Home > Uncategorized > The Debate is on: Historical Accuracy and Historical Video Games (Part 2)

The Debate is on: Historical Accuracy and Historical Video Games (Part 2)

For this second post in a series, Adam Chapman and I dig deeper, continuing to discuss the ideas of historical authenticity in historical video games and debating whether the games like Wolfenstein 2: New Order and Call of Duty: World War II are really comparably historical games when doing this kind of analysis.

For the first in this series go here

Jeremiah: In our last post you ended by asking the question: Does your separation into two types of simulation approaches help us determine when a game is an interesting and at least somewhat defensible model of the past or just a rubber ball?

Adam: Again, I think the answer to this is one of those ‘yes and no’ responses that we academics are so frustratingly fond of. For me, the idea of the realist/conceptual framework is to describe the style of representation of historical games. Does it attempt to show us the past as it claims it appeared to agents (realist)?  Or does it aim to tell us about the past by mainly using abstraction (e.g. rules, menus, maps, text, charts, tables) and therefore representing discourse about that past (conceptual)? So for me, the framework is an effort to categorise the styles of representation we find

Adam’s Note on Conceptual and Realist Simulation Styles
Games that utilise a realist simulation style can be understood as “aiming and/or claiming to show the past ‘how it was’, i.e. as it appeared to historical agents of the time” (Chapman 2016, 61). These games (e.g. Red Dead Redemption, Brothers in Arms, Assassin’s Creed) have a heavy concentration on the use of direct visual representations of historical elements and often display these from the perspectives of historical agents (i.e. first or third person). It should be noted that this is what the games aim or claim to do but labelling something a realist simulation does not indicate that these games are necessarily more accurate or realistic – this only describes the style of representation. By comparison “conceptual simulation style” (Chapman 2016, 59-89) games (e.g. Civilization, Making History, Europa Universalis) use explicit abstraction to represent the past (e.g. rules, text, menus, symbols and non-agential perspectives).

in historical games and, importantly, the kinds of aims and claims these types of game tend to involve. As such the framework is not an inherent indicator of quality – there are good and bad examples of both styles of game.  This said, in terms of accuracy, the framework firstly does help us determine what elements of the past the game is most likely to be interested in representing according to notions of accuracy. For example, realist simulations are likely to concentrate on the representation of material culture.  By comparison, conceptual simulations are more likely to concentrate on accurately representing historical processes. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, the framework indicates to us what kind claims as to authority these games are going to claim in their depiction of the past.  Notions of authority are, I think, extremely important when looking at history (popular or otherwise).  I have no problem with any kind of history taking extreme liberties with the facts of the past as long as there is no claims as to authority over that past – i.e. as long as the history does not claim to be accurate. Consider, for example, the newest entries into the Wolfenstein series, games that fuse World War 2 history with science fiction, the supernatural and (very!) alternate timelines. For me, this game is far less troubling than games such as the latest Call of Duty (also set during World War 2). Wolfenstein wears its mythic elements on its sleeve – it does not pretend that these are the real events of the past.  However, the mythic elements in Call of Duty (for example, see https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/pa37bn/watching-history-fade-away-in-call-of-duty-wwiifor me, are far more problematic because they are hidden under a veneer of authority established by the games simulation style (the implicit authority of ‘realistic’ visuals) and by the claims found in the marketing surrounding the game.  I think it’s also interesting to note that Wolfenstein, despite plainly having fantastical elements, actually manages to say more meaningful things about WW2. Certainly, its representation of the Holocaust has more nuance than Call of Duty’s. And it is precisely its fantastical elements that allow it to have this. It can use more free forms of expression, such as explicit metaphor, to talk about the past in meaningful ways and that provide an ambiguity that allows the game to talk about historical topics that are often seen as too controversial to be included in games.

Talking about authority also brings us neatly towards the issue of authenticity, these two issues are interlinked. However, for me, authenticity is a different thing than accuracy.  If accuracy is alignment with the agreed upon facts of the past, authenticity is something much more ephemeral. It is often much more personal, much more subjective. And it is linked very much to collective memory and shared ideas (right or wrong) about what the past was like.  Its less about getting ‘it’ (the past) right and getting the feeling of it right. It is a feeling that we all have when we experience historical media. Do you see authenticity in the same way, Jeremiah?

J: That’s a great question. Let’s step back just a little, if we may, and problematize your proposition a bit. Wolfenstein is a fascinating topic for conversation, inspiring as it does, important questions about representing the Holocaust, Nazism, racsism, and so on. But bringing it up here raises a number of questions that, hopefully, our readers will find make for good discussion.  First I’m interested in your suggestion that COD:WW2 makes claims that Wolfenstein does not and that this allows the latter to make more meaningful statements about the world. If we follow your excellent framework, historical games can be divided into two main representational modes, realist and conceptual. By this standard, WOlfenstein and COD:WW2 would seem to be realist sims. In this case, wouldn’t they share the burden of making claims inherent in this presentational style? In short, for someone who knows absolutely nothing about 1960s America, doesn’t Wolfenstein’s mode implicitly suggest that “this is what the past looked and sounded like” just as much as COD:WW2 suggests that their game shows what the Western Theater looked and sounded like?

See, I’m not sure why Wolfenstein, in its design as a realist simulation can be said to make claims to reality different from COD:WW2. Just to be clear: I am not saying that Wolfenstein was meant to be taken as a verisimilitudionous simulation of the US under Nazi rule in the 1960s. What I am saying is that I there is little in the realist presentation style that would indicate the game is fictional. How is WOlfenstein’s presentational style different than COD:WW2? Surely both are realist in their presentation?

So where do the different claims of the games lie? Perhaps box art (if these games even have boxes any more 🙂 )? Perhaps in how they are received by a literate audience that knows one is wholly fictional and the other–and I use this phrase gently–more grounded in history? These have little to do with the actual gameplay, however. Rather they depend on a literate audience that knows mech guards in 1960s AMerica and a Nazi ruling regime did not exist. And that literate audience might not be so familiar with the intricacies of combat in WW2 and thus think it is making a greater claim to accuracy/authenticity. If so though, that is not a matter of the game’s mode of presenting the past, but of the knowledge players bring to it.

Ultimately, I’m not sure the contrast of Wolfenstein and CODWW2 as historical games is fair (for lack of a better word, since there is nothing wrong with critiquing it). Simply put, I’m not really sure that Wolfenstein IS a historical game in the way that CODWW2 is and in the we have conceptualized them in our writings and discussion. You suggest that Wolf’s fantastical elements allow it to tackle more meaningfully and authentically the concentration camps of the Holocaust, and I tend to agree. But doesn’t it undermine the very idea of making games as a form of doing history to say that the fantastical elements are what allow one to get at the real issues better? Isn’t this a revival of the old distinction between literature as the study of fundamental human truths, grounded in human truths but not necessarily true specifics, and history as the study of particulars, grounded in “true” specifics that speak to the human condition? If one has to go to mechs, and caricature and satire to get at these horrific issues, what is CODWW2 supposed to do when it does not want to go with such fantasies?

Or does CODWW2 go with similarly significant fantasies of its own? If that’s the case, though, where do the different claims to authenticity stream from other than our sense as historical thinkers that they make different claims that are to be handled in different way?

The tl;dr question is. How are Wolfenstein and CODWW2 even to be compared as historical games? Wolf certainly doesn’t seem to fit MacCallum-Stewart and Parsler’s helpful definition that many of us have used of late: “The game has to begin at a clear point in real world history and that history has to have a manifest effect on the nature of the game experience. “ (http://www.digra.org/wp-content/uploads/digital-library/07312.51468.pdfWolf does not fit the first point, and its imagination of machinery, mechs, guns etc. do not fit any “clear point in real world history”

What do you think?

A: I think this is a good point to delve into a bit more.  You are right that my argument above doesn’t fully explain the distinction between Wolfenstein and Call of Duty.  In part this is because my realist/conceptual divide is actually part of a larger analytical framework outlined in my book (Chapman 2016) that includes a number of other elements (simulation and epistemology; time; space; narrative; affordances), each of which can also have an influence on the epistemological approach/claims of the game.  For example, I describe each simulation style as having an “implicit inclination” towards particular epistemologies but note that “other formal structures of a game can complicate this relationship” (2016, 66) and that “other qualities of digital games can disrupt these epistemologies” (2016, 82).  In particular, I argue in the later stages of the book that some games, particularly those with very open narrative structures (e.g. Civilization seres and Paradox Interactive games), function through a dual epistemology. By this I mean that though a game may be produced with a particular conservative epistemology, the irreverence of the way they invite audiences into shared authorship and experimentation with historical narrative “means that they have trouble maintaining this epistemological coherency in reception” (Chapman 2016, 253).  That is to say that the act of play itself in such open narrative structure games has qualities that imply epistemological approaches that we would normally categorise as in some way as ‘postmodern’ or ‘experimental’.  Whilst the game may be produced with a conventional, authoritarian approach to the past, the interactive act of play itself can disrupt this or exert pressure on it in reception – meaning a game can simultaneously allow for two different epistemological approaches to the past.

This said, I don’t think this is an example of what is happening with Wolfenstein. The realist/conceptual framework was intended to describe opposite ends of a spectrum, rather than a purely binary categorisation.  Thus I think there is still a discussion to be had about where some games fall on this spectrum. As I write in the book, some games (such as Valiant Hearts for example)  “use cartoonish graphics, relinquishing visual specificity in favour of the shorthand for invoking particular stereotypes or tropes that this abstraction allows, while still using the perspectives, scale, focus and emphasis on audio-visual rhetoric and retelling, of the realist style” (Chapman 2016, 80).  In a sense Wolfenstein is doing something similar. A lot of what is going on in the game is clearly utilising a realist style, yet there are also plainly fantasy and science fiction elements in there that can nonetheless be used to make meaning about the past, however simplistic (a vulgar example could be the way the game, and similar Nazisploitation popular media, argues: “look how evil, irrational and ‘other’ the Nazis were, they probably wouldn’t even have minded using occult magic and dark science”).  For me, the game then falls on a slightly different part of the spectrum than the purely realist claims that a game like Call of Duty positions itself as achieving.

But I also think you are right to point to the fact that there is stuff going on outside the games themselves that signal their difference. I think an important issue here is framing, i.e. how does the game cue its audience to receive it?  Of course some of this work is done in the game itself in representational style and tone and in often overlooked elements in menus (e.g.inclusion of primary sources) and boxart. However, as I note briefly in the chapter where I describe the realist/conceptual framework, a part of this is also done in promotional material.  Look at the marketing descriptions, developer interviews and advertisement of games such as Call of Duty, and generally we are not far away from claims that tell us how accurately these games depict the past.  By comparison, Wolfenstein’s marketing establishes a very different satirical frame by purposely playing with the assumed historical knowledge of the implied audience. (For instance the game’s advertisements featured photographs of Nazi moon landings and recordings of pop songs, such as House of the Rising Sun, modified to feature Nazi themes and doctrines). The game purposely plays with the dissonance this establishes in its audience and immediately frames itself as unconcerned with accuracy (at least in terms of what actually happened according to the agreed-upon historical record). Incidentally, this framing relies heavily on the audience’s historical knowledge in order to be successful – perhaps explaining why alternate histories tend to concentrate almost to the point of exclusion on only those histories with a strong presence in the collective memory of the markets at which they are targeted.

J: Fair enough; the “obviously” caricatured aspects of Wolfenstein’s art and premises (use of mechs, occult magic, etc.) signal that the game is not to be taken as an effort to model a real historical world in the way that Call of Duty does, which lacks the clear caricatures. Your point on this makes sense of what I experienced looking at playthrough videos of  the two games. I do have to note here, though that what are obvious and clear caricatures depends a great deal on the player viewing them, so we are in some tricky territory.

A: That is true and I think this points to a really important issue in the study of historical games: at some point we have to turn to studying players as well. Studying the games themselves has got us quite far as a field but I think it is also important to look at the people involved in the historical functions of these games. Namely, the players that play them and the developers that make them. However, returning to the issue at hand, in terms of why Wolfenstein can in a sense get at ‘the real issues better’ – I think this relates to a medium-specific issue with games.  I don’t want to make a blanket statement that the Wolfenstein or Call of Duty approach is inherently better. That is not my intent and it is easy to imagine a game like Call of Duty that did some really useful/important things whilst using a similar kind of style and approach.  The specific issue here is what Jonas Linderoth and myself have called the ‘limits of play’ (Chapman and Linderoth 2015).  Whilst there is a lot to say about this, broadly we became very interested in the fact that games seem much more likely to trigger public controversy when dealing with sensitive or controversial historical topics than other media forms – influencing the kind of history we see in these games.  For example, when analysing representations of Nazism in WW2 games in the same piece, we found that such games almost universally excluded any mention of the Holocaust and even historical elements (e.g. Nazi ideology, organisations, symbols, leaders and particular military units) associated with this genocide.  Whilst the intent here is clearly not to offend and not to breach the culturally determined ‘limits of play’, this results in a ‘whitewashing’ of the Holocaust from WW2 history in games. This obviously has the potential to be deeply problematic.  However, a game like Wolfenstein can engage with this topic.  The fantastical alternate timeline gives sufficient distancing through ambiguity to offer a defence against critique (i.e. what is depicted is not the Holocaust, but a similar kind of event), and yet still bears enough relation to actual history to say something meaningful about that past that other games find difficult.

J: And this seems to be the conventional wisdom in discussions about Wolf in the time since its release; critics have generally responded favorably to its ability to address the Holocaust–among the most untouchable of topics in entertainment media –in ways that “more serious” historical games cannot.

If this is the case, however, I still suggest that perhaps Wolfenstein is not a historical game according to the earlier definition because the creators are implying that what they are showing is over the top and not a supportably authentic version of the 1960s US under Nazi rule. In which case, aren’t you suggesting that, at least here, that a non-historical game can get at historical issues better than a historical game can? That might be true, but it paints a bit of a bleak picture for designers who want to make historical games, not caricatures of history (though Jim McNally of Longbow games suggested that all historical games caricature IN THIS ARTICLE, but here he meant simplify an abstract, not caricature by introducing fantastical and over-the-top elements.)

I’m not trying to force definitions on us or anyone else, but I think if we (i.e. we, the field investigating these things) are going to compare and contrast games as they construct histories, we really do need to think about when two works are functionally of different genres (one historical and one not). Works from different genres can be compared, of course, but one does that differently than comparing works in the same genres. (No doubt, my friend, by now you are thinking of our many discussions about Assassin’s Creed, but let’s table that one for a bit longer; Wolf and COD line up so nicely).

Perhaps it’s worth noting I think all of this problem of games’ claims to realism and their very genres tie in to what can we mean about a historically authentic game, the start of our current discussion series since we shifted by mutual agreement last essay from accuracy to authenticity pretty swiftly.

A: In the broader sense, my desire to include even fantastical games as ‘historical’ has two motivations. Firstly, I very much find the postmodern arguments made about history in the last few decades to be very useful. I won’t fill up space here describing those arguments at length once again and many other scholars have made these arguments far more eloquently than I (see for example the work of Hayden White, Alun Munslow and Robert Rosenstone).  But generally this is the idea that all history, as an inherently narrative pursuit, involves subjective, aesthetic, ethical and ideological judgements. Evidence is still hugely important from this perspective (and it is in no way about making spurious claims about the past), but evidence also does not speak for itself but produces meaning only by its partly subjective arrangement, interpretation and use by the historian. What this means, is that all histories are ‘fictive’, they rely very much on real evidence but they also involve subjective decisions that take this evidence and turn it into a narrative.  To return to Wolfenstein, the game uses both real elements of WW2 history and mixes these with fictional elements.  As such, what is going on here in comparison to ‘proper’ history is a difference of degree and purpose, but hardly kind. And I think the same process is going on in Call of Duty but that game differs from Wolfenstein by problematically hiding this process beneath a veneer of realism.  Secondly, the reason I wish for historical game studies to consider as many different types of games as possible is because I worry that making too many hard delineations about what can or can’t be considered as historical runs the risk of narrowing the field to the point that we aren’t considering the breadth of games that are actually out there ‘in the wild’ so to speak, yet are still reappropriating history in a myriad of interesting ways and perhaps still having an effect on popular consciousness of the past in doing so. In a sense then I think we have to be led by what people make and play, as much as by what we as researchers value. It is for that reason that I have forwarded my own definition of historical games as “those games that in some way represent the past or relate to discourses about it” (Chapman 2016, 16). Whilst discussion can be had as to whether Wolfenstein meets the first part of such a description, I would argue that it certainly relates to the second, in that it certainly relates to discourses about the past.  I do like MacCallum-Stewart and Parsler’s definition that you mention and I think it still has a role to play in defining certain kinds of historical games. But even games like Civilization can fall foul of such a definition. Can we really say that a game that speaks in such process-oriented generalities meaningfully begins at a ‘clear point in real world history’? Yet most of us would still consider the game to be historical. Indeed it has been a formative example for the field of historical game studies.

J: This a really helpful set of statements, Adam, because it lays out some of your underlying assumptions about history and your goals as a scholar, which is usually at the heart of discussions like these. We have run out of space here, so why don’t  I respond in the next essay and see the extent to which my assumptions and goals match up with yours and where our discussion goes from there …

To be continued …

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