Can Video Games Rewrite History?


History is an endless sea of complexities,
it’s hard to know where to start and where to stop when one is aiming to explain a specific
historical event. In this video, I’ll explain some ideas by
historians and theorists and then explain why video games more than any other medium
is well positioned to investigate historical circumstances…and rewrite them if necessary. Some historians and enthusiasts of history
tend to describe it as a series of events one happening after the other in a chain of
causes and effects. This view of history is called linear History. But the truth is that our mental limitations
as species impose on us this method of building narratives to explain the past. Historical events are always the result of
thousands upon thousands of big and small causes leading to them in what is known as
the butterfly effect. Small events combined together with enough
time could lead to big consequences. By our nature, it’s hard for us to simply
admit that we don’t know something or it’s hard for us to grasp, so we have to reduce
these complex events into a set of mini-episodes. I always like to think of the first world
war as the perfect example to debunk this method of reading history, the typical narrative
we usually hear is that Gavrilo Princip a Yugoslav nationalist Shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand
the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and killed him. His assassination in Sarajevo precipitated
Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against the kingdom of Serbia. Russia mobilized its military westwards in
support of their ally, so did the German in Support of Austria-Hungary. The French were allied with the Russians so
the Germans had to declare war on them too, on their way to France they conquered Belgium
which led to Great Britain’s declaring war on the Germans. It’s easy to reduce a global war that took
four bloody years and more than 16 million lives into five or six bullet points and say
this is how it has unfolded. and start by picking Franz Ferdinand’s assassination as
an origin point and the Kaiserschlacht battle as the beginning of the end. In his brilliant book (Sleepwalkers: How Europe
went to war in 1914) Historian, Christopher Clark takes the readers on a journey into
the prewar period. He brilliantly explains all the complexities
of the geopolitical relationship between all these countries and how the war could’ve happened
in many different other scenarios. How nations and people in these countries
saw each other and only after 600 pages of adding questions to our heads, Clark ends
the book with the Sarajevo Assassination, in a way he is telling other historians: you
picked the wrong starting point. Maybe, there is no starting point at all in
these circumstances, each element is connected with thousands of other pieces. Once past events end and the dust settles,
we see the final results and start to pick the elements we clearly recognize to build
a narrative around them with a heavy dose of hindsight bias. This is not limited to the first world war
but look at other major events like the spread of the internet, the American Civil war, the
Reformation, The Tulip Mania, the Iran Hostage crisis, The Hindenburg disaster, The Marshall
plan, Apollo 11 and several other important events. They are all reduced into narratives consisting
of a chain of events devoided of any complexity. Her exactly is where I think video games are
very well positioned to show this complexity that is lacking from all the other mediums. Altair, the main character in the first assassin’s
creed game is a member of the Assassin’s group led by Hassan ibn Al-Sabah with the aim of
attacking both the leaders of the crusaders and Saladin’s army, in order to rewrite the
geopolitical map of the region. The game has its drawbacks from a historical
point of view but it brilliantly portrayed the lives of the daily people living in Damascus
or Jerusalem. You would walk in a road and hear a preacher
lecturing people about the dangers of Salahdin’s army or hear two guys chatting about the latest
political events. It’s these tiny details that are missing from
history books, No historian would take you into a twelfth-century tiny house in Acre
where you could hear a family discussing daily events. Altair in assassin’s creed would see people
being abused in their daily lives by soldiers, women being robbed and many tiny forms of
aggression that make you the player slowly in a subconscious way show some understanding
to how people are forming their collective opinions on a topic. Alamut, the book which assassin’s creed is
based on brilliantly tells the story of the assassin’s but it focused on the leader of
the group Hassan Al-Sabbah and his army, and there was no room to expand on that universe. Here is where Assassin’s creed cleverly surpassed
the book by showing you the whole nation of that region at that period of time, the player
could see an event in Damascus then travel to Jerusalem to hear what people on the streets
are thinking about it. Creators could easily throw hundreds of butterfly
effects in a game to enrich the historical context of an event without taking away from
the final product, In comparison to that, a film is restricted by time, a tv show is
confined to its plot and a book with a limited number of pages focuses on the bigger events. games, on the other hand, allow the player
to spend hours exploring the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence or relive
the famous battle of operation Michael in the first world war as many times as they
like and from different perspectives. In history, you would have a historical materialist
who will be interested in studying labor, production and the economy, while a structuralist
will attempt to illustrate common basic structures in language and thinking. In a video game, both could be merged and
intertwined together effortlessly to emerge the player in a historical context. The last component where I see games being
better qualified at telling history is the idea of alternative histories. Nassim Taleb in his intelligent book fooled
by randomness opened my eyes for the first time to the idea of reexamining historical
events by looking at the alternatives and not by the end results. He states: “I start with the platitude that
one cannot judge a performance in any given field (war, politics, medicine, investments)
by the results, but by the costs of the alternative. Such substitute courses of events are called
alternative histories.” He continues:
“One can illustrate the strange concept of alternative histories as follows. Imagine an eccentric tycoon offering you $10
million to play Russian roulette, to put a revolver containing one bullet in the six
available chambers to your head and pull the trigger. Each realization would count as one history,
for a total of six possible histories of equal probabilities. Five out of these six histories would lead
to enrichment; one would lead to a statistic, that is, an obituary. The problem is that only one of the histories
is observed in reality;” There are thousands of alternative history
novels, movies, and tv shows but each one of them deals with one alternative without
any dynamic involvement of the viewers in exploring all the possible alternatives. Video games is a dynamic medium where the
course of events could be set by the player, David Cage is showing us some of the potentials
of exploring these alternatives in his games. I would like one day to see the same concept
being used and expanded in historical video games where the history that is observed in
reality is one of several outcomes the player can make. I want game creators to put us the players
in the front seat to explore all these possibilities. Video games could make us rethink about what
Martin Luther King once said: “We are not makers of history. We are made of history”
In a video game, we could be both.

Comments 14

  • Great video! Do you think there is the possible issue of developers forcing certain interpretations of history onto the player with this ability in mind?

  • Your editing is fantastic, just thought i'd let you know. I aspire to be as good as you at editing some day!

  • Very entertaining video.

  • If video games have the power to present and express events in more detail, it is likely that they will have a certain bias. One interesting addition to how they can "rewrite" history.

    Amazing production value. You must be a team working on this. I did notice a couple errors in your script though 😉

  • Have you guys considered a patreon or something similar?

  • I'm a little late to the party, but I have just discovered your channel. Firstly, I love your video(s) and hope that you'll continue them, as they're immensely interesting. Secondly, I have some problems with how you characterized mainstream historical work into the general category of "Linear" history. There are linear histories, quite a lot of them, but many of the histories that I have read (including textbooks) include many details of daily life and "normal" people.

    I am not an expert on the subject, but I am a senior in college for a history degree, so I've read a fair amount of history texts and textbooks. Many of my classes have depictions of regular living, such as "The Cheese and the Worms" by Carlo Ginzburg and "Inside Hitler's Germany" by Sax and Kuntz. Both of these books (one a historical account of a miller in the 16th Century and the other an account of Hitler's rise to power and regime) have much to say about the common living. The Ginzburg account is about a miller who is a bit irregular, but not any famous historical figure, and the textbook has several chapters and many documents that detail what kind of world that Hitler was living in. They didn't ignore non-linear history, as you seem to suggest textual histories do.

    I don't disagree that games are an amazing idea for the sort of worldbuilding that you're advocating for, I'm actually a big fan of the ideas you suggested at the end of the video. There are many amazing ways that games can (and should!) help further our understanding and consumption of history. I just felt as though the situation wasn't quite as dire as the one you laid out in your video. I hope this wasn't too intimidating or accusatory, I really enjoyed the video and the conclusions that you arrived at.

  • Holy crap the polish on this video is insane.

  • Amazing video!

  • Another effortlessly beautiful and thought provoking video. Please keep this up! I'm sharing every single one internally at the game studio I work at, and the team are unanimously impressed

  • To not only immerse yourself in history but shape it, change it and think about the alternative reality you create is one of the essential points of the Paradox games. Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings, Victoria, Hearts of Iron, but even the Total War or Civilization games work with this sort of fascination. The communities of these kind of games often immerse themselves into the fiction they create, drawing maps of their new timelines, writing mods around these kind of things or documentary essays about their ventures.

    Even in terms of these geopolitical lines of thought I love alternative history, personally.
    I think the genre of dystopia and post apocalypse is somewhat close to it too. The Fallout games let you explore a "what could be" futuristic America for example. The nuclear war that happened mostly negated the effect of the passing time so it isn't just science fiction anymore. In a way it preserved the current state of the times and changed it in a brutal but fascinating way.

  • Though probably not feasible right now this brings up the idea of video games that depict (kind of) actual history as being valuable. You could put genuine journal entries on a random table in a WWI game or have Wilfred Owen writing poetry in his bunk.

  • Two words.

    Just wow!

  • A little off topic, but the ambient music—on top of the extreme polish of every one of your videos does an absolutely great job of keeping me engaged. I love it! Also, this video gives another great point that emphasizes the unique aspect of video gaming: interactivity. And even more off topic, what is the ultimate goal of this channel? If there is one. I hope for nothing but success and continued growth!

  • Don't forget to hit the like button 👍to help our channel grow 😊

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