Historical Video Games Have Promise—but Only If They’re Honest

This is an issue we see frequently in history-driven games. In an industry dominated by white men—in 2021, according to Statista, 75 percent of developers globally identified as male, while the Entertainment Software Association reports that 73 percent are white—narratives are overwhelmingly viewed through a highly specific lens. In Ghost of Tsushima (2020), the conflict is rooted in the Bushido code, a set of tenets comparable to the European idea of chivalry. Not from the perspective of Japanese culture and history, but the films of Akira Kurosawa. The lower classes treat the samurai in the game with deference, almost worshipping them in their insurgency against the occupying Mongols. However, in reality, the relationship between samurai and the wider population was significantly more complex. The effect is that the narrative is less a glimpse into history than a Western interpretation of decades-old Japanese films.

A more extreme example is Quantic Dream’s Detroit: Become Human. The game actively rewards players for exploring all avenues, including those that cast its playable characters as agents of oppression. The game is set in the future, but it relies on the past to inform its narrative, particularly Black history. Like many fictional representations of rebellious androids and other technological subclasses of people, the game creates a clumsy analogue of the Civil Rights Movement—albeit with an exclusively white cast of protagonists.

When an industry dominated by white men creates games for a perceived white audience, we will continue to see narratives—historical and otherwise—adapted through the lens of white sympathy rather than complicated, intersectional reality.

Similarly, because large developers and publishers are generally risk-averse, it increasingly falls to indie developers to present a more multilayered and complete image of history. In Return of the Obra Dinn, by solving the mysterious deaths of the titular ship’s crew, the player also learns about the class divides between upper and lower decks, the conflicts among a multinational crew, and the reality of people living in the crowded confines of a ship’s hull. Similarly complex narratives can be found in Heaven’s Vault and Treasures of the Aegean.

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Without the oversight of major publishers, and with less of a focus on marketability, indie games are more likely to explore the often unpalatable complexities of history that triple-A games shy away from.

Despite some of its failures in developing historical narratives, we cannot underestimate gaming’s ability to drive us toward further interrogation of subjects of which we are otherwise ignorant.

I asked Christopher Mitchell, the head of the School of Creative Technologies at the Vancouver Film School, about this potential. In response, he emphasized that “games are an educational technology. When you make a game you’re constantly teaching and educating the user about how to do complex tasks.” While some may resist introducing games to the classroom, at their heart they are teaching tools, so it makes sense to deploy them in educational institutions.

Covid-19 has thrust this question to the forefront. As the pandemic disrupts education and lessons move to digital spaces, it’s necessary to use interactive, visual tools in teaching. Filippo Lorenzin, art director at the Museum of Contemporary Digital Art, says, “Digital projects and tools many institutions were eventually going to offer to the public in five or 10 years became the top priority overnight and were released in a few months in 2020.”

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