Author Topic: Studying the dissemination of history via computer games  (Read 201 times)

Jubal

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Studying the dissemination of history via computer games
« on: November 12, 2019, 05:18:53 PM »
I have been reading games studies journals a lot today and I now have a stack of studies I'd like to do. In particular, I've seen some experimental attempts to look at active reception of historical ideas from games - sitting some players down in front of a game for a bit and then asking them how they feel about it as a historical source - but I can't find anything on passive reception which would seem like a much more interesting, and also eminently testable, area.

One would need to survey a number of active players of a particular historically themed game (or fantasy game) and then ask them to rate a series of propositions according to whether they thought this was a plausible or valid interpretation of the past. The majority of the propositions would be false or at least very arguable, with some true as a control: the question would be whether the interpretations that were logically encoded into or reflected in the game they played regularly were accepted as true at a noticeably higher rate than those that were not. It may be that the signal would be too noisy, certainly for controversial statements - I don't think you could use "Medieval Europe had almost no white people in it" as a false statement to throw at players of The Witcher, for example, because there's been enough surrounding public debate that gamers might well hold a view regardless.

Statements like "Medieval merchants tended to make more money by taking their goods further afield" for a player of Age of Empires II would be more interesting - there's no particular reason to assume that taking your goods further made more money in the majority of cases: of course taking your goods to somewhere with a shortage and demand for the product might lead to going further, but getting to a centre of demand was the important thing. Age of Empires, however, having no mechanic for trade goods per se, relies on a simple distance mechanic that encodes the idea of distance being fundamentally linked to increased profit, and that's the sort of thing where I think you could validly test if the mechanics of a historically themed game conditioned people to accept statements about the past that would fit those mechanics.

I'm kinda surprised not to have found any studies of this kind - if anyone knows of any, do poke them my way.
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Clockwork

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Re: Studying the dissemination of history via computer games
« Reply #1 on: November 12, 2019, 05:57:24 PM »
I take it you've seen this but I'll link it anyway in case not https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13642529.2014.973714? some of the studies linked might be helpful?
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Jubal

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Re: Studying the dissemination of history via computer games
« Reply #2 on: November 12, 2019, 10:43:25 PM »
Huh, I hadn't seen that, thank you, though the arguments are familiar from a bunch of other stuff I've read - I think the interesting thing is that there's been a good bit of work done practically on the idea of classroom applications of games, some of it with more positive outcomes than others, but what I'm really interested in atm is to see what impact games are having without explicit classroom use or design. The thing is, obviously a teacher using a game, or a researcher sitting someone in front of one, hugely changes the situation when it comes to how much historical validity the player is likely to assign to the game - if you have an authority figure next to you saying "we want to know your thoughts on history from this" it totally changes the mindset.

When thinking more widely about historical accuracy, representation, etc in games, I think that matters a lot. If games do prime people to be more likely to passively accept their proposed models of the past, then that means that historians potentially have a much more important role to play in talking to game devs about the mechanical design of what they're doing. If that isn't the case, then that should also influence what historians' interactions with gamers and gaming communities look like and get people to look at other areas and ways to engage with gamers. One thing that's frustrating me when looking at research on this is that there's just not enough done on how games influence people, so there's lots of clever and good work done on discussing how game rules represent the world, but beyond attempts to use games in a classroom context there's really not enough there on why and when game presentation/mechanics matter and whether they influence how gamers think about the past. Bits of related stuff are obvious and well researched (representation of diverse experiences and look being good for people's identification with stories and self esteem, on the side where things can make a difference, and on the other hand the well-debunked games = violence stuff). But I feel like there's a gap for more studies that inform how historians should engage with games more widely.
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Clockwork

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Re: Studying the dissemination of history via computer games
« Reply #3 on: November 13, 2019, 07:36:58 PM »
A professor of crime and punishment history (whom I knew very well), used to be attached to Leicester De Montfort, categorically did not want his name on any research he provided or listed as a historical source for the BBC because they valued things other than historical accuracy. They're well aware that they depict inaccuracies, it's just that usually gameplay/watchability overrides accuracy. I very much doubt that historians are going to get any higher priority in production, regardless of research done into it, as interesting as it may be. The classroom model and games as homework though, that could catch on nicely ;)

Not that they're any use but my ideas would be that games as a medium for getting people to properly engage in history outside of the game are phenomenal. But that's where it ends. If the games are sacrificing playability for historical accuracy then it's self defeating.
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Jubal

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Re: Studying the dissemination of history via computer games
« Reply #4 on: November 13, 2019, 10:45:35 PM »
I agree - indeed, for my own thinking I'm basically increasingly coming to reject the idea of "historical accuracy" as a useful concept for games at all. The question is more for me about what aspects of the past a game tries to replicate, show, or model, and what players are taking away from that, not whether the game as a whole is "accurate", because since you can't sit a 12th century person down in front of your game, there's always going to be a significant experience and worldview gap that you can't bridge as a designer.

Also, I think that a) there's a ton of different historical stuff that is largely untouched by designers (loads of the medieval stuff I've looked at for this course has just been full of "wait, why have I never seen this in a game, this is amazing" moments), and also b) different ways of modelling the past that designers tend not to use much. I think engaging with digital humanities in particular, where historians are basically sitting down and going "well how do we formally describe this historical system to a computer anyway" could potentially be a useful resource for designers to look for more mechanically interesting ways of presenting the past in games. So I'm looking at this with a game designer's hat on and seeing potentially productive stuff in that direction as well as the reverse, I think.
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Clockwork

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Re: Studying the dissemination of history via computer games
« Reply #5 on: November 14, 2019, 01:43:03 PM »
Ah okay I see. Things like the trade cart in AoE2 getting more money for longer trips, the squalor mechanics in Rome Total War and importance of political marriages in Crusader Kings?

What kind of models are you thinking of? Doesn't need to be fully fleshed out ideas, just curious :P

Also, how would you compare the mechanics of showing progression in Age of Empires 2 vs Rise of Nations vs Civ (any but I guess I'm most familiar with 3 and 5). Always been curious to ask someone that but it's never felt appropriate until now lol


EDIT: Also if you ever want a skype brainstorming session, hit me up ;)
Once you realize what a joke everything is, being the Comedian is the only thing that makes sense.