“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. 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] 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.



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