Yes, We CAN Think Historically with a Video Game Console

Never AloneBy Jonathan McQuarrie

#gamergate inflicted a well-deserved black eye for video game culture. Whatever the movement may have been (and there are many facets to it), one of the core consequences became a rash of threats against prominent critic Anita Sarkeesian, who rightly pointed to the many harmful and tiresome ways in which video games portrayed women in her series ‘Tropes versus Women’ and through her website Feminist Frequency. On the website Play the Past, which encourages historical thinking about video games, Trevor Owens argued for the value of collecting the various memes, chat logs, and terms that emerged from the debate. As he rightly notes, the entire moment will provide future historians with insight into the early 21st century culture of technology, as ugly as that culture can be.

I begin with the #gamergate controversy because it generated one of the widest discussions of ‘gamer’ culture since the debates on video games and violence. The discussion spilled well beyond the typical confines of video game journalism, producing several (rather bewildered) discussions from wider publications—in my view, Tabatha Southey wrote the best (and funniest) of these. I wish to acknowledge that significant problems with video games and their representation of women, sexual orientation, and people of colour remain, and that I, as a white, heterosexual male, am not qualified to adjudicate whether or not these issues are being ‘solved.’ For instance, the cold, detached, alpha male protagonist remains a staple of many popular online games, which can contribute to the frequently hostile online environment.

However, this post is motivated by a desire to share how video games, now as much as ever, also encourage players to engage with the past. I am writing with an assumption that many readers of are not active game players, but that they are aware that many of their students, friends, and, dare I suggest, colleagues engage with history through video games. I also wish to impress that I am not part of the emerging field of Game Studies, so this post is the perspective of a layperson into what is a rapidly growing academic field. Through the various links and references in this post, I want to provide a few reference points for people who teach or think about history, but who are not necessarily prepared to invest the time and money into what can be a rather distracting (if delightful) hobby.

Let’s begin with an obvious one. I suspect that most readers of this post have either played or heard of the long running Civilization series, which allows players to guide their chosen Civilization from early settlement to space exploration. I also suspect that many readers have problems with the rather linear model of progress and cultural assumptions made by a game that foregrounds technological progress and deterministic models of development. The most egregious example of this tendency can be found in the itineration Civilization IV: Colonization, which, despite creator claims of ideological neutrality, presented a horribly sanitized model of “New World” encounter, exploitation, and conversion (for instance, disease was absent), where only European ‘civilizations’ were playable. The game received specific and well-deserved criticism in a useful article by Rebecca Mir and Trevor Owens in the compilation Playing with the Past (Bloomsbury, 2013). While a misrepresentation, discussing with people precisely how a seemingly historical game misrepresents and why the game’s model of development is, in fact, ideological, strikes me as a powerful way to have them rethink easy assumptions about linear progress and development.

The game has other historical value. As Will Partin of the fabulous website Kill Screen noted, the series’ more recent itineration, Civilization V, largely rejects historical models based around the Great Man Theory. As Partin observes, the emergence of ‘great people’ “is a result of established institutions.” Environment, society, and culture feature more prominently than the brief appearances of the inventors, scientists, and artists who appear as ‘great people.’ As Adam Chapman noted in Playing with the Past, the game allows players to explore contingency and causal relationships. Further, superficial but extensive knowledge of a wide sweep of history can be gleaned through the game and the Civilopedia. There are, of course, distinct limits to the social history application of the series—geopolitics and broad currents of technology feature more than the humble worker whose labour emerges as abstraction. This is very much macro history.

Another franchise that many non-video game players have likely encountered is Ubisoft’s popular Assassin’s Creed franchise. The third game in the series featured a half-Mohawk protagonist, Ratonhnhaké:ton, and received some praise from Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace for its generally anti-colonial tone and for consulting with Mohawk people. The latest itineration of the franchise, Unity, has the player romping through a very detailed recreation of Paris at the onset of the French revolution. Several reviews of the game praised the painstaking creation of the city, and indeed, the franchise has long been built on careful visual reconstruction of sites such as Renaissance Italy, Revolutionary America, and Havana. The game has also sparked several debates over the uses and abuses of history in the games. Perhaps the most potent critique I have seen of it comes from Kill Screen reviewer David Chandler, who argues that the increasingly complex meta story of conflict between Assassins and Templars largely reduces the actual history of the game settings to “set dressing.” In his view, players take on the role of virtual tourist. Nevertheless, this ‘tourism’ is a point of entry into history that demands to be taken seriously—recently, I had a student who found the game to be a good starting point for criticising the various representations of the French Revolution. While this is something of an ideal outcome, the potential of immersion, even at a rather superficial level, has power to prompt further historical questions.

Along with these major franchises, exciting re-readings of historical tropes are taking place in the ever-growing indie game world. The free game Totem’s Sound, based on the journals of Norwegian explorer Johan Adrian Jacobson, has the player collect artifacts from coastal First Nations people, including the Haida. As Chris Priestman notes, the game seems to present and follow colonial tropes, but when the first artefact is collected, it suddenly confronts the player with an infomercial-like presentation of the artefact, undercutting the idea that Jacobson is exploring and collecting the items for science and knowledge. The game becomes an “enjoyable criticism of museums or, at least, how they conducted their worldly gatherings[.]” A game available on iOS, 80 Days, allows players to take the role of Phileas Fogg during his well known voyage, but presents an alternative history based on steampunk technology and anti-colonial moments. For instance, an “automaton-using Zulu Federation” prevented the Scramble for Africa, and the entire adventure seeks to subvert the original story where the world reacts to Fogg by ensuring that there are people and stories that proceed around the protagonist, regardless of his presence.

Perhaps the most exciting development, one that may start a long road of undoing decades of stereotypical representations of First Nations people in games, is the recent release of Never Alone (Kisima Innitchuna). The game has the player assume the role of a young girl, Nuna, accompanied by an artic fox, following their travels in a world shaped by the stories of the Iñupiat people. Produced by North America’s first indigenous-owned video game company, Upper One Games, Never Alone affords people a chance to engage with oral conceptions of the past. Most importantly, it allows the Iñupiat people a way to share their history. It also affords people a chance to listen to and engage with those stories, in contrast to games like Civilization and Assassins Creed, which foreground colonial ways of knowing history, even at their best.

I began with #gamergate because I did not want this to read like a linear celebration of the progress in the video game industry. As students of history, we appreciate that things are seldom linear or clean. Nevertheless, there are multiple threads to the story, and I believe it is important for anyone with interest in history to keep at least one eye on the multiple developments in the industry. It is, after all, a fundamental means for exposing people to history.

Jonathan McQuarrie is a PhD Candidate at the Department of History, University of Toronto. He tweets about things historical and not at @jrmcquarrie. 

One thought on “Yes, We CAN Think Historically with a Video Game Console

  1. Writing from my phone, so this will be brief. Enjoyed the article greatly. Personally, I think Papers, Please is the most impressive game to date at engaging historical material and–most of all–encouraging the player to think historically. I actually wrote about it in my portfolio blog today, shameless self-plug linked below.

    I think there’s also a lot to be said for games who use historical fiction (like Papers, Please) versus those who stick to “real life” (like Civ and Assassin’s Creed). A lot of the difference is similar to the differences between historical fiction and professional historic writing, but what about moments where history goes “wrong”? Such as, for instance, Montezuma takes over the world in a Civ game? I’d argue that the player is no longer anywhere close to historical thinking at this point, and the past serves as nothing more than a backdrop with some familiar characters.

    That said, I am thrilled to see articles such as this appearance about the intersection between history and video gaming.

    Super shameless self-plug:

Leave a Reply