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Games & Simulations for Historians

The title of this post quotes Professor Graham, our theory programmer and grade designer. It was a curious comment made in yesterday’s class— curious because I have never before considered gaming separate from fun, whatever your personal interpretation of fun may be. To me they are synonymous. A game is a game because it is fun, or at least attempts to be, and not because it is a simulation. There are simulations which are not fun, and they may well be effective simulations. But an effective game is one which is, if I may assert my perspective for a moment, exciting, memorable, interactive, and addictive.

Yes, addictive. That is really my defining quality for an effective game: One which I want to play, have to essentially stop myself from playing, and lingers in some way so that I desire to play it again.

Fun with the intention to cause change

Fun is relative, but some games can be judged by universality. World of Warcraft (WoW), for example, is a commercially successful title with a peak of approximately twelve million accounts, various extensions (novels, card games, board games, possibly a film), a multitude of hosting nations, and which has influenced just about every mainstream MMO release of the last five years. This is in large part because of its success. In turn, WoW’s design team fed on the success of other games deemed fun by a considerable portion of the MMORPG-inclined gaming community. This ouroboros-like cycle extends beyond digital gaming to culturally embedded games like Monopoly, or Snakes and Ladders, or Chess, or Hockey, which have themselves undoubtedly participated in the genesis of other, similar games, and come from some other, perhaps more complex historical concepts.

Universality is an indicator of fun that can aid change for these reasons: the successful object draws from other sources considered fun, thus passing on their “genes”, and it passes on its own ideation to later generations of games. Whether you consider mechanics or themes or simply the essential concept, some part of the game becomes historical. And that life extension means it is more likely to reach more people.

Do games need to be fun? Is it a central criteria? Maybe not, and Professor Graham has given me something to return to when I’m not on the verge of illness. But if we extend the concept of “game” or “gaming” to simulation in general, or interaction in general, it loses much of its cultural significance.

Fun and accuracy

There’s nothing fun about oppression. Many historical subjects are not lighthearted or playful, but rather require stoicism and extended reflection in order for the individual to effectively (and respectfully) become part of their articulating dialogues. But there is a way in which these subjects can be treated so that they retain their somberness, but also realize a form of entertainment, something which can become universal and accessible in media streams rather than delimited by closed circles. We may not see a deluge of essays from the general public, but we can generate awareness and interest in topics that are otherwise taboo because they carry so much emotional freight, or are at times so laden with jargon that the layman intellectual can’t casually participate. And I’m all for that, because when all is done there will still be spaces for critical thought (academia, for one). Plus we may gain interesting insight into how our current society “thinks” by considering how and why it reorients a historical idea through pop culture.

To illustrate what I’m getting at: Specific histories outside of our own geographic or familial background are generally not well known to us, but if a game can make a specific history fun, that history can gain momentum. I think of the NES title Uncharted Waters and what I learned about trade, privateering, and international relations during the “Age of Exploration”. Years later, motivated by how much I enjoyed playing the game, I was also able to criticize and fill in the blanks of Uncharted Waters’ narratives through independent research and the insight of some brilliant, hard-working academics.

For a less dated example in an alternate medium, consider George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (also revisited as the Game of Thrones HBO television series). Hugely successful and spreading fast to “fave show” bios everywhere, Martin treats with topics from feudalism to incest to slavery and Othering (not referencing the in-story Others also known as Whitewalkers, but the cognitive and social processes involved in reactive identity formation). Although we can’t currently say exactly what Martin’s getting at in his use of these historical concepts, as the series is unfinished, we who have read Martin’s work can understand how he creates an ethics-based consciousness of slavery in the novels through Daenerys’ struggles, how he plays with naming and its importance for the individual’s relation to social praxis (Arya, Sansa, Theon, the Unsullied), how he teases out authority’s sway over subjective truth through the often changeable interactions of myth and reality… it goes on. Basically, Martin’s created a readable, fun, entertaining series of texts which carry important themes to broad audiences for further processing. In this same way, inaccuracy through fiction allows gaming to retain its “funness”, so that it can potentially become universal, while still exploring inherently serious topics that we might otherwise not want to deal with.

What I’m arguing here is this: Let’s make history addictive. Because hey, for many people I’ve met there is one particular block when it comes to consideration of difficult historical issues: “My life is hard enough, why would I want to further complicate it?”

_Cole Labelle_