Originally published on Frags and Beer Webzine, March 5th 2018
When the popular RPG Kingdom Come Deliverance was discussed a couple years ago the topic of historical accuracy in games became pretty heated. Now with its release, and some information about Assassin’s Creed Origins historical references coming to light the topic is in our media again. How important is historical accuracy in games though? I mean, they’re just for entertainment right? Who cares if the game is accurate?
When I was growing up our video games weren’t nearly as detailed. We had very few games that even included any sort of real world stories. We watched historical movies or read books set in historical times. Often it was reading fiction like Huckleberry Finn or watching movies like Glory or Roots that would spark an interest in American history. I developed an interest for medieval history by watching Errol Flynn or reading Ivanhoe. Of course these were largely fiction but they had historical elements in them that were important to the story. Can you imagine if Mark Twain was asked to write his story with a little less racism so as not to offend? They weren’t perfect, but some of them did try to get it as close as they could.
Today kids play more games that we ever did. That is their entertainment, their literature, and their Sunday morning classics. They aren’t getting historical context from books as much as we did, and sometimes not at all. I expect games will continue to be the primary source of most children’s entertainment for a very long time. Games will be how they find an interest in history, if that’s where their interests are headed. Even if they aren’t going to fall in love with history like a lot of us, I think it’s still important for the historical part of games to be accurate. People need to know where we came from, the mistakes we made along the way, and why some of those mistakes were too terrible to repeat.
Fiction is how we break the molds and tell the story of what we’d like the world to be like, but history is an important metric to measure it against. We tell stories of characters who stand outside the norms and challenge the problems if our past. In historical fiction we have to draw a line between the story and the context of the time. If you’re writing a story about a young woman and her adventures during the American Revolution, you’d want to get the events happening around her right. You can write the harrowing story of this young woman who didn’t really exist. Have her break established societal norms. Show how many things about her life would be considered wrong now. Have her break the mold, the image we have of a young woman living during that time. What you don’t do is remove that context entirely. That’s for a completely different genre.
So almost five hundred words later you may be wondering what I’m going on about. There’s not a lot of games set in historical periods, so why all the fuss? Well, there’s been a couple of recent games that have come under fire based on historical accuracy and it got me to thinking. Should we really be so dismissive of developers trying to get history right? Is it OK for a developer to change historical elements in their game to fit modern societal standards? The simple answer is yes, it’s perfectly fine for an artist to write, paint, or create in any manner they want. Should they give some consideration to the fact that their game may become a young person’s first exposure to a historical event? Yes, I do think they should consider it and decide from there how important that is to them.
In the first topic, Kingdom Come Deliverance has been under fire for creating an accurate representation of medieval Bohemia (modern day Czechoslovakia). The developers, who happen to be from the Czech Republic, spent a great deal of time on research in local and regional history for the game. They hired a historian to consult on the project to make sure they were getting things as accurate as they could. They wanted to create a world for their fictional character that matched the time as closely as possible. They were called out by the games media for not being inclusive enough in a game set in their own history and culture. Now that the game is released the media is at it again. Even good reviews are written with the bias that the game and developers are racially insensitive. Eurogamer even talked to a historian who claimed they don’t know for sure, but they’re sure that the developers are wrong about their own history. Yup, they’re sure, but they’re not sure. PC Games sources an amateur historian, and anonymous redditor, as a credible source for the “inaccuracy of the game’s armor.” Honestly the game isn’t perfectly accurate in every detail, but it’s unlikely they changed history to spare anyone’s feelings. Their history consultant says exactly that.
In another recent release, Assassin’s Creed Origins, the developer altered historical relics the player finds in the game’s discovery mode. According to Ubisoft, discover mode is designed for players who want to explore the history of ancient Egypt without being interrupted by fights. They’ve even been lauded (granted it’s by the Guardian) for “Painstakingly recreating Egyptian History.” But, sadly, that’s not really true. Ubisoft admitted to rewriting history and censoring some of it in the game. They intentionally changed the context of art in the game to make it conform more to our modern social norms. They’ve removed much of the context that shows how far we’ve come as human beings.
On the one hand you have a game striving for historical accuracy and getting hammered in the media for it. On the other, a developer intentionally changing history in a game claiming to be historically accurate, and that same media doesn’t seem to mind. Now, both of these are mature rated games, and shouldn’t be played by children. But, we know they will. We also know they’ll be played by teens whose parents trust them with more mature content. I know I wasn’t 18 yet when I saw my first R-rated film. Shouldn’t a game that claims to be historically accurate actually be historically accurate? Shouldn’t we make sure that when we tell young people something is historically accurate, we try to make it so?
Of course history isn’t inclusive. It’s ugly, bloody, and shameful for all of us. Human beings are not perfect and never have been, but we’ve come a long way. Removing historical context diminishes that. If you’re going to tell a story, even a fictional one, set in a period in Earth’s history I think you have an obligation to be true to the context of that time. Otherwise tag it as alternate history. Plenty of games and books are set in alternate history and do quite well. It’s a genre I’m fond of, when I know that’s what I’m reading. Don’t lie to the audience and tell them they’re getting to “discover the history of Egypt” when they’re just getting your version of history.
“But, it’s just a game and inclusiveness is important.” Yes, both of those things are true. It is just a game, but remember what I said above? Games are literature for this generation, and probably every generation to come until something more immersive comes along. For many young people games will be the only story-telling that they are exposed to outside of school. They will be how young people will find interest in things outside of their own world.
Games should also be inclusive without lying to the audience, or being dishonest with the premise. Developers should be creative with this. Telling a story set in 8th century Britain/Scandinavia? Don’t intentionally alter the mythology and cultural history of those people and places, make your main character a woman who lost her husband and descends into Hel to find him. Show the struggle she would face in that culture, but don’t change the culture to protect people’s feelings. Hellblade wasn’t perfect when it came to matching the history of the time it was set it, but the developer also didn’t claim to offer a discovery mode where you could explore that history specifically either. They certainly didn’t candy coat it to make it more palatable. They gave us a pretty good representation of history sheathed in the myth, spirituality, and superstition of the time.
When a game has multiplayer the developers have another opportunity to get creative. There’s nothing historically accurate about a 32 vs. 32 team death match where players fight each other around a blown out city in 1918. Let players choose from a variety of characters of any ethnicity and gender. You’ll always have people complain, that’s guaranteed. Most people really don’t care as long as you aren’t presenting a false premise in the game. Don’t tell the audience that you’re giving them a history lesson when you are intentionally doing the opposite. Find a balance between accuracy and being inclusive, without erasing the context of history. Give players something real to spark their interest in the history of the world so that we can continue to learn from it.