Historical Video Games: Traps or Tools for the Historian

Let me start with a confession; deep down I am a complete gamer at heart. Starting with the PSone, then on to the original Xbox, and now with the 360, also with a smattering of PC games along the way, gaming has been a large part of my life. This has also played a part in fuelling my love of history. I can vividly remember blasting Nazis away playing Medal of Honor sometime around the year 2000, therefore it didn’t take long to question why I was doing so, and for this I had to turn to history and then devoted the next 9 years of my life to reading as many history books on the Second World War as possible. Whilst in my case video games no doubt helped me to want to learn history, the question remains, can they be useful to the study of history? Furthermore, is it possible for video games to be historically accurate and should they be? This is a big topic and in order to answer these questions I will be examining both popular first-person shooters and strategy games, including various series such as Call of Duty, Red Orchestra, Total War. However, firstly I must explain the difference between the various genres. The first-person shooter genre can generally be split into two separate categories; there is the classic run ‘n gun with games such as Call of Duty, a series mostly centred upon the Second World War, then there is the more tactical games such as the Red Orchestra series centred around the Eastern Front during the Second World War which attempts to base itself more upon realism.

Video games are primarily designed as a medium of entertainment, a medium which has boomed considerably in the last 10 years, and therefore historical accuracy is not necessarily their main priority. Whilst historical accuracy is desirable, in some cases it has been sacrificed for gameplay. In the case of Call of Duty, whilst you take the role of an infantry soldier during the Second World War with accurate uniforms and weapons, somehow you are pretty much invincible. Apparently at some point before the war the Allies were able to perfect a technology where they were able to create super-soldiers and it takes hundreds of bullets to kill them as if soldiers are hit but they then rest a while then they are magically healed. Obviously, this has no real use in the study of history however if we were then to use this as a source regarding Second World War battles then it risks leading us to the conclusion that battles were made up of men running around with little thought to life or limb when in most cases this is not true. However, in some cases Call of Duty can be seen as being historically accurate when analysing particular missions, specifically the Pointe du Hoc mission in Call of Duty 2. The assault on Pointe du Hoc during the morning of 6th June 1944 was of tremendous importance to the Allies as it stopped the Germans from sending reinforcements to Omaha beach. American Rangers scaled the cliffs overlooking the beach, were able to overwhelm the defences and destroy the artillery guns firing upon Omaha. In the game it is clear that this was heavily researched as the mission begins with you scaling the cliffs and attacking trenches and pill boxes along the clifftop before finally finding and destroying the artillery and repulsing a German counter-attack. A few years ago I visited Pointe du Hoc in Normandy and one of the first things I realised were the visual similarities to the Call of Duty mission, not only demonstrating how often I play these games, but also how true the developers stuck to the reality. Therefore, what this shows is that whilst in the case of Call of Duty it is difficult to show what war is really like, it is perhaps possible to give a general impression.

However, in some cases first-person shooters are perhaps able to do more than give a general impression and draw you in to a soldiers feelings and emotions, in particular with the Red Orchestra series. In this you play as either a German or Soviet soldier on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. Whilst this may sound a lot similar to Call of Duty there is one crucial difference and that is the realism. In Call of Duty, depending on the difficulty, for the most part you are able to run around happily gunning down Germans, however if you do the same in Red Orchestra, much the same as real life, then that bullet with your name on it will find you rather quickly. Furthermore, there is no health regeneration as there is in Call of Duty so every bullet can, and mostly will, kill you. Playing Red Orchestra you will often find yourself trying to hug the bottom of the nearest hole, not knowing who is trying to kill you or where from and hoping they will stop. Heroics of the sort seen in Call of Duty are heavily advised against. The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the most brutal in the Second World War resulting in the complete destruction of a German army and the loss of thousands of Russian lives. It was a battle where snipers reigned supreme and fighting was not house to house but room to room. Therefore, I believe that Red Orchestra is a series where it is possible to understand the terror soldiers would have felt knowing that death was just around the corner.

Whilst first-person shooters have made a good attempt at historical accuracy, no genre has done so quite like the grand strategy genre. Grand strategy games are based upon the idea of the player taking control of a nation, such as the Total War series. The Total War series is made up of different games based upon different historical periods including Roman, Medieval and Early Modern. However, whilst brilliantly designed and fun to play, it also suffers from the problem of various historical inaccuracies. In the case of the Roman period, the game divides the Roman Republic into 3 separate families controlling vast conglomeration of provinces with the Senate and People of Rome controlling just Rome. This is clearly inaccurate as the Roman Republic was a singular entity controlled by the Senate and its two elected Consuls. Grand strategy games are centred upon the principle that the player shapes history as they want to. In the Total War game based upon the Early Modern Period I took command of the British Empire and managed to expand so much as to conquer all of North and Central America and stop the American Revolution from ever taking place. This therefore has little significance in the study of history as this clearly didn’t happen, however there is a possibility for these games to be useful. I believe that as long as the basic framework of the period is in place then these grand strategy games can be of use. Then they will be more akin to the study of counter-factual history where you are able to assess the strengths and weaknesses of different nations. Therefore, as a historical source grand strategy games have several faults but as a method for the study of counter-factualism it does bear some possibilities, yet always keeping in mind that it is a game and therefore designed to be entertaining plus designers can be hindered by the technology of the medium.

Overall, video games can be of use to the historian. They can be useful in understanding the atmosphere of the time and in the study of counter-factualism. However, more importantly they can be used to inspire a new generation of historians to study history, much like myself. In the past few years the historian Niall Ferguson has been attempting to boost the popularity of history in schools through using video games, even advising on a grand strategy game, Making History, with the focus on historical accuracy. Historical accuracy is no doubt necessary in historical video games as otherwise it risks giving a false impression of the past. However, leading the backlash against historical video games is Anthony Beever with the argument that there is enough real history to study and therefore should we really use them? As previously stated, I believe that historical video can be useful as a tool of inspiration and in order to give a general impression of a period, however any more than this is really a wild goose chase when, as Anthony Beever says, there is enough real history to study.


One thought on “Historical Video Games: Traps or Tools for the Historian

  1. ecmbennett

    I, too, have a confession. Games led me to medieval history. Diablo II, to name a name. I know, it’s complete fantasy, but playing that game led me to fantasy books set in era’s based on historical truths, and thus I began researching and reading into medieval history. And now that I’m formally studying it, it doesn’t disappoint, despite historian Kelly DeVries claiming that the medieval period is dull and tedious.

    You’re exactly right – a game may not be 100% historically accurate but it inspires interest, and as the world is changing, kids are learning more from their 360 than from days out to a historical site with the family. Let it inspire interest in those who are interested, and let it simply entertain the rest. There’s little else to it.


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