Early Modernity and Video Games

by Tobias Winnerling and Florian Kerschbaumer

Review - Early Modernity and Video Games

David Hussey is a Masters of History candidate with a deep fear of redeads from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. He has written for Play the Past and his own blog, the Gaming Historian. He is currently researching the history the videogame industry in Canada.

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“The Historical Sciences… have more or less neglected this topic in recent years; a fairly incomprehensible situation because large number of video games deal with historical content and day by day millions of players from around the world take the walk back to a virtual past in which they are confronted by historical images.” (Early Modernity and Video Games x)

Introduction

Videogame studies in the field of history is on the rise. Sites like First Person Scholar and Play the Past are evidence of this emerging field. However, while Ian Bogost’s How to Do Things With Videogames and other books (many of which have been reviewed on this very site) provide an excellent introduction to game studies, there are comparatively few books that explore historical representations in videogames. The history of videogames has been fleshed out a little more with numerous popular and academic history books, and even research of videogame lore has received some coverage [foot] For some interesting history of videogames literature see Console Wars by Blake J. Harris or Replay: The History of Video Games by Tristan Donovan, also see Andrew Groen’s upcoming project A History of The Great Empires of EVE Online. [/foot], but history in videogames has been largely underrepresented in academic literature,. With this general lack in mind, it is encouraging to review a Early Modernity and Video Games as it delves deeply into this topic.

I came into this review excited. I always imagined that my research in videogames and their historical connections would lead to a book that covers serious methodological questions about looking at history in games, along with game case studies where these techniques can be applied. Early Modernity and Video Games, edited by Tobias Winnerling and Florian Kerschbaumer, takes this framework and applies it in a very compelling collection of essays. The book was born out of the ‘Early Modernity and Video Games’ conference in Düsseldorf in 2013, and refined to form the volume.

The book outlines early on that the way that the authors are examining history is more related to present memory than history itself (xix); in other words, the way we tell history is always reflective of the time we live. This precept holds true as games themselves can be considered historical objects, but the ones that the book examines are about the representation of history. Overall, Early Modernity and Video Games manages to present some worthwhile strategies and theories to studying videogames through a historical lens, but is limited because of its early entry into this field.

Methodology

The book is split into two sections, a methodology followed by larger concept section, as well as a case study section focused on applying the theories outlined in the first section to the Assassin’s Creed series. The methodology section begins with some broader examinations of the videogame medium as a whole before focusing on more specific aspects of games. The first chapter, “The Game is a Medium. The Game is a Message,” brings in larger media theory that deals with representations of history in the larger realm of popular media, directly referencing the World War II film Saving Private Ryan. It breaks down videogames as media objects and how their messages are communicated. This first chapter is a little bit intimidating compared to the sections that follow, but it does tackle the larger methodological questions of the medium and the message from McLuhan. The second chapter continues with some of the higher-order thinking questions about how to study games in regards to games and history, dating back to early modern thought and military sims. These chapters set the stage for the more direct chapters that follow and give a broad outline for the overall study of videogames before refining it with a historical lens in the following chapters.

Chapter three, “The History beyond the Frame” looks at the ways that World War II shooters make the games seem ‘real’ through negotiations of off-screen space. The chapter essentially argues that what occurs beyond the player’s first-person view is important to the overall immersive experience. It uses Brothers in Arms as an example of this genre and the negotiation of realism. It was nice to see that other games would be analyzed in the book, as Assassin’s Creed takes up the majority of the analysis in later chapters. This is not to say that Assassin’s Creed is not important, it is an incredibly successful franchise set entirely in history, but the addition of other books is nice.

Chapters four and five focus on transhumanism in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and historical periodization as theme, respectively, moving away from the game design and theoretical model of the first three chapters and into some examples of themes that are portrayed. The chapter on Deus Ex examines the themes of Cyber-Renaissance and Humanism that appear in the videogame. The author also argues that the player’s choices available at the end of the game are inherently representative of humanist and, by extension, transhumanist thought. The chapter argues that these themes relate to renaissance thought, an interesting connection considering the futuristic setting of the game. Chapter five deserves a little more recognition, as it was my favourite chapter in the whole methodology section. The chapter, “Historical Periodization as Theme in Video Game Series” looks at how games series entries change their grand narratives depending on which historical era they inhabit, specifically in Age of Empires, Assassin’s Creed, and Total War Franchises. As author Simon Maria Hassemer explains it, “games in a series have very similar ruleset and gameplay… [b]ut the game’s semiotic system – its theme – is different due to the chosen historical setting” (65). This means that the narrative of Assassin’s Creed in early modern Constantinople will be inherently different from a game set during the golden age of piracy. This chapter dissects how different epochs play into game series metanarratives, as well as the influences of early modernity on these games.

The sixth and seventh chapters focus on the representation of economic and technological conditions in Empire: Total War, and the construction of buildings in Rise of Nations. Chapter six argues that even though the way in which economic and technological advances are represented in Empire: Total War is not accurate, it is nevertheless useful in portraying concepts of history to the player. Meanwhile, chapter seven states that architecture in Rise of Nations attempts to be only authentic enough for the player to become immersed, rather than striving to create realistic looking city sprawls. These chapters cover non-militaristic aspects of strategy games, giving nuance to a complex genre of videogames.

The last two chapters in methodology cover the game Civilization as a parody history simulator, as well as immersion in games within the World War II shooter genre. The Civilization chapter does a great job of pointing out how the notion of nationalism or even the nation-state only begins to gain traction by 16th century at the earliest and therefore Civilization’s mechanics that allow the player to control a nation from the beginning of history is a little backwards. It also touches on how religion is represented quite loosely in the games despite its massive importance in history. The chapter on authenticity returns to the third chapter’s look at the overall genre of World War II Shooters with some mention of Medal of Honor and Call of Duty. It discusses the construct of realism but handles it through the cutscenes, aesthetics, and other aspects. The theme of realism and authenticity is important to this book as getting the player to believe that the history they are receiving is accurate is important in order to having them immerse themselves.

Case Studies

The five chapters in the case studies section examine the Assassin’s Creed series and its ability to represent history. The first chapter covers higher-level narrative in the games, looking at the third installment of the franchise and its portrayal of a Native American in Revolution-era America. This chapter argues that these games provide a master narrative by including commentary on interpreted events and looks at the narratives in Assassin’s Creed III and Age of Empires III. The second chapter discusses the ability to remediate history through the animus in Assassin’s Creed, and the political statement that comes out of these games. It also outlines the inspirations for the animus and the settings of the Assassin’s Creed series, pointing to The Matrix and Kingdom of Heaven. The third explores the different ways in which Assassin’s Creed immerses the players with “emphasis on the role of ‘history’ and ‘historical architecture’” (175). Chapter four does something a little different by researching how the history of play and carnival is represented in Assassin’s Creed 2, claiming that the use of video and traditional game mechanics constructs a morally corrupt Renaissance. The players experience this directly as even after they’ve completed the game objectives properly, they still ‘lose’ the carnival games as the Templars use bribery to undermine the players’ efforts. The final chapter of the book looks at the fantasy of repetition in these games, and concludes that while Assassin’s Creed makes the past replayable, it also shows that the past is inherently unrepeatable.

The Assassin’s Creed series has sold well over 70 million copies, if company reports are to be believed. With this fact as well as the games’ obvious historical connections, it is no wonder that the editors chose to focus on the series with their case studies. As well, much of what I would deem as important aspects of the game series are covered in the section’s five chapters. In particular, the first chapter explores master narratives of videogames and the portrayal of the American dream with a native American focus.  As well, the third chapter looks at the construction of historical worlds and the passive elements that influence immersion and historical accuracy, provide the best examples of examining the contents of videogames historically. These chapters deserve further expansion and recognition because they provide perhaps the best examples of how games and history can be researched and written about.  “Narration and Narrative: (Hi)Story Telling in Video Games” chapter really explores the notions of race, representation, and positivity in popular historical media. The chapter compares the master narratives and arguments of Native Americans during the Revolutionary War in Age of Empires III and Assassin’s Creed III. This chapter is argued well, and points out that Assassin’s Creed III manages to integrate a Mohawk tribe into their story of Revolutionary America without disregarding their agency.

“Players in the Digital City: Immersion, History and City Architecture in the Assassin’s Creed Series” is also good, but in a much different way. Its examination of the passive elements of videogames that create immersion and how this influences how history is learned through games is one of the best examples of videogame literature that I have found. While dissecting the stories and active elements of history that games produce, their passive elements are just as important, as the creation of a believable world that feels real is crucial when getting players to believe the accuracy of the history they are witnessing. The case study aspects are well written pieces that aptly show where the methodology suggested in the first section can be applied.

Response

There is plenty about Early Modernity and Video Games to like. As I mentioned, its overall content is drastically underexposed in the larger academic field and the arrival of this book is a promising signal all by itself. Beyond this, the book manages to fulfil much of what it sets out to do, which is to study videogames from a historical perspective, because “[t]he Historical Sciences… have more or less neglected this topic in recent years” (x). Early Modernity and Video Games’ two sections on methodology and case studies provide a solid theoretical basis for studying games as well as some strong examples of historical videogame study that work as solid reference points for any historian looking for a starting point in this field.

The methodology section overall is fantastic. It is nice to see the variety of different theories and thought-processes that can go into researching games. The third and fifth chapters, “The History beyond the Frame: Off-Screen Space in the Historical First-Person Shooter” and “Does History Play the Role of Storyline: Historiographical Periodization as Theme in Video Game Series,” are particularly well done, as they discuss concepts of immersion and historiographical themes as a whole. These chapters bring in a number of ideas into the section that relate not only how games should be researched but also the modes and methods of portraying historical thought and message. For any scholars looking to find a solid source of inspiration or reference regarding videogames and history, this is an excellent book to begin with, though it is not without its issues.

As with many collections of essays, Early Modernity and Video Games is a little disjointed and incohesive at times. The differences that exist between chapters in terms of content and writing style is apparent throughout and sometimes chapters that precede or fall after each other feel entirely different. The result is that some chapters read quite well and are easily accessible, but are followed by chapters that become bogged down in difficult language. The first chapter is the worst perpetrator in the book, which reads like it was taken from an advanced media theory textbook. Accessibility is a concern for Early Modernity and Video Games, which makes it difficult to imagine this book capturing the attention of readers beyond the historical or larger academic audience, which is not a major fault necessarily but important to note nonetheless. Returning to cohesiveness, the book lacks a definitive conclusion, which I found odd considering the book’s structure and content. The introduction outlines everything well, but a conclusion to wrap everything up along with posing future avenues of inquiry or questions going forward would have really helped.

An unfortunate theme that is omitted from Early Modernity and Video Games is the representation of women (especially in a historical sense) in games. Assassin’s Creed series feels like a particularly good case study for this topic, as there have been many famous real and fictional female characters featured in their games such as Caterina Sforza, Claudia Auditore, Aveline de Grandpré, Mary Read, and Anne Bonny. [foot] Sforza and Auditore are found in Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood; Aveline de Grandpré stars in Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation; and Read and Bonny are from Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
[/foot] The women of Assassin’s Creed have been written about before, including articles by Robert Rath at the Escapist and myself at Play the Past. Yet, the book and its essays largely ignores their contributions and the gender issues in this series. This is perhaps my largest criticism of the book and one that will hopefully be remedied with future history and videogames works.

Conclusion

Overall, Early Modernity and Video Games is a very solid book with a few weaknesses. Both the methodology and case studies sections contain excellent chapters alongside some that feel out of place. The focus on cultural and racial issues with videogames and history is admirable but the fact that gender bias is not examined in the same way is a shame. Accessibility is a bit of an issue, but as an academic work, the book excels.

The field that these authors are working in is still a work in progress and it is likely that in a decade or so, a work like this will be seen as an excellent beginning rather than the end product. Even the Assassin’s Creed series that they examine has an infinite number of ways to be dissected and researched, and the book only contain five chapters on it. I recommend this book to any and all who wish to learn about methods of investigating history in videogames. If this book sounds useful, you might also be interested in  other recent essay collections regarding the nascent intersection of history and game studies, Kapell and Elliot’s  Playing the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, and Kline’s Digital Gaming Re-Imagines the Middle Ages.