Historical computer games and collective memory
Historical computer games, much like historical films, are perhaps entitled to a little ‘artistic licence’. The obvious example being that films set depicting an event that may last over a few years could not possibly manage to fit ‘the whole story’ into two hours and therefore some events, deemed by the production team as unimportant, are shortened, edited or even completely omitted. Sometimes, these films are based on preconceived perceptions of popular history which dictate such changes. They are limited ‘glances’ into the past and tell us much about contemporary views of the past. Can the same can be said for computer games?
Battlefield V was billed on release to be the Second World War “as you’ve never seen it before”. Interesting pitch as I sincerely doubt any veterans are rushing to buy the game to find out if this claim is true by comparing their experiences. This statement must surely be based on a popular collective narrative which is being used by game marketers to make sales to appeal to a general market with some familiarity to the historical period. Certainly, a point I find when looking into marketing is the consideration for game developers is to make a game ‘accessible’ to gamers and it appears the gaming ‘experience’ is key. Is a game a first-person shooter or perhaps a more grander strategy game? Is this a game that can have a virtual reality experience? Does the game appeal to a mass market of demand? How does historical setting fit in here and why has it been chosen?
Let’s take the example of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. This is set in various areas of London in 1868. It also has many downloadable ‘add on’ content such as extra ‘missions’ – including one on Jack the Ripper. The appeal of such a game is its immersion in a detailed and almost endless world. With regular downloadable content made available long after initial release, these worlds can potential be endless. The game incorporates numerous historical and popularly known historical figures such as Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell and Queen Victoria. The game attempts to capture London at the height of the British Empire during the Industrial Revolution and adding these prominent figures is certainly a way of doing this. Yet it falls into a basic and memory of the period that fits into the popular perception of the time and seems ‘familiar’ to those unfamiliar with the historical period.
Beyond these figures the gamer walks through the ‘slums’ of Whitechapel (along with workhouses) which are then juxtaposed with later missions that involve visiting the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham palace. The game follows little in chronological historical events but the narrative of the game runs like an exciting novel or Hollywood blockbuster. The added ‘twist’ though is that the gamer shapes events by their choices and actions. Here is a key aspect of gaming and is perhaps what makes games like these so exciting. There is, however, the need to develop skills and missions are set at different levels to reach a climatic finally, so a player is ultimately led by their actions because of this.
The Assassins Creed franchise has explored, in impressive visual detail, several, but very familiar in popular memory, historical periods including: Revolutionary France, Ancient Rome and Ancient Egypt (I had great fun climbing the Great Pyramid at Giza). The franchise has a large global outreach and is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Most gamers will also be aged between 18 and 35 years old and many even younger. If gaming is going to influence the popular memory of a time period, which, considering its wide sale it may well, then it surely deserves the attention of historians.
More historians now are examining and considering the impact of computer games on the historical popular narrative and certainly how it reflects this. Perhaps, as historians delve deeper into historically set computer games, we will be able measure the impact they have on younger generations as some become historians and how the continuingly evolving collective memory develops. Perhaps the historians of the future will hark to their passion of history being sparked by walking through the slums of Whitechapel in Assassins Creed: Syndicate? As well as reflecting popular narrative games have the potential to greatly influence popular history and for us to understand it more. Historians should pay careful attention.
By James Jefferies
James was born in Colchester and received his Master’s in History at the University of Essex. His dissertation was on the role and memory of RAF Bomber Command during the Battle of Britain. James is fascinated by the topic of collective memory and his current research is focussing on computer games and the centenary of the First World War. He has a passion for understanding public and collective memory of war as well as themes of remembrance and commemoration. James believes that understanding what is remembered collectively will help in building a greater sense of the present.