Digital Games as History: How Videogames Represent the Past and Offer Access to Historical Practice

By Adam Chapman

Routledge, 2016. ISBN: 9781138841628

In this timely and provocative work, Adam Chapman argues ‘for the serious consideration of the nature and possibilities of digital games as a historical form’ (p. 265). It is timely because the massive popularity of digital historical games means that they are now one of the most significant forms of public engagement with the past, surpassing academic and popular history texts, visits to museums or heritage sites and participation in re-enactments and rivalling the consumption of film and historical fiction. It is provocative because this text is aimed as squarely at academic historians as it is at scholars of Game Studies, yet it demands of its readers a rather uncritical acceptance of the conceits and fallacies of postmodernist critiques of History as an academic discipline.

The author has three core objectives: offering a framework for the analysis of historical digital games; describing the nature of historical representation in digital games and, finally, making the case for digital games’ potential use as systems for ‘historying’ (history understood as an active, on-going, dialectical process; p. 22). He is at his strongest when dealing with the second of these objectives, offering a thoughtful and systematic discussion of simulation styles, time and space in games, and historical narrative. However, both his broader framework for analysing historical games and his case for games as a valid form of history are more problematic. Elements are undoubtedly useful; positing a close relationship methodologically between researching textual history and developing a historical game, and using that game as a research tool, is not an outlandish suggestion (but nor is it quite as novel as Chapman implies, as the careers of academic historians and tabletop wargame designers such as Philip Sabin, Paddy Griffith and John Prados demonstrate). Furthermore, the discussion of the close relationship between historical re-enactment and gaming is enlightening and persuasive, as is Chapman’s advocacy of the use of games in the teaching of history. It is the bigger argument that is liable to raise hackles, and not without cause.

In order to promote digital games as an equally valid form of representing the past, Chapman reduces ‘academic history’ (which he sometimes tendentiously characterises as ‘official’ history, see, eg, p. 272) to a straw man: ‘hegemonic’ (p. 47), ‘conservative’ (p. 13) and ‘authoritarian’  (p. 39); While graciously conceding that one or two enlightened ‘official’ historians (he cites E.H. Carr and Carl Becker) may have ‘questioned [history’s] objective scientific capabilities’ in the past, he credits to postmodernists (Hayden White, Alun Munslow and Robert Rosenstone are strong influences throughout) ideas that ‘have allowed a pluralisation of the past by questioning dominant narratives and, in doing so, allowing hitherto unheard voices and perspectives to speak’ (p. 9). Yet academic history has long ‘allowed a pluralisation of the past’ and has long ‘questioned dominant narratives’, and this, pace postmodernism, was made possible by a belief that objective truths about the past were recoverable. Chapman himself acknowledges this elsewhere in the book, by noting how ‘social, cultural and gender history’ have ‘broadened perspectives on the past … since the 1960s and 1970s’ (p. 178) but the radical potential of academic history has been evident far longer than that. Consider, for example, how an even earlier generation of academics, such as Herbert Aptheker, Harvey Wish, Raymond and Alice Bauer, demolished racist notions of African-American passivity during enslavement through empirical, archival research. And Chapman might denounce the putative ‘authoritarian technologies and power-structures that surround printed-history’ (p. 39), yet it was ‘printed history’ that gave the Civil Rights Movement its ‘historical Bible’: C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955).

This persistent misrepresentation of academic history ultimately undermines Chapman’s argument that games are an equally valid representation of the past, for his case rests on the questionable premise that ‘supposed flaws in the form [digital games] are actually epistemic flaws common to the practice of all history’ (p. 15) . Thus, for example, while recognising the sexism and ethno-centricity inherent in so many of the first person shooter and strategy/conquest games that he discusses, Chapman does not accept that these characteristics invalidate digital games as history. This is because ‘these concerns are hardly exclusive to the game form and sadly even professional historiography is often far too hegemonic’ (p. 47). Not only is this a fine example of the Tu quoque fallacy, but, again, there is no reason to accept that academic history, with its currently impressive scope and its long tradition of speaking truth to power, really is ‘often far too hegemonic’. And it exhibits nothing like the same narrow concerns with acts of interpersonal violence, conquest, ‘civilisation’ through colonisation and the rapacious exploitation of ecological resources that are promoted so avidly by the (genuinely ‘hegemonic’?) multibillion-dollar, global digital games industry. In his conclusion, Chapman suggests that the products of this industry have the potential to ‘dilute social barriers’ and ‘enfranchise’ (p. 275) people through their participation, as ‘player-historians’, in ‘do-it-yourself, perform-it-yourself history’ (p. 281). Yet the ‘developer-historians’ algorithms will ensure that the games they play only ever offer the illusion of autonomy. The Strange Career of Jim Crow actually helped set people free.

Gervase Phillips