Video Games Can Help Us Understand Historical Change

Offering a chance to play with the past, some video games challenge us to investigate alternative historical scenarios. They make us wonder what parts of the historical narrative resonate with people, and why.

The map on my screen shows expansion over time. When I started, the region I’m controlling was small and seemingly insignificant. My goal is to restore the Roman Empire through making it to the 1800’s without being incorporated into any of the surrounding nations. It has taken all of my skill to remain when the Ottoman Empire comes knocking on the proverbial door. By managing the economy, military and most importantly, diplomacy in accordance with the game’s rules, I have managed to stabilize what was going to be Byzantium’s inevitable decline. We are now in the year 1635 and I have successfully meddled with the past.

A society or group’s historical culture is largely defined by what elements compose the narrative of the past. Researchers have spent decades describing the comings and goings of such elements, all the while trying to explain why it is that we need them in the first place. What role does history really play in the present?

Perhaps part of the answer to the daunting question lies in the midst of such poignant choices of words. “History” and “play” are at the center of research currently being conducted at the University of Helsinki.

The specific type of games in question provide us the possibility to play with the past.

The above scenario is taken from the game Europa Universalis IV (Paradox Interactive 2013) and illustrates how players of strategic video games are presented with the ability to rethink decisions that would have changed the course of history. The focus questions of the study revolve around the notion that playing a historical video game allows a person to explore and identify with the past at an interactive level. The specific type of games in question, known as strategy games, or historical simulators – for example Europa Universalis and Civilization – provide the possibility to play with the past and in fact, investigate alternative historical scenarios.

Re-thinking the narrative of the past

Alternate history, also known as counterfactual history, is generally frowned upon within the historian community where it is considered an unscientific approach to finding out about what happened. However, outside of the scientific sphere, in games and other popular culture, counterfactuals are common premises for narratives about the past. For example, in the strategy game Hearts of Iron, the player is tasked with acting out the years surrounding World War II. A popular way to play the game, is to play the role of Germany and attempt to win the war, contrary to what really happened.

By studying these types of scenarios, researchers hope to learn more about the ways players relate to the events and consequences of, for example, World War II. At the core of this type of research lies questions about subjectivity, agency and choice. What parts of the historical narrative resonate with people, and why?

Historical consciousness is understood by most researchers as the ability to explain the present in light of knowledge about the past. It is one way of explaining the ability to form ideas about the present – and the future – based on past experiences, interpretation of historical knowledge and orientation within historical cultures. As such, this description of historical consciousness is not unlike the ability to learn and play a historical simulation video game.

Understanding the framework and figuring out which elements are crucial for manipulating the scenario at hand bears semblances to thinking with the past, rather than about the past.

When we play, we learn the rules of the game. Understanding the framework and figuring out which elements are crucial, or otherwise important, for manipulating the scenario at hand, bears semblances to thinking with the past, rather than about the past.

In the broader societal discussion video games are usually seen as one of two things: either primarily as entertainment, and as such, time-consuming distractions. Or, they’re seen as potentially educational products, whose task it is to teach and aid in a pedagogic way. Many games developed to be educational fail because they’re simply not making the most of the interactive possibilities of play.

More seldom are games described as cultural products, or even art. However, recent trends in game studies and the humanities are beginning to remedy this black-and-white interpretation, and are now looking at the ways games and play allow us to better explain human experiences, interactions, thoughts and feelings, including those of historical culture and historical consciousness.

Authenticity and play

Most historical simulator video games’ main mechanics are the manipulation of elements of historical change. Mixing elements of military, politics, religion, finance and natural resources, the games let the players to think about what they can do in order to achieve a certain scenario. The player’s knowledge about the rules of the game, as well as their previous knowledge about what they see on screen is tested and evaluated. Affordances and progression are intertwined with rewards such as gaining a bit of land or trading efficiently.

Games, in this regard, provide the ability to abstract, generalize, identify and contextualize important historical events, people or periods interactively. Proficient players are able to historicize factors of change and apply their knowledge of historiography within the game, in order to manufacture counterfactual scenarios of their own creativity.

There are of course limits to what games can be and do. It is important that we see through the interactive possibilities and at least occasionally acknowledge the illusion of choice. Games are man-made and built on the designers’ personal knowledge and ideas of what history is and can be. Many – but far from all – video games that build on notions of the past tend to aim at historical accuracy.

Perceptions of historical accuracy and authenticity seem especially appealing to a broad audience, perhaps because the questions inspire to ask distinct what if questions based on models of historical change. If we are able to understand the games’ design, it should enable us to talk about, deconstruct and contextualize the experiences of historical play in even greater details.

We must not let the word play blind us.

We must not let the word play blind us. Popular cultural products such as video games building on history may still be carriers of meaning, and facilitators of self-expression through the lens of the past. If we look at counterfactuals as a framework for historical experimentation instead of a method for explaining historical actuality, the separation of what is true and what is fiction appears to become increasingly blurry.

Claiming that the Roman Empire survived past its original demise would be anachronistic, and fictitious. It is, however, something a player of Europa Universalis IV can easily do.

At the end of the game, my new Byzantium covers most of the areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Unfortunately, France is blocking my territorial expansion into Italy, without which I am unable to reform the Roman Empire. The restoration of a glorious past is incomplete, but perhaps with better preparation I am able to succeed next time.

Ylva Grufstedt
PhD student in History and Digital humanities, University of Helsinki
Photo: Lisette Holmlund Szabo

From the Researcher’s Pen is a series of articles in which researchers describe their work. This article was produced by Uutistamo in cooperation with the University of Helsinki.