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Playing The Past: Gaming As Public History

You would be hard pressed to find a large public audience as interested in history as video game players. Games with historical settings make up some of the most popular video game titles, particularly in the action-adventure and strategy genres…Yet this enthusiasm for history often lacks any connection to historical scholarship. Most game development studios use history as mere window dressing, and the few studios that do research the past often use inhouse research teams that do not employ a professional historian….Should we assume that this lack of connection between gamers and scholarship means gamers lack interest in the work of historians, or might we see it as due to the absence of a compelling way to deliver scholarship to players?

—Robert Whitaker, “Backward Compatible: Gamers as a Public History Audience” [1] 

When I first came across the above quote, it made me think back to several successful video games that have been marketed as “historical games,” and really question the accuracy of their historical narratives. As Whitaker explained, many games that are marketed as historical games, even as historical fiction, are disconnected from historical scholarship. As I am not a gamer myself, I did not become aware of this disconnect until more recently. I have noticed, however, that historicans have been addressing this issue by using video games as a tool for delivering historical scholarship. While a published journal article can reach thousands in readership, video games have the potential to attract the broader public. Through navigating time and place, video games present a unique opportunity for players to recreate and experience historical events. Here are a few examples I found of historian using video games to teach and present historical scholarship through play.

  1. Most famously, in 1971, teachers Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger created the widely successful computer game Oregon Trail to teach high school students about Western Expansion and settler experiences. The game, which was intended for the classroom, went on to sell 65 million copies. Since its creation, historians have used video games in various ways to teach and present history.
  2. In 2016, Robert Whitaker created a course for Louisiana Tech University called Playing the Past: Presenting History Through Games. The goal of the course was to present historical video games as a tool for teaching or presenting research. Students had the opportunity to play several historical games and read literature related to those games. For their final project, students created their own historical game using Twine. Further information about the course, as well as the course syllabus, can be found here.
  3. The Department of History at Carleton University offers HIST 3812A: Digital History – Histories in Digital Media and Popular Culture. The course introduces students to different ways digital history is produced and consumed, such as through film, television and video games. For their final project, students create an original historical game. More information about this course can be found here.

The header image is taken from 1979 Revolution: Black Friday

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