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Playing with History in Video Games

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Like many historians, I’ve long been interested in the way the past is portrayed in pop culture. Now that gaming is a bigger business than ever, there’s an ever-growing field of international scholars studying the way games – digital, board, or otherwise – allow millions of players around the world to play with and within the past.

Some of the biggest and most anticipated video game releases of recent years have had historical themes or settings. Some games allow players to create counterfactual historical narratives, as in the Sid Meier’s Civilization series. Others have interacted with real, sometimes divisive historical periods, like Mafia III which allows players to control an African American Vietnam-veteran protagonist in the American south during 1968.

A franchise like Assassin’s Creed has long marketed itself on the way it interacts with and depicts historical settings. These are as varied as Victorian London (free-climbing to the top of Big Ben, anyone?) and Medieval Italy (which has inspired an actual walking tour) interweaving fantastical narratives of Templar conspiracy and intrigue into real world events and historical processes.

Video games like these offer interesting possibilities for historical engagement with the past. The most recent instalment in the series, Assassin’s Creed: Origins (2017), takes players to ancient Egypt and offers a specific ‘Discovery Tour’ gameplay mode which allows players to engage with ‘dozens of interactive tours curated by historians and Egyptologists.’

Even older titles like Skyrim (2011) have been remastered for new platforms like the Nintendo Switch and expanding the range of interactions with them, as well as potentially introducing a new generation of players to their historical worlds.

Beyond the possibility for granting consumers historical experiences and interaction with heritage locations, as some academics have argued, 1 a close look at certain video games shows us that there’s often significant overlap between the way history has been depicted in cinema and other forms of visual popular culture.

The most recent instalment of the Call of Duty franchise (2017) is the fourth in the series set during World War II. When game’s trailer was unveiled at a launch event, actors involved in the game’s production discussed its similarities to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). On the other hand, members of the production team discussed spending time doing real-world research in continental Europe, in the hope of making a game as historically faithful as possible.

One of the most anticipated forthcoming titles is a new entry in Rockstar Games’ epic Wild West saga: Red Dead Redemption 2. Inspired as much by the history of the cinematic Western genre as it is about the real history of America’s westward expansion, fans and critics alike often point out how many references to classic westerns they can spot.

It’s not just blockbuster video games that are focusing on the past; and it’s not just games about World Wars, individual (usually male) heroes, empires and conquest. Indie games like Never Alone (2014), This War of Mine (2014), and 1979 Revolution: Black Friday (2016), offer more nuanced and emotive access to historical periods and complex political situations usually overlooked in pop culture’s often-repetitive or simplified rendering of history.

‘Walking Simulators’ like (2017) turn the spotlight on to individuals and families, and allow for explorations of their own histories, or the imagined, deeply personal lived experiences in historical places and times.

There’s now a growing community of researchers to be found in the Historical Game Studies Network. The History Respawned podcast sees academics and game developers discuss exactly the kinds of representations that popular (and more obscure) games offer players, while sites like Gaming the Past explore the ways that games can and are being used to engage students with history. Archaeogaming is also a thing, with projects setting out to archaeologically explore the past as constructed in historical digital games. 2

These sites are great places to start for those interested in history professionally or personally, and the way that video games are without a doubt offering players around the world new ways of interacting with the past.

Esther Wright is a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick’s History Department. Her research explores the representation of American History in the video games developed and published by Rockstar Games, and the ways in which they are promoted.

Image: Publicity image for Assassin’s Creed Origins [via Flikr].

Notes:

  1. Those interested can read the recent work of Adam Chapman in Digital Games as History (2016) for detailed exploration of these issues, and many more.
  2. Gaming the Past and Archaeogaming both also have useful lists of academic and journalistic articles and other sources on these topics, for those looking for further reading materials!
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Finding Jesus in Video Games

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Christmas is a time when Jesus becomes prominent in our media consumption. However, you may not be aware that Jesus appears not only in films that explore his birth and death, but is also widely present in the trope of the Christ-figure in film, television and perhaps surprisingly, video games.

Video games have matured since their early days when they were perceived as entertainment made for children, and specifically male children. Nowadays the UK video game market boasts a population of 3.2 million people, and was estimated to be worth £4.33bn in 2016. There are 2,175 active games companies in the UK, and here in Sheffield we have over 40 active games companies. [1] The use of historical people or events—and the more or less accurate ideas people have about them—is widespread in video games.[2]

Christ-figures in older games

Christ-figures have been a part of gaming history since the early 80s with games such as 1981’s Ultima, and later in the 90s-00s with iconic video game character Gordon Freeman of Half Life (1998) and JC Denton in Deus Ex (2000). However Christ-figures are most prominent in role-playing games (RPGs) and games in which the player can ‘embody’ the player-character. Unlike in film, Christ-figures in games are often women, and some are also portrayed as LGBT characters.

Final Fantasy X (2001)

Final Fantasy is a long-running series of RPG/Science fiction games made by Japanese studio Square Enix. They are well known for their immersive and dynamic worlds, their long play time, and their very specific set of in-game tropes. In 2001 their tenth instalment was released, Final Fantasy X, which featured Yuna, a female Christ-figure. Yuna is a Summoner who, by sacrificing herself, has the power to defeat a gigantic monster named Sin. Yuna can be identified as a Christ-figure not only through this intended sacrifice, but also by the “priestly” actions she performs, as well as through motifs such as a battle against corrupt governments, dedicated disciples, and her ability to walk on water.

Mass Effect (2007-2017)

The first game in the science fiction Mass Effect series featured an interactive narrative in which the player could control the character of Commander Shepard. Shepard was one of the first Christ-figures within games where players could chose to play them as LGBT. This was a massive step forward in video game design, let alone depictions of Christ-figures in media.

Bioshock Infinite (2013)

Irrational Games’ Bioshock: Infinite told the tale of ex-soldier, now Private Detective, Booker DeWitt. Set in 1912, the player controls DeWitt as he journeys to the fictional city of Columbia, a place steeped in religious zealotry, racism and danger.

DeWitt himself, along with the lead female characters of Elizabeth and Daisy Fitzroy can all be read as Christ-figures. Elizabeth is a literal damsel in a (metal) tower and Daisy is a radical revolutionary. All three characters are determined to take down the theocratic leader of Columbia, Zachary Hale Comstock.

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Sadly, whilst Infinite attempts to present an anti-American Exceptionalism allegory, in the end it fails when (similarly to Final Fantasy X), it restricts female characters by not allowing them to carry out their heroic sacrifices. Both Elizabeth and Fitzroy (who is killed by Elizabeth) take second chair to the player-character of DeWitt, who sacrifices himself in a scene that resembles a Christian baptism ceremony.

Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014)

Inquisition is made by the same studio behind the Mass Effect series, BioWare, and like Mass Effect, Inquisition features a lead character that can be read as a Christ-figure. As much as Mass Effect flirted with the Christ-figure trope by referencing the “good Shepard”, Inquistion is less subtle with its references. For example, the promotional art for Inquisition featured the cast of game characters in an image that reinterprets Leonardo di Vinci’s L’Ultima Cena (the Last Supper).

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As well as this clear reference to the life of Jesus, Inquisition makes repeated references to Jesus through the game’s narrative (a heroic saviour figure who must use their ‘God-given’ abilities to save humanity), and its promotional materials which suggest themes of leadership and courage.

Inquisition, like Mass Effect, provides the opportunity for players to play as lesbian, gay or bisexual. These romantic story lines, however, are often prone to problematic stereotypes (such as gay narratives that portray homosexuality as inherently negative in the eyes of family members). Despite this, Inquistion is one of the most diverse Christ-figure games within the ‘blockbuster’ genre of AAA games.[3]

The presence of Jesus in video game media (as himself or in the Christ-figure trope) suggests that the view of the historical Jesus as an example of sacrifice and heroism through altruism still has importance in our collective cultural narratives. While many of the games that feature a Christ-figure still rehash negative stereotypes, they are continually pushing the Jesus trope into new and interesting pathways.

Emily R Marlow is a 2nd year WRoCAH (AHRC) funded PhD candidate at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) at the University of Sheffield. Her thesis looks at Jesus & Christ-figures within video games. Her research has covered games such as Bioshock: Infinite, Mass Effect, DragonAge: Inquisition and The Witcher 3.

Header image and image 1: DeWitt and Elizabeth in Bioshock: Infinite [via Flickr].

Image 2: Promotional art for Dragon Age: Inquisition, reinterpreting Leonardo di Vinci’s L’Ultima Cena (the Last Supper) [via FANDOM].

[1] “The Games Industry in Numbers” Ukie.org, [https://ukie.org.uk/research] accessed 13/12/2017.

[2] See, for instance, this recent discussion about the role of World War II history in the popular game Call of Duty: http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/41848521/why-call-of-duty-ww2-bosses-wont-shy-away-from-history

[3] A “triple A” game is a game released by a mid to large sized games company, it is used to designate a games’ quality of production and promotional release.

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