Book Review: Playing with the Past, edited by M. W. Kapell and A. B. R. Elliott

Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and Andrew B. R. Elliott, eds., Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2013) (Website/Google Books)

For a lifelong fan of video games who has more recently developed a sideline as a historian, the chance to review this book was too good to pass up. As its title suggests, Playing with the Past brings together a collection of essays on the ways in which games present, discuss and promote understanding of historical topics, from the joint perspectives of ‘narratology’ (that is, a focus on story) and ‘ludology’ (the analysis of gameplay).

While not itself a work of popular history, therefore, the book explores a medium that has enormous potential to popularize historical events and processes – and, more importantly, to encourage a mode of historical thinking more sophisticated than anything games are usually given credit for. The editors elaborate on this in their introduction, citing in particular Sam Wineburg’s research on the use of games to enhance learning in schools. According to Wineburg, the main difference between the historical outlook of school students and that of historians lies not in their level of knowledge, but in their understanding of the nature of history:

For the students, history is what is written in the textbook, where ‘facts’ are presented free of bias. For the historians, historical inquiry is a system.… It is a way of knowing based on using specific evidence to support claims rather than trying to establish a set of facts that exist without bias. (p. 15)

The transition from the former mindset to the latter is one familiar to students of history at any level from undergraduate onwards. From relatively uncritical faith in the authority of history as presented in textbooks and historians’ narratives, they are required to progress to an appreciation of history as process, unfolding as a result of a series of decisions and turning points – which, crucially, could have had different outcomes.

This is what Kapell and Elliot mean when they refer to ‘historical contingency’, that sense of the dependency and fragility of historical events that is especially important to an understanding of why they occur. They argue that a major advantage of video games, and one that allows them to serve as an educational tool even inadvertently, is that they encourage players to understand, and indeed exploit, this idea of contingency in order to succeed. Most of the contributions to this volume focus on analysing the ways in which different games attempt this.

Within this overall goal, however, this study incorporates an impressive variety of perspectives and debates. The book is organized thematically, with each of its five sections exploring a different way in which history and video games intersect. These sections include an examination of causation, teleology and other concepts related to the process of history (Part One); a survey of games confronting questions of Western cultural bias and politics of representation (Parts Two and Four); as well as more unusual angles, such as a collection of essays on the issues raised by modding and user-generated content (Part Three); and a section on counterfactual historical scenarios and the ways in which they reflect the social and political concerns of the present (Part Five).

The games investigated in these sections also cover a surprisingly wide range, moving beyond explicitly historical games (such as Civilization, Age of Empires or the Total War series) to more intriguing choices (including the Fallout and Resident Evil games). Standout chapters include Josef Köstlbauer’s study of simulation games, Tom Apperley’s discussion of mods as an expression of ‘counterfactual imagination’, Hyuk-Chan Kwon’s contribution on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms RPG series in China, and Joseph A. November’s and Tom Cutterham’s essays on the Fallout games.

Equally importantly, the essays in this book also take into account the peculiarities of video games as a medium – that is, as products that are played, and whose interactivity is key to their significance. It is this ‘ludic’ quality of games above all that makes them particularly well suited to popularizing the idea of historical contingency, and rendering it comprehensible on an almost instinctive level.

Games are distinguished from other forms of narrative or historical exploration by the agency that they grant their players, which allows them to influence the outcome, or at least the details, of the plot. In choosing one action, or trying to bring about one outcome, over another, players automatically engage in a decision-making process that hinges on an appreciation of all the relevant chains of cause and consequence. By presenting this process within a historical scenario (either real or imagined), games encourage players to apply their knowledge of these causal relationships to their view of history. This applies, moreover, even to those games without an explicit educational remit – as the inclusion of titles such as Resident Evil and Call of Duty in this volume illustrates. This ludic strand of the book’s approach is especially apparent in Part Three, as well as those chapters (such as Rebecca Mir’s and Trevor Owens’ contribution on Sid Meier’s Colonization) that unpick the ways in which a particular game’s expectations or victory conditions reflect the cultural and historical assumptions of its designers.

Since it is undoubtedly true that more people play video games than will ever dedicate themselves to an in-depth and critical study of history (and this is certainly no bad thing), Playing with the Past is a profoundly important, as well as entertaining, investigation into the hidden depths of the medium. As such, it is enthusiastically recommended.

This is a (slightly revised) version of a review I wrote for History to the Public in 2015. If you’re sorry this post is over, feel free to read the original here.