How do we treat those on the losing side of history?
Hamilton is remarkable. Last week, the Broadway show that has captured international attention received sixteen Tony Award nominations—more than any other production in history. Heap onto these a Grammy Award and a Pulitzer Prize (as well as the MacArthur Genius grant awarded to creator Lin-Manuel Miranda), and it seems set to be the most awarded show ever created.
To paraphrase the presumptive Republican nominee, its cast may get bored of all the winning.
Several years ago, I became good friends with a woman who had been abused by her previous partner. Abuse is shockingly common; her experience is not all that unusual. She confessed to me that she would wake up bolt-upright at 3am, shaking from night terrors. Things that would remind her—even just a little—of her previous partner would send her into a tailspin. Even saying his name could overwhelm her and give her a full-blown panic attack.
Her story is, sadly, not that unusual. But what made her experience particularly bad was that she had an exceptional memory—something approaching either what psychologists term an Eidetic memory or Hyperthymesia, where one can easily recall with great precision images and events from your past. Being able to remember everything from where you put your keys to the little wrinkles around your first child’s eyes may sound like a dream, but for her, the experience was a waking nightmare.
For her, counselling and therapy helped her to eventually make the memories—if ever present—less intrusive in her daily life. It allowed her, if not to forget per se, to choose what to remember on any given moment.
And perhaps ironically, that is one of the chief ways in which we, as a society, use history: we use it in order to decide what to remember and what to forget.
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) is not a typical historical film. It is certainly an historical film—at least by a simplistic definition of what an “historical film” entails: it is set in the pre-Civil-War wild west and deep south, and it has all the detailed and well-researched visual details—set pieces and costumes—which have become a central defining trope of the contemporary historical drama. That said, at a more basic level it does not have the same relationship with history that most other films given the title “historical” do. Instead, Django, like Tarantino’s previous Inglourious Basterds (2009), re-renders history to match the topoi and narrative arcs typified by a particular film genre. It even goes so far as to explicitly and self-consciously create historically-absurd scenarios in furtherance of its cinematic goals. Tarantino deploys those things for which historical films are most often criticized—unintentional anachronism, historical implausibilities and absurdities—intentionally, developing a sophisticated interplay between the expectations of “historical accuracy” and cinematic fantasy. This is a controversial approach that at once bolsters and threatens to derail his intentions: with one hand, to render a compelling vision of the institution of slavery, and with the other, to smash that institution to pieces.
Editor’s note: This is a second part of our continuing conversation on sexual assault in the media and in historical realities. As a result, this article includes frank discussions of the depictions of sexual violence.
One of the criticisms of our last article on the topic was that it amounted to “a man writing about men writing about women.” Thanks to Phoebe for offering up her perspective on the topic.
This is the first in an open-ended series on finding and engaging with new audiences on the internet. If you have experience working with or presenting content through new venues on the internet, please get in touch! Your perspective would be welcome on The Public Medievalist!
The internet is a wild place. It’s a marvel of our era, a place where we are “capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man” which we then use “to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.” This quote succinctly illustrates the beautiful potential of the internet, as well as its inherent silliness and toxicity. It comes from one of the most interesting– in all senses of the word– sites on the internet: Reddit.com.
Content and Spoiler Warning: The below article contains both spoilers for Season 5, Episode 6 of Game of Thrones as well as frank discussions of rape and sexual violence.
Editor’s Note: This article is significantly longer than usual for The Public Medievalist. I did this because the topic is a very difficult one, and there are a lot of issues explored here that demand a longer form to even scratch the surface. Thanks also to Amy Kaufmann for reviewing this article and offering very helpful suggestions for revision.
As a medievalist interested in popular culture, I’ve been asked by a handful of people to comment on thatscene from a recent episode of Game of Thrones (season 5, episode 6). If you saw it, you probably know which one I mean: Sansa Stark is married to Ramsay Bolton—the currently-reigning Worst Person in Westeros (a title always under fierce competition). Predictably—and horribly—he then rapes her on their wedding night. At this point in the show, Sansa is many things, but not so naive as she started out. It is heavily implied that she knew what she was getting herself into, but accepted this fate so that she can get closer to the targets of her vengeance. That doesn’t make it any less horrible though—and obviously does not in any way equal consent.
Since its airing, there has been considerable discussion on the internet about that scene; some accused it of being “gratuitous.” Considering that the show is one of the most popular depictions of the medievalesque in recent years, depicting marital rape in the show this raises a number of questions about the realities of sexual violence in medieval Europe.
One of the most venerable genres of computer games is the city-building simulator. SimCity is the great-granddaddy of them all, of course, and many kids in my generation wasted plenty of recess hours hunched over a computer program which, somehow, managed to make urban planning and civic zoning fun.
SimCity’s breakout success made its makers at Maxis a household name among many gamers. And Maxis went on to launch a number of sequels (though the shambolic failure of the most recent iteration has threatened to derail its future), as well as a number of other Sim-games (SimEarth, SimLife, SimAnt, SimFarm). Other companies also took up the mantle, often asking their players to build cities in exciting historical locales: Pharaoh for ancient Egypt, Caesar for Rome, Tropico for the 20th-century Caribbean, and the Anno series had titles set in 1701, 1404 and 2070.
The remarkable thing about the gameplay of SimCity was its lack of external conflict. In short, by contrast with the vast majority of games then and now, there were no bad guys to shoot, no race cars to overtake, no bosses to defeat, no princesses to save. The fundamental challenge was in creating a perfectly-balanced system, where each of the metaphorical gears would run in time with all the others. That is, until this guy showed up to ruin everything:
By contrast, city-Sims set in the Middle Ages typically restored the external conflict. Medieval cities, it seems, were less interesting as whirring, dynamic urban centers, and more interesting as fortifications against plundering hordes. The successful Strongholdfranchise is a testament to this trend, where, in only the medieval context, the city-sim was replaced by the castle-sim.
And so it was no small interest that I recently began playing Banished.
Guest post from Robert Houghton. Robert mainly researches urban and episcopal history in Italy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and also has a strong interest in the portrayal of the Middle Ages in the media. He currently works at the University of St Andrews and as a research consultant for Paradox Interactive.
A few weeks ago, Paul posted about the mechanics of historical computer games and how it’s more important to have accurate mechanics than it is to have accurate facts. I’d like to elaborate on this with the example of Paradox Interactive’s Crusader Kings II, a game which I have had the pleasure of working on since January 2013.
For those of you who didn’t grow up on a steady, square-eyed diet of Mario and/or Sonic, the world of video games may seem alien. The stereotypes about games, and gamers, are legion, but the most pervasive one that exist is that games are fluff entertainment, pure mindless escapism. Sure, there may be more-edifying ones worthy for the classroom like Oregon Trailor SimCity, but the vast majority of the contemporary game-scape is as vapid as a ten-year-old playing Call of Duty or as sad as a Farmville addict. Certainly no place for the thinking medievalist.
Thankfully, if that ever was the case, it certainly is not so any longer. Leaving aside for the moment that the games industry has long surpassed the film industry as the most popular entertainment industry, over the past five years there has been a remarkable renaissance in the world of gaming, one that historians should pay careful attention to.
The past five years has shown two things. First has been an incredible diversification in terms of the games which have been released. This has been due to two things: (1) the development of far easier game-building tools, which has significantly lowered the expertise bar necessary to develop a game, and (2) the distribution of games over the internet through platforms like Steam, which lowered the cost for distributing a game. Suddenly, you didn’t need to have the resources of Blizzard or EA to make a game, and you didn’t need million-dollar sales to turn a profit.
This has resulted in a massive fragmentation of the market. Sure, there are still the annual standbys; each year shows another iteration of Battlefield or Fifa, and World of Warcraftcontinues to devour people whole. But along the way there has been a new outcropping of smaller, “indie” games. These games tend towards the niche, the experimental, the novel, telling stories that appeal for smaller audiences, and appealing to entirely new ones. Minecraft has taken this brave new world of gaming by storm, but it is far from the only one.
The second thing that has occurred over the past five years is that people have begun to take games seriously. Previously, games magazines were almost entirely devoted to reviews and industry hype, and some certainly still are (I’m looking at you, PCGamer). But others have arisen which discuss games not only in this surface-level, but delve into the bigger questions of games as an emerging art form which has the potential to tell stories in ways our other arts cannot. Like the innovative indie games that have come out in tandem with them, they are online-only affairs: The Escapist, Rock Paper Shotgun, and Extra Credits.
Extra Credits is a weekly video series written by game designer James Portnow, and presented by animator Daniel Floyd, with a rotating cast of artists. It has a fast-paced, humorous style, but underneath an often-silly veneer lies a compelling, often highly intellectual examination of the world of games. But, and this is where their great success lies, their discussions always remain as accessible as the games they are discussing. It’s the first rule of games—one which academia could do well to adopt: if people can’t play, you’ve lost.
The reason why I give special mention to Extra Credits is due to an episode that they just released which discusses concepts immediately relevant to the world of public medievalism: historical video games.
Here is the episode in question. Watch it. I’ll wait.
In their discussion of whether it is possible to learn from games, they argue that it boils down to one question:
“Is the point of history to learn dates, names and facts? Or to learn from history, and to understand the struggles of people in the past so that we may better make decisions in our lives today. If you believe the value of history is in the former, then the value of historical games are questionable at best. But if you believe it to be the latter, well then historical games may well be one of the best ways to learn history.”
Now, I tend to think there are other, more compelling reasons that history is valuable (outlined here and here for a start) than it can inform our decision-making process, but they make a compelling argument. History is definitely not about names and dates, and games can be remarkable tools for learning. This is because games, by their very nature, require the player to make choices—often hard choices. This is so central to the nature of games that legendary game designer Sid Meier (who created Civilization and a myriad of other classics) is often attributed with having defined good games as “a series of interesting choices”.
The Extra Credits team get it right: the power of these games is their ability to place the player within the shoes of an historical person and, if done well, force them to see through their eyes in some small way, and to make the difficult choices that were presented to them. Every good historical game is an exercise in role-playing.
And, moreover, they also get it right in that games—like films before them—have focused too much on the accuracy of minute historical details (possibly because there was until relatively recently a focus on those details among film critics and historical film scholars). Instead, games, like films, would be better served by delving more deeply into the worldview of the people they are portraying. Not an easy task, even for an historian.
The goal in games, as they rightly put, is mechanical accuracy. In a conference presentation I gave a few years ago, I lambasted medieval-historical strategy games for their mechanics. The Civilization series, for example, is predicated on the rather-perverse views that 1) technology is always good, 2) the goal of any civilization is to conquer (through one means or another) all others, 3) that history is shaped primarily by the great men and women at the heads of civilizations and 4) cultures have been static from the dawn of history through the present day. These are mechanics central to the game, and without which it wouldn’t work– at least in the way it does. This last one can lead to the bizarrely amusing scenario of Gandhi and George Washington facing off with armies of giant robots in the year 2030. And certainly I would not expect any reasonable player of Civilization to think that leaders of civilizations are undying totemic figures that are both timeless and omnipotent (as they seem to be in the game). But it would be a very interesting question to see whether players of this game tend to take more stock in a presentist view of history—where, as in the game—all roads inevitably lead towards technological progress and our current age.
So, as we come to grips with this new medium, I would implore any of you interested in them to think more deeply about games. Do not make the mistake that historians originally did with films and focus on the surface-level mistakes. Instead, look under the hood at the game mechanics, and try to see how they might be shaping people’s ideas about the past.
Tell me—what are your favourite medieval games? And what do their mechanics say about the past?