book review: Daniel Giere on representation and reception of history in games

I’ve recently read and reviewed Daniel Giere’s (@34e6ab0133cd4f7)  “Computerspiele – Medienbildung – historisches Lernen” (computer games – media education – historical learning) in German and I think I’ll just give everyone a rough overview over his work in English, because, well, it deserves some attention. It’s as far as I know, the first published empirical study on the influence games may have on a person’s knowledge of history.

Daniel Giere develops a model of how to measure the influence, which playing a game in a historical setting may have on the view the player has on the historical period. As a basis for this he really delves into concepts on how learning works (a lot of psychology in there!) and how historical knowledge is created in the mind of a person.

His most important point is the temporal linking, which means a person’s ability to link “something” to a certain time period. This means the person needs to have some knowledge about this time and some information as to why this something can be pinned down as belonging in this time frame. This of course, doesn’t need to be correct, it’s a description how our conceptualisation of history works.

Now, Giere had 58 students from the University of Hannover in his study, which were put in a treatment or control group. 12 were first semester students of history (they all went into the treatment group), 24 were master students of history and 22 were students of other subjects (these “experts” and “lay people” were evenly divided into both groups). The treatment group was asked to play Assassin’s Creed III, and after some initial introduction to the controls, they played the scene of the Boston Tea Party. Giere then checked through several questionnaires and an interview how players and non-players (the control group) talked about the Boston Tea Party. Did they offer historical narratives? And what kind of historical narratives (here he used Rüsens narrative forms)? How did they evaluate the historical accuracy of the game? Did they think the reconstruction of Boston was well done? How would they describe the historical Boston of the 18th century? The results were analysed qualitatively and quantitatively.

Though his sample group is not very diverse (only 14 women, all participants were students of one university, no checking for social background, etc pp) and Assassin’s Creed III is only one game and cannot be considered representative of all historical games, his results are interesting first empirical hints at how games influence historical knowledge.

43 % of all players, when asked about how the Boston Tea Party *really* happened, talked at least partly about elements of the game. The “experts” (history students on MA level) were all in all more sceptical about the historical narrative offered by the game, the first semester students not so much. Rüsen’s narrative forms could be categorized in media critic (critical and genetic) and not media critic (traditional and exemplary) ways of talking about the game and they could be linked to other items regarding critical attitude towards the medium. Those who were more critical, also reflected more their own knowledge about the Boston Tea Party.

Everyone was influenced in their description of the historical Boston by the game’s representation of the town. Players more often described things with which they could interact (e. g. they could pet a dog) and that were important for game play (e. g. soldiers), non-players used more analogies to other historical towns they knew. Also everyone agreed that the town was very well reconstructed in game. Giere checked the ability to detect anachronism by photoshopping non-18th century stuff into screen shots and showing those to the students. Here the result depended mostly on “how much wrong” the anachronism was (facebook advertisement was recognised easily, but bikes and advertising columns were not so often detected as too recent). The interviewed persons also became more sceptical about the representation in the game all together, when confronted with anachronisms they recognised. But all in all, everyone, even the non-players who only looked at screenshots, agreed it was a really well done reconstruction of historical Boston.

Giere draws some conclusions about how to use these results for developing history curricula. He stresses three points: Firstly, students need to learn how to reflect their own knowledge. I actually noticed this sometimes in my own students, when they assumed they knew everything about the period their game was put in, they didn’t research properly and it turned out — they didn’t notice anachronisms. Thus, it’s important to acknowledge our own deficiencies so we may be able to critically look at what is presented to us. A second point Giere stresses is the possibilities of reconstructing the past altogether. Of course we archaeologists know how limited our knowledge is and how much guess work is in each and every reconstruction. But do other people? How do we present reconstructions? (Sebastian has some thoughts on this…). And thirdly, students need to be aware, that history is a construct altogether. We cannot know “how it really was”, we can only tell stories, which will be more or less plausible, but no-one will be able to tell “the truth” .

All in all a great book, which I really enjoyed reading. Check it out, if you’re interested in archaeogaming (and know some German)!

Giere, Daniel. 2019. Computerspiele - Medienbildung - historisches Lernen. Zu Repräsentation und Rezeption von Geschichte in digitalen Spielen. Forum Historisches Lernen. Frankfurt am Main: WOCHENSCHAU Verlag.

(P.S. The German review is forthcoming in HSOZKULT. Hopefully soon. They already have it. Have been having it. For quite some time. Nooo, I’m not getting impatient. Not at all… 😉 )

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