I recently participated in a community podcast discussing history and videogames. As the least vocal member of the cast, I had some thoughts that I didn't elaborate on during the show.
No matter how truthful and realistic a game is at recreating history, the moment a player lays hands on it, that recreation changes drastically and the actual history of the event is thereby destroyed. The more realistic and faithful a depiction of a historical event is, the more obtrusive actions and consequences of player entering that world will be.
If I may be allowed to draw a parallel to graphics, the theory of the Uncanny Valley asserts that the more realistic a recreation of human life becomes, the more positive the response will be until such a close similarity is achieved that a negative response is elicited. This can explain why a player can identify and be empathetic with 16-bit sprites, while hyper-realistic depictions of people seen in HD titles like Heavy Rain
come off as creepy.
Just as current technological constraints keep games from being completely photorealistic, the introduction of player interaction to a historical event destroys the recreation. Historical games exist as an intermediate state between portraying a past event and entertaining the player. The game can attempt to do one or the other, giving players a game where their input hardly matters and follows a historical event accurately, or an entertaining game that sacrifices the history at the player’s expense.
The path most traveled with historical games entertains the player, whilst giving a glimpse into what it may have been like during a historical event or time period. While not an accurate recreation, this allows the player to fulfill fantasies of changing what happened in the past or being an instrumental figure in a particular event. Storming the beaches of Normandy virtually alone, or preventing the Romans from expanding into an Empire can be very satisfying, and may even give you an idea what it may have been like to live through a given time period, but it is not history. The mere fact that it is a game where player actions have consequences negates any and all of its historical factors.
It may sound odd, but I would argue that rather than misrepresenting the reality of an actual event, a more faithful route in attempting to recreate history with games would be to create a fictional experience based capturing the feeling of an event or time period, or at the very least, limit the scope of how far player actions can affect a historical event.
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