Perhaps the most important question when talking about history, games, and history in games is: What is an historical game? What are the criteria for evaluating a game’s historical content?

At first glance, the answer might seem obvious, even tautological: A game is historical if it reflects history. If the game is about the Battle of Gettysburg, it needs to happen on July 1–3, 1863, the Confederate Army should be commanded by Robert E. Lee, it should consist of these particular regiments, and so on.

But this is not satisfactory. Conforming to an arbitrary set of ‘historical facts’ (to the extent that such even exist!) is at the same time neither necessary nor sufficient for being ’historically accurate’. A game can get all sorts of individual historical facts right and still be ahistorical. And on the other hand, it can be entirely fictional with no obvious connection to the real world, yet contain elements that further our understanding of history. And the very nature of games – their interactivity – means that we can even use them to play around with historical processes in order to create counter-factual history.

Ultimately, the question is about the decisions that the player is asked to make. As game developer Ananda Gupta said in an episode of the brilliant Three Moves Ahead podcast earlier this year: “I feel the game is historically accurate if the players feel like they’re in the shoes of the people that the game designers are trying to put them in…” (12:11) and “…you need to be thinking about it in terms of the emotional resonance of the decisions and the situation that you’re trying to get the player to empathise with…

We agree wholeheartedly with this. As we said in Wednesday’s review of Grand Ages: Medieval: “…the objective should not  necessarily be accuracy in the details – even though on a certain level, any historical production of course amounts to an aggregate of correct details – but, broadly speaking, whether the product correctly conveys the sense, the mentalité of the time period that it aims to portray? Does it leave its consumer with a higher level of understanding of the historical period?

At the same time, we also need to recognise that games make use of history in different ways. For instance, compare Civilization V with Europa Universalis IV. Both are strategy games with historical elements, but they differ in that Civilization V is an historically-themed game, whilst Europa Universalis IV plays in an outright historical setting.

In other words, Civilization V draws inspiration from history, but does not try to be in any way historically accurate – both George Washington and Mahatma Gandhi appear in the game, but of course Washington did not really live for 6000 years, and Gandhi was not a nuclear-weapons-using maniac, as he is usually portrayed in the Civilization series.

Europa Universalis IV, on the other hand, does attempt to be as historical as is possible within the framework and limits of the gameplay. The nations one plays in the game, as well as their rulers, events, and decisions, are for the most drawn from either actual history or credible counterfactuals, and a significant amount of research has gone into making them factual.

And then of course there are games that outright claim to be “historically accurate” such as many war games or the upcoming role-playing game Kingdom Come: Deliverance.

This means that we can identify three different ‘degrees’, as it were, of critique for these three different types of historical games, each with their different types of questions. For instance:

  • The ‘Historically-Inspired’: “Does the Civilization series draw on a particular philosophy of history?” (We believe it does.)
  • The Historical Setting: “Is the way that Europa Universalis IV treats the territorial state in the Renaissance and Early Modern period problematic?” (We believe it could be.)
  • The ‘Historically Accurate’: “Will Kingdom Come: Deliverance be as ‘historically accurate’ as it claims?” (That remains to be seen.)

This is by no means an academically rigorous theory about historical games, and there are of course are many other possible approaches to them. But it is a useful framework for our work here, and one that will continue to evolve as we go forward.

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