There have been many debates on the Net that fixate on things like racism, sexism, and plenty of other ‘isms, and often I have read that historical games, in particular video games, can be taken to promote or even excuse violent behaviour.
However, this popular view has been recently challenged, in a paper titled “Violent Video Games and Real-World Violence: Rhetoric Versus Data”, carried out by the guys (and I mean ‘Guys’ in the broadest sense) at Villanova University and Rutgers University in the US. The report they published based on copious research finds no correlation at all and claims…
"Finding that a young man who committed a violent crime also played a popular video game, such as Call of Duty, Halo, or Grand Theft Auto, is as pointless as pointing out that the criminal also wore socks."
Interesting? But apart from the issue of violence, what about social issues that belong in an historical period, but are simply not palatable to an audience today, for example Slavery, Sexism, or even Whaling?
This is less of a problem with the historian, as our job is never to judge the past by using the present. We document, analyse and explain, and we should be relied on to maintain as objective a view as possible. This does not have to be the case in the production of games however, where we accept that as playing characters, we have endless lives to expend, and are able to take far more physical punishment than anybody in reality! Clearly, games wouldn’t be games if they were made to be as brutally accurate as can be, for example, Call of Duty wouldn’t be a successful series if you got hit once with a bullet and that was it, dead, never to get to play the game again. Still, where do we draw the line?
If the information contained in, let’s say, a blockbuster movie, is incorrect we run the risk of this ‘faulty’ history becoming the accepted norm. For example, "U571" which was released in 2000 was a film that supposedly showed an American submarine action that led to the capture of an Enigma coding machine, thereby changing the whole course of the War.
This movie came under heavy fire because, frankly, it was nonsense! It had been British sailors from HMS Bulldog that made the breakthrough, lifting a working machine from from U-110. This action had actually taken place a full SEVEN months before the USA even entered the War!
Another example is the 2001 film “Pearl Harbor”, which featured not only an American fighter pilot shooting down amazing numbers of enemy planes when the Japanese attack but also even includes President Franklin D Roosevelt getting up out of his wheelchair!
Now you might be thinking, "So what! It is just a bit of light entertainment?" But if the reality is not important, why not make it totally fictional, have the Americans capture some other important documents? Or a spy or, well, anything! Why produce a film purporting to show a ‘True Event’ and then lie? What about the sailors on board HMS Bulldog? They were the ones who gambled their lives on the plan to capture the Enigma machine, is this just a little disrespectful to their families?
If "U571" raised a few interesting issues, I could write a book on the inaccuracies contained in some of the films of Mel Gibson! Where to start with "Braveheart" or the "Patriot"?
The article by Claire Suddath in Time magazine summed up Braveheart for me, a film I still can’t bring myself to watch in one sitting!
“Mel Gibson’s Scottish epic about Sir William Wallace is riddled with so many inaccuracies that it’s hard to know where to begin. How about the kilts? Scotsmen in the 13th century didn’t wear belted plaid… at one point in the film he appears to be wielding nunchaku, with no explanation of how the Chinese weapon came to exist in medieval Scotland. Furthermore, Wallace never met — much less impregnated — the Princess Isabella, who was 9 years old and not a Princess at the time this movie supposedly takes place.”
So for our example let us focus on the 2000 release, "The Patriot". This was rated by Rotten Tomatoes as…
“Entertaining to watch, but relies too much on formula and melodrama.”
Yes indeed, here again we have a film that should have a strong sense of the history of the American Revolution, but in an effort to appeal to a wide American audience, History has been dumped in favour of the aforementioned ‘Melodrama’. We have an idealised version of the Revolution in which all the ‘Patriots’ mingle in harmony regardless of skin colour, and the widespread use of slaves is swept conveniently under the carpet, an issue that led director Spike Lee to comment:
“The Patriot is pure, blatant American Hollywood propaganda. A complete whitewashing of history.”
This is also a film that shows the British (or more accurately the English) acting like 18th Century Nazis; in fact one of the key moments shows the British redcoats herding screaming women, children and old men into a church, setting light to the building and watching them burn! This event categorically did not happen, but I would bet that audiences left the cinema believing that it did…and there is the problem.
As a historian I can’t help but feel that is the responsibility of filmmakers to either use the historical truth, (when available of course), OR make the films obviously fictional. Don’t try to palm off the idea that ALL the colonists were brave, patriotic, fervent supporters of the Revolutionary cause in 1775…they were NOT…or equally, the red coated British, they were NOT evil drones, carrying out a wave of terror attacks against the poor downtrodden colonial settlers, like ‘Stormtroopers’ from Star Wars! As is usual in history, the truth is more complex, and much more intriguing than that. Thoughtful audiences of any nationality deserve to be given the best effort at historical truth in the films they watch, otherwise we perpetuate falsehoods, and that serves nobody well.
There is no doubt plenty more to be written about History and the Movies, but we set out at the start of this article to look at the bigger picture, so how is History utilised in another great leisure activity, gaming?
Many years ago now, an intrepid group of us set about designing a website and regular podcast that looked at gaming from a wide perspective, including table top gaming, RPG, video games, and board games. It was quite a success for a while, and during that time we took the opportunity to look very closely at the issue of history in gaming.
As an example, one of the games we focussed on was a board game called ‘Endeavor’ by Carl de Visser and Jarratt Gray. This game tells the story, in an abstract way, of the exploration and empire building of the great European powers, tokens are collected representing power and these eventually decide the winner of the game.
A fairly recent, and very interesting board game that attempts to cover the issue of slavery is “Freedom - The Underground Railroad”: by Academy Games. The players are asked to on take a variety of roles based on characters from the Abolitionist movement of 19th century America. What makes this game stand out is the way it forces the players to make difficult decisions. The transfer of resources from one area to another on the game board may just save a great number of runaway slaves, but this comes at the expense of others elsewhere on the map. It does a good job of introducing the player to key individuals like Levi Coffin, Josiah Henson and Anne Elizabeth Dickenson, and the historical information given on the cards fleshes out these unsung characters. This game is a prime example of how by taking a very emotive historical time frame, and by sensitively developing a game mechanic that gives a sense of place, but does not play fast and loose with history, game designers can produce a product that is both fascinating to play, thought provoking and historically accurate.
Another board game that has long been a favourite of ours is ‘Europe Engulfed’ by Jesse Evans and Rick Young, better known as "EE", a huge board game that allows the players to re-fight World War Two in Europe and North Africa. It is a block game, can take many hours to play, and has game mechanics that cover most of the crucial elements involved in waging war in the twentieth century.
However, this does raise an issue that lots of other games have faced, that is, it is acceptable to feature the Swastika symbol to represent the forces of National Socialist Germany in historical games?
Europe Engulfed does not. The symbols the game uses represent the Wehrmacht, but not the political leadership of the nation at that time. There are special blocks that stand in for SS Armour Units for example, and even though they would be extremely politically motivated in 1944/45, they do not sport the Nazi livery. However, the recent video game ‘Wolfenstein: The New Order’, does make use of the swastika and it serves as a striking reminder of the game World, a post WW2 alternative history. In current German law, the public use and display of the swastika, even if it is being used as a part of a satirical attack, is not allowed. Quite how that relates to video games like Wolfenstein, I’m not sure…I am in no way versed in the details of German state law!
But how would this theory of banning ‘Historical Symbols’ work in games based on other historical periods? The Crusades for example? There might well be groups of people offended by the use of religious symbols, both the Cross and the Crescent and Star? What about the Hammer and Sickle? As we all know, the Soviet Union under Stalin suffered a horrific death toll due to political induced starvation and the Purges? Would that be bad enough to warrant a ban on the symbol of Soviet Communism?
I guess we need to think about the issue of symbolism. Are the images themselves evil or does the close association with evil deeds forever link the symbol with the action? It would seem that no matter what is said about the swastika, and its use as a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. and the fact that it is a common sight in India or Indonesia, to the general western public, the swastika has been ‘taken over’ by the terror of National Socialism.
Even if we agree that some images are tainted in the public mind, does the fact that these symbols are a part of the past, for good or bad, mean that in an historical game we should use the symbols, or else are we simply attempting to Photoshop history?
In the end it is a tough choice. Nobody should be made to play a game that they find deeply offensive, BUT I do wonder if sometimes people can get offended a bit TOO easily? As for an answer, well, I don’t have one! My gut reaction is that if an event happened in the past, it is fair game… We gain nothing from trying to wash it away.
Perhaps we should make more use of the option of not playing, watching, buying, reading, or listening to, material that we object to on a personal level. As long as it is clearly stated that the product, be it a film or a board game, is addressing events from 1933 to 1945, then the use of a swastika symbol is justified. Just a personal opinion.
Historical accuracy is our major focus point here, but perhaps it would be interesting to address another key debate point, and one that leads to many, many column inches in the gaming press.
A quick search online will soon highlight the anger often expressed that video gaming is the domain of the sexist. Outraged writers will point to the scantily clad female armour worn on some MMO’s and argue (with some justification) how it is that a thong, even an armoured one, can have the same stopping power as a full set of plate metal leggings!
It is difficult to argue with this as gaming, especially fantasy gaming, has a long history of this sort of imagery. BUT, it is worth pointing out that the same fantasy MMO’s also allow players to play any sex they like, and this will never have an impact on the power, strength, or abilities of the ‘toon’… There is complete equality in terms of fighting skills and playability. Freya, who writes on this site, has written two epic fantasy novels, ‘Heartwood’ and ‘Sunstone’ that use this total quality between the sexes as a base. Men save women and women save men…nobody is ‘The Weaker Sex’. Now I would argue that in this particular case, gaming is giving us a very honest, even-handed view of sexuality. A favourite current game in our house is "Dragonage: Inquisition", which features relationships as a small part of the open world story. The characters are straight, bi-sexual and homosexual, and it MAKES NO DIFFERENCE to the way they fight or play in the game. Their sexuality does not totally define the characters; it is a part of what makes them more rounded as protagonists in the game world.
Now I know that I have mentioned fantasy gaming here, but what about the depiction of women in video games like "Grand Theft Auto"? It IS a game that focusses on a dark, unattractive world of pimps, drug dealers, and car theft, and the portrayal of women is pretty unrelentingly misogynistic throughout the game. It does not actually show ANYBODY in a particularly good light, the men are often rough, shallow and often deeply unhappy, but it is a hugely popular game with buyers. Rockstar Games have admitted that the nature of the game is a talking point for the developers, and that a future game with a focus on a more female perspective might be in the offing? Now that would be an interesting game to try!
There have been some standout examples of female leads in video games. Lara Croft dominated the market in the early days of the PS and Xbox…Although it must be said that her rather…pneumatic chest did seem to cater for the stereotypical male gamer. Interestingly, in the recent Square Enix release ‘Tomb Raider’, it is very different Lara. The designers set out to avoid the more ludicrous proportions and aim for ‘physical realism’. The game is all the better for it, and although this Lara is much younger, she is more grounded.
Other recent games have continued the slow re design of female protagonists… the PS4 game “inFAMOUS First Light”, features Abigail “Fetch” Walker, a particularly interesting protagonist, and where would “Alien Isolation” be without a ‘Ripley’, in this case the daughter of the film original. These women are not portrayed as being weak, they are not in constant need of being saved by men. Add to this list the fantastic ‘Ellie’ from "Last of Us" who is not only a strong female character, but a very young one too, and it is clear that there is movement within the gaming industry regarding the way gender is factored into the latest games.
"Ubisoft has here trotted out a tired, stupid, constantly refuted excuse for why it has perpetuated the cycle of sexism and under-representation in the games industry."
Now, I’m not sure that Ubisoft made a good call there, and it has been highlighted that the money involved in extra production costs would have been easily off-set by the positive press coverage, and the final statement from the company…
"I understand the issue, I understand the cause, and it is a noble one, but I don't think it's relevant in the case of Unity. In Unity you play this character called Arno, and when you're playing co-op you're also playing Arno – everybody is.”
...while technically correct, fell on deaf ears for the most part. Later, when Unity shipped with more than its fair share of ‘Issues’, it all added up to a rocky launch for the Ubisoft, Next Gen rebuild.
Ubisoft should have been pre-warned, for the previous title in the Assassins Creed series, ‘Black Flag’, was set in the 17th century Caribbean, and as well as sailing around in a Pirate ship, the player had the opportunity to hunt and kill a wide variety of animals, including Whales. Now as most of us know, the hunting and culling of Whales today is threatening the existence of these majestic animals, but the use of hand thrown harpoons in the 17th century to catch them was never really going to damage the whale population like modern methods. So the inclusion of Whaling in ‘Black Flag’ is not a statement saying that it is okay to slaughter Whales, but a recognition that Whaling was a part of the economy of the Western World two hundred or so years ago. It is also worth mentioning that in ‘Black Flag’, the DLC or extra content focussed on the work of Adéwalé, a black pirate/assassin who sets about freeing slaves from plantations across the game map. This gives a fantastic impression of life on the plantations, and also the work of those trying to end this evil trade.
If we are completely honest, we know that human history has rarely been a tale of joy and hope…Certain periods are riddled with unhappy events, as Thomas Hobbes famously said, human life for the most part has always been , “Hard, brutish and short”. However, history is FULL of heroes, villains, evil events, romance, and settings that provide for film makers and game designers a huge database of material that they can use.
For the Historian, THE most important aspect of what we do is the desire to remain as objective and unbiased as we possibly can. In many ways this is a ‘Holy Grail’ of history writing, as it could be strongly argued that any historian is influenced by the period of time they have been alive.
Stepping outside your own time frame and viewing historical events in the context of the past is essential. Writing about a time when Slavery was common or Women had few if any political rights, is not stating that these are okay, it is recognising that for good or ill, these events have been part of us, of our makeup, and just like having a rather disturbing distant member of our family tree, they do not define who we are or what we chose to do today. We do not judge the past by the present, but neither should we judge the present by the past.
A fine balance should be struck between historical accuracy, and entertainment. This does not mean completely changing events or people to fit the story, unless it is made clear by the producers that that is what has happened. There are so many examples of fantastic, fascinating and yes, entertaining historical events in history that there should be no need to treat human history like a monstrous sandbox that can be altered to fit whatever version of history is popular at any given time.