Below are episodes 6 to 10 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 1 to 5 are discussed here.
Note: if subtitles do not autoplay, please click on the settings wheel at the bottom right of the video, to select the subtitles of your choice.
History’s Creed (6/10) – Faith
Episode Summary and Take-Away
Nota Bene: “Are there any riskier subjects for game developers to tackle than religion?” Considering the central place of religion in human history, it’s almost impossible to avoid presenting religious themes and content in historical games, at least in some shape or form.
And so, in a global mass market of players that cuts across national and cultural boundaries, how do we avoid provoking the ire of different culture groups in our depiction of religion in games? How not to inflame passions?
One possible approach is to use passé gods (and religions) that no longer have cultural currency. Ancient mythological gods and goddesses, for example, have been travestied in countless ways in contemporary pop culture. These deities come mostly from pantheons already desacralized by monotheistic tradition. The Christian secularization of Pagan religions, for one, made the old gods fictional. Convenient for modern writers of fantasy fiction, and game developers.
But how do we convey religious themes and content in games that come from religions that have millions of followers today? For example, Assassin’s Creed and the Crusades, a conflict between Christians and Muslims. The solution for Assassin’s Creed was to create a “syncretic” protagonist, blending cultural traits. Thoughtful as this may have been, the first opus of Assassin’s Creed shipped with other glaring shortcomings. For one, Damascus was recreated as a medieval town, without any of its traditional middle-eastern ethnic neighborhoods.
But for a publisher wanting to sell its brand new franchise to a global market, controversies around historical truth are infinitely preferable to those surrounding religious issues. In 2008 Sony had to pull Little Big Planet off the shelves to remove an inadvertently cryptic reference to the Quran in the game!
If religion is a such a hot-button issue in the West and in the Middle East, why then are the Japanese more laissez-faire with religious themes and content in their games? Perhaps Eastern religions have a different idea of the Sacred, some critics surmise. Western religions are religions of the Book and tend to doctrinal interpretations of the Sacred. Eastern religions in general, and Japanese religious practice in particular, are more “philosophical” in their disposition, and pluralist in outlook. Thus, traditionalist themes and mythology hold a place of honour in Japanese video games.
And Japanese developers won’t hesitate either to pull in or appropriate Western religious themes and content for their games, and put their own spin on them. Some of these Japanese titles required subtle “cultural airbrushing” in order to be sold to Western audiences.
In the end, if representing God is blasphemous to some believers, what should we make of so-called “God games“, in which the player plays God? Interestingly, most God games have completely evacuated the concept of the Sacred. Players may create entire worlds and populate them with denizens, there is hardly any religious overtone to such a “world-building” process in the Sim game format.
Bonus : Escape from Mount Stupid – Religion in Video Games (April 16, 2012)
History’s Creed (7/10) – Alternate Worlds
Episode Summary and Take-Away
What if Hitler had won World War II ? And what if Kennedy had survived assassination attempts, and lived on to successfully steer the U.S. space program into the future?
Such “what if” questions are not merely the product of game developers’ fancy. In the world of historians, making hypotheses about possibly different outcomes of actual historical events is called counterfactual history. In the world of popular fiction, the same phenomenon is called Alternate History – or uchronia in French, German, Italian and other European languages.
The game Prey, for example, presents an alternate version of history in which Kennedy was not assassinated, and the Cold War and the space program extended into the future.
So if Alternate History is nothing new, and remains a popular device in literary fiction and in movies, what makes its use in video games worthy of notice?
The short answer : since video games put you in the “driver’s seat” of the action, their approach to history is inherently dynamic. In this vein, Paradox Interactive’s grand strategy titles are ideally suited for creating alternative historical scenarios. Within limits, you can test out varying historical hypotheses while playing these games, such as, say, what the collapse of steel production could have provoked in 1930s Germany the the Hearts of Iron series.
That said, to make games that are good counter-factual simulators, game studios have to dig a lot deeper into history than studios whose basic aim is historical accuracy in their games. The paradox (pun intended) of the counter-factual approach to history is that it must rely heavily on source materials to propose plausible alternate historical outcomes which, by definition, cannot be referenced by historical sources. Game designers must thus ensure that their games provide fictional extrapolations that remain somewhat plausible. In the event that they do not, designers then need to decide how the game rules will parse out implausible historical outcomes.
The alternate history approach thus quickly is confronted to its own internal limits: one must know the period of interest very well in order to be able to derive any possible futures from it.
By far the most popular historical period for alternate historical settings is World War II. One title in particular got a lot of press recently for its alternate history treatment of that conflict : Wolfenstein, the New Order (WNO). In WNO, Germany has won World War II, and has since ruled over the world. This seemingly simple premise opened quite the can of worms for the game’s developer. For example, how would American 1970s pop culture have turned out, in the event of Nazi world rule? WNO solves this problem by referencing 1960s and 70s period pop culture references, and re-imagining them as (hyper-clichéd) “German” cultural products: for example, 1960s-70s American radio hits done “Bavarian style”.
Only thing, because it is impossible to extend such a counterfactual historical scenario very far into the future, these “Germanic” send-ups of contemporary American cultural ferment end up shining more light on the developer’s fantasy projections of Nazism, than the actual Third Reich. And ditto for Nazi architect Albert Speer, whose architectural style, heavily-referenced in WNO, would have no doubt changed over time had the Nazis been victorious.
Another example: the World in Conflict game, clearly inspired by a Red Dawn-like alternate history scenario of a present-day Russian invasion of the U.S.A. Released in 2007 during the last year of the Bush Jr. presidency, this game made heavy uses of Red Scare and American patriotic tropes to reinvigorate flagging military virtues on the home front, and direct attention away (at least, for gamers) from the interventionist quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan.
And so, alternative history contains a strange lesson for us. If it can’t tell us much about a referenced historical period beyond a few vague extrapolations, it can, on the other hand, hold up a mirror to the present – or to the period in which the fictional scenario is produced – and make us see how we imagine people in the past (or future, in the case of sci fi). In this fashion, alternative history shares affinities with science fiction, and it is no coincidence that both genres share a common history.
In the final analysis, it seems that alternate history remains a fundamentally contradictory proposition. On the one hand, the genre is utterly dependent on a given historical period for reference; from which it then seeks to extrapolate outcomes that stretch the rules of reference to the limits of plausibility, leading to outright fiction. Which is why alternative history will likely continue to be a popular theme for game developers in the future, and remain a wellspring of all manner of unpredictable, yet strangely familiar stories.
History’s Creed (8/10) – Memorial
Episode Summary and Take-Away
Nota Bene: historical video games are the poor (wo)man’s time travel machine. And compared to film and literature, in which you are a spectator of the story, you control the character in the historical setting recreated by video games. It’s the closest thing to time travel we’ve ever devised of.
With the upcoming VR and AR tech trends, the promise of virtual time travel will be taken a step further. With these technologies, the illusion of “presence” (of a user in a virtual world) will be even stronger than with today’s monitor displays. Thus the historically (and ethically) informed use of video game/VR immersion has the potential to provoke important shifts in our perceptions of the past.
Virtual immersion media can thus potentially shape conscious and unconscious attitudes and perceptions of the past in powerful new ways. This ability to shape public consciousness via games that sell millions of copies worldwide is what Nota Bene calls the public memory function of video games.
The issue of video games’ shaping influence on youth is as old as video games themselves, and remains an ever controversial debate. Take war, for example, a very popular theme in video games. What happens when players are immersed in the types of historical dramas favored by studios, such as theatres of war? And can studios make games out of every historical conflict?
Until recently, WWI had been notably absent from video game depictions of modern warfare, for obvious reasons: its static (Western) front, and the industrial nature of its butchery. If the Battlefield franchise has set its latest opus in a WWI setting, it doesn’t bear much relation to the conflict. It ended up as a fast-paced shooter rendered in steampunk WWI style. Another indie game studio has simulated the WWI Western and Eastern front more successfully, but sadly it hasn’t gotten near the amount of coverage Battlefield One has received; and we note that Verdun and Tannenberg have strangely been omitted by Nota Bene in his series; you can learn more about the Verdun game in Play the Past’s Verdun developer interview, conducted in 2015.
So Battlefield One is very immersive as a video game, but its lack of historical realism ends up alienating players from the experience of trench warfare in WWI. As a result, the chance that players will develop a sense of connection with those who experienced that war is about nil.
What makes WWII such a common choice in the world of video games? At face value, the war itself has all the attributes of a “blockbuster”: a global scale, a multiplicity of theatres, and above all, clear moral choices: the player can fight a Great Evil, in the name of Good. For Americans in particular, WWII (esp. the European theatre) features a monumental struggle between Good and Evil and can help foster a sense of patriotism for young generations. Contemporary wars do not provide such a clear-cut moral framework, though they do also commonly end up in video game depictions of war.
Because of the disappearance of WWII veterans, games about that conflict can also serve a public memory function. This idea of creating a connection with those who sacrificed their lived to fight Nazism has been one of Call of Duty’s claims, in the 2017 release of its latest opus. Though the alleged connection to American WWII vets can also be just a marketing device.
Nota Bene: “Couldn’t we use games to address important, or controversial, social issues?” Or to initiate difficult conversations, to help society heal its deeper wounds? For example, the Algerian War, for the French? To be sure, games that take on delicate topics will generate controversy. But these controversies, if properly handled, could end up being productive for society at large. A video game on a difficult subject could help us retrieve a painful memory and heal old wounds. And this because video game immersion can potentially bring us “closer” to a (recreated) historical event – all the while keeping us at a remove from it, by virtue of mediation and virtuality.
Americans, for one, have been able to revive the painful memories of the Vietnam War through video games. Though it must be said that it was Hollywood that gave the impetus to the of “Heart of Darkness” approach that has become the dominant lens through which new generations of Americans have been initiated to this conflict. For Nota Bene, it was Shellshock: Nam ’67 that introduced him to the moral ambiguities of that conflict. Of note, the game was developed by a British and Dutch studio…
So if game developers and publishers are aware of the “public memorial potential” of games, are players really being transformed by their game experiences? Nota Bene believes this depends on individual player’s sensibilities, and their predisposition towards a historical theme and setting. And one should never forget that video games have until now been first and foremost entertainment products. One thing is sure: video games have the potential to leave strong impressions with players.
History’s Creed (9/10) – Propaganda
Episode Summary and Take-Away
Nota Bene: “Games like all cultural products, convey a message, and a worldview.”
But which ones? Because players so often play leaders or heroes in games, it is the leadership worldview that is most commonly embedded in games’ designs. This feature of games can subliminally suggest to players that only winning, or “the view from the top”, or the quest for excellence, count. And any alternate view from these are at best marginal, and at worst don’t even exist. Usul: “This is logical, since most video game creators have grown up in a period in which neoliberalism has reigned triumphant.”
From the standpoint of international relations, video games can be considered as part of the arsenal of “Soft Power“, or non-traditional methods of power projection used by stronger nations against weaker ones, though culture and entertainment. Despite the promise of cultural cross-pollination of our globalised economy, a predominantly mono-cultural output still dominates the exportation of “cultural products”, in which the global north vastly outperforms the south in terms of production and markets.
Consider the depiction of war in video games. For reasons to do with the history of capitalism and video games, war games are still dominated by the American view of war, and the presence of American protagonists, especially in action games.
The Call of Duty series, for example, has been very successful in promoting American military valour and power projection. And no matter the setting, the stakes are always about saving American democracy – and by extension, democracy itself. And the enemies, of course, are always the same. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare even killed two birds with one stone, pitting its players against a tyrannical communist and middle-eastern dictator!
Is this all happenstance? The links between the US military and the video games industry is certainly no secret. From soft support to direct involvement in game production, the U.S. military’s involvement with game development projects has been attested as spanning across decades. With these examples, we can thus demonstrate that games have been used as part of a greater propaganda effort by the U.S. military, using the methods of “Soft Power“.
Of course, Americans are not alone in using games as part of their propaganda arsenal. Hamas, for example, uses a video game for recruitment. Here’s a (rather short) list of propaganda games on wikipedia.
But can we have “anti-propaganda” games, anti-militarist games, or games that undercut patriotic or partisan messaging efforts?
Spec-Ops: the Line comes to mind as a recent game that attempted to confront players with the implications of the violence they inflict on others. Spec Ops, was produced, interestingly, by a German studio.
Some games take on an overtly activist approach. They force the player to choose sides, based on what their conscience dictates in a given (simulated) situation. In Papers, Please, the player can choose to obey orders or let “illegal aliens” enter into their country, based on the player’s own conflicted judgement calls. The game also broke with many conventions: its graphics were ugly and interface plain, and the game’s progression does not build on the player’s sense of “doing the right thing”. The player ends up not only questioning his role as a customs officer, but his or her own moral agency. And the game was developed by a lone American. ?
This just in: Papers, Please is now also a short film, available for to view online for free.
So, the video game space is now shared between developers with an old-school approach to messaging borrowed from 1980s Hollywood cinema, and a new breed of developers who understand the medium’s potential for non-conventional political activism – or at the very least, as a new tool for provoking introspection in players. Does this mean we’re going to see less over-the-top militaristic propaganda? Or will the slant and messaging in games become more subtle in the years ahead?
History’s Creed (10/10) – Educational Edition
Episode Summary and Take-Away
Given their unique storytelling potential, can video games also serve educational ends? Laurent Turcot: “What horizon of aspirations can video games create?” Translation: if video games were originally designed for entertainment, are there other uses they can be put to? Is there a case to be made for the legitimate use of video games in education?
Romain Vincent, history teacher in Creteil (France), uses a video game to teach about WWII, in a classroom setting. The video game he uses is called “Save the Louvre“, in which students take on the role of Jacques Jaujard, Louvre curator during WWII, in his dealings with Nazi brass. The student-players are forced to make difficult choices about how to preserve the collection, and the game progressively nudges them toward the moral hazard of French officialdom during the German occupation: should they resist, or collaborate? The game offers no clear-cut solutions, and forces students to identify with historical actors, instead of judging them from the standpoint of the present.
Vincent: “the whole point of the exercise is to break the habit of separating the French population into two opposing camps – resistance fighters and collaborators – and to show how difficult moral choices become in the event of a foreign military occupation.”
To be sure, a novel approach. But are games a magic pedagogical bullet, especially with regards to learning success and student engagement? For Vincent, taken alone, video games won’t cut it. Play sessions of educational games need to be followed-up with classroom debriefing, and accompanied by the critical examination of games or VR experiences. The role of the teacher is to provide context for the students about the exercice, and put them in the right frame of mind to extrapolate lessons from their play experience. With the right approach, games can become powerful tools for teaching difficult subjects, such as the feudal system (Stronghold Crusader), or the capitalist property regime (the original version of Parker Brothers’ Monopoly, the Landlord’s Game).
Some game publishers are jumping on the bandwagon, providing educational editions of their games, such as the CivilizationEDU edition of Firaxis’ Civ 5, or the Discovery Tour mode of Ubisoft’s recently-released Assassin’s Creed: Origins (which is off to a hilarious start).
Nota Bene: can these blockbusters supplement books in the classroom? For kids who don’t regularly play video games, games such as Assassin’s Creed: Origins can have a steep learning curve. The requirement of mastering complex game mechanics poses definite obstacles to the classroom use of video games.
On the other hand, the tech department in schools is generally better equipped than it was even ten years ago, so it is becoming increasingly possible to “mainstream” the educational uses of video games. And video games as cultural objects have gained broad acceptance – with their strengths and weaknesses better assessed than before – even in traditionally reluctant quarters such as the academy.
Nota Bene: “our challenge now is to develop and generalize digital-based education to help gamers and others be open to this new mode of learning.” To get there, we will need to consider video games as more than entertainment products, but as full-fledged communications media, with their biases and possibilities. For Nota Bene, the best is yet to come!
We will give Laurent Turcot the closing word: “games are not the end-all of historical knowledge, but a mere stepping stone. Their immersive properties can help ignite the interest of new generations toward all things historical.”
Bonus : Canada’s national public broadcaster takes a brief look at Assassin’s Creed: Origins Discovery Tour, and its potential use in classrooms. Ubisoft says the educational edition of AC:O was produced in response to teacher demand.