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Can video games really be historically accurate?


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A little historical embellishment has always served writers of fiction well – Shakespeare is a prime example, but the practice is familiar to all of us, even if we are unaware of it.

Writers have been altering documented history for as long as history has been documented. But does this mean that it should go uncriticised in the 21st Century?

Most recently, Red Dead Redemption has sparked conversation about historical accuracy in video games. Other AAA games like Battlefield V and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey occupied a contentious position for a while, too, in very different ways. The former was berated for its supposedly liberal agenda of featuring a woman in its promotional material despite being set during World War II, and the latter for dialling down the historical accuracy in favour of a more player-driven story.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Image Credit: Pixabay

Video games in academia

Naturally, as video games begin to be taken seriously as an art form in their own right, and as their cultural expansion ever grows bigger, academic circles dedicated to Game Studies have coalesced. The way games portray, embellish, and manipulate the past has drawn considerable attention, with sites like Gaming the Past and Archaeogaming cropping up.

In her article, Women Out of Date, PhD candidate Esther Wright explores Red Dead Redemption 2’s treatment of women (which she deems ‘ambivalent’), and whether it lives up to the historical ‘authenticity’ it desires. In a similar vein, Archaeogaming’s Andrew Reinhard considers the colonialist underpinnings of a game like No Man’s Sky, in which the unbridled agency of players might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

A stable past?

The issue of player agency is at the forefront of the debate about historical accuracy in video games, as allowing a player free reign over a world set in the ostensibly stable and unchangeable past would contradict any desire for historical accuracy. But, then again – how stable is the past?

Video games can also be used as a way of demonstrating the bias inherent in any kind of objective historical narrative. Dishonored, for example, does a good job of portraying the plight of the underdog at odds with an oppressive regime twisting events to fit in with its narrative.

This is by no means the only kind of discussion surrounding video games and the past, however. The ways in which video games interact with and borrow from literary canon is another curious route into these dialogues. Andreas Inderwildi often writes about such intertextual instances, exploring a medieval reading of Monster Hunter World, as well as looking ahead to how video games might be someday historicised. After all, video games will someday be another historical artefact for the future to interpret – and misinterpret.

All this to say: video games’ relationship with history is not as straightforward as one might expect – and this article barely scratches the surface. For a more in-depth discussion of these ideas, check out M. W. Kapell and A. B. R. Elliott’s Playing with the Past and Adam Chapman’s Digital Games As History.

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