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How Thinking Like A Historian Can Help You Understand Games, From The Witcher 3 To Assassin's Creed

History 101

There has been a lot of discussion recently in games about historical accuracy. We’ve seen a number of articles debating the absence of people of color in The Witcher 3 as well as essays criticizing Apple’s decision to remove games featuring the Confederate battle flag from the App Store. Most of this discussion treats historical accuracy as something close to gospel, beyond reproach or change. "There were never people of color in the medieval, Eastern European milieu from which The Witcher is drawn." "There were always Confederate battle flags in the American Civil War." For most people, using “never” and “always” with regard to history seems natural. If any field of knowledge can offer such certainty, it must be history, right?

Professional historians, however, rarely use such words when talking about the past. Contrary to popular opinion, most historians treat history as a fluid object, something that rarely if ever goes unchanged or discussed with anything close to absolute certainty. This fact may fly in the face of everything you’ve been told about history. History is a subject that gives us meaning. Sometimes it represents the very foundation of our identity. To be told that this story lacks absolute certainty can be unnerving and confusing. As a history professor, one of the most challenging jobs I have is explaining this difficult, but essential idea to new students each semester. It often takes more than a semester of instruction to overcome the pervasive notion that history is merely about memorizing facts from a textbook. Yet if you play games, you may understand how historians understand the past better than you think.

Think of history as a popular video game. When a popular game is released, it rarely remains in a static state. The post release changes to a game begin with the developer and publisher. There is the all too common day one patch, followed by the first DLC pack, followed by the characters/maps/skins pack, followed by the second DLC pack, followed by the second patch... you know how this story goes. But the changes to the game don’t stop there, of course. A popular game is then subject to a whole slew of modifications by players. A popular mod can come to be seen as an indispensable part of playing and understanding the original game.

The trajectory of historical understanding works in much the same way. An historical event occurs. That event is then announced and described by participants in the event. While participants are often given the first chance to develop the history of an event, they rarely remain the only source of information. Bystanders, journalists and finally historians all take their shot at establishing the facts and meaning of an event. Much like modders, these secondary writers can bring new perspectives to the event using different sources of evidence. Eventually they may add or change the facts of the event, perhaps even changing its meaning.

Games, much like history, have very long lives after their creation because they are subject to user modification and influence. In this way, games can help you understand how history works better than other popular mediums, including books and films. When a book or film is released – with the notable exceptions of books or films created by E.L. James and George Lucas – it remains in its original state, more or less, forever. Games, on the other hand, are not only changed by the original creator, but also by consumers. Players often decide which version of a game becomes the de facto version (think of the effect of Brood War on StarCraft or Beyond the Sword on Civilization IV). They can also completely change the purpose and meaning of a game through modification, a development that can not only give birth to new games but also new genres (the most obvious examples being Counter-Strike, Defense of the Ancients and DayZ).

Historical thinking and writing can undergo similar transformations. Historians rarely write books that merely resuscitate and rearrange previously known facts. Most historians would prefer to modify previous thinking about an event using new evidence, new methodologies or new perspectives. Through this work historians can gradually shift our perspective on historical events. For example, consider the recently celebrated American Revolution. In decades past, this event was the story of Americans throwing off the tyranny of British colonial rule. Yet now this view is complicated by a global perspective in which the British request for more taxes not only seems rational, but warranted. Some recent work argues that the war shouldn’t be seen as a revolution at all, but rather a civil war over British constitutional ideas. Similar changes can occur in other histories. It would be very difficult today to find a historian that placed the blame for the First World War entirely on Germany, yet this idea was historical orthodoxy for nearly 50 years after 1918. There are very few conventional historical beliefs that are not in some way under assault or in the process of being overthrown.

And although historians are the most invested group in debates over the past, they are not the only participants. The universal nature of history means that these debates are the purview of professionals and nonprofessionals alike. Interpretations of the past are not found solely in academic monographs and textbooks, but in other mediums such as television, film, and, increasingly, video games. Historical video games are some of the most popular games in the medium, and their popularity means that they too help to shape our perspectives on the past.

Consider again the recent controversies over The Witcher 3 and the Confederate battle flag. Like other fantasy worlds (e.g. those in Dragon Age, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings) The Witcher draws heavily from ideas about the history of medieval Europe. To create such a world without people of color is to present a particular argument about the past, but like many historical arguments it is one that will not go unchallenged. Likewise, Apple’s decision to remove games (most of them historical American Civil War games) from the App Store because they featured the Confederate battle flag led to cries of whitewashing based on the historical context. Consider also the debate over Assassin’s Creed Unity, a game that sparked significant controversy in France over the portrayal of revolutionary figures as villains.

A villain.

The ferocity of these controversies signifies that historical games have become more than thoughtless diversions. They are capable of imparting and validating historical meaning to the people that play them. Given that influence, it is no surprise that debates over these games are contentious. Determining historical truth can be inconvenient, uncomfortable, and messy. It will lead you into arguments with others, and perhaps even with yourself. Yet this is how history is created, and games promise to play a larger role in that process going forward. We are moving from a period where we play historical games that present an uncomplicated view of seemingly uncontroversial topics (e.g. Oregon Trail or Second World War) to one where games deal with difficult subjects (e.g. slavery, revolution and the First World War) in complicated ways.

To say that historical accuracy is a matter of debate is not to say that all arguments or perspectives about the past are true. As with other historical authors, game developers that present new historical perspectives with verifiable evidence have the best chance to convince players of their interpretation. Of course, even with this sort of evidence, some players will remain unconvinced and continue to hold on to their established beliefs. There is almost no taboo perspective about the past, but not every perspective will be believed by others and go on to represent historical truth. In this way, raising the issue of historical accuracy isn’t the end of the debate. It’s the beginning.

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