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 Trail or 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 Warcraft continues 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?
Paul B. Sturtevant is Editor-in-Chief of The Public Medievalist. He is a researcher and historian for the Smithsonian Institution, where he helps the institution better understand its visitors and itself. He is an author, a medievalist, and a consultant, and has completed research projects as diverse as exploring the Caliphates of Muslim Spain, the history of American health care reform, and the peculiarities of American-style barbecue. He is unabashedly passionate about the place history has in current conversations.