The problems with game-based history

I’m still enjoying Eric Champion’s Critical Gaming: Interactive history and virtual heritage. I wanted to write today about his chapter four, which lots at the problems of learning history through games. There’s all sorts of things I like in here, and only one thing I take a different view on.

The first thing I like is that he quotes this blog, from Thomas Grip. Especially this line:

It is very common that you change a story like this depending on your audience. If the people listening do not seem impressed by the hero’s strength, you add more details, more events, descriptions and dialog. Your goal when telling the story is not be give an exact replication of how the story was told to you. What you are trying to do is to copy the impact the story had on you and any change you can do in order to accomplish this is a valid one.

Stories, Champion agrees “work independently” of facts. But that’s a challenge for games:

If you wish the audience to see a deeper truth beyond the words (of, say, a historical text), what are you aiming for and how do you know whether the audience has understood the meaning the the designer has attempted to convey?

A very good warning. He also quotes Tynan Sylvester, about how the story is actually always in the player’s head, whatever cues the game designer might create. Having set out these and other problems with games as pedagogy, he of course suggests ways in which game mechanics might be helpful in learning:

  • Using games discursively, a group can play a game and then discuss it afterwards
  • Student’s can emulate the performative aspect of games, roleplaying game characters
  • He discusses thesis-based kikset visualisation machines, simulations of cities or empires with students can mod to see the impact of decisions on the virtual “history”. (Champion mentions that Historian Neil Ferguson doesn’t think much of the likes of Civilisation, but does endorse the Making History series.
  • Games can be designed to use real or interpreted media – I’m think here of the Versailles 1685 art references. Champion conflates this with game mechanics used in VR in actual places, and mentions the work of CHESS.
  • Champion also gove numerous examples of building computer game mechanics into the physical word, objects in a real sand-pit with RFID tags that can like on virtual media, for example. Or moving tokens about an a phyiscal table that allows access to Point of View cameras on  actor’s (or in the example he gives, reindeer’s) heads.

There’s only one point I take issue with. Drawing from this blog, he says:

Playing in a digitally simulated world can leave the feeling that the virtual world’s entire causal mechanics rotate around the player

…as thought that’s a Bad Thing. Which I guess it might be if you are primarily seeking immersion or presence, as the VR guys call it. But in fact I’m coming to the conclusion that that feeling (which I’ve dubbed in a couple of presentations “the Apotheosis Moment”) is something special about games, which in a way, I’m trying to recreate in physical cultural heritage environments.

Champion returns to the idea later in the chapter challenging readers with the question “how can a god or a character with extraordinary powers communicate and interact meaningfully with NPCs?” He goes on to answer his own question with ten suggestions:

  • Ritual “we could allow actors a myriad of actions, as long as their behaviour and actions acheived the right results, or their decisions were made at the right time or place”;
  • Memetic Cause and Effect: Guns, Germs and Steel – Champion cites Dawkin’s meme model of cultural transmission (which earns him a million points from me) here;
  • Counterfactual Histories “while fascinating from the ‘what if’ scenario point of view, it is not likely to be a worthwhile avenue for virtual heritage environments as players would concentrate on creating imaginative fictions rather than uncovering historical knowledge or different cultural perspectives”;
  • Progress Through Truth-finding – like many adventure games (and the movie Groundhog Day), keep being forced to replay the scene until you do the right thing to move on;
  • Reversed Time Travel – Champions argues that most games’ chronological narratives move forwards in time, but archaeologists uncovering of the past is about thinking backwards in time. Some games, like Her Story and Gone Home use that technique;
  • Virtual Words Augmented with Historical or Current Media – again , like Versailles 1685;
  • Role-playing without Affecting History  – take on the roles of ancillary characters, to witness the historical figure take action;
  • Observe the Character Development of NPCs – similar to above but not playing a role in the scene, rather “becoming the self-appointed scribes of history”;
  • Extrapolate Clues from NPC Dialogue; and,
  • Mimic NPCs – Champion’s “Reverse Cultural Turing Test” as mentioned in a previous post.

Fundamentally the biggest problem of recreating the past through game design is that we weren’t there. “…we may be to gain a good idea of explorers from their diaries and records of their encounters either by the records of the explorers themselves or by the documentation of their associates. However, diaries, records, tax statements, paintings, photographs, and artefacts will not give us a complete picture of how people actually behaved, and the full range of conscious and subconscious motives and desires.”

Despite all these problems, Champion doesn’t believe we should stop trying to explore history though games. Indeed he argues that some of the limitations that games might have, working with them allows us to experiment with history in ways we might not have considered, and maybe, just maybe gain insights that we might have missed. Which is just as well, as he has written a whole book on the subject.

A final thought I’m having as I re-read this post. Champion’s  book is about creating virtual environments, but there’s some interesting philosophy here that historical re-enactors and costumed interpreters might also benefit from.

4 thoughts on “The problems with game-based history

  1. Reblogged this on Erik Champion and commented:
    The problem I have with the entire game revolving around the player is when we are simulating (world) heritage sites, the experience is about a culture not about the player. Historical adventure games don’t necesarily have this problem.

    1. Of course our (slight) difference of opinion on that comes with our relative directions of travel – you are trying to make simulated worlds more real, and I’m trying to make the real world more gamelike 🙂

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