Historians and Video Games

When I think about video games, history isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. However, video games can be a powerful way to engage people in history and historical method. In Robert MacDougall and Tim Compeau’s article, Tecumseh Lies Here: Goals and Challenges for a Pervasive History Game in Progress, they state that, “For a game to work as meaningful pedagogy, its lessons must be embedded in its very mechanics and procedures, in the stuff players manipulate and the actions they perform.” This means that the purpose of the game has to be centred on the core activity that players participate in. It also means that historians have a big role to play in the design process of the game to make sure that the historical message is successfully portrayed. In order to learn something about history from a video game, the game’s core activity has to be focused on what is being taught.

But what happens when you try to study history in a game that wasn’t intended to teach players about certain parts of the past? Sid Meier’s Colonization allows players to play as explorers from European empires that have come to North America to colonize it. Players interact with First Nations groups and work to build up their settlements. The purpose of the game is to increase your trade network and build up resources, and it teaches players about basic trade systems in the New World.

The main map for Colonization.
The main map for Colonization.

In the game, players have to play as an explorer from a European nation, but Trevor Owens and Rebecca Mir decided to change the code in the game and play as a Native. Owens posted a blog on their experiences playing in this different role. While changing the code didn’t seem to phase them, the realities behind the game design hit when they realized that Native players had no agency in the game. Compared to the European colonizers, playing as a Native gives you virtually no options for game play. The inability to actually participate in the game as a Native without changing more of the game’s code speaks to the design decisions that Meier and his team made, as well as the social implications of what those decisions mean. Natives were not considered “human” in the game and therefore did not have any role to play aside from being a tool that the European colonizers could exploit.

The cover page for Sid Meier's Colonization.
The cover page for Sid Meier’s Colonization.

This is an extreme example of a game where a minority group was dehumanized and stripped of their ability to make meaningful decisions or actions. Until you switch the setting for Native players to “On,” though, players might miss this. If historians had been involved in creating the game, would this have changed? Maybe not, but by studying the code, we can understand the reflections of the designers and of history on the subject. Meier did not intend for his game to teach about inequality between Natives and Europeans, but by tweaking the code for the game, we can comment on what the decisions that were made say about how we perceive Native groups in relation to European settlers. Historians can look at the game and study the intrinsic biases that it presents while re-imagining an aspect of history.

Historians have an interesting role to play when it comes to video games. They can be seen as consultants in the design process, but can also analyze a game after it has been launched for its implicit or explicit representations of groups or events. I would argue that having historians involved in creating games based on historical events can help to limit the kinds of biases that appear in Colonization, but they can also evaluate whether or not these biases are fitting with the time that is being used for the game. Historians can help to open up discussions about what lessons are being taught in video games and draw awareness to issues such as the ones with Colonization.



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