Playing is integral to human nature and in many senses it is through play that we learn about the world. Recognising the importance of video games as a modern cultural form, they should not be underestimated in terms of both entertainment and education. Nor should they be viewed through naïve blinkers as time wasted.
Historical games allow the player to virtually step back in time and to take part in moments and events otherwise outside of their grasp. For good or bad video games allow us to play with history.
Digging In spoke to Timea Tabori, engine programmer at Rockstar North and Chair of the International Games Developers Association (IGDA) Scotland, about games and their capacity for education. For Timea “a game is basically a deterministic framework, with a set of rules and guidelines”, within which you can safely fail. This virtual environment replicates the sense of learning achieved through experience, trial and error. If we are concerned with learning from our past mistakes we should take gaming seriously.
Historical video games can create an immersive and interactive engagement with history and can be a valuable tool for encouraging people of all ages to explore our collective past. In video games the historical setting can become a problem and landscape to be negotiated, actions have reactions, and it is up to the player or user to navigate them in order to succeed. Video games have the capacity to create these conditions for learning by constructing immersive worlds sprinkled with facts.
By putting a player in a historical context and giving them a choice, you are able to communicate valuable lessons. Timea suggests that although video games often stumble in terms of presenting hard factual information by traditional means, “games excel at allowing an understanding of context and the motivations behind certain actions”.
Despite being virtual spaces, video games have a strong capacity to humanise the past. Games can render history as present and interactive in a comparable way to the living history actors at Digging In’s trench reconstructions.
The Scots in the Great War group create a space where the history of World War One can be actively engaged with in a physical environment requiring your full attention. Their work with the public creates a new and often exciting world to be interacted with. Much the same can be said for video games, confined though they are to the scope of the playable world.
But how should games deal with the First World War and what do they have to offer 100 years on?
The mainstream video games market caters well for the military enthusiast, with leading franchises such as Call of Duty transporting the player hither and thither, guns blazing through history. Yet there are generally few representations of World War One in popular games media, which is why for Ros Hoebe at Blackmill games, the independent team responsible for the multiplayer First Person Shooter (FPS) Verdun, there must be a responsibility to educate as well as entertain. However for a more nuanced understanding of history games are restricted by the commercial world they rely on.
In the case of Verdun this is demonstrated by the transitions in uniforms throughout the conflict, which is accompanied by a well-researched contextual back-story on the campaigns and battles, as well as an incredibly detailed rendition of period weaponry. Through this attention to detail, Hoebe hopes Verdun might potentially be able to influence how we recognise WW1 in the present day, despite being a small studio without the budget of the major market leaders.
Verdun achieved this sense of authenticity through the extensive use of French Officer War Journals, but also through fieldwalking and cartography in order to present the playable terrain as realistically as possible, directly mixing the real world and the playable landscape.
Similarly, though bound by the game’s genre as a First Person Shooter (FPS), the team at Blackmill have tried to replicate the form of warfare in the conflict. Periods of attack in the game are followed by periods of counter attack, interspersed by artillery bombardment. However that is as far as they can go, after all, who wants to play a game where you sit for hours or days at a time, waiting for your food to make it up the line, picking the lice from your friends, and wishing you were back home?
These militarised representations of the First World War fall short of reflecting the broad scope of the conflict and may contribute to the palatable ‘gamification’ of history.
Historical video games are effectively channelled by consumer forces into a trade-off between accuracy and playability, where popular user appeal generally trumps the delicate details of ‘good history’. Such a gamification of history often, and sadly leads to a flattening of experience as WW1 becomes reduced to the soldier’s experience of flying limbs and viscerally rendered combat. Begging the question of how we should remember, or perhaps forget, the sacrifices and struggles people caught up in the First World were made to endure.
Market leaders such as the Battlefield franchise, which has recently released a game set during the First World War, are committed to this gamified portrayal of WW1. To the extent that in order to be commercially viable, a game might only be able to exist through the guise of gun toting warrior gods.
But it is a trap, and a self-perpetuating vortex into which the history of humanity’s most violent episodes are stripped of their context and thinned to a bloody veneer. The military history of humanities legacy being singularly rendered as violence-cum-entertainment, becoming fearfully reduced to this interpretation.
Historical video games run the risk of being no more than new-build show properties, where the house, while ostensibly perfect and homely is in reality unliveable. We are instead presented with a history of very little substance, devoid of the real human concerns of the period.
Moving forward in time to the video games set during Second World War, we are saturated with heroism, which while certainly deserving of recognition; blinds us from the enormous spectral elephant of the holocaust. Which is almost completely unrecognised in video games.
The horror of the holocaust disappears from view, obscured by the somehow easier to swallow landing ships of D-Day and personal valour.
Enter Valiant Hearts – the side scrolling WW1 platform game makes a strong effort to push video game representations of WW1 in new directions. The platformer genre is less constricted by market driven gamification than the biggest budget FPS games, and this freedom of expression is clear throughout the game, which does not shirk from depicting suffering.
By its own admission ‘freely inspired’ by the conflict, the platform scrolling adventure game puts the player in control of several characters caught up in the war on different sides. Valiant Hearts is a decidedly human game that swaps visceral photo-realism for story driven character development. Like Verdun, the game also has a strong focus on history, with facts accompanying the player’s progression through the game.
Yet it is the imagery of human suffering that makes the game distinct from the more conventional video game approach.
There are similar games that have in recent years attempted to draw the focus away from invincible killing machines back toward the underrepresented victims of war, civilians. Games such as This War of Mine is set in a loosely fictionalised Sarajevo, where players must survive the siege of the city through bartering, scavenging and theft. The aim of This War of Mine is not to defeat the enemy, but merely eek out an existence. Players are presented with options, to help your neighbour or to look after yourself and your family.
The game Papers Please puts the player in control of a border officer in a fictionalised former Soviet city, pitting compassion for others against a desire to keep your own family safe. Games like these offer an intelligent response to the conflicts and problems of the past and the present, giving players the space to think for themselves.
Such an attitude is critical when we look at history, and in an era of sensationalism and over simplified readings of the history and motivation, being able to think for ourselves is a valuable skill. To blanket disregard video games as a waste of time discounts the benefits that they can provide in terms of looking at the past. Though this is not to say that it is without its dangers, the oversimplification of military history as purely guts and glory is dangerous; it is a double-edged sword that we cannot afford to be complacent with.
I have personally learnt a good deal from video games, and been able to touch traces of the past, however virtually. Naturally we have lost the physical sensation of WW1, so distant it is from the present day but combined with projects such as Digging In and the living history of Scots in the Great War, we can step a little closer.
From chronology to politics, to the minutia of military hardware, video games can allow for those outside of traditional history to be inspired to learn more. While we might claim that violent video games are responsible for a desensitisation of war, the traditional academic historical community has a responsibility to embrace what are now old forms of communication and regard our past as something that we must share compassionately.
Words by Ned Suesat-Williams