Video Games rewriting History
History is an endless sea of complexities, it’s hard to know where to start and where to stop when one is aiming to explain a specific historical event.
In this video, I’ll examine some ideas by historians and theorists and then explain why video games more than any other medium is well-positioned to investigate historical circumstances…and rewrite them if necessary.
Some historians and enthusiasts of history tend to describe it as a series of events one happening after the other in a chain of causes and effects. This view of history is called linear History.
But the truth is that our mental limitations as species impose on us this method of building narratives to explain the past.
Historical events are always the result of thousands upon thousands of big and small causes leading to them in what is known as the butterfly effect.
Small events combined together with enough time could lead to big consequences.
By our nature, it’s hard for us to simply admit that we don’t know something or it’s hard for us to grasp, so we have to reduce these complex events into a set of mini-episodes.
I always like to think of the first world war as the perfect example to debunk this method of reading history, the typical narrative we usually hear is that Gavrilo Princip a Yugoslav nationalist Shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and killed him.
His assassination in Sarajevo precipitated Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against the kingdom of Serbia.
Russia mobilized its military westwards in support of their ally, so did the German in Support of Austria-Hungary. The French were allied with the Russians so the Germans had to declare war on them too, on their way to France they conquered Belgium which led to Great Britain’s declaring war on the Germans.
It’s easy to reduce a global war that took four bloody years and more than 16 million lives into five or six bullet points and say this is how it has unfolded. and start by picking Franz Ferdinand’s assassination as an origin point and the Kaiserschlacht battle as the beginning of the end.
The complexity of these events is far more confusing than we can perceive.
Who was Gavrilo Princip? and how was the geopolitical situation between the kingdom of Serbia and Austria-Hungary? Was Germany’s involvement simply to support their ally or was there something else? The ottoman’s bloody past with the Russians, could it be the reason for their involvement? Was the war inevitable and it would’ve happened anyway? Why was Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in the first place and how did the average guy in the city perceive his visit?
In his brilliant book (Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914) Historian, Christopher Clark takes the readers on a journey into the prewar period. He brilliantly explains all the complexities of the geopolitical relationship between all these countries and how the war could’ve happened in many different other scenarios. How nations and people in these countries saw each other and only after 600 pages of adding questions to our heads, Clark ends the book with the Sarajevo Assassination, in a way he is telling other historians: you picked the wrong starting point. Maybe, there is no starting point at all in these circumstances, each element is connected with thousands of other pieces.
Once past events end and the dust settles, we see the final results and start to pick the elements we clearly recognize to build a narrative around them with a heavy dose of hindsight bias. This is not limited to the first world war but look at other major events like the spread of the internet, the American Civil war, the Reformation, The Tulip Mania, the Iran Hostage crisis, The Hindenburg disaster, The Marshall plan, Apollo 11 and several other important events. They are all reduced into narratives consisting of a chain of events devoided of any complexity.
Her exactly is where I think video games are very well positioned to show this complexity that is lacking from all the other mediums.
Altair, the main character in the first assassin’s creed game is a member of the Assassin’s group led by Hassan ibn Al-Sabah with the aim of attacking both the leaders of the crusaders and Saladin’s army, in order to rewrite the geopolitical map of the region.
The game has its drawbacks from a historical point of view but it brilliantly portrayed the lives of the daily people living in Damascus or Jerusalem.
You would walk in a road and hear a preacher lecturing people about the dangers of Saladin’s army or hear two guys chatting about the latest political events.
It’s these tiny details that are missing from history books, No historian would take you into a twelfth-century tiny house in Acre where you could hear a family discussing daily events.
Altair in assassin’s creed would see people being abused in their daily lives by soldiers, women being robbed and many tiny forms of aggression that make you the player slowly in a subconscious way show some understanding to how people are forming their collective opinions on a topic.
Alamut, the book which assassin’s creed is based on brilliantly tells the story of the assassin’s but it focused on the leader of the group Hassan Al-Sabbah and his army, and there was no room to expand on that universe. Here is where Assassin’s creed cleverly surpassed the book by showing you the whole nation of that region at that period of time, the player could see an event in Damascus then travel to Jerusalem to hear what people on the streets are thinking about it.
Creators could easily throw hundreds of butterfly effects in a game to enrich the historical context of an event without taking away from the final product, In comparison to that, a film is restricted by time, a tv show is confined to its plot and a book with a limited number of pages focuses on the bigger events.
games, on the other hand, allow the player to spend hours exploring the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence or relive the famous battle of operation Michael in the first world war as many times as they like and from different perspectives.
In history, you would have a historical materialist who will be interested in studying labor, production and the economy, while a structuralist will attempt to illustrate common basic structures in language and thinking.
In a video game, both could be merged and intertwined together effortlessly to emerge the player in a historical context.
In that regards, Battlefield 1 stands as a shining example for creators to follow by taking us to several fronts of the first world war and allow us to relive those experiences.
The last component where I see games being better qualified at telling history is the idea of alternative histories.
Nassim Taleb in his intelligent book fooled by randomness opened my eyes for the first time to the idea of reexamining historical events by looking at the alternatives and not by the end results. He states: “I start with the platitude that one cannot judge a performance in any given field (war, politics, medicine, investments) by the results, but by the costs of the alternative. Such substitute courses of events are called alternative histories.”
“One can illustrate the strange concept of alternative histories as follows. Imagine an eccentric tycoon offering you $10 million to play Russian roulette, to put a revolver containing one bullet in the six available chambers to your head and pull the trigger. Each realization would count as one history, for a total of six possible histories of equal probabilities. Five out of these six histories would lead to enrichment; one would lead to a statistic, that is, an obituary. The problem is that only one of the histories is observed in reality;”
There are thousands of alternative history novels, movies, and tv shows but each one of them deals with one alternative without any dynamic involvement of the viewers in exploring all the possible alternatives. Video games is a dynamic medium where the course of events could be set by the player, David Cage is showing us some of the potentials of exploring these alternatives in his games. I would like one day to see the same concept being used and expanded in historical video games where the history that is observed in reality is one of several outcomes the player can make.
How about a game during the cold war era where the player could explore different outcomes to the Cuban missiles crisis, the Berlin blockade or the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I want game creators to put us the players in the front seat to explore all these possibilities.
Video games could make us rethink about what Martin Luther King once said: “We are not makers of history. We are made of history”
In a video game, we could be both.
Thanks for watching and don’t forget to subscribe. I also want to hear from you and engage with you in the comments section below.
See you soon