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Rethinking History at GDC 17

Historian Bob Whitaker writes about his experience at GDC 17.

I can’t speak for other historians, but I feel an overwhelming sense of personal guilt about the current state of affairs in America. Whether it’s the country’s collective amnesia regarding fascism and xenophobia or a Cabinet member blithely referring to slaves as “immigrants,” every day seems to bring a new event that causes my internal monologue to scream, “is anyone paying attention to history?!?!” The answer, of course, is usually “no.” As a historian, I could easily chalk this problem up to the decline of education funding throughout the country or the general history of anti-intellectualism in American life, but I know that scholars must share some of the blame as well. We haven’t been doing enough to share our knowledge – or, at least, we haven’t been doing enough to share our knowledge in the right spaces. What’s the use of a brilliant, historically researched critique of modern American life if it’s published in an obscure academic journal behind a paywall or delivered within the confines of a lecture hall? What historians need isn’t a new message about the past, but a new medium.

I attended GDC earlier this month to see if video games could be that new medium. I’ve spent the past four years pondering historical video games with other scholars on YouTube for my series History Respawned, but in that time I’ve done very little to reach out to the developers responsible for making these games. What draws them to set their games in history? What kind of problems did they encounter while adapting the past? Did they conduct research for their adaptations? Finally, is there space for scholarship in popular games? GDC17 provided the perfect occasion to begin to answer these questions. This year’s conference gave me the chance to attend panels on several history games, including Civilization, Civilization VI, Mafia III, and The Oregon Trail. In addition, this year’s GDC found the game industry making a push to save its own history through initiatives like the Video Game History Foundation and the National Videogame Museum. For a historian and gamer, GDC 17 seemed tailored to my specific interests.

My schedule at GDC brought me into contact with the past, present, and future of history games. I interviewed Don Rawitsch, one of the developers of the original Oregon Trail, and listened to Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley discuss the creation of the first Civilization. I also talked with Bill Harms about writing Mafia III, and Navid Khonsari about the critical acclaim for 1979 Revolution: Black Friday. I had the pleasure to play several history games on the expo floor, such as Frostrune and Quadrilateral Cowboy. Finally, I met with developers at Paradox and Kalypso to learn about historical games still in development, including Steel Division: Normandy 44 and Railway Empire.

What I found in all these interactions was that there was a motivation to pursue history as a subject that went beyond sales numbers, and that – regardless of their initial motivation – all of these developers shared a sense of responsibility for the history they adapted. Don Rawitsch’s work on Oregon Trail began in 1971 as a way to teach westward expansion to his American history course, but he continued to improve the project over the next several years using the diaries and journals of people who travelled the trail during the 19th century. Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley were focused on creating an entertaining (and sometimes comedic) game with the development of Civilization, but they still went to the trouble of developing the Civilopedia in order to give the game historical weight. Bill Harms wanted to avoid the “historical soapbox” with Mafia III, but the team at Hanger 13 still spent months researching the history of New Orleans and the 1960s to get an accurate feel for the time and place. Navid Khonsari and iNK Stories were also eager to avoid turning 1979 into edutainment, yet the team still managed to provide a wealth of historical information through the game’s use of archival audio tracks and photographs. Similarly, nothing got Alexis Le Dressay more animated during my preview of Steel Division than the game’s use of actual aerial reconnaissance photographs from the Normandy invasion.

All of the game developers I talked to expressed a genuine love of history, but they all worried about including too much history in their games. For them history is a useful tool to immediately connect the player to a game and its narrative, but they worried that if they include too much history in their game it will turn off their audience. Yet there was a bit of pushback against this assumption at GDC. During the Q&A for the Civilization postmortem, for instance, many audience members challenged Bruce Shelley’s notion that the game provided little educational value. Similarly, during the panel on Civilization VI, audience members encouraged Ed Beach to have his team double check the spelling of several South Asian place names and leaders. No one claimed that these developers had no right to adapt the past, but they did point to the fact that these games play a real role in developing the historical memories of players. Sid Meier said during the Civilization postmortem that one of the reasons the game was so successful was because “history is so rich with stuff we could steal.” It seems that popular history games, however, often leave something behind at the crime scene.

This realization encourages me to think there is a space for scholarship in popular games. If we borrow Sid Meier’s line of thinking and consider history game development to be some sort of heist, who is better placed than a historian to show developers where the best treasures are kept as well as where the potential traps lay? Some scholars would scoff at this idea, saying that presenting history in this way somehow lessens or dumbs down their analysis of the past. Yet this use of history will occur with or without the input of historians, and it will have a much larger influence on the minds of players than an academic book or journal article. Moreover, given the current crisis in the academy related to funding and public irrelevance, what do historians have to lose?

I think many scholars would be encouraged, as I was, to hear the GDC Microtalks given by Brie Code, Meg Jayanth, and Darby McDevitt, which argued that games should do more to engage with intellectually and culturally heavy topics and systems. There seems to be an opportunity, then, for historians and other scholars to meet developers somewhere in the middle. In a way, moving to this middle ground would be a return to the original relationship between history and video games. The first and arguably most successful history game of all time, The Oregon Trail, was developed in 1971 by a history instructor and his programming buddies. As Don Rawitsch told me during my interview with him, the development of The Oregon Trail occurred during an era when history instructors and professors were actively looking to break up old models of teaching and presenting history. I can’t say that video games represent a cure-all for everything that ails professional history today, but I do think scholars would do well to try to follow that same trail again.

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