway).

    Do you happen to read Killscreen? There’s a nice interview in their sold-out Education issue ( with the historian that was consulted for Assassin’s Creed II. Basically the historian agreed that it wasn’t necessary for all things to be accurate.

    I think that as more historians are invited into the process of helping create video games, this issue of critiquing content over form will become less of an issue.

    • Adam Chapman /

      Hi Rebecca,

      Thanks for your comments.

      Its funny that you should mention Galloway’s ideas as the next step,i have an article forthcoming (2013) in the Rethinking History Journal that deals with his informatics critique of the videogame as historical form.

      Thank you for the link to Killscreen i wasnt aware of the website and it looks interesting.

      You note ‘as more historians are invited into the process of helping create video games, this issue of critiquing content over form will become less of an issue.’- I’m interested to hear your thoughts behind this. I see it as more of an epistemological issue of reception.

      • I was saying that because I was reacting to the article I read in Killscreen, in which the historian learned through helping make the video game that it was worth letting certain accuracies go and worth fighting to keep some details. I think as video games become a more familiar medium and as more ludologists and historians argue to look at form first,
        historical inaccuracies (content) will be less disturbing to non-gamers. Although it’s been a while since I read the post so perhaps I’m misunderstanding/remembering your point.

        I tried looking for your email to share the article with you but can’t find it. Would you mind @replying me on twitter or emailing me?

        Plus, if, “proper analysis of content cannot even occur without consideration of the structures that create and represent it,” then historians would benefit from being involved in the process of making games and having to work with game developers.


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