Author Topic: How to think about history in your games  (Read 2475 times)

Jubal

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How to think about history in your games
« on: March 17, 2024, 11:30:50 PM »
How to think about history in your games
By Jubal




Even very "historical" games can produce wild ahistorical outcomes. Does that matter?
As someone in the unusual position of being an academic medieval historian professionally and an indie game developer over a number of years, I’ve written and am currently writing a number of academic papers on the relationship between history and game development. However, most of that work tends to be pointed at historians – so for a change (and because it’s currently NotGDC, the online game dev conference) I’m going to attempt a version of this with more of a game developer’s hat on and address this to game developers as a basic piece on how to think about games and history. If people like this, there’s much more I could say or actually do as talks in future pieces or NotGDC iterations, so please do let me know if you found this interesting.

The thing that people always expect of me as a historian is that I will talk about accuracy, and will mostly be here to complain about games getting things wrong. “Oh, you must be so annoyed at all the things Total War gets wrong” is something I’ve heard rather more times than I care to remember, or the sometimes even more awkward “oh, I bet you love Kingdom Come Deliverance!”

This hits a pretty rapid problem though: making a totally accurate simulation of the past is impossible. I think most people and certainly most game developers understand this on some level: the demand for medieval RPGs where the player character has to take a dump regularly is pretty low, despite the fact we can be pretty sure that’s a period-accurate thing for them to do.

Even if you did make a terrible game where you were doing everything ‘accurately’, there’s a further problem: your player is not, themselves, a medieval person. Growing up in medieval cultures, people had different thought processes and mental structures – different assumptions about how the world worked, what was important, and what was valued. They had a whole lifetime to grow up into that world, and learn huge amounts of expected knowledge about things the average player today can’t be expected to know. A medieval person’s knowledge of how one gathers moorhen eggs or the right conditions for digging peat turves or of stories and folk tales many of which are now lost aren’t to be judged better or worse to a modern person’s knowledge of how to use a spreadsheet or which stores one buys cheap clothing at or what the order of Marvel movies to watch is, but fundamentally you cannot, in a ten or even hundred hour game, replace one lifetime of knowledge and assumptions with the other.

You may be wondering, then, what the point of my research into history and games even is, if we can’t produce accurate computer games. They’re often seen as just an entertainment medium in the end, after all, and most gamers don’t actually understand games as a good way to learn about history. Should we not just decide that computer games are so much fantasy, and not bother thinking about how they relate to history?

My answer to that is “absolutely not”. The relationship between games and history is far more complex than a question of accuracy, but the relationship between games and history is there and it matters immensely. Games are just there as entertainment in the same way that paintings are just there to be pretty: which is to say, they’re not. They are art, and do project ideas and influences, whether we choose to acknowledge that fact or not. Games are a space where imagination, selections of ideas from history, and a selection of modern ideas and concepts all frequently collide. That makes them an amazingly fertile space for imagining and reimagining the past, and taking past concepts and imaginations seriously in that matters a great deal.



Hades' "Ancient Greek" underworld has medieval stained glass windows: history inspires in places we don't expect.
This is, incidentally, something not enough people realise about academic history. Historians are often assumed to be the “one damn thing after another” guys, and working out as well as we can what really happened in the past is a core part of what we do. Also important, though, is working out how that past got recorded, remembered, and reinterpreted ever since it happened. We need to unravel that not just to get to what we can know about original events, but because all human societies use the past as a reference for the stories we tell about who we are, our countries, identities, ideologies, and ideals. Games can embed those sorts of stories and bring in history to support them, and that role in carrying ideas makes them matter. As well as bringing in history, games choose (as we saw when discussing accuracy) when to leave it out: and keeping an eye to what from history you're picking and why is the best way to understand the role history is playing in your development processes.

In other words, rather than thinking of your games in terms of whether they’re accurate, as a historian I’d encourage you to think about them as a selection process. Even if you’re not setting a game historically there’s a good chance you’re including a number of historical elements and ideas, and that collection helps signal various things to your players about the sort of world your characters inhabit and your contribution to their wider imagined past.

There’s a dark side to all this which I want to discuss head-on: extreme ideologues, especially on the nationalist and racist far right, love using games and their iconography to sell their ideas. People at far-right rallies hold up Deus Vult flags as much because of its popularisation into internet culture via games like Crusader Kings as because they’re actually reading any serious literature on the crusades. People may not think of the games they play as accurate, but they’re still taking parts of that curated collection away and re-using them, and we’re still building expectations about what the past can and can’t look like. In a world where people often hold pre-modern history up as a grim age of human misery, or as a golden age of “pure” nations that we should hark back to, or indeed as a grim age of human misery that we should hark back to, the sorts of imagined pasts we tell stories about do matter.

Understanding games as a selection process helps us understand this and helps us ask the right questions about how it works. Accuracy here can be a double-edged sword: some games that sell themselves hard on “historical accuracy” very much use accuracy in specific areas to cover for the things that they left out of their curation of the past in other areas. A really nicely 3D modelled historical sword is a lovely and very exciting thing, but it doesn’t ‘counterbalance’ having a world which takes over-simplistic and ahistorical pictures of faith, rulership, gender, and identity. For that we particularly need our curation approach, to ask what’s missing from the historical picture. Note that I’m not saying that games should be moralising in this regard, or always contain modern assumptions about what’s good or bad regarding those things, or always contain as many medieval elements in the curation process as possible on the other hand. I’m a firm believer in the idea that there are many routes to a good game. I am saying, however, that devs could do more to recognise which ahistorical tropes are likely to be beloved of those who would use history for bad purposes, and consider that when it comes to design, community engagement, and talking to writers and historians alike about our work.

I don’t want to give the impression, though, that thinking about games as curation of the past is solely about the modern political impacts and tropes. I want to give the positive case as well: thinking better about what we include and exclude can be a way of unlocking new ideas for our games, new parts of the past to explore and new ways to see them. There are immense amounts of untapped potential in building imagined pasts and historical or historical-fantastical settings that aren’t worked into modern games effectively, and I’d be very excited to see more of that rich diversity of human experience tapped more effectively by game developers.



A medieval 'grotesque', British Library Arundel 83 f55v. The medieval imagination is a wonderful place to explore!
To look at the area of history I know best briefly, we have far more art and stories and ideas from the medieval period than ever appear in modern games. Looking at the past and discovering what else can be used from it can unlock a huge amount more that you might never have considered. That might mean looking at how you build your maps and moving away from north-facing, or point-accurate, map styles, or it might include thinking about characters with disabilities and how they navigated those issues and lived in the medieval world rather than solely leaving them as figures of pity. It might involve moving away from having taverns as an assumption in your setting, creating new spaces of gameplay as a character navigates the rights and responsibilities of being a guest in their society, or looking at specifically medieval relationships between people and their rulers which were often more fluid and surprising than the absolutist autocracies that “medieval” states are often depicted as having. It might mean looking further beyond Europe for inspiration into the vast swathes of the premodern world that have never been seriously touched in many game genres. It can mean exploring the medieval imaginary, too, from looking at how we make less sceptical and cynical protagonists in more religious worlds to finding spaces in modern fantasy for the headless blemmyes or for the bonnacon, a mythic cow that farts fireballs.

For me, that’s all a more positive approach to history in games, thinking about what we’ve got – and whether we really want it in our collection – and thinking about what we haven’t got and what’s still there to be discovered and used. Using history in games better should be a win for everyone, unlocking new stories and spaces: more different things for players to relate to, history-interested folks to discover, and developers like us to build great narratives and gameplay around.

It’s also something that’s not as hard to do as you might think: if you’re sitting there thinking “that sounds great but there’s no way I can find anyone to talk to about history” or “I’m too small to pay a historical consultant” – well, here I switch to my historian’s hat and say talk to us anyway. Whilst I’d love to see more devs hiring historians as part of their narrative and design teams, if that’s out of reach there are plenty of historians out there who’d love to share ideas with small and independent developers, and spaces like Exilian’s Coding Medieval Worlds workshops or the online Middle Ages in Modern Games conferences where there are resources and networks available.




To sum up, if there are three things I’d like you to take away from reading this, they are these:

> History in games matters. It helps us unlock new stories and material, and affects how our game takes part in wider discussions and imaginations of the past and present, whether we want it to or not.

> Rather than thinking about overall “accuracy”, think about the history in your games as a curation process. Considering what’s there, what isn’t, and why you’re using it are key to working out how to use history better.

> Remember that you can talk to historians! Academics are often keen to engage with the public and there are many more fruitful connections that can be made.

I’m an optimist about what we can do with games and history – and I think there’s a huge amount still to be done and a great many fascinating stories to be told, fresh historical and fantastical worlds to discover, and more besides. I hope this piece has helped give you some new tools to look afresh at your games and game settings, and that it’ll help you to explore building games in a wider array of medieval worlds.
« Last Edit: March 17, 2024, 11:42:08 PM by Jubal »
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indiekid

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Re: How to think about history in your games
« Reply #1 on: March 18, 2024, 11:31:15 AM »
I'm curious to hear your thoughts on cultural appropriation in game design - would you say the same rules apply? I'm no expert on the Total War series but I know the Three Kingdoms game - set in 3rd and 4th century China - was seen by some as an attempt to woo Chinese gamers. Did Creative Assembly, which is based in the UK and Australia, have the right to make this game? I don't know if they hired experts from China itself, but is this compulsory these days?

Another thing for game designers is keeping the mechanics consistent with the setting. I played one board game where the castles had a negative defensive value - they only served to make the attackers stronger! It lost me at that point.

Jubal

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Re: How to think about history in your games
« Reply #2 on: March 18, 2024, 03:20:12 PM »
I'm curious to hear your thoughts on cultural appropriation in game design - would you say the same rules apply? I'm no expert on the Total War series but I know the Three Kingdoms game - set in 3rd and 4th century China - was seen by some as an attempt to woo Chinese gamers. Did Creative Assembly, which is based in the UK and Australia, have the right to make this game? I don't know if they hired experts from China itself, but is this compulsory these days?
I think that's a topic slightly for another article, but broadly my view is that we think about cultural appropriation too much in terms of appropriation, as if this was about ownership systems, and not enough about harm. The problem of making a game about, say, Chinese history as westerner is not so much that China has sole ownership of that history, it's more that if you do it without thinking about it you're likely to repeat common lazy & bad tropes about China. I think there's also an argument that it's wrong when the economic & cultural benefits of using cultural tropes disproportionately go to people outside that culture, when the people inside a culture don't have the chance to do that. But again, that's really a question of creative platforms, opportunities and resources not a question of initial ownership, which is a thing that just doesn't apply well to cultural symbolism because cultures are inherently fuzzy, messy, things.

So re how that applies to games: I think if you're depicting cultures from other parts of the world it's important to understand them well and write them sensitively, and there are several routes to that depending on your available resources. I absolutely wouldn't be as hardline as "if you're in the west you can't make a game set in India or China" - research is important, sensitivity in writing matters, I'd say that if a company can afford historical & cultural consultancy on a culture they're depicting then that's a very good thing to have, and I'd like to see more support for independent developers worldwide to maximise the diversity of stories we're getting. These things will always be complex though - for example, an ethnically Chinese Singaporean or a Uyghur or a dissident from Hong Kong might have views on China and its culture and history that are not generally popular in China, but they absolutely should be able to tell those stories (see also, recent issues around the Hugo Awards). I think what we need to dismiss is bad dominant perspectives, which may correlate with particular groups and types of writer but that's symptomatic more than causal. A focus on telling people they shouldn't write certain things rather than telling them that they should seek support and write those things better, and highlighting people from a wide range of cultures who already are making those ideas work well creatively, tends to be unproductive in my view. The idea that we can turn cultures into these little perfectly sealed bubbles that can only be handled by their true heirs just doesn't make contact with reality very well.

I guess another way to put all that is that "did X have the right to do Y" isn't a question that interests me a lot: this isn't an area where rights and legalistic frameworks apply well, and I'd rather spend more time on "How could this have been built better (more kindly, sensitively, creatively, justly)? Knowing that, what can we build that actually is better, and who do we need to include to make that happen?"

Another thing for game designers is keeping the mechanics consistent with the setting. I played one board game where the castles had a negative defensive value - they only served to make the attackers stronger! It lost me at that point.
Yeah, that would seem to defeat the point, both literally and figuratively. Why was that decision even made ludically? Why call it a castle at that point?
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indiekid

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Re: How to think about history in your games
« Reply #3 on: March 19, 2024, 12:25:05 PM »
I see your point about cultures being "fuzzy", and different "heirs" to it having different ideas. Regarding the game I mentioned, I've stretched the truth a little in that it's actually a medieval fantasy world, but one in which castles definitely functioned as they did in our world. Fans of the world would expect them to be called castles. I think the designers would have found combat getting bogged down if players were reluctant to leave their own castles and assault others.

Jubal

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Re: How to think about history in your games
« Reply #4 on: March 19, 2024, 01:16:49 PM »
I see your point about cultures being "fuzzy", and different "heirs" to it having different ideas. Regarding the game I mentioned, I've stretched the truth a little in that it's actually a medieval fantasy world, but one in which castles definitely functioned as they did in our world. Fans of the world would expect them to be called castles. I think the designers would have found combat getting bogged down if players were reluctant to leave their own castles and assault others.
Ah, so the castles were acting as "capture points" that needed to be taken, but therefore needed to not be defensible to make it worth people's while trying to capture them?

I do feel like making them villas, manors or palaces might have worked better in that case, or using some other in-world concept like a temple or something. I think that sort of unintuitive modelling needs a pretty good logic behind it to work well for players, or to be explicitly done to challenge assumptions, and in this case the player assumption of "a castle is a defensive structure" is actually an entirely reasonable one!
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indiekid

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Re: How to think about history in your games
« Reply #5 on: March 19, 2024, 01:40:23 PM »
That's right, and the victory condition is who controls them. I agree, "town" would have worked for me.