Now, finally: The last thesis we featured in the discussion about Concepts of the Past in Computer and Video Games, which Jan Wieners and I organised for our class on archaeogaming in January 2019 is my favourite one. How important is “accuracy” in comparison to “representation” in Computer and Video Games?
As described before, Jan, the audience and I had a great discussion on Concepts of the Past in Computer and Video Games with Csilla Ariese (University of Amsterdam), Angus Mol (University of Leiden), Jonas Zimmer (Cologne Game Lab) and Felix Zimmermann (University of Cologne) on 9th January 2019.
After debating the first thesis “It is important that historical Computer and Video games show the past as authentically as possible” (as described here) and the second thesis “Computer and Video Games are great knowledge communicators for historical contexts” (featured in this blog post), we turned to the third thesis, which Jan and I prepared for discussion:
It’s more important that Computer Games are historically accurate than that they represent different groups (women, people of colour, …)!
I had looked forward to that one and enjoyed the discussion tremendously, but wrapping it up here let to an explosion of blog posts I wanted to read, videos I watched, articles to research… and in the mean time I gave another class on this topic. So this post took ages.
As before, we asked the audience to think about this topic and to declare their position by raising either a green (“I agree”) or a red (“I disagree”) card. This now, was the thesis where we not only again had a divided audience by about 70% (against) to 30% (for), also, some people chose to raise both cards. Sneeeeeaaaakyyyyy… it’s not as if we hadn’t given them only two colours by purpose. 😉
Now, most people in the room recognised this thesis to allude to discussions such as the #notmybattlefield outcry that followed the introduction to women as soldiers (and as playable characters) in Battlefield V, which lead to a number of players declaring the game to be historically not authentic and falling victim to social justice warriors and leftist propaganda (“Genderfield V”). Csilla Ariese, as only woman on the panel (sorry for that), decided to start explaining her point: Not every game has to represent everyone all the time, but it is important that there ARE games out there, that represent people outside of the majority and at the moment games in general are very male and white dominated. She declared the debate on Battlefield V to be fake, because no game is perfectly accurate and if the key message of a game is achieved with or without representation of different groups, developers might as well create a game in which diversity is shown. This is a point reflected upon by some in the game’s community: A thread here, a story about a fighting grandmother there, discussion about accuracy altogether, a female player reflecting on the impact it had on her to play a female soldier and a subreddit closing down because the discussion was getting repetitive (“We’re done, its over. New rule: No more bitching about historical accuracy, it’s a game, not a history book”).
Felix pointed out, that in every game, everything represented is a subjective decision (Thanks! I’ve been telling my students to always keep that in mind…) and authenticity has been used as a major selling point in the battlefield series. The lack of authenticity that players bemoan though, Angus specified, most often referred to what the player feels the past should have looked like. He pointed to the discussion concerning Kingdom Come Deliverance, which is supposed to be a hyper-realistic simulator of Bohemia in the 15th century, but which failed to include People of Colour (which could have been represented without being historically inaccurate as pointed out by a tumblr-blog dedicated to showing PoC in medieval Europe). One of Kingdom Come Deliverance’s developers was criticised harshly as being racist (for other reasons as well though) and the game as Middle Ages kitsch (even if it is a bit different from the “usual kitsch”). It is also quite problematic to show history with all its beauty but without the ugliness of the times: Where are the slaves in Civilizations VI, asked Angus, (or in Anno 1800 as Dom Schott points out) or the colonial abuse of power? In the end, claims of having created an accurate game show an outdated understanding of the concept history, because you are always only able to create a game that shows your concept of the past, not “the” past per se. The question then is, as Csilla said, whether it is the point of the game to represent a modern view point or that of a certain period of time and whether this problem then is discussed in the game.
This is, I believe, a truly difficult question for game designers: Showing discrimination, which might be historically accurate, could potentially harm the portrayed groups, because it may “normalise” the discrimination by transmitting ideas of “we’ve been doing this all the time” or “it was waaaay worse back then, comparatively we don’t have any problems anymore”. And if modern standards of treating people are employed, it may on the one hand destroy the immersion of people who know it was different and on the other hand the game will be showing a heavily beautified and idealised past and (rightfully so) will be accused of whitewashing the time period. I see the problem: Showing the ugly past is difficult for a game (who wants to play a slave owner realistically?), but whitewashing is just wrong as well, isn’t it?
Game developers can be transparent about their choices, as a guest pointed out. In Assassin’s Creed Origins, e. g. it is made transparent that the inclusion of women and children in the library of Alexandria in-game isn’t accurate. For Assassin’s Creed Odyssey though, there are also developers’ comments known that say “we know this is wrong, but because we know the audience assumes this to be authentic, we made it so” (I couldn’t find that direct quote, but a similar one: because they want to evoke a specific feeling).
As someone else commented, the scrutiny a game is under varies a lot: Everyone looks very closely at how you portray the Holocaust in Germany, but less so at how e. g. Caesar is painted. Nonetheless it’s a portrayal of a real person and it is important real people are portrayed as real – with depth and diversity. There is a lot of potential for variety in “real history” waiting to be shown and depicted (female technicians in WW2 is a prominent example, but of course every marginalised group we see today has a history. Were there people with disabilities in the past? Sure, look in the gospels! Lesbians? It’s *named* after the place where Sappho lived in the 6th BC…) . Again someone pointed to the educational aspect of games: They have the potential to educate people about a current perspective on the past, but the developers choose, whose perspective is shown, a scientifically reasonable one or … another one.
Still, as someone said, there is a difference between a simulation and a game. Simulations are accurate, but boring and that’s the one thing a game must not be. It is, after all, entertainment.
But it’s not just entertainment, is it? It is also art (Jonas was quite right about that). And pop culture. And a very influential medium. And this may be why I thought this to be such an interesting topic. Representation in media is a hugely important topic for almost everyone. Those who are often represented may not realise it, because they don’t notice their own representation. But once you start looking, it’s hard to stop.
- What game can kids using a wheelchair play and feel enabled, because the hero/ess is just like them?
- What game tells the story of a Tlingit person?
- In which game is the hero an Afro-American woman?
- How many games with a gay or lesbian soldier in the lead role are there?
And now unto the historical games:
- Which perspective is chosen, if there’s a game about the “wild west” (a “native one” as in This land is my land)?
- Who the heck is “The Orient” in Anno 1404?
- Which cultures are available in strategy games (“Romans”, “Nubians” and “Asians” in The Settlers II … do I need to comment this?) ?
- Whose history is being erased by constantly focusing on only one perspective of history?
- How do you behave in a game? Whose graves are you looting? Whose ancestors’ ruins do you destroy?
Sadly, Meghan Dennis couldn’t come to this discussion, but she gave a thorough talk on a number of these problems during the conference Communicating the Past in the Digital Age.
A good point made in one of my courses was about stereotyping diversity. A pop cultural medium that offers badly stereotyped characters (“token” Person of Colour, woman, …) to the audience will be mocked for it. For well done representation developers will need to work closely with the represented groups and negotiate carefully the importance of this “difference” to the story line. “Diversity doesn’t need a reason” as a student put it. Almost any character could be bi-sexual without it impacting the story line, main characters could have interesting diverse backgrounds, but their character and the decisions the make, might not be so different.
Some things are (slowly?) changing. Oskar Gabrielson proclaimed “female playable characters are here to stay” in Battlefield, people are talking about female characters (or lack of them) and about tropes, tropes, tropes… There is a project creating Hawaiian stories as computer games, a game developed with Inupiak elders, one with Tarahumara people and there’s a lot of content (e. g. by Elizabeth LaPensée) out there talking about problematic natives’ representations in games (as well as scientific articles and a wikipedia article) or slavery in games. People are taking a stance against the uniform representation of the past as white and male.
In many aspects games aren’t different from any other media, such as children’s books or movies. But let’s focus on the topic of historical games and representation. Stories about the past have the power to evoke strong emotions, because humans tie their identity to “their” past, to stories they tell of themselves or their parents and grandparents tell of themselves. We create identity by creating history . Games create possibilities of histories, because they offer frameworks for players to create “a” history by playing it and at the same time become emotionally engaged with this story, this history. Now, if there are groups whose history is not represented, but they play games and therefore continuously see other groups’ identities taking the centre stage it should be obvious they feel neglected. They are. If your ancestors, people you identify with, are often portrayed as the enemy in a game, how does that make you feel?
Well. On a side note: We Germans are, I feel, quite good at distancing us from the Nazis, who are of course the enemies in all those WWII games, because the stories we talk about when we talk about our great-grandfathers are “wounded prisoners of war coming home” or “great-grandmother surviving alone for such a long time and with two little children and the war had destroyed everything”. There’s an individual disconnect and we don’t identify our grandparents with the Nazi-soldiers, therefore this isn’t a problem for us (this hasn’t been researched by me at all, this is a feeling based on my experience).
So, what do misrepresented pasts in historical games do? What influence does it have on you, if there are huge mistakes in the representation of the history of your people? If the people your identity derives from are shown as stupid or ugly, face-less or without character, or never have anything to contribute to the story? If “you” are never the protagonist?
All this can creates an assumptions about whose identity is considered “normal” and who is “the other”. There’s already a considerable body of literature on the topic of how racial stereotyping in games is a problem and that #RepresentationMatters.
And it’s not just about how the people whose histories are not represented feel, it is also about what the rest of the world can learn about everything shown in the game. For me personally I’m sure there are thousands of more interesting historical settings than the second world war. There are so many different stories to tell, about which I don’t know anything because I am German and even as an archaeologist I know so little about this vast ancient world we are living in, in which every. single. area. has folklore and myths and legends and a huge, such a huge!, depth of history… Look at Never Alone / Kisima Inŋitchuŋa: Isn’t it a fascinating and beautiful story?
So, I’ve ranted enough, what do I want to say with all this:
The people heroised in video and computer games have been mostly white able-bodied men and other groups, such as all those different indigenous peoples, People of Colour or women (btw: these groups aren’t necessarily minorities, ffs!), were mostly disregarded. This seems to be slowly changing. The change leads to some gamers expressing discomfort, because they doubt the historical authenticity of the “new” games. But in my opinion the crucial point is:
Games are never historically accurate. Something feels authentic to us, if we recognise what we expect to see about the past (and so far this expectation has been informed by white male protagonists in games). I agree with everyone who wants games to be not completely inaccurate, but I feel representation is more important than historical accuracy, because games aren’t accurate anyway. Players actually know this and even those who care about authenticity stop having a problem with in-authenticity they moment they get into trouble: Respawning is completely normal and cheats… Well, let me leave you with this great cartoon: