Home > Theory and Practice > Who Am I? What Am I Doing Here? Player Agents in Historical Games

Who Am I? What Am I Doing Here? Player Agents in Historical Games

Adam Chapman and I are back on track debating the distinctions between different kinds of historical games and what makes a game historical. I find myself, in these kinds of discussions, increasingly referring to important distinctions I have found between types of player agents in historical games. I developed a starting taxonomy to make these distinctions explicit and useful for analysis in a talk I gave on Twine and interactive historical texts for the Value Project last year (The whole talk is worth it, I hope, but minutes 15:20 – 17:40 present my initial version of the taxonomy). I will write this up more formally in some articles in 2019, but since I have found it to be useful and I refer back to it increasingly, I wanted to present this to interested folk.

[1/1/2019 Note: I’ve gotten some helpful initial feedback, and rather than draft a new post, I am adding new sections in blue italics. This is all still very much a work in progress, but I became struck all-of-a-sudden by the idea of updating more interactively with feedback from Twitter — keep the thoughts coming!]

In historical games (whether using MacCallum-Stewart & Parsler’s (2007, 204) definition or Chapman’s (2016, 16) much broader definition) with historical problem spaces (McCall 2012, 2012, 2016, 8), the types of player-agents game designers focus on in their designs have a significant impact on the connections between the game and the past. There is, of course, a great deal of overlap, but it is still meaningful to consider four main types of historical agents in these games.

Before doing so, a couple notes about this developing taxonomy of player-agents in historical games,  thanks to helpful feedback from the community (special thanks so far to Jeremy Antley, Eric Champion, and James Sweeting), First, this is a taxonomy of the types of player agents game designers (understood broadly as everyone who has some level of decisive input in the game design, and applicable both to video game and tabletop designers) essentially choose from when they make historical games. So this typology is intended to be descriptive of practice. It can be, of course,  worthwhile to consider how a particular player agent in a particular historical game connects in the broadest sense to historical themes and ideas and elements. And arguably, all game player-agents and settings that in any sense reference the past–fitting into Chapman’s broad definition of historical games as “those games that in some way represent the past or relate to discourses about it” (Chapman 2016, 16)–have characters in the broad sense that draw at least a little from history. 

But that is not the question this particular taxonomy is intended to address. Rather it is to address a more particular concern: what are the, judging descriptively from what types of historical game player-agents are available to designers and what sorts of claims about the past are designers making when they select one or another type of historical game player agents? This is an important question for it asks what the people doing history in the form of game design are assuming, thinking, selecting, and choosing to say about the past in their games. Or to put it slightly differently, this question of player-agent is a question about how the designers choose to grapple with and connect to the past. Different types of player-agents, I will argue, produce games with very different truth claims about the past, very different epistemological and ontological claims about the history their game shows.

Erik Champion helpfully suggested a separation between descriptive and prescriptive taxonomy.  I will prescribe to a certain extent in a later, unwritten section in the sense of suggesting that certain choices of historical agent have practical ramifications for the type of questions and connection to the past the the game-history addresses. Though this is not the only reason, these ramifications are important to understand for educators hoping to guide students to developing game histories and for designers who want to say something about the past in their games. Again, the choice of player agent in a historical game has an important effect on the truth claims the game makes about the past, producing very different epistemological and ontological claims about the history their game shows. Ultimately though, there is no “best” method to be prescribed in this taxonomy; and I will leave it to others to attempt that if they wish.


The Four Main Types of Player Agents in Historical Video Games

Types of Agents


It’s important to note before going through the taxonomy, that none of these categories are absolute but they are often quite distinct choices designers make in their game designs. Nothing stated below is meant to be applied universally but rather understood as trends and typical situations.

The Unhistorical Agent type of historical game has a character that, according to the available (critically considered) evidence, (hence the use of the word “documented”), did not exist and, generally speaking, acts in a role ) and that can include capabilities) that historically cannot be supported (“fictional”) by the evidence. So for example, BJ Blazkowicz, in Wolfenstein: New Order as an American resistance fighter against the Nazi regime in a counterfactual 1960s US, is an Unhistorical Agent. He is not documented to have existed, and a 1960s United States ruled by the German Nazi party did not exist, hence 1960s freedom fighters against Nazi US governments did not exist. Likewise, all the player agents of the Assassin’s Creed games are Unhistorical Agents. They are not documented, nor are assassins in a global order spanning millennia documented. One might just substitute the word “fictional” here (I like “poetic”, Adam likes “fantasy”), but it is important to be clear about what is fictive, because all historical games have elements that did not happen according to the best research and evidence. Both the agent and the specific role they occupy/play are not connected to the specific documentable past nor, I submit, do the designers mean to suggest that they are. “I made that character up for the purposes of the gameplay; they didn’t exist” would not be a puzzling response from designers questioned about an Unhistorical Agent they crafted.

And that decision, to create a fictitious character not pinned to or limited in any way by documentary evidence about a specific historical agent and role is an important one for it theoretically frees the designer from worrying about historical accuracy in terms of what the player-character did or did not do, would or would not do, could or could not do. “Frees somewhat”, of course, because designers can, just like authors of fiction, and probably quite often do feel obligation to an internal sense of what is reasonable for the character they have created.

None of this is to say that the Unhistorical Agent has no connection to history. As Jeremy Antley pointed out, one can arguably see all sorts of historical traces in the fictional character BJ Blazkowicz, player-agent of the game, Wolfenstein, New Order forming a mosaic: freedom fighters, Polish and Jewish resisters to Nazi rule, and so on. I would add one could see similar historical traces, perhaps to monasticism and heretical movements and so on in the Assassins in the Assassin’s Creed series.In this sense then, (and here I am extrapolating from Jeremy’s point not necessarily characterizing his views) there perhaps really is not such a thing as an unhistorical agent. Except that there are clearly, I submit, characters that are fictional protagonists when compared to the next category. There is no documentable Blazkowicz in the documentable single-handed tough-guy liberator resistance fighter in 1960s Nazi controlled US, and there is no reason to suppose the designers thought so either or intended players to think so.

Similar but critically different are games with an Every Person player agent. I draw the term Every Person as an inclusive borrowing from the Everyman in medieval morality plays, who represented an entire category of people, in the case of the plays, all people. Perhaps a more effective term is Person-of-a-Historical-Type, but that seems too clunky. [note 10/15/19 — Historical archetype is the term I use for this kind of agent these days]  In these games the player agent is fictional, i.e. not satisfactorily documentable with the historical evidence, but the historical circumstances are documentable, and the role of the agent, the category of the person they were, if you will, is documentable to that time and place. So, the person, Red Daniels in Call of Duty: World War 2 did not exist historically, but his role/type certainly did–a corporal in the 16th Regiment of the 1st Division of the U.S. Infantry, a unit that did exist and did land on Omaha Beach in Normandy in June 1944. In that sense, Daniels is the Every Person, the allegorical representative of US Infantry NCOs in combat in Western Europe from 1944-5. The person, Camille Denis, in the game did not exist, but French Resistance fighters in the War certainly did. In this sense, Denis is the Every Person, the allegorical representative of French Resistance fighters in 1944-5 (note: I looked up Denis, so I’m not exactly sure what her dates of operation in the game are)

This Every Person approach, incidentally, taken by a great deal of historical fiction. The protagonist is generally not a well documented actual historical figure because–I suspect, but you’d have to ask the authors–their actions appear too dictated by the historical record. Instead the author often creates a character of a type that existed–a soldier, farmer, leader, merchant, healer et al. and allows them plot freedom while keeping the main historical narrative intact.

It may be helpful to note that these two types of player-agents are the ones typically employed by those historical games employing what Chapman (2016) usefully terms realist approaches to simulation: verisimilitudinous (I’m on a mission to get this word into more common use) visions of the past as it looked that focus on historical environment more than historical systems. The historical Call of Duties and Battlefields are on the Every Person agent side and the Wolfensteins and Assassin’s Creeds on the Unhistorical Agent side.

In the area of interactive historical texts, Rachel Ponce’s Dr. protagonist in Surviving History: The Fever , Julian Hinegardner’s Purchasing the American Dream: Buying a Home in 1960 Chicago, and my nameless Roman aristocrat in Path of Honors (Game Epoisen articles) are Every Person agent based games.

Specific Agent games are far less frequent in a form that is clearly distinct from Experimenting Deity approaches. Really the best examples of Specific Agent games are the growing number of historical Twines I have posted from my students on Gaming the Past and Neville Morley’s Twine experiment,  Might and Right: The Athenian Version. In these games the player agent did exist and operated in the historical role and circumstances shown in the game. Perhaps the best examples outside of Twine are the historical figures in the Crusader Kings and, to a lesser extent, Europa Universalis series. Where possible, Paradox designers created agents that did exist historically and in the historical role portrayed. So, William the Conqueror existed and was king of England in the late 11th century: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen Elizabeth, Sultan Mehmet, etc. Or maybe, the player-officer in a wargame like Take Command Gettysburg, where the agent is reasonably constrained by limits on sight, knowledge, communications etc. as the historical counterpart was.

I suspect their lack of frequency is a result of the constraints designers probably feel these figures place on the design (we can’t have Queen Elizabeth do that, because that is not what she did). This can be understood as counterfactual tension, and counterfactual tension is arguably greater in a Specific Agent game than in an Every Person game, and even moreso than in an Unhistorical Agent game. This is the reason, conversely, why I have my students design Specific Agent twines: I want them to grapple with what a historical figure did and what they plausibly might have done: the counterfactuals can spiral out of control quickly, however, and I encourage my students not to pursue their counterfactuals too far in time and space and keep them focused on the main character.

Finally, there is the Experimenting Deity approach, where the player agent is a powerful rule giver/maker outside the world. They make decisions of a frequency, scope, and variety that are super-human. So, when a player selects Gandhi in civilization or Queen Isabella, their role in the game is not, for practical purposes, that historical figure within historical constraints, but the guiding intelligence for India or Spain. Their agent lives for millennia and has the powers of at least a minor god. To my knowledge, there is not example of an interactive historical text that does this, though there certainly could be. Max Kreminski’s Epitaph points to what one could look like. Going back to Adam’s simulation approaches, Experimenting Deity is most commonly the approach used by conceptual simulations, in which the rules and systems make an argument about how the past functioned.

There are different ways one could categorize and probably categories I have not thought of, but I think this is a helpful start. I will explore the significance of these choices of agents and how those choices affect gameplay in a future installment, but I wanted to get this in writing so interested readers can play around with it and test it out. I’d love to hear constructive criticism.

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