Video Games: Rewriting History in the Public Mind?

A very interesting phenomenon aroused my attention when I was watching a Chinese TV show. The show featured a game in which one of the participants was asked to act out (without speaking) the well-known historical figure Xiang Yu (项羽, 232–220 BC). The contestant performed just three actions, and his partner immediately got the right answer. This made me really confused, as the three actions didn’t suggest anything related to Xiang Yu to me, but everyone both on the show and in the audience seemed to understand them straight away. I then took some time to learn more about these actions and discovered that they were famous as representations of Xiang Yu’s skills in the multiplayer online battle arena Honor of Kings (王者荣耀), a video game so prevalent in China that almost everyone has heard of it – even if, like me, they’ve never really played it.

For me, mention of the name Xiang Yu brings to mind key phrases like ‘general of Chu’, ‘strong character’, ‘proud’ and ‘brave’, as well as the famous story of ‘his rejection of being captured after his defeat and committing suicide on the bank of the Wu Jiang River’ (霸王乌江自刎). Xiang Yu’s heroism has been glorified in Chinese stories and poems, such as the one by Du Fu (杜甫): ‘Jiangdong has no lack of brave lads among its offspring, / Who knows if a comeback might not be in the offing’ (江东子弟多才俊,卷土重来未可知). Even Xiang Yu’s farewell to his concubine Yu Ji has moved countless readers across the centuries to tears. Xiang Yu himself composed a number of songs, and his last, written shortly before his defeat and death, has become well known in history:

力拔山兮气盖世, 时不利兮騅不逝。 騅不逝兮可奈何, 虞兮虞兮奈若何!

I could pull mountains down, oh! With main and might,
But my good fortune wanes, oh! My steed won’t fight.
Whether my steed will fight, oh! I do not care.
What can I do with you, oh! My lady fair!

—Translated by Xu Yuanchong (许渊冲)

So, do contemporary TV audiences and other ordinary people in China immediately think of these key words and famous poems when they hear the name Xiang Yu? Probably not. What comes more easily to mind are the more popular actions of the general’s video game counterpart. Is that a sad commentary on modern society? It’s hard to give a simple answer.

Personally, I would rather the public remained aware of historical facts and retained images of figures more closely related to real history, as real history and classic literature are important representatives of our culture as a whole. However, we cannot deny other ways of reshaping history; even in some classic literary works, such as San Guo Yan Yi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms), we find many adaptations of historical facts, but these works remain classics nonetheless. Why shouldn’t we grant the same licence to video games?

Though they do not represent an authorial way of reshaping history, video games, as a relatively new form of culture, ‘play’ with history in their approach to the past. As Andrew B. R. Elliott and Matthew Wilhelm Kapell note, ‘When history can be simulated, re-created, subverted, and rewritten on a variety of levels, new questions arise about the relationship between video games and the history they purport to represent, questions that traditional historical approaches cannot properly address’.1 Historical video games create a different relationship to the narrative and experience of history. Even if the game designers’ intentions in engaging with history are innocent, and they genuinely try to construct a past world as authentically as possible, players are not exposed to a faithfully reproduced past, but to a version deeply influenced and reshaped by the fact that it is being presented in a game that they are trying to win. That is why Xiang Yu’s in-game actions have become so profoundly embedded in today’s Chinese youth culture as a major part of the image of that historical hero. This makes us rethink the question ‘What do we mean by history?’

  1. Andrew B. R. Elliott and Matthew Wilhelm Kapell, ‘Introduction: To Build a Past That Will “Stand the Test of Time”: Discovering Historical Facts, Assembling Historical Narratives’, in Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, ed. Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and Andrew B. R. Elliott (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 1–29, 2. [return]