History in Video Games – A Closer Look

Whether it’s World War 2, the American Wild West or ancient Greece, history has long provided a rich source of video game narrative. Historical fact has been painstakingly preserved in some games, yet distorted beyond all recognition in others. Whereas one game may be praised for its depiction of history, others have been lambasted for opening fresh wounds or glorifying tragic events of our near past. Games have utilized historical narrative extensively, but to what extent does the platform take liberties with, and perhaps misuse it?

The game that originally got me thinking about the role of history in video games was Metal Gear Solid 3. Set against the backdrop of the most turbulent years of the Cold War, it features some of the real life characters who helped to shape those times, namely U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. It references numerous real life events, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and then fictionalizes aspects of it, suggesting that it led to the American surrender of Nikolai Stepanovich, a fictional scientist who invents a nuclear equipped tank. It also includes the NSA, CIA and the KGB and taps into the culture of espionage that was prevalent in those ultra secretive times. MGS 3 has one foot in the history books and the other set firmly in the realm of fiction.

Such a vibrant mix of historic truth and far fetched fiction makes for an unusual brew. Historical figures and real life events walk hand in hand with an antagonist who controls lightning, ghosts, a 100 and something year old sniper, and a completely over the top, entirely unbelievable plot. That the game switches between the historical, supported by documentary style footage, to the realm of outright fantasy, may be seen as problematic. Any credibility that the Cold War setting provides is quickly swept aside by the somewhat ludicrous nature of the story. Which begs the question, why include such factual elements in the first place?

I can certainly understand the allure of a factual setting, especially in the Metal Gear universe. By setting the fictionalized events of the game against a loose historical context, it enables the gamer to suspend their disbelief, if only for a moment. Also, the years portrayed in the game are eminently mysterious in themselves. One may spend their whole life speculating as to what may or may not have happened during that period. Such events have a certain mystique about them that attracts interest.

Of course, one may argue that the melding of truth and fiction to such a degree is counterproductive and misleading, and I would agree with this to a certain extent. But honestly, the kind of person who cannot tell the difference between the most obvious historical elements of MGS3 and those that are fictionalized is probably not the sharpest tool in the shed. They are not the kind of person who is ever going to pick up a history book or go online to learn about the real events. At least the game introduces them to an important period in modern history, although they may well think that it was waged in a Russian jungle between a Snake and soldiers with super powers. Oh well.

Moving away from Metal Gear Solid 3, video games can also take reference from and mirror history in more indirect and subtle ways. For example, Call of Duty – Modern Warfare is a highly enjoyable game that reflects a number of real world conflicts, without directly representing any one of them. Such an abstract setting lends a degree of credibility to the game, yet does not hamper it in the way that trying to accurately recreate one given conflict would have. Final Fantasy and other RPG series make good use of historical names and mythology and they seem right at home within the boundaries of a fantasy universe.

Video games can also take purposeful and very deliberate liberties with the facts by creating alternate histories. One of the finest examples would be the world of the Resistance games. Based in the 1950s and diverging from real history sometime after the First World War, it presents a Europe spared from the Great Depression and the rise of National Socialism, but one that succumbs to something much worse; near annihilation at the hands of the parasitic Chimera. The Fallout series and the Command & Conquer games famously feature time lines that diverge from the true course of history. Turning Point – Fall of Liberty takes place within an alternate history where Winston Churchill dies well before his time, the Nazis over-run Europe and the US remains neutral. Such liberties, while having little historical worth, are infinitely entertaining. Everyone likes to speculate about “what if” scenarios, and video games are the closest thing we can get to actually playing them out. It demonstrates one of the best marriages between history and games, and one that I would like to see more of.

When it comes to developing a game, historical accuracy will often take a back seat to what makes a popular and playable game. This is entirely understandable, as developers are rarely trying to create an accurate historical document. Inaccuracies abound in games like the Medal of Honour series, or even the fantastically crafted Assassins Creed. However, without an in depth knowledge of the periods in question, the casual gamer is unlikely to notice. This is neither detrimental to the gaming experience nor the appreciation of its historical background. Does it really matter that Gothic architecture is featured in Assassins Creed when it has no place in that time period? Of course not, and to quibble about such minor things is an exercise in futility.

Moving on, at what point is it acceptable to base a video game on a painful moment in history? When has enough time elapsed? How many years do we need? Army of Two is a fictionalised account of two mercenaries, active during the period 1993 – 2009 in political hot spots such as Afghanistan and Iraq. The way it handles this relevant, modern subject matter, and its depiction of mercenaries, drew criticism from all corners. Aside from its lack of tact, is it too soon to appropriate such conflicts into a video game? Even more recently, the furore caused by Six Days in Fallujah, which was to recreate the Iraq battle of 2004, led to it being dropped by Konami.

Going back a little further into the history books, World War 2 has been unashamedly tapped by various franchises. Call of Duty  – World at War is absolutely ruthless in its depiction of war, and rightfully so. Yet, it fails to show Japanese and German forces as anything more than cruel villains to be swept aside by the “good guys”; macho Americans and vengeful rampaging Russians. I cannot recall reading any reviews that touched upon this important concern. Perhaps WW2 is so far removed from the consciousness of the current generation of gamers that developers may have carte blanche with the topic matter. If so, when will Iraq and Afghanistan be fair game?

I don’t believe that video games necessarily have an important role to play when it comes to teaching people about history. We shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we must learn something factual each time we turn on Call of Duty. That isn’t what video games are for. But, if a gamer comes away from a session of Medal Of Honour feeling that they are little bit more knowledgeable about WW2, then good for them. That being said, developers who choose to utilise historical fact in their games should be held accountable if and when they butcher the truth. They have a responsibility to at least present some sort of semblance of reality when making a “historical” game. Or at least make it blatantly obvious when they fictionalize history, as MGS3 so expertly does.

Whatever your take on the relationship between games and history, it’s difficult to deny that they make for rather interesting bedfellows.

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Written by Matt M

Matt has been a gamer ever since Father Christmas left him a Master System II in the early 90's. Santa was clearly a Sega fan, as a Mega Drive and Saturn would follow in later years. Matt has long since broken free from the shackles of console monotheism and enjoys playing a wide range of games, almost as much as he enjoys meticulously ordering them on his living room shelves.

13 comments

  1. KrazyFace /

    I loved reading this Matt, bending the history books for entertainment is something that I’ve often marveled at in games. So much so, that I ended up talking to a preist about what he thought about the Templars after I played Assassin’s Creed (I meet lots of different people at work!), because I have very little knowledge of the cristian faith and wanted to know more!

  2. Michael J /

    I actually got quite annoyed at Assassin’s Creed’s portrayal of crusades era Jerusalem. It pretty much takes what was a religious conflict, removes the religion part and then makes it about something else entirely (I’m still not really sure what, those assassination targets really did like to rabbit on before snuffing it).

    But yeah, it’s difficult to get too annoyed at games and their mashing of history and fiction, it’s when they shy away from the truth to present a more sanitised and controversy free picture that I get ticked off.

    Also everything I know about history ever is a direct cause of playing the Civilisation series.

    • KrazyFace /

      I guess in my case, ignorance is bliss eh? I enjoyed AC, and I’m looking forward the next one!

    • Patrick G /

      Civilisation series turn me into a history nerd :), I love history in a game as long as it’s done right. Looking a you AC.

  3. Steven G /

    Michael, I know what you mean about sanitising the conflict, but it was actually quite brave of them to set the game there. What with all the possibilities to offend Jews, Muslims and Christians with everything from narrative to the actual physical layout of the city. It was a tinderbox of a setting, and no wonder they had to start with one of the most unique disclaimers ever to be seen at the start of a videogame.

    Additionally in many ways they did utilise a truth about the crusaders. Even though they were meant to be about religion, they often were as much about plunder and fortune. Thats why one of the major crusades never actually made it to the middle east and instead raped, pillaged and murdered its way through various non christian communities across eastern europe first!

    Within that setting of greed, such a fantasy narrative as that in AS kinda works. Along with the idea that there was a history of fanatic sects carrying out assassinations of collaborators and ‘aggressors’ dating back to the occupation of the land by the syrian-greeks, then during the Roman occupation and then continued by Arabs during the crusader times. Its rich in historical detail to add credibility to the mumbo jumbo story!

    A great article, my only real comment is that the movie business has been rewriting history for ages now so its only natural games follow.

  4. “Call of Duty – World at War is absolutely ruthless in its depiction of war, and rightfully so. Yet, it fails to show Japanese and German forces as anything more than cruel villains to be swept aside by the “good guys”; macho Americans and vengeful rampaging Russians.”

    While this is certainly true for the Japanese (which are depicted as suicidal Banzai charging sadistic soldiers without a face), I found that during the the Russian campaign, it was shown that both sides were ruthless. On more than one occasion the Germans shoot or try to shoot unarmed prisoners, but the same goes for the Russians. There are at least two times in CoD that you run into some Russian soldiers guarding unarmed Germans that beg for mercy, yet get mowed down by the AI if you don’t do it yourself.

  5. skavenger /

    For the sake of brevity, allow me to borrow the words of a certain space monster…

    HISTORY DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY!

  6. Steven D /

    I realize you seem to be focusing mostly on console games, but how can you write an article about History in Video Games without mentioning Paradox Interactive. Their Europa Universalis series, as well as Victoria, Hearts of Iron, and Crusader Kings, are all deeply rooted in history… attempting to create it in accurate detail… while at the same time allowing you to play it and change that history however you can. You can start in 1543 at the fall of the Byzantine Empire and play the expansive Ottoman empire… or you can start a few years prior and attempt to fend off the Ottomans and preserve Constantinople as Constantinople… take that song away from They Might Be Giants! Maybe the Native Americans should have banded together to fend off the French/English/Spanish colonies… go do it. Maybe you want to lead a Victorian era Brazil to be a world power to reckoned with… you can.

    If you’ve never played any of the Paradox games, you should look into them. There’s a steep learning curve, but they’re SO vast and so fun.

    • Patrick G /

      I’ve being meaning to get into The Europa Universalis series, I’m a huge Total War fan those :)

  7. fat mouse /

    Of course there are are so many WWII games. We (Americans) were the good guys.

    How many Vietnam War games do you think there are? I checked: not so many.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_World_War_II_video_games
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Vietnam_War_video_games

  8. As a developer of historical video games (http://www.longbowgames.com) I’m a strong believer that games can provide a unique and powerful way to explore history – there’s no better way to really understand something then to interact and experiment with it. However, the struggle of how close to stick to history and when to take liberties is a tough one. Generally the philosophy I prefer is to be upfront with what’s real and what isn’t. There are a lot of practical reasons developers can’t always be perfect (both technical and marketing limitations) and I quite enjoy blatant historical fantasy like god of war, resistance or wolfenstein. However, I find it permanently ruins the enjoyment for me when I discover that a movie/book/game that gives the impression of historical accuracy is really making it all up.

  9. Historical facts seem rather accidental to a game, but games are very good at exploring the systems and rules. Probably the best way to understand how the stock market works is to play a simulation of one. A game that is based on a barter system is much more ‘educational’ than reading a book on a barter system.

    For an example from my childhood, Oregon Trail II. When you buy all your supplies at the beginning you have to make lots of decisions. If I get x amount of food, I can’t take x amount of tools to repair my wagon. That’s universal economics but it also puts you in the mindset of those pioneers. You *feel* the dilemmas they had because you see the outcomes.

    I think that talking about ‘historical accuracy’ in terms of graphics details or marketing misses the point.

  10. Elijah G /

    I agree with Rob M in being up front with what is real and what is not, historically, although that can be difficult to do in the run of gameplay. I’ve enjoyed games that had some historical background in the manual itself (Panzer General, I think did this). But as far as MGS3 I think the risk there is that younger gamers who have little interest in history could be led to believe that Lyndon Johnson and Krushchev and other historical facts and realities are just made up game elements. It’s only a matter of time before stock footage and FMV sequences are indistinguishable, so I think developers need to be more careful in the future.

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