History-ness” and video games

I recently read the first two George R.R. Mar­tin books (game of thrones? song of swords? One of the prob­lems with the Kin­dle is you don’t get reminded of the titles). I liked them at first, but got really sick of them by the end. They’re relent­lessly “plotty,” with lots of cliffhang­ers but lit­tle or no over­all moral arc. After a while they started to seem like video games–the same basic engine, the same basic action, lots of killing, always a “next level.”

Video games are an inter­est­ing form of art, wor­thy of seri­ous analy­sis. 1 The role some­thing like his­tory plays in video games is really inter­est­ing. It’s used to lend depth and heft to the story—to give the plot of the game a greater res­o­nance. In a video game like the Halo series, “his­tory” is like a ghost: it haunts and dri­ves the action. Halo has an extremely com­pli­cated and elab­o­rate back­story involv­ing lost van­ished civ­i­liza­tions and aban­doned dooms­day machines: the past, as Engels put it, lit­er­ally “weighs like a night­mare on the brain of the liv­ing.” It stretches back so far that the effect is like star­ing into a vast open dis­tance. It lends grandeur.

A game like Bioshock is steeped in an off-kilter his­tory, the world of 1930s Amer­ica with an over­lay of mod­ern genetic engi­neer­ing. The entire plot involves uncov­er­ing a creepy alter­na­tive his­tory spool­ing away from swing-era sentimentality.

These are invented his­to­ries, fan­tasy. An ancient civ­i­liza­tion, aban­doned ruins, mys­te­ri­ous ori­gins, etc. The same use of fake his­tory appeared in comic books and fan­tasy nov­els by, say, H. Rider Hag­gard. There’s a strong whiff of hokum. But “his­tory” plays the same aug­ment­ing role in WWII video games like Call of Duty.  The under­ly­ing soft­ware engine is the same as in fan­tasy games: you still improb­a­bly find ammu­ni­tion lying around in con­ve­nient piles, but “his­tory” lends an “aura” to the gameplay.

I’m the first to agree that this isn’t really his­tory. It’s just a bunch of fan­tasy, and no amount of “accu­racy” in recre­at­ing, say, uni­form details or weapons tra­jec­tory would make it his­tory. Nobody makes a video game about the quar­ter­mas­ter divi­sion, but armies win and lose on logis­tics and sup­ply, and pol­i­tics and diplo­macy, and the work peo­ple do on the home­front. So I’d declare Call of Duty bad his­tory, incom­plete, or his­tory poorly taught.

But at the same time, why do I like his­tory? For many of the same rea­sons peo­ple like “history-ness” in video games. His­tory lends depth and com­plex­ity and grandeur to the present: it “haunts” the present. His­tory con­tains rev­e­la­tions of very dif­fer­ent worlds and very dif­fer­ent ways of liv­ing, and includes mys­te­ri­ous events that have to be puz­zled out. The “his­to­ry­ness” of video games rep­re­sents an impulse towards his­tory, and the mean­ing of his­tory in the present, that’s worth tak­ing seriously.

We obvi­ously can’t teach a his­tory of the Amer­i­can rev­o­lu­tion that includes chain guns and piles of ammo in the barn, and the prob­lems that apply to re-enactment apply to video games: they mis­take imi­tat­ing for being. But the pro­fes­sion of his­tory ought to be tak­ing this impulse seriously.


Update: My col­league Matt Karush sent me this very funny and aston­ish­ing clip of come­dian Kumail Nan­jiani talk­ing about Call of Duty: Karachi, depict­ing the city in which he grew up.


  1. I like video games and used to enjoy play­ing them, but when they got too graph­i­cally sophis­ti­cated they started to give me motion sick­ness, and I started to lack both the coor­di­na­tion and the time/desire to develop it. But my son, now 20, was a seri­ous video gamer and I watched a lot of what he played


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