This post belongs to the series discussing Jan Wieners‘ and mine course on archaeogaming. Last week, on 9th January, a special session in this course took place: We had an open-for-all discussion with experts and a poster slam!
Jan and I invited a few experts from Cologne and abroad to join us in a discussion on archaeogaming. We were very happy to have Csilla Ariese (University of Amsterdam), Angus Mol (University of Leiden), Jonas Zimmer (Cologne Game Lab) and Felix Zimmermann (University of Cologne). All of them brought different qualifications and experiences, which really enriched the conversation.
There were three parts to our event: At first we asked for an introduction of our speakers, who told us already a bit about their research projects and their favourite games. Secondly, we prepared 5 statements, „theses“, which would be discussed – we only managed to get to thesis three, because time ran out, but I count this as a sign of a lively debate – and at the end our students gave a short introduction to topics discussed in our class in form of a poster slam. Even though they had to present in a foreign language and in front of 60 people, they did really well and earned their price!
An unofficial get together with coffee and cookies to unwind and chat followed. Also, we tweeted about the discussion under the hashtag #dis_CoP.
I don’t think I can do the in-depth analysis of the whole discussion in one go, so I’ll just start with the first thesis in this blog post and later add extra posts for the other two. So, this was number one:
It is important that historical Computer-and Video games show the past as authentically as possible.
For each thesis we asked the audience to vote yes or no with coloured cards. For this thesis, the audience was quite undecided and voted 50-50 – just like the experts! Everyone agreed that we really should define what we mean by important and by authentical. Nonetheless thoughts differed, some saying historical authenticity has value, but may be it is not „important“, especially considering the creation of a computer game is an act of art and artistic expression shouldn’t be narrowed down by boundaries of authenticity. The idea of authenticity nonetheless is important for the public and used frequently in discussion about games, especially as a selling point. It was also pointed out, that there may be a difference between authenticity and accuracy. A game may not need to show the past accurately, but there needs to be a some authentic experience for the player.
A debate about whether too much accuracy may spoil the fun, came up. A comment by a guest asking about the accuracy vs fun – debate triggered another audience vote. The question was: Why are we playing a historical game? Do we want to understand something about the past or is it just fun? Does it matter whether it is a fantasy environment or a certain historical setting? The vote was quite surprising to me: Most people don’t care about the setting and would play the game just as likely if it was set in a fantasy world. Nonetheless there were a few, for whom this was important.
— Archaeoinformatics (@archITCologne) January 9, 2019
Quite correctly a guest pointed out, that this division between historically accurate and fantastical is actually not a binary thing, but more a sliding scale. An obvious example for this is the as very accurate and historically correct praised game series Assassin’s Creed, which actually has a backstory very much involved with aliens and fantasy elements. Also, quite a lot of fantasy narratives (books as well as games) are grounded in history or contain historical elements.
Another guest commented on a feeling of uneasiness when in a game a rough mixture of historically accurate and fantasy elements occurs: If historical people and events are included, the game should be as authentic as possible, but if the setting is ahistorical and counter-factual anyways (as most strategy games that pit all different kinds of cultures agains each other), authenticity doesn’t matter as much.
Jan and I chose this thesis, because we hoped to discuss what is important to us in games and what isn’t. The fun – vs. authenticity-topic had been widely discussed on the last conference we did at our Institute about Communicating the Past in the Digital Age when Xavi Rubio-Campillo presented his game Ancestors. Also we talked about our expectations in the class and why which elements in games may be more or less accurate.
The perspectives chosen in this part of the discussion seemed to me to be very much looking from the consumer / player side (excepting Jonas comment about game creation as a creative act). Everyone wants to have fun playing a game. For someone well versed in a subject it may be quite an immersion breaker, if something s/he knows to be wildely inaccurate is central to the story. Mr. Soup and Liv discuss this in their Digging the Game episode on Far Cry Primal. This is a very subjective matter, though. As Felix points out in the blog post It’s the atmosphere, stupid!, the atmosphere of the past created in a game is dependent on our knowledge of the objects / spaces / pasts („material clues“) presented to us in a game and on our expectations of the game.
So we kinda expected opinions to differ on this subject. Happily for us they did and we had a great start into the discussion. Thanks again to all participants!