Can I play with Public History?

Author: Aldo Giuseppe Scarselli, PhD candidate at the University of Florence
Screenshot of “Rome:Total War.” All rights reserved to SEGA and Creative Assembly (2013).

Video games are not such a young medium as they are often described. Their commercial explosion dates back to the 70s, and since then their cultural impact has grown in parallel with their hardware. Nowadays, the video game industry is a colossus able to compete economically with more traditional entertainment and cultural industries. More importantly, video games are a worldwide medium, connecting different generations and social strata, telling countless stories and increasingly using history as a playful background. Recently, scholars and public historians have dedicated their attention to historical video games, as in the case of “Video Games as Participatory Public History”, written by Jeremiah McCall and included inside the volume “A Companion to Public History” edited by David Dean.

The importance of historically based video games has grown exponentially over the last three decades. In the 80s, historical video games reproduced dynamics and mechanics of tabletop games and board wargames – see for example Nobunaga’s Ambition (1983) and Bismark (1987), addressing a limited part of the market. Thanks to advancements in technology, an evolution of videoludic languages and rampant market growth, historical video games are now one of the most represented and successful products of the video game industry. Games can also be a large source of historical information – an increasing number of titles include in-game encyclopedias or historical data as part of the gaming mechanics – and they can be studied to better understand how the public interacts with such information (see for example “Digital games as History” by Adam Chapman or “Playing with the Past” edited by Matthew W. Kapell and Andrew B.R. Elliott).

An example of in-game historical information from Valiant Hearts: The Great War. All rights reserved Ubisoft (2014).

If we have a closer look at the situation over the last 20 years, we notice that the great masterpieces, acclaimed by the critics and supported by enormous sales, are games that have used history as a setting. To name a few examples, we may refer to famous series such as Age of Empire (Ensemble Studios), Total War (The Creative Assembly), Medal of Honor (Electronic Arts) Call of Duty (Infinity Wards), Assassin’s Creed (Ubisoft), Europa Universalis (Paradox), and the City Building series (Impressions Games).  

At the same time, the last 10 years has seen the growth of small developers, also called “indie”, which have dealt with peculiar or difficult aspects of history, trying to interact with them from a different angle than bigger productions, often challenging national or ideological narratives. Such games are, for example: This War of Mine (11bits Studios), 1979 Revolution: Black Friday (iNk Stories) or Attentat 1942 (Charles University, Czech Academy of Science).

When we look at this peculiar and stirring background, we need to ask ourselves what our role is as public historians, and how to include video games in public history practices. Given the fact that  historical video games are frequently criticised for being inaccurate and taking large liberties when it comes to historical elaboration and retelling, we may be misguided to think that public historians must act as censors and guardians of historical truthfulness. However, such an approach would  completely miss the most interesting aspects of historical video games, their effects on the common perception of the past, and their capacity of making history “alive” in the present, even through errors and misconceptions.

To clarify these aspects, here are two recent examples. In 2018 the Czech developer Warhorse Studios published Kingdom Come: Deliverance, a realistic role playing game (RPG) set in medieval Bohemia. The developers affirmed that the game would be more historically accurate than any other game, and would have make justice to the neglected history of the country. However, many criticised the nationalistic and xenophobic inclination of the game, depicting medieval Bohemia as pure, flawless, and surrounded by malevolent foreign enemies (on this regard see this article on Kotaku).

Also in 2018, Electronic Arts, a colossus of the industry, published Battlefield V, developed by DICE, a first person shooter (FPS) set during World War Two. A large part of the audience has criticised the game for being historically inaccurate by introducing women and black African soldiers on the field. At the same time, some accused the game of whitewashing Nazism, due to the chance of playing some levels as the crew of a German tank (for further analysis see this article).

These are only two examples of historical controversies ignited by video games, but they clearly represent the measure in which they can make history alive in daily debates. Public historians should first of all recognize the potential of video games to publicly share living history, to allow it to be more and more part of our everyday experiences. Video game scan be used in school as tools for education, thanks to their interactivity and their appeal on the younger generations, bridging the gap between school programs and the desires of students. At the same time, they should try to interact more deeply with developers and publishers, not to impose on them a reproduction of history as in academia, but to avoid dangerous misconceptions and misconduct, and to maximise the penetration of history in the game mechanics. The recent case of Maxime Durand collaborating in the development of Assassin’s Creed can be take as one of the examples of the growing number of scholars, historians and cultural institutions taking part in the developing process. At the same time we have to mention the so called “Serious Games,” whose approach concentrate more on the cultural and educational dimension than the ludic one. We should abandon our prejudices against video games and embrace them as tools to make history public.


Aldo Giuseppe Scarselli is a PhD candidate in Contemprary History at the University of Florence (Italy) and member of the AIPH since 2017. His field of studies are Italian Colonialism and the interaction between videogames and History.


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