Influencing perception: How can video games shape our understanding of historical events?

Dr Nicky Nielsen, an Egyptology academic in the School of Arts, Languages and Culture, recently joined YouTuber and Twitch streamer ‘lionheartx10’ as part of the publicity surrounding the launch of gaming giant SEGA’s launch of Total War: Pharoah.

livestream for Nicky piece

It’s an industry with an estimated 2.5 billion global players with games played on consoles, mobile devices and VR headsets. How can video games be a tool that offers educational benefits to this worldwide audience?

Following on from the livestream event, Dr Nielsen gave an insight into how video game representation of history can enhance public understanding in an engaging and educational way.

Dr Nielsen said:

Firstly, anything that can help visualise the ancient world is of great benefit. The ability to interact with, and in some ways immerse yourself in, historical landscapes, events and characters provides an avenue of understanding that is very difficult to replicate solely in a written format. 

As an Egyptologist, games such as Assassins Creed: Origin include a study tour of Graeco-Roman Egypt where the player could free-roam around historical sites and find information written by Egyptologists without having to engage in missions or gameplay. That is certainly a useful way of including historical information and balancing the creative liberties taken in the game itself. 

The open-world format of such games gives the gamer the opportunity to play the game in a different way to others, interpreting different elements as they play through. How historical accuracy be maintained when creating a game to be played in the modern day continues to be challenge for historians.

Dr Nielsen added:

History tends to be both messy and complicated whereas games and other creative mediums need a cleaner structure and plot. This means that, in some cases, historical events are simplified or re-ordered to make sense in the fictionalised setting. A good example of this is the inclusion of The Queen's Staircase - a significant historical landmark in Nassau - in the game Assassins Creed: Black Flag. The game is set in the early 18th century but the staircase wasn't built until 1773-74. However, because it is such a key landmark in the area, the game developers decided to include it despite it not being historically accurate - they even commented on this discrepancy in a very meta way in-game. 

I suspect that ancient Egypt has the same limitations as other historical periods, namely that games need to have a clear plot and structure - and real life often doesn't work quite as easily as that. I think an understanding that historical fiction is one thing and historical fact another is helpful. Blurring the line between the two, though well-intentioned, can often backfire in that it leaves people unable to tell the two apart. 

This billion-dollar, multi-billion player industry has a significant capability to influence historical understanding whilst tackling the need for a clear, in-game structure that can begin to question some of those accuracies. Overall, video games can be a helpful tool in understanding history but there is a challenge in sometimes telling the difference between the real and virtual worlds.

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