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An Introduction to Historical Problem Spaces 

This is a reprint of my original PlaythePast post . It offers a brisker survey of the Historical Problem Space framework that I lay out in greater detail in the academic journal Game Studies article, The Historical Problem Space Framework: Games as a Historical Medium, also published in late 2020. The ambition to write a series of these for PlaythePast.org has not yet been fulfilled.

I’m returning, happily, to my roots to write a series of essays on PlaythePast. In 2012 I proposed the outlines of a framework (first here on PtP and then elsewhere in The Journal of Digital Humanities) that I have come to call the “historical problem space framework.” Since then, I have spent a considerable amount of time–both as a history educator who uses historical games and as a historian studying games–developing and refining this historical problem space framework. While I have an article in the works on the subject, and regularly make use of it in my classes and research, the framework has developed considerably since I first proposed it 8 years ago. Someday, perhaps I’ll get to write a book on the topic. But for now, in hopes of providing a hopefully easy-to-understand, holistic, and practical approach to analyzing and explaining the history in historical games, I’m writing a series of essays here on Playthepast, where the concept was born. Hopefully, readers will find the framework useful for their own research, teaching, and design and just for thinking more about how historical video games work. This is a work in progress and comments, questions, and constructive criticism are most welcome.

The historical problem space framework (HPS) is a holistic, medium-sensitive, design-focused framework for analyzing and understanding, designing, and teaching with historical games. It is, above all, meant to focus practically on how designers craft historical games, based on an understanding that games are mathematical, interlocking, interactive (playable) systems.

History is, in broad terms, the curated representation of the past, so pretty much any medium that can communicate ideas about the past can function as history. This is as true for video games as it is for texts, images, cinema, and so on. It is critical to understand, however, that each medium has its own characteristics, its own ways of presenting the past. This point has been made increasingly clear by historians studying historical film and is certainly true of historical video games. Both need to be approached not as a deficient forms of textual history, but as media that are simply different from text, talk, or lecture.

One of the more important points to note about historical video games is that they are formal— as in mathematically precise, not necessarily historically accurate—interactive (playable), models. When the player is added, they function as closed operating systems. These systems are the product of game design and, ultimately, computer code that compiles into machine code successfully. Thus, gamic histories need to be considered holistically, as systems.  Assessing the historical accuracy of a video game needs to be based on more than just evaluating whether each discrete statement it makes about the past is historically valid. This approach is piecemeal and ignores what a game, particularly a videogame, is: a designed, formal, interactive system.

A quick note here, since this often comes up in discussions about history and historical criticism. By “historically valid,” I simply mean “well supported by critically obtained, critiqued, and employed historical evidence,” and by “historically invalid/less valid” I mean not well supported by that kind of historical evidence.  This is not the space to get into a lengthy debate about our relationship to the past and what the discipline of history is and does. I’m hopeful readers find these definitions acceptable for our purposes.

Getting into some more detail, consider this principle: historical games present the historical content and topics they refer to as a historical problem space with the following key characteristics. (The bold is for terminology I will try to stick with for consistency and clarity)

  • player agent that has a certain scope and powers (and limits). This could be Red Daniels and Camille Denis, two playable protagonists in Call of Duty: World War II; the member of a dynasty the player is controlling in Crusader Kings II; any faction leader in the Total War series; a civilization in the Age of Empires series; a leader and civilization in Civilization, and so on.
  • An explicit goal or goals for the player agent, provided by the designers, the victory conditions of the game. Eliminating the player’s rivals is a common goal in historical strategy games, surviving encounters is common with first-person-shooter games like COD:WW2 and Battlefield 1. The Civilization series has classically had four paths to victory: domination, cultural, scientific, and diplomatic victories. In Crusader Kings II, the goal set by the designers is to achieve as high a prestige score as possible. Players can, of course, reject these goals or prefer their own, but these are the goals the designers have set.
  • The player agent and goals are contained in a virtual space, a gameworld with an implicit or explicitly realized geography, containing not only the player agent and goals, but all sorts of gameworld elements (see below). So Civilization places the player’s civ in a world with terrain, resources, rival civilizations, predatory animals, etc. Paradox Studios’ Europa Universalis has a map of regions, and each region contains a population, various buildings, etc. Even the classic 1960s text game, Hammurabi, hints at a gameworld of ancient Mesopotamia and a single city-state of Babylon in that gameworld, the city-state that the player is ruling.
  • The gameworld elements that fill the gameworld and essentially always have a function to either constrain or enable the player in their goal-seeking (or both). To put it another way, gameworld elements are not neutral. If they are in the gameworld they are in it to enable, constrain or block the player’s goal-seeking. Common gameworld elements include but are not limited to (and there are definite overlaps between these categories):
    • Resources that can be accumulated and spent, like hammers in Civilization or wealth in a Total War game, or troop levies in Crusader Kings. Occasionally, as with prestige in Crusader Kings II, the resource is mostly used as a metric, a measure of progress. Most metrics are usually resources too. That is certainly the case with health points in first-person-shooter games.
    • Inanimate Obstacles, such as impassable terrain or cover in a first-person shooter or a real-time strategy like Age of Empires.
    • Agents that have the roles of opponents, rivals, partners, helpers, etc. The players workers and units in Age of EmpiresCivilizationTotal War, etc. are agents. Crusader Kings II has thousands of agents in the form of the various ruling lords of the gameworld.
    • Producers that make/build/produce/research: something comes from them. Buildings in Age of Empires, Cities in Civilization, etc.
  • And so, the player agent forms goal-oriented strategies, practices goal-oriented behaviors, and makes goal-oriented choices. Optimally, from the goal-oriented player’s perspective, these choices, strategies, and behaviors use the enabling gameworld elements and work with or around the constraints of other gameworld elements as they pursue their goal. Again, a player is not required to do these things! But the design of most games is such that doing so will make it more likely for the player agent to achieve the goals in the gameworld. To put it another way, that’s simply how the game is designed.

Lastly this entire virtual gameworld with player, goals, and gameworld elements is shaped by the conventions of the genre the developers follow. So, a realtime strategy (RTS) history like Age of Empires will be significantly different from a first-person shooter (FPS) history like Call of Duty or a roleplaying game (RPG) history like Kingdom Come: Deliverance, or an eXplore, eXploit, eXpand, eXterminate (4X) history like Civilization.

During this series I plan to dissect some games in detail using the HPS framework. For now, just a pair of brief examples:

Microsoft’s Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition presents a virtual world / gamespace that is based on Earth-like landscape with passable and impassable terrain and resources. The player-agent is the guiding intellect for a whole civilization (a problematic term), the Franks, in this case. The player agent tries (choicesbehaviors and strategies) to build an economic engine of resource-gathering villagers (agent elements) to fund building a base (producer elements) and creating an army of units (agent elements) that is used to eliminate the other civilizations (agent elements) in the gamespace (goal). The game’s systems, mechanics, and conventions are heavily inspired by its genre, real-time strategies like Warcraft 2 and Command and Conquer)

Microsoft’s Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition

Paintbucket Games’ Through the Darkest of Timepresents a virtual world / gamespace of Berlin 1933-1945 through a map with various mission nodes. The player-agent is the leader of the Resistance and sends Resistance members (agent elements) to conduct missions (strategies, choices, and behaviors), during which they can use inventory objects (tool elements) to help. The goal is to successfully lead resistance to the German Nazi regime.

Through the Darkest of Times.

So, as is the case with these two examples, historical games, pretty much all historical games, present history as the realm of motivated agents in spaces (a virtual gameworld) trying to solve problems, using what is available to overcome obstacles and achieve goals, and they present that problem space in a way that is heavily influenced by genre convention.

A blank diagram for breaking down the historical problem space of a game, a helpful exercise when trying to analyze and understand how these games portray the past.

The features the historical-problem-space framework hopefully emphasizes are:

  • Video games communicate a curated past; therefore they are a historical medium.
  • Video games are designed by talented game designers, programmers, artists etc, who are generally not historians, but are always game developers. These designers of historical games are talented individuals who set out to make historical games. They are not in the business of making texts or images, or writing a academic histories, but of making games. So the HPS framework begins with this awareness and developer-sensitive question: “how did the developers, employing their skills and talents, create a gamic history, a game that communicates the curated past?”
  • Video games need to be understood holistically by understanding how the components of the game function together.
  • Video games are dynamic and functional by design, by necessity. They are by their very nature interactive sets of mathematical systems, not static images or texts, or film, and so on.

I will explore what this means in practice over the coming months through some deeper investigation of the different components of the historical problem spaces games present, starting with an essay on historical player-agents. For now, however, let me suggest some important starting questions for engaging in a historical problem space analysis of a historical video game:

  • How do the various systems of agent, goal, gameworld, and gameworld elements operate together with player choice, strategy and behavior to present a problem space?
  • For any given component in a historical game’s problem space, how does it function within the systems of the HPS, how does the overall HPS affect that component’s function, and how does its function shape/influence the historical content it presents?  
  • Continuing on this point, what are the functions of historically inaccurate components in the overall HPS system?
  • In what ways is the portrayal of history in a game subject to broader genre conventions? How does the particular genre shape/influence the presentation of history?
  • Does the gamic history, the HPS, function in historically valid ways?

All of this of course leads us to broader questions about what gamic histories can offer to our understanding of the past and what they may obscure.

Next month (August 11th) , we’ll get into a deeper consideration of the player agent in a historical problem space.

For further reading:

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