History, Take Three: How Video Game Replay Alters Your Perception of Time

On May 7, 2021 at the 88th ACFAS congress, I delivered a presentation on replayability in video games in a conference organized by Simon Dor from University from Quebec in Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Julien Bazile from the University of Sherbrooke, entitled “Controlling the Past: Design and Critique of the Mechanics of History in Video Games”.

Below, you will find the full text of my presentation (translated from the original in French).

As I write these lines in 2021, history-themed games are firmly established across all major video game genres, and show continued signs of growth in popularity. 

And why not: what history-themed games propose to their fans is nothing less than captivating. Many call on players to witness pivotal points in history, and take part in the enfolding drama of human experience across space and time; some allow players to explore the cities and vistas of bygone eras, blending tropes and techniques of tourism and cinema; others still offer large-scale historical panoramas to brain-muscle against, inviting players to participate in the conflict between nations across centuries, or better: hold by the reins of the galloping, grand arc of historical development, against all odds.

In truth, the popularity of historical video games can be attributed to a small, but unique set of core attractors: the narrative richness of historical discourse; the art and science of simulation that make it possible to “bring back to life”, in unprecedented ways, the experiences of our ancestors; better even, an “alt-history lab” of sorts that allows players to “test” alternative historical scenarios.

Irreducible to these different styles of historical play, I propose with McKenzie Wark (2007), Mathieu Triclot (2011) and Douglas Hoare (2019) that time control lies at the heart of video game seduction. As interactive media, video games allow players to enter and exit game time “freely” through various access points offered by each game. More fundamentally, video games simulate a control of temporality by presenting the range of player agent possibilities in each game as a series of challenges to be undertaken and repeated at will. In short, video games offer players the unprecedented experience – to use the terminology of game designers – of the replayability of fictional game scenarios.

From a game design standpoint, the “replayability” of a given game remains a marker of quality valued by consumers. For the analyst of play, however, the inherent replayability of games blurs the analytical line between play time and (fictional) historical time in games. The issue I wish to address today can be summarized in the following questions: how exactly are we “playing at history” when we replay fictional historical scenarios over and over again in video games? And how do players experience temporality when they replay history?

Temporal Structures in Video Games with Historical Themes

To disentangle these conceptual knots, I will use vocabulary to help conceptualize the different “flavours” of historicity simulated in video games.

Philosophically-speaking, the two (complementary) standpoints which seem most fruitful for my research questions are those of the player-historian and the developer-historian, which I take from Adam Chapman in his Digital Games as History (2016). Before addressing these concepts, let me state that Chapman’s work is part of an ongoing effort to legitimate a sub-discipline of Game Studies of which he is co-instigator – Historical Game Studies – by providing a theoretical framework for appending video games to mainstream historiographical production, against the caution of professional historians who institute legitimate historiography in their separation of serious/ludic and factual/fictitious levels of discourse. To underline the contributions of amateur production to historiography, Chapman puts forth the concept of historying – or history-making – a practice inherent to the cultural currents of “popular history”, in opposition to learned history[1]. According to Chapman (and others), it is largely in the field of practice – reconstructive, playful, cultural production, etc. – that the qualities of amateur production can be assessed in relation to historian discourse legitimized by institutions (museums, universities, media).

Since market economies separate production from consumption, all ludic cultural production must “realize its value in the sphere of circulation” (to paraphrase Marx), i.e. finds its answer in player demand, in the consumer market for video games. I must therefore posit the historying figures of player-historian and developer-historian as distinct, since we have to sociologically approach video games as marketable commodities. As we will see, the life cycle of a video game product – in which replayability occupies an important place – makes distinctions drawn between these two historying roles somewhat arbitrary, albeit still necessary for the sake of conceptualization. 

And this is precisely where I place my first critical intervention: can the posture of consumption be productive of historical discourse?

To answer this question, we should begin with a quick overview Adam Chapman’s presentation of “structures of temporality” in historical video games, to review these structures in light of replayability.

In Digital Games as History (2016), Chapman develops a taxonomy of historical representation in games following the dominant styles of video game historicity, which he classifies into two overarching categories: “realistic” historical simulations, which mostly concern action and exploration games, and “conceptual” historical simulations, applicable to strategy and management games.

What does Chapman say about video games that seek to represent reality “as it appeared to historical agents”[2] ? First, ‘realistic’ historical simulations are characterized by a ‘high degree of sound and visual specificity’. This approach inherits stylistic techniques of “realism” drawn from a long history of arts and technique in the West. In this mode of representation, we can readily observe an inverse relationship between the attention paid to details and the narrative scope of the game, limited to a given space-time. This type of “historical immersion” relies on an effect of transparency, by which the mode of representation subsumes its very status as a representation – only the interface elements, the ludic structure of the experience – or a bug – remind the player that s/he is playing a game. The historical scenery realistically depicted in these games is designed around the principle of referentiality dear to empirical historiography, apparently uncontaminated by ideology. Finally, since historical description in these games primarily operates through the audiovisual aspect, this type of representation is relatively easy to interpret by the public.

Conversely, “conceptual” simulations , typical of strategy games, choose to inform us about the past without claiming to show it to us as it appeared to historical agents[3]. This type of simulation, which prefers the Big Picture over minute details, retells history using figurative or abstract audiovisual representations. Historical description primarily operates through interactions with game systems, making it possible to represent large-scale historical processes, systems and actions. By emphasizing “expressive” game mechanics, the narrative effects carried by algorithmic logics form the backbone of historical representation in these games (what Ian Bogost calls “procedural rhetoric”[4]). From the standpoint of epistemology, historical representation in this category of simulation is also derived from referentiality, but by first being passed through a frame of reference provided by the historical discourse of the developer-historian. This approach, which one can readily qualify as “constructivist”, recognizes the contribution of the interpreter in shaping historical content. In addition, this “macro” approach to history makes it possible to study the behavior of collective agents, and to risk oneself at generalizations about causal relations.

These are, in a nutshell, the two major trends of historical simulation in computer games analyzed by Chapman. If we therefore go with the assumption that the historical content of games are fictitious representations inspired by historical facts: how then does video games deal with historical time?

In his book Half-Real (2005), the video game theorist Jesper Juul describes the temporal parameters of video games, starting from the observation that video games provide a fictional universe (brought to the screen) to set the scene of a game, with additional technical means that allow players to control an agent (represented or abstract) at the heart of the (fictional) action. Juul theorizes a double structure of temporality, in which play time – the play activity of the player – relates dynamically to the time represented in-game by the game and narrative designers[5].

This relationship between play time and fictitious time of a game is structured differently, of course, around different video game genres. Realistic simulations induce a simultaneous relationship between the events represented in the game and the player’s play time. You are not only in a character’s shoes, but in the heat of the moment. The player’s relationship to fictional time in the game is declined in the present verb tense, as 1: 1 time ratio[6]. However, as long as the magic of immersion operates, the player in a psychological state of “flow” generally loses all sense of time. It is only by replaying a sequence – or by being confronted with sloppy design – that the programmed illusion of the game rises to player awareness. This temporal structure confirms the player in her/his impression of being engaged in what Chapman calls the “exploratory challenges” of a historical agent.

The “real-time” framework can also be deployed on a “macro” scale in video games. Real-time (or play-timer) strategy games were for a long time the standard-bearer of historical computer simulations, especially during the 1990s. Think Age of Empires, or historical city-builders like Civ City Rome, or the more recent “grand strategy” suite of titles from Paradox Interactive. These games offer the player a top-down view to a playing field, and the opportunity to “give orders” to units and other game elements on the game map. By virtue of this design choice, these games operate a separation between play time and the scale of fictional time represented in the game. Control of the game speed by the player makes it possible to telescope historical time at will, inside fictitious time scale set by the developers. Ultimately, the game’s units of time visible in the game interface – hours, days, months, years – come to signify the unfolding of fictitious historical time in the game.

In contrast to the timekeeping (and time-scaling) device used in real-time gameplay, turn-based strategy games make advancement in the fictitious timeframe of the game at the discretion of the player. Turn-based games maintain an elastic relationship to the fictitious time of a given game’s universe, and there is no time limit that a player can take within a turn. In the original Civilization, Sid Meier’s decision to change real-time gameplay to a turn-based structure was based on the player’s apparent passivity in the face of real-time simulated in-game events. Putting temporal control in the player’s hands allowed the latter to become the active principle of the game; this “temporal activation by the player” in turn-based games therefore coincides with the simulated historicity of these games. The structuring parameters of the “4X” genre can further be used to represent complementary historical processes that appear to be “nested” in one other, for example, economic, technological and cultural infrastructures, in a gameplay framework that aims to be “trans-historical “[7].

While they cannot control the playing time of players, 4X game developer-historians can create a sense of historical time through the game’s story arc and core game mechanics. Ironically, the algorithmic implementation of “historical process” in 4X games often results in ahistorical gameplay – witness the plethoric anachronisms that come with your average Civilization playthrough. To which critic Markku Eskelinen concludes that “turn-based strategy games […] seem to favor causal relationships to purely temporal relationships”[8] .

To complete our review of these time structures, let us quickly summarize Chapman’s discussion of narrative time in historical video games. Generally speaking, the time of narrative action in a given game unfolds according to the game and narrative design choices of the development team. Of course, the interactivity of video games makes it possible for players to intervene in the narrative framework. Result: despite being “grammatically” declined in the past tense, historical games set the action of the historical narrative in the player’s [present] tense.

This past/present temporal coupling is typical of historical fiction in video games. The “imperative present” verb tense (“do this”, “do that”, as summons to the player) is emphasized in action games, due to game objectives and pressures induced by the gameplay on the player[9] . For conceptual simulations, we note instead a marked disposition for potentiality in verb tense; the player directs her/his thought and action not only to meet gameplay challenges, but towards a (figurative) future that beckons. In turn, each newly attempted scenario teaches players to measure their historying up against “the future that did happen in real history”, i.e. engage in counterfactual reasoning[10]

In the end, both realist and conceptual historical simulations highlight that the present moment of time is the place from which discourse about the past is generated.

Replayability: In the Eyes of the Beholden

But then … if said player rinses and repeats historical playthroughs, how is her/his “present view of the past” altered?

In the first chapter of his book Philosophie des jeux video[11], technoculture theorist and historian Mathieu Triclot tries to debug the pleasures that players derive from Doom-like first-person shooters. From an outsider’s perspective, these games come across as a virtual theme-park of gratuitous violence. Attentive onlookers will notice, however, that the F5 / F9 keys, “quick save ” and “quick load “, are regularly activated by players engaged in prolonged gaming sessions; thanks to these controls, players who fail a sequence can attempt to replay from the chosen save point. As Triclot points out – and herein lies the peculiarity of the video games – this design feature allows players to replay a game sequence to their satisfaction. In this way, the skill of shooting married to the spectacle of violence are boosted by the even headier desire of game mastery[12]. Thus, the fantasy of temporal control, which operates here powerfully, becomes itself a source of morbid pleasure.

It seems significant to me that this encapsulation of replayability can be found at the head of a book that deals with the cultural history of computer technology and the phenomenology of play. Replayability, in fact, casts a long shadow across “playability” itself; one presupposes the other – a game that cannot be replayed loses its identity as a game and begins to resemble the playful improvisation theorized by Roger Caillois in Les jeux et les hommes[13]. Truth be told, the replayability of games also raises an old philosophical conundrum – how can “sameness” produce difference? And in the case of video games: why does replayability imprison “difference” in the cage of the identical – abstract time?

In the critical literature on replayability, I have found philosophical perspectives to be curiously absent. The question of replayability is generally approached from the standpoint of game design – tricks or techniques to improve the replayability of a game – or, marketing – how replayability adds value to a game product – or even, psychology – what compels players to replay a match or a game sequence, or return to a game after a hiatus?

One notable exception: a dissertation that examines replayability with reference to Nietzschean philosophy, by Benjamin Lavigne from the University of Lorraine. As Lavigne points out, advancement in a video game is achieved, at gameplay-level, by incremental mastery of the main gameplay loop, that the player must overcome in order to meet all the core challenges that comprise a game[14]. In Nietzschean terms, this contrived challenging of players by the designers, by correctly dosing frustration and pleasure levels, allows for the player’s will to power to be expressed.

Admittedly, this is a fantasy “will to power”, since it is staged within a cybernetic process of automation[15]. To take up Mathieu Tricot’s already-cited example: players obsessed by their performance, enjoying the effects of video game power fantasies, are in reality in the tow of underlying algorithmic logics which they internalize in their will-to-mastery. Douglas Hoare also analyzed this form of pleasurable self-dispossession in his book Le jeu vidéo, ou l’aliénation heureuse[16]. To put it in Nietzschean terms: the gamer is the “last man” – the ultimate end-product of modern comfort – playing out his Übermensch fantasies on the screen.

Thus, replayability, so convenient and automatic in video games, allows players to simulate the experience of Eternal recurrence, emptied of its original meaning. Under the spell of replayability, Nietzsche’s parable suffers an ironic twist of fate: a philosophy that sought to lift the spirit by confronting one’s self to temporality (“lead your life so that you can wish it to repeat itself eternally” ) – this philosophy, dissolves into the “identical difference” of the abstract time loop, recurring eternally around virtual self-mastery.

 The seductive power of historical-themed video games, I insist, rests in large part on the premise of “​​reliving history” in light of this technological promise of time mastery. Let us therefore recap three epistemological currents that Chapman borrows from the theorist Alun Munslow, in light of video game replayability.

The reconstructionist approach in historical video games provides players with an impression of “presence” in a simulated historical settings. Why replay? To take up again a game sequence after failure, improve one’s performance, revisit a scenario, return to an atmosphere, etc. Effects of repetition on the player: the development of the analytical reflex to master a game; further, the critical assessment of the construction of the scenario/game, by virtue of familiarization…  

The “constructivist” ethic proposes simulation as a gateway to counterfactual historical experiments. This epistemology rests on setting up frameworks for understanding historical conflict, and transhistorical development. Why replay? To deepen one’s knowledge of a game, or respond to the call of “making history” set by a game’s marketing, as the privileged actor/interpreter of the played-out scenario. Better, to modify the code of the game so that it better fits with actual historical details/scenarios. Effects of repetition on the player: mastery of the game by successive attempts at game scenarios; generating hypotheses on historical causality, etc. Or again, take the leap from being player-historian to developer-historian, aka. modding.

Finally, the “deconstructionist” approach beckons to “play with the code(s) of history”, by pointing out the constructed nature of historical discourse. This approach relies on the use of scriptwriting techniques, admixture of improbable genres, ironic anachronisms, etc. and other rhetorical devices that highlight the artifices of historical narration. Why replay? Quite simply, it is through the act of replay that the constructed aspect of a narration comes to our awareness, much like analyzing a book or film by reviewing them. Moreover, this approach encourages semiotic play with signifiers, as for example with the practice of quasi-historical modding. Effects of repetition on the player: positively, the deconstructionist approach equips the player with rhetorical literacy. Negatively, it “virtualizes history” by reducing past lived experience to semiotic codes or conventions.

In a way, we could say that replayability, in its essence, carries with it the posture of deconstruction, because it focuses the player’s attention on the rhetorical codes of video game culture, how stories and genres “work” with audiences; as mentioned, the overall effect is a push toward virtual history, where referenced historical materiality is reduced to semiotic code – or computer code, in our case!

In closing, I would like to summarize three structural tendencies that bring concrete temporal relations to a vanishing point in video games, in favour of abstract, automated time structures:

  1. Video game play time in the (eternal) present verb tense – even in games with historical themes.
  2. The inherent replayability of games, due to their interactive time loops and their ludic/cybernetic structure.
  3. Video games as commodities, that transform the embodied time of production into abstract work/time of economic value (Marx, theory of value).

Now, which strategies we should devise to “reconquer temporality”, I leave it to you, dear readers, to decide – whether such strategies can be positioned inside OR outside the “magic circle” of games, and the iron grasp of algorithms.

[1] Chapman, A. (2016). Digital games as history: how video games represent the past and offer access to historical practice (Ser. Routledge advances in game studies, 7). Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group , p. 5-13, 173-262.

[2] Chapman, Digital games as history …, p. 61-69.

[3] Chapman, Digital games as history …, p. 69-82.

[4] Bogost, Ian (2008). “The Rhetoric of Video Games.” The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Ed. by Katie Salen. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 117–40. 

[5] Juul , J. (2005). Half-real: video games between real rules and fictional worlds . MIT Press, p. 141-156.

[6] Chapman, Digital games as history …, p. 91-93.

[7] Chapman, Digital games as history …, p. 94-97.

[8] Chapman, Digital games as history …, p. 96.

[9] Chapman, Digital games as history …, p. 97-98.

[10] Chapman, Digital games as history …, p. 99.

[11] Triclot, M. (2011). Philosophie des jeux vidéo. Zones.

[12] Triclot, Philosophie des jeux vidéo…, p. 19-22.

[13] Caillois, R (1961), Man, Play and Games, trans. Meyer Barash. New York, Free Press of Glencoe.

[14] “In an interactive digital creation we can locate the eternal return of the same in the ‘ game over & play again’ motif, that is to say the replayability of all or part of a game, the overcoming of failure by success and the selection of actions to be carried out to continue a game journey. In the world of arcade games this was called “die and retry ” (learning by trial and error), which perfectly illustrates the eternal return of the same with the Game Over screen in the event of failure. Permadeath (permanent character death) is another gameplay principle, which is comparable to the eternal return. No extra life or second chance is given to the player, it is a radical and brutal stop of the game which compelts the player to start again from zero for fear of losing his character and all attendant gains. This concept forces players to make careful decisions to avoid being dispossessed of equipment and progress, which has the effect of intensifying the feeling of loss, reinforcing the involvement of the player by giving meaning to his decisions: “The fact of being able to die only once, in an irreversible and cruel way […] would tend to magnify life ”.

Players sometimes talk about “ending the game” when they manage to finish it and inevitably return to the title screen. In arcade games known for their great difficulty, players who manage to finish the game can then go on a “second loop “, then a “third loop ” etc. That is to say that they can immediately start a new game again but with insane difficulty, a feature exploited by superplayers aiming for the best score at the world level.”; Lavigne, Benjamin (2017). « Nietzsche, le surhomme des jeux vidéo et le transhumanisme », Nancy/Metz : Université Lorraine, p. 7-8. Retrieved from https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-02144129

[15] “[The central] thesis [of the theorist of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener] is that” the physical functioning of the living individual and the operations of some of the more recent communication machines are exactly parallel in their analogous efforts to control entropy through feedback ”. Which gives us, in Nietzschean terms: controlling the will to power through the eternal return. […] In game design, this instantaneous feedback aims to give the player this “superpower”: that of simultaneously perceiving the problem and its solution, or at least of receiving certain indications on how to overcome the difficulties”. […] Each of these machine responses of varying natures are tantamount to gratifying micro-rewards for the user in video games. Their function is to show success over and over again by breaking down one big goal into countless small, easy-to-achieve tasks. The result is what is called positive reinforcement: inducing the player to reproduce a certain behavior.” Lavigne, Nietzsche, the superman of video games …, p. 8-9.

[16] Hoare, D. E. (2019). Le jeu vidéo ou l’aliénation heureuse. Post-éditions.

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