Below are episodes 1 to 5 of History’s Creed, and ARTE Web Series on History in Video Games. To read Play the Past’s introductory remarks on the series, please click on this link. Episodes 6 to 10 are discussed here.
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History’s Creed (1/10) – Origins
Episode Summary and Take-Away
Nota Bene introduces himself as a History Youtuber. He reflects on how games introduced him to humanity’s past at a young age. The idea that video games can be a “gateway drug” to all things historical for up and coming generations will be a recurring theme of ARTE’s History’s Creed series.
But the role video games now play in shaping perceptions of the past also raises a lot of questions. For examples, are game development studios now in a position to rewrite history? What role do video games play in the construction of public memory? And can game publishers engage in historical propaganda?
In History’s Creed, Nota Bene proposes to tackle the many fascinating, and at times thorny issues surrounding the representation of history in games.
History’s Creed (2/10) – Stereotypes
Episode Summary and Take-Away
Now an adult and a life-long student of History, Nota Bene couldn’t help noticing how the many video games he’s played throughout the years have been full of historical clichés.
Why do video games that either borrow from history, or set their action in a historical setting, fall so often prey to historical caricature?
First, what is a historical cliché? it’s a historical detail, or a period, that has easily identifiable traits. i.e. a castle, with a lord and peasants, to represent life in the Middle Ages. Or, barbarian “races” with monstrous traits, and appetites, menacing civilization. Images lifted straight for the literature and histories of the Romans.
Why do game developers employ clichés? First and foremost, historical clichés are classic tropes – or story elements – that help set up a games’ narrative premise, for maximum popular appeal. The market reach of games today is truly international. Historical clichés can thus help make a narrative element more intelligible to audiences that live outside a given developer’s cultural frame of reference. Example: the singing of the Marseillaise in Assassin’s Creed: Unity. The detail may be anachronistic, but it provides a clear cultural signifier to gaming audiences, both in France and outside.
Problem is, the constant recycling of clichés by developers and publishers reinforces historical stereotypes that are known to be false, in a self-perpetuating cycle.
But do the clichés currently in use originate from video game culture itself? It seems the most common clichés come from previous iterations of popular history, for example in movies and even education. Most of the stereotypes we hold about the “dark and violent” Middle Ages, for example, were set up in the popular imagination via public education, thanks to the political beliefs of historians writing in the Renaissance and the 19th century. And the “Great Man of History” myth also comes from the writings of historians trying to forge strong symbols to promote the nation-state.
Historically-speaking, the United States and Japan have been the major centers of video game production. It should therefore stand as no surprise that certain historical clichés keep coming back, based on the national perceptions of the past shared by Japanese or American developers. We can expect this to change as new studios located in countries outside these traditional video game “strongholds” begin to contribute to the conversation surrounding historical experience in games.
History’s Creed (3/10) – Liberty
Episode Summary and Take-Away
The treatment of history in recent video games reveals an interesting contradiction with the medium: on the one hand, games are becoming more and more “realistic” in their visual and sonic depictions of historical experience; on the other hand, the increased realism of games makes distinctions between historical fact and fiction more difficult, if not impossible, to operate.
In other words, historical simulations have become immersive (the concept of “presence” in the psychology of immersion) to the extent that video games can now give players the impression that the simulated world is quite factual, or “real”.
We need however to properly separate the aesthetic of realism in historical games from actual historical experience. It’s a matter of distinguishing verisimilitude from factuality. This is the task of media literacy, as it pertains to video games.
Umberto Eco and the concept of hyperrealism: a “better” simulation is just a perfected artifice. For Jean Baudrillard, hyperreality happens when simulation “takes over” reality: example, Las Vegas and Disney simulate “real” world landmarks, and remove the need to visit famous places.
One problem with simulated historical environments is that they can whitewash historical reality. Example: Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate’s London is free of prostitutes and mostly populated with ethnic Europeans.
Ubisoft’s response to the charge of inaccuracies and anachronism: “we have no pretense of teaching history through games. Rather, history is our playground“. In short – and no surprise here – Ubisoft’s use of history has to be entertaining to players. The concept of “historical tourism” promoted by Ubisoft, thus proposes that game audiences and educators can now vicariously “visit” a (heavily-curated) past setting, as a means of escape and enlightenment.
The marketing promise of “historical tourism”, of course, has implications for game and narrative design: attention to eye-catching details, sensationalism in action, or out of proportion historical props become more important than historical authenticity.
Developers therefore take many liberties with historical settings and elements, all the while acknowledging their responsibility in creating a certain image of the past for the gaming public at large.
This rather freewheeling use of historical content and themes leaves developers and studios vulnerable to the criticism that they are also engaging in historical propaganda. For example, the debate in France following the release of Assassin’s Creed: Unity on the simplistic, Good vs. Evil image the game gave of the French Revolution. For historians, there is no such thing as a settled controversy, and to them, books, movies and games that take an unnuanced position on controversial subjects fall in the propaganda category.
That said, the public debate and buzz generated around Assassin’s Creed: Unity also showed that video games are now an important cultural trend, that can’t be excluded from serious discussion about history. Games can no longer be dismissed as “mere entertainment”.
So what to do about the partly-factual, mostly-fictional representation of history in games? Laurent Turcot, historian and consultant on the Assassin’s Creed series: games may not teach us about history directly, but they can light the spark of curiosity for the study of the past in powerful new ways. Properly understood, games can serve as important stepping stones for introducing people to the more serious and sustained study of history.
History’s Creed (4/10) – Truth
Episode Summary and Take-Away
Nota Bene has both a life-long passion for video games, and the Middle Ages. Until now, games have been a disappointment when it comes to depicting the Middle-Ages, depicted either as an age of darkness and violence, or with large dollops of cliché borrowings from the period in, for example, popular fantasy RPGs.
Czech game developer Warhorse Studios has been working to remedy this situation, with a game, just released in February 2018, whose very premise is historical authenticity toward the Middle Ages, as applied to every single detail of their game.
In Kingdom Come: Deliverance, you play a commoner in the Kingdom of Bohemia in the early 1400s. As war erupts in the Holy Roman Empire, the protagonist is propelled in a quest and must learn the ropes of medieval living, realistically depicted in the game, to fulfill his goals.
The game’s main selling point, however, is historical fidelity to the referenced period and a manic attention to detail. The Big Publishers the studio pitched to were convinced there was no market for such a project, so Warhorse Studios decided to go solo on the project, thanks to the possibilities offered by crowdfunding. After 1.3 million euros from 35,000 backers, the project was successfully funded, and proved the publishers were wrong.
A small victory not only for the studio, but also for Czech historians, who have traditionally been cut off from the major centers of historiography of Western Europe and North America.
Warhorse Studios wanted to make their historical game world come alive and were determined to avoid the clichés surrounding the Middle Ages.
For example, the combat system was devised from swordsmanship manuals from the 15th century and recreated by experienced martial artists through motion capture. However, the developers also “mocapped” inexperienced and clumsy fighters, to keep the players on a learning curve that was realistic. And since swords slide on armor, they found the medieval fighting man’s answer to the problem in the historical manuals: target armor joints, or use armor-smashing weapons, such as a mace.
The developers also hit the rewind button on urban development to fit the landscape of the period. The biggest city in the game is just a big village with a castle. One of the monasteries appearing in the game took over one year to recreate. The 3D artists worked with a historian to recreate the monastery surroundings, adding even a medieval construction site of a second tower in the workings that did not get built in real history. The physical proximity and study of real places helped the process of creative reconstruction of the past, and the accumulated knowledge on the period helped fill the gap on the details of everyday life.
The developers were ready to risk disorienting, and even displeasing, players who have been spoon-fed clichés on the medieval period. The gambled on the idea that historical fidelity should remain their strong sell.
Will Kingdom Come succeed as a game on its own merits? Can it attract players who don’t take an active interest in the period? One historian who worked on the project confesses that many accommodations with the truth had to be made for the game to remain… a game. Historical facts themselves are an unstable category. And recreating the past whole cloth on computers is, ultimately, a fantasy. Historians who work on games, then, must make permanent concessions in favor of gameplay.
History’s Creed (5/10) – Wisdom
Episode Summary and Take-Away
The traditional image of the historian is a clichéd one: an older gentleman in a tweed jacket, surrounded by piles of books and manuscripts. But professional historians today are taking on an increasing consultative role in “cultural production”, movies, musicals, museums and even video games.
What was Laurent Turcot‘s job like, consulting on Assassin’s Creed: Unity? He was given a list of ten themes – everyday life, the countryside, buildings, etc. – and six hours to brief the team of historical content. His job was to teach the production team to understand the way people lived – and how they perceived the world – in the 18th century. Aside from his briefing sessions, he also prepared historical imagery for the production team, which artists attempted to (selectively) replicate within the game’s style.
Game developers sometimes have the expectation that historians can answer their every question about the past, down to the specific details of everyday life. Considering the nature of historical knowledge, this is hardly ever possible.
As a Kingdom Come: Deliverance developer points out, historians often go about defining aspects of the past “negatively”, telling you how things weren’t like. Why is this so? Turcot: “historians work with trace elements of the past, not the past itself. In our work, we cross-reference these trace elements. History is mostly made of holes. By contrast, the reconstructed world of video games is fully realized, down to the tiniest of details.”
Keeping this in mind, we can better grasp how historical reenactments are done “in the style of” a given period, following certain rules of reference.
Aside from encouraging the creative interpretation of the past, part of the historian’s job as a consultant is ensuring historical accuracy in games, for better verisimilitude. But how then do we reconcile the limited capacity of games to represent historical experience with the demands of historical rigour?
On Kingdom Come: Deliverance, there was a constant push and pull between game design and historical accuracy, as for example, setting the bounds of the game’s referenced historical period to allow for creative design choices.
How are issues of “historical dissonance” resolved? Good gameplay is probably the single most important deciding factor. Technical issues also typically trump realism: after all, if your historically-accurate feature can’t execute properly, there’s no real point in having it in the game.
Ubisoft’s more elastic relationship with historical reference doesn’t mean the design team has complete creative license with the past. In its push to loosen the rules of historical reference to allow for maximum fictional extrapolation, the Ubisoft design team has adopted its infamous “5-second rule“: if a player can prove the contrary of what is presented in the game in less than 5 seconds on Wikipedia, then it shouldn’t be in the game.
All things considered, how do historians working as video game consultants react to the medium’s plasticity? Beyond issues of representation, many historians can’t help but marvel at the recreation of a historical universe – flawed as it may be – in a video game setting. They also end up conceding that the job of the historian is also interpretive, and reconstructive; albeit, the academic rules of interpretation and reconstruction are simply not the same as those used in entertainment products. And in the case of historical games, the rules of reference and the rules of gameplay converge in a median space, called “simulation“.