Playing with the Past

Dr. Michael Hancock is a recently graduated FPS alumni, who did his dissertation work on text representation in videogames. He is currently spending too much time researching gamebooks.

A sizable subset of game studies focuses on history, whether in the form of the history of videogames (Carly A. Kocurek’s Coin-Operated Americans) or the preservation of videogames  (James Newman’s Best Before; Raiford Guins’ Game After). A third approach is to examine how the videogames themselves depict history, and that approach is taken in Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and Andrew B. R. Elliott’s essay collection Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History. Playing the Past joins the ranks of other recent history-focused videogame essay collections, such as Early Modernity and Video Games by Tobias Winnerling and Florian Kershbaumer and Digital Gaming Re-imagines the Middle Ages by Daniel Kline, but distinguishes itself with a firm vision of what videogames have to offer studies of history. In particular, a number of essays are organized around the counterfactual, exploring history through the consideration of alternate outcomes. This lengthy volume offers an impressively diverse array of arguments on historical events and videogames rarely considered in game studies, as well as new perspectives on perennial favourites.

Playing with the Past‘s preoccupation is, obviously, with history and videogames, but it is how it goes about pursuing that connection that differentiates it from other books of its type. From the introduction, editors Kapell and Elliott affirm their commitment to considering what videogames have to offer the study of history, arguing that it is the ludic part of videogames that allows “play within the narrative” (19) to consider how history can be conceived of as a string of contingent outcomes rather than facts set in stone. One primary tool in this pursuit is the consideration of counterfactuals—“expressions of what has not happened but might have happened under different conditions” (38), whether that’s the Aztecs triumphing over Cortez (Age of Empires II: The Conquerors) or a peasant conquering China (Romance of the Three Kingdoms). Borrowed from discussions of alternative history in science fiction (Ferguson) and applied throughout the book, counterfactuals destabilize the notion that history is an inevitable stream of facts rather than an unfolding structure that can be played with and within. In my own reading, applying counterfactuals to videogames is one of the book’s innovations, and one of my chief criticisms is the way in which its application seems somewhat haphazard in places. Space constraints prevent me from going into each of the book’s twenty-three essays in detail; instead, I will explore some of those that left the greatest impact.

The first of the book’s five parts, “History as Process,” foregrounds through three essays how history functions not as a straightforward accumulation of facts but something contingent and dynamic. The first, “The Same River Twice,” by Peterson, Miller, and Fedorko, demonstrates that videogame play lends itself to a consideration of counterfactuals, through imperial economics in Empire Total War, supply and demand in Patrician, and geopolitics in Civilization. In Empire Total War, for example, playing as imperialist England: “Seeing unrest build because of a player’s chosen tax policy reinforces the importance of national fiscal decisions and demonstrates economic class bias for particular policies” (42). In short, the player internalizes the economic and geological constraints imposed on England, working out various counterfactuals within the allowed framework. The section closes with Adam Chapman’s argument concerning the virtues of an ecological approach to games—how affordances arise out of hardware, purpose, game conventions, historical evidence—through an assessment of Civilization. Through the series’ well-known technology tree of progress, the game conceptualizes society as a largely unified force through which advances are distributed instantly and evenly: “the player is given a structured representational environment … within the bounds of which they are free to rearrange and configure various elements” (68).1

Part 2, “History Written by the West,” explores how Western perspectives are often the unspoken center of history. Kazumo Hasegawa’s “Falling in Love with History” investigates a character-driven approach to history, arguing that dating sim/visual novel Hakuōki allows players to queer history through a feminine exploration of Japan’s 19th century, masculine-oriented, military past. The game casts the player as Yukimura Chizuru, a girl who falls in (and falls in love) with members of the Shinsengumi, a 19th century Japanese military order. Hasegawa argues that introducing an otome (female-protagonist romance game) plot to story offers a queer subversion of typical, masculine-driven histories of the Shinsengumi. While this argument is not without its controversy—Hasegawa acknowledges the problem in applying “queer” to a game whose ultimate goal is a heteronormative, monogamous romance—it adds a much-needed perspective on normalization and gender in videogame portrayals of history.

Part 3, “User-Generated History,” looks at player engagement and simulation. Counterfactuals again take center stage in Tom Apperley’s “Modding the Historian Code,” as he demonstrates how modders of Europa Universalis II alter the game to explore historical possibilities beyond what the unmodded game offers. Apperley also offers the book’s most comprehensive discussion of counterfactuals, arguing against dismissals of counterfactuals as having “nothing to do with… history” (185), as games that explore alternative histories “offer a mode of engagement with an alternative historical text that provides an opportunity for the player to consider critical and reflective interpretations of historical events” (186), proving his point with a Europa Universalis II mod that makes the Incas a more viable alternative for play. By expanding the concept of counterfactuals to include game modding, Apperely places new emphasis on the player’s opportunity to engage with the game’s framework; however, at the same time, he does not considering the game literacies required for such alterations.

Douglas N. Dow begins Part 4, “The Politics of Representation,” with an essay applying Baudrillard’s hyper-real to interrogate Assassin’s Creed II‘s veneer of historicism, while noting that it isn’t far from the “real” world Florence presented to tourists. While it’s easy to use the hyper-real brand of postmodernism to declare that nothing is real and all is equally imaginary, Dow takes a different approach. Rather than condemning Assassin’s Creed as unreal, he argues it offers a chance to “imagine how people of the fifteenth century might see these monuments” (226), that the physical structure of a building, to an architect, was secondary to its evocation of Rome, to enhance Florence’s claim to Roman lineage. In that sense, the Assassin’s Creed‘s simulations are best evaluated by how they use spatial constructions to make sense of the past and present. Andrew Wackerfuss criticizes World War I-based flight simulation, noting that videogames misrepresent flight’s role and portray it in an overly romantic manner, placing an over-emphasis on the significance of flight over the horrors of trench warfare. To alleviate this imbalance, he suggests creating games where aviation control is more realistically unforgiving, or considering games with a greater emphasis on trench warfare, such as Signal Studios’ Toy Soldiers.

The final section, “Looking Back on the End of the World”considers how portrayals of history can arise in videogames that set in the near or distant future. Disappointingly, this section is also where discussion of counterfactual disappears from the book, though its implicit presence, through the discussion of alternative futures that revisit past histories, remains. Tom Cutterham argues that Fallout 3 presents an ironic critique of the American historical consciousness, through its depictions of slavery, the Declaration of Independence, and the myth of rugged individualism. To take one of those three, Fallout 3‘s slavery quest line harkens to the contradiction of the American history, that slavery itself is counter to the narrative of America being a bastion of individualist freedom, yet must be included in an account of history because its overthrow does fit that narrative (317); its echo in Fallout 3, Cutterham contends, allows the player “to embody and enact the ideological contradictions that must be kept under wraps in normal life” (318).

As this overview suggests, Playing with the Past has a high number of essays, which is both to its benefit, and, slightly, to its detriment. It thoroughly covers the expected genres of a history-themed collection of game studies essays, with multiple essays on war-centric FPS games like Call of Duty and strategy-centric series like Civilization, and on that front, much of the first, second, and fourth sections of the book will be familiar and useful to those well-versed in the history side of game studies. To its credit, it also goes off the beaten track, and I was pleased to see essays on history and games outside of the Western tradition, from the popular Resident Evil franchise to lesser discussed games such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Hakuōki.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I found the book’s application of counterfactuals to videogames to be one if its primary appeals. As someone who has advocated for Kendall Walton’s fictional truth’s applicability for game studies, with its emphasis on readers creating their own playworlds that can function alongside a work of fiction (not to mention a fan of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle), I very much appreciate the concept of counterfactuals, how they encourage an understanding of history based on consideration of how things could have turned out differently. Videogames are, as many authors in this volume argue, uniquely suited to explore counterfactuals. In fact, I’d speculate that they could be usefully employed to describe how fans play with narratives at large. For example, Life is Strange and Telltale’s Walking Dead foreground playing through different counterfactuals by showing the player global percentages on what choices other players made, which in turn impacts future choices, arguably even “normalizing” certain histories that were overwhelmingly chosen over others. As mentioned, I was somewhat disappointed, then, that the discussion of counterfactuals petered out before the final section; I would think that exploring how different pasts can be evoked in different future counterfactuals would be a useful concept to explore more explicitly. Still, I very much appreciate the collection for bringing counterfactuals to my attention.

The collection’s large scope allowed the editors to make pairings that offered multiple perspectives on a subject, such as Apperly’s discussion of counterfactuals and modding Europa Universalis and Crabtree’s more general take on historical modding, or November’s and Cutterham’s alternative takes on Fallout 3. These complementary readings fit well with the editors’ overall argument; just as history can’t be reduced to a single chain of facts, they recognize that criticism can’t be reduced to a single point of view.

However, the downside to Playing with the Past‘s plurality of voices is that the essays often seem to be fighting for space, and lack sufficient room to really delve into their respective topic. This criticism is not an uncommon one for essay collections in game studies—see, for example, Brey’s recent review of Farghaly’s Resident Evil collection. Playing with the Past doesn’t suffer from quite the same malady; rather than a unifying franchise and a lack of theme, it carries a reasonably consistent theme (if not consistent on its evocation of counterfactuals) over a variety of videogames. However, it occasionally shares a sense of attempting too much in too little room. Kwon’s essay on Romance of the Three Kingdoms, for example, doesn’t have much room for discussing the actual game after setting up the context of the book it’s based on; similarly, Cutterham has to draw out the connection between American frontierism and Fallout 3 in just over two pages. It’s to everyone’s credit that all essays do contain a complete argument, regardless of my misgivings, and there are certainly worse complaints a collection may inspire than “I wish I could read more.” At the same time, there is an ever-present tension at the core of the collection between the number of essays and each individual essay’s length.

The merits of an essay collection should be judged by the quality of the individual essays, but also on two additional factors that frequently conflict: the unity of its purpose, and the diversity of the approaches within it. To quote Brey,”Arguably, the role of an anthology is to present works within a particular theme and hopefully, to reveal a line of argumentation uniting those works; anthologies, for all the eye rolls they may earn from some readers, have a distinctly important role in introducing, continuing, and archiving critical conversations in a given theme or argument.” It would be very easy, given the number of essays and their diversity of topic, for this collection as a whole to lose its unity and fail in establishing its own archival mark—a particularly damning failure for a collection concerned with history. However, Kapell and Elliott deftly avoid this problem through their clearly delineated sections, their emphasis on the role of the player, and the various returns by different authors to the concept of counterfactuals. Playing with the Past performs admirably, then, on the three fronts of quality, unity, and diversity; whatever minor complaints I have about the brevity of some essays and the slight meandering from counterfactuals is more than compensated by the clarity of the book’s purpose and the richness of thought offered by its twenty-three very different but very worth-reading essays.

Works Cited

Brey, Betsy. “Unraveling Anthologies: A Review of Unraveling Resident Evil.” First Person Scholar. 16 Mar. 2016. Web. 8 Apr. 2016.

Ferguson, Niall, ed. Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. Basic Books, 2000. Ebook.

Hancock, Michael. “Mimesis as Make Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. A Review.” First Person Scholar. 27 Mar. 2013. Web. 8 Apr. 2016.

Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003. Ebook.


1. Though neither author draws on it explicitly, this framing of the virtue of videogames bears a close resemblance to Salen and Zimmerman’s definition of meaningful play:”Meaningful play in a game emerges from the relationship between player action and system outcome; it is the process by which a player takes action within the designed system of a game and the system responds to the action.”