Video Games and Historical Memory

Narratives of history pervade common culture and everyday life. Whether we are conscious of them or not, we share common historical narratives which shape our conceptions of the past and the future. For some in my generation, not only have we read or watched certain historical events – we have virtually participated in them, to various degrees of abstraction. I would argue that the personal sense of history and memory can be strongly influenced by interactive media like video games and that, if anything, such interactive media has only begun to scratch the surface in its ability to participate in discussions of or shape historical narratives and memories of the past.

Video gaming has been traditionally dominated by the United States, Europe, and Japan, and, accordingly, the depiction of historical events and narratives in video games are largely linked to the culture of these societies. For instance, there has almost always been a preponderance of video games concerning the European theaters of World War II, while other theaters of the war, notably China and the Pacific, have been explored to a noticeably lesser degree. The narrative assumptions these games reflect have largely gone unchallenged, as the portrayal of history in these games rarely conflicts with the internalized historical narratives of the majority of video game players. Most World War II games, regardless of the genre, often feature a large focus on American efforts, which perhaps mirrors popular Western conceptions of the American role in World War II. How then does a game like Company of Heroes 2, which is told exclusively from a Russian perspective, resonate with Western gamers? How about Russian gamers?

Company of Heroes 2
Company of Heroes 2

There have been a number of attempts to portray historical narratives across many franchises and genres, giving video gamers a gamut of experiences and interactions with re-imagined history. The Assassin’s Creed franchise is unique in that it sometimes tries to explore historical settings traditionally neglected by video games, and, as a result, games like Assassin Creed: Liberation are interesting in as much for their “story” as the historical settings and narratives they attempt to digitally reproduce. The Grand Strategy series Europa Universalis portrays roughly 400 years of world history from 1400-1800, creating interesting and challenging gaming mechanics that attempt to simulate an incredible variety of historical experiences, reflecting narratives and assumptions about history along the way. Traditional First Person Shooters like Call of Duty or Medal of Honor have given players the opportunities to play at being actors in historical events, witnessing and driving recreations of famous historical battles. Video games offer a level of interactivity with historical narratives and events that other traditional media cannot, and are set to possibly be the most influential medium in determining how everyday people both interact with and shape their personal and communal narratives of history.

Call of Duty 2
Call of Duty 2

I hope to dig deeper into the issues and questions raised in the preceding paragraphs in later blog posts.Thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “Video Games and Historical Memory

  1. One of the things this made me think about was the difference between interaction in a video game and a novel. For instance, when Tim O’Brien presents his wartime experience in The Things They Carried, I feel like I am interacting with the narrative in reading it. I question it, I emotionally invest myself in it, I discuss its implications.

    How will video games shape the narrative and interaction with war differently then novels or film have in the past? All affect our perception, but I am struggling with seeing how the idea of Play will affect how our perception is affected.

    One consideration I had was that in connecting with a character experiencing war and being able to presumably revive or replay the game as that character after witnessing his/her death in war, our perception of fatality and mortality might differ from the finality of death in other mediums attempting to give a realistic portrayal.

  2. I think that this is a very important topic which we should have brought up in discussion in class. The perspectives and opinions people bring to the table about certain issues are almost as influenced by nationality and culture as they are by gender and race. Those influences though are perhaps harder to identify due to the national homogeneity of the class for the most part.

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