Video Game History

Yesterday we talked briefly in class about two web-based role-playing games in which the player assumes the role of a runaway slave. Both are called "Flight to Freedom," the first at Bowdoin College and the second at the NEH-sponsored site Mission US.

Screen shot from Mission US game

Screen shot from Mission US game, Flight to Freedom

One of the issues that came up in our discussion was whether "gamifying" the history of slavery is ever appropriate, and as it turns out, this issue has just been in the news because of a new slavery-centered game in the Assassin’s Creed series.

Another question that our discussion raised was whether video games can be considered "history" at all. This, too, is a long-standing question, and there is a very thoughtful group blog called Play the Past devoted to considering it. It’s a blog often written for historians by historians, and just yesterday historian Trevor Owens argued that games can be historical scholarship. His argument hinges on many of the points that came up yesterday in class about the widening of access to history, and the benefits of breaking away from a linear narrative form of argument that is itself no less interpretive than a "non-fiction game" would be.

Of course, even if we could agree that games could be history, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that the history of slavery should be represented with a game. At the very least, perhaps, the article on "Assassin’s Creed" suggests that with games, as with essays, there are better and worse ways to proceed. Play the Past has also published some past posts dealing with attempts to represent slavery in game-play situations, including this one by Rebecca Mir, and this one by Mark Sample about "playing the powerless in videogames about the powerless," which pointed me to the Mission US game in the first place.

In that post, Sample asks:

What are the limits of playing the powerless? What is lost and what is gained in portraying—and playing—a situation that has been well represented in other media? And what considerations should developers and players alike have with regards to responsibility and accountability?

If you’re interested in continuing this discussion, I’d be interested to hear your answers to those questions. Did you read the review of Assassin’s Creed, or play the Flight to Freedom games? What do you think about the limitations and possibilities of games as historical scholarship or as public history?

3 Responses to Video Game History

  1. To the idea of slavery in Assassin’s Creed: I’m really torn between the idea of gamifying such a serious issue (and thus degrading it to something less serious than it is) and ignoring the issue (which, through exclusion, also degrades it in a different sense.) I hadn’t thought of the possible flip side of the coin, as Black Flag demonstrates.

    In regards to the other article, I feel like the advantages of using games as scholarship is definitely plausible in the realm of reaching broader audiences, but the idea of “getting away from some of the inherent limitations of writing narratives” bothers me. I understand that each genre has its limitations, but I feel like the limitations of historical scholarship in a game far outweigh those in writing. The perspective that people take when approaching each of these genres must also be considered. Would people view the games as history, or would they focus primarily on the element of fun, and forget the element of education and scholarship included? Some might argue that audience awareness is not necessary, but for a deeper level of scholarship, I would argue that it is necessary to some degree. Jury’s still out on my opinion of games as history, though!

  2. These are great thoughts, Clare! Thanks for continuing the conversation!

    I’m torn on this subject, too. I agree that these are tricky issues to navigate, especially since, as you note, the audience’s perspective or perceptions will shape how they approach the work. But I think one of the things that history games force us to confront is how those preexisting perceptions shape the way we approach history.

    For example, does the fact that people are more likely to invest authority in a narrative written with the usual scholarly apparatus incline them to take for granted that the story of slavery being told in that essay gives a comprehensive view of the system? If they did come away with the idea that a partial view of slavery is the whole or final one, would that be any less dangerous (in its own way) than their approaching the subject without the appropriate degree of gravitas?

    To be clear, I’m not saying that games are the only way to communicate a more open-ended view of slavery or a view that better stresses the contingency and human agency of the enslaved. Nor do I think that’s what Owens is saying. Many scholarly historical narratives do that quite well (and we’ll read some next week!). What’s interesting to me is the way that thinking through the issues involved in games as scholarship forces us to think about how we produce other kinds of scholarship, including the ones that seem to (and probably do) have a greater claim to the name of scholarship.

  3. This is a great discussion! One thing that I do want to push back a bit on is the idea of “fun” in video games. It’s an important part of their legacy, but at the same time it is this big limitation on what the medium can do. I got into this a bit in Is Sid Mier’s Colonization offensive Enough. What is particularly striking in that game is that playing it can actually make you feel guilty. Something that reading an academic monograph has a lot more difficulty at doing. The embodiment of a game, the feeling that it’s you who is doing the doing, means that games can have a very different kind of emotional valance. In the persuasive games genre, things like Fatworld, and Disafected, and Points of Entry turn our expectations for fun upside down, put us in situations of managing systems that aren’t so fun but in doing so provide us with an opportunity for reflection.