Call of Duty as Historical Reenactment

When I was 8, I was enrolled into a summer camp at Genesee Country Village and Museum. The village was a living museum where costumed interpreters talked about the life of an eighteenth to nineteenth century village. The purpose of the summer camp was to learn about lifeways during this period, as well as learn skills which have fallen out of practice such as sewing, basketry, spinning wool, and printing. In addition to actual skills, the camp included a variety of games from this period and live demonstrations of a range of crafts. Participants in the camp were expected to dress in period clothing, pack lunches in cotton bags or baskets, drink only from tin cups, and girls had to wear bonnets or braid their hair. Not only were we learning about the past, we were directly engaging with it, immersed in a colonial world. The past becomes something that is alive. Video games provide a similar framework which allows people to interact with history in a way that is more immersive and engaging than rote memorization. While the majority of these games are not built for educational experiences, meaningful play games should use this immersive quality of video games to engage with students.

Since its release, Call of Duty has stood as the exemplar of historical reality as a backdrop to a video game, with each of its following releases living up to this standard. Gamers are given the choice of playing through a number of different campaigns based on country, with each tailored to reflect the worldview, struggles and successes of that particular unit. Each battle is constructed based on a historical one, attempting to reflect reality as closely as possible. For the creation of Call of Duty: World at War, the military advisor at Treyarch, Hank Keirsay, was pivotal in accurately representing World War II. Treyarch community manager Josh Olin said “He [Keirsay] found veterans who served in these conflicts, and interviewed them for historical accuracy. He helps to paint a very vivid picture in the minds of our designers from what the battlefield looked like, to what it felt like, and even what it smelled like”.

One of the benefits of this type of engagement with history is that people are immersed within it in a different way than books or movies. First, the makers of Call of Duty selected battles which were pivotal in the overall structure of World War II, but may have been overlooked. One example of this is the American mission from Call of Duty II based on the invasion of Pointe du Hoc on June 6th, 1944. Historically, this battle has been one that was crucial in the success of D-Day, but has ultimately been less explored. Players are also given the opportunity to play a variety of different perspectives, avoiding the often biased and nationalistic viewpoint that basic history classes may instill. Gamers get the chance to see the war from different angles, seeing how the war was experienced in different moments, but also gaining an understanding of the broader trajectory and structure of the war.

Another benefit of this type of history is the opportunity for individuals to play through the battle, engaging with strategy, and facing the horrors of war without any real danger to themselves. Historical reenactment of World War II is also a way of engaging with history, but issues of modernity can call accuracy into question; such as the average age of participants being much higher than it actually was, the failure of participants to follow the rigorous personal grooming standards of 20th century military, and the exclusion of women from participating. These types of criticisms can be mitigated in video games, since those people engaging in the actual war are characters which are designed and shaped to most accurately represent the period. Also, video gamers can be any gender, so female participation ruining historical accuracy are non-issues. Video games also provide a more accessible way to interact with the past than reenactment.

Finally, video games (like historical reenactment) are a way of peopling the past. Vanessa Agnew (2007) argues that historical reenactment is an indication of a recent shift in the perception of history to a more affective representation, characterized by “conjectural interpretations of the past, the collapsing of temporalities and an emphasis on affect, individual experience and daily life rather than historical events, structures and processes”. Video games allow for the past to become more than “stale events” or “timelines”, creating a depth and richness that can be lacking in history.  Unlike reenactment, video games allow players to engage with World War II in the exact location that the battle took place, with period weaponry, but then can jump to a relevant battle in another country; pulling singular events together in a structured narrative.

Just as historical reenactment is criticized, so too are historical video games questioned for inaccuracies and misrepresentation of the past. The game does take liberties with some historical facts, using World War II as an inspiration for a plot but not always sticking strictly to the historical narrative. In Call of Duty, the Russian campaign begins with soldiers funneled from a train to the battlefield, with only half receiving weapons- a perception that has been propagated by popular media (such as the movie Enemy of the Gates) but has no historical evidence. The most recent version of Call of Duty: Black Ops has been highly critiqued for taking major liberties with history, such as changing the timeline of the uprising and giving the player the ability to kill Castro.

The main problem with mainstream video games and historical representation is that the goal of the game is not to appease World War II experts or educate users on the lesser known battles of the war. It is entertainment; if accuracy fails but the fun value is high a video game like this can still be highly successful. While the battle of Pointe du Loc was critical to the success of D-Day, it was also a battle which was going to provide a challenging and exciting background to the gameplay. Fun is where most educational games fail, trading game mechanics for atmospheric accuracy. However, Call of Duty can still be used as a supplement to World War II education. Like movies and reenactment, used to visually portray war, perhaps educators should be using Call of Duty to allow student to interact with World War II. Video games are a form of historical reenactment. They are able to transcend many of the criticisms of reenactment and can span a wide range of time periods and events, focusing on broad lessons and meaningful moments in history. Misrepresentation and mistakes in historical facts of World War II are found throughout the game; but this to can provide an important educational lesson, perhaps with teachers challenging students to find these inaccuracies. When a game (or reenactment) strays from historical accuracy, it offers a opportunity to use the difference as a jumping off point for teaching.

The lesson is that any “popularized” version of history requires it to be used in a properly rigorous setting such that it does not become truth. Video games allow users to engage with the past in a meaningful (but also fun) way. While the ultimate entertainment goals of games like Call of Duty must be remembered, it has many benefits as a historical reenactment and is an opportunity for immersive education. What do you think; can we use mainstream games as immersive education?

[Image by Flickr user Firefish45 and used under Creative Commons license]

Works Cited


Callaham, John 2008. Interview: Treyarch talks about Call of Duty: World at War. Electronic Document. Big Download. Accessed 6/12/11.

Swartzwelde, Beth Anne 2010. Historical video games are more than just fun. Electronic Document.

Bacchus 451 2011. An academic analysis of historical accuracy in Call of Duty II.

Agnew, Vanessa 2007. History’s affective turn: Historical reenactment and its work in the present Rethinking History. In The Journal of Theory and Practice 11(3): 299-312.



  1. Interesting article, and I would agree, but not to the extent that teachers should encourage kids to play CoD as homework (they do that anyway).

    You can’t use gaming as a basis for fact, and the idea of critiquing it is overly simplistic. The most valuable thing that can be communicated by computer games is how the experience felt, and building an ability to empathise and put yourself in a situation. If you were to play some CoD, then read some soldiers letters, you may have greater understanding of the individuals experience, and through that gain an understanding of a historical truth, how people felt.

    In this way the game offers an opportunity to teach a little of historiography, what truths can be found in source material, other than the facts.

    The key question however is whether games actually communicate an understanding truths. I would say probably not as it’s too distant, but it can be used as a way into historiography as a subject area.

  2. Good article, Katy, I never thought of these games in a historical reenactment sense before, though after reading this and thinking about my own experiences, I definitely agree.

    Personally, I’ve always been interested in the historical accuracy of such games, since the computer games i played in high school got me interested in history in the first place.

    Last year, I decided to start my own blog on the subject (so far I’ve only made it about halfway through Medal of Honor: Allied Assault) and I was surprised at what I learned when I began investigating each mission.

    The first mission: Lighting the Torch, combines a likely fictional SAS operative rescue with the real actions of the U.S. Army rangers near the town of Arzew, Algeria, prior to Operation Torch in November 1942.

    However, it gets a bit fuzzy from there, with a one-man infiltration of a Kriegsmarine base in Norway (though the target u-boat, U-529, was a real ship lost without a trace on the date of the mission).

    I’ve only written about everything up to the third mission: a D-Day recreation straight out of Saving Private Ryan (with little historical accuracy). But, like you suggested, I’ve managed to use the inaccuracies to write about truths and often, the truth is a lot more interesting than the game, but maybe that’s just me.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the comment John! I’m definitely going to check out your website. I actually really like pulling apart historical games and exploring the departures from ‘truth’. Instead of viewing it as an inconsistency and a design fault, I like to see it as a personal challenge to uncover history and consider it from a new perspective.

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